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Posted by on Apr 15, 2013 in Culture, Religion, Science, Skepticism | 11 comments

Daniel Loxton on skepticism and atheism (3)

Time to wrap this up, though there is doubtless much more we could discuss – do comment here or one on one of the previous posts in this series. I at least wanted to say in some detail why I object to Daniel Loxton’s formula “my personal non-scientific theological beliefs”. As I suggested a couple of days ago, it is misleading to call atheism “personal”, “non-scientific”, a “theological” position, or even “beliefs”. It would have been better to say something that gives a very different impression, such as “my own scientifically informed philosophical view on the question of God’s existence.”

I’ll take this one step at a time. First, I understand that atheism is Loxton’s own view on the God question. What more is added by the word personal? We usually add this word, in such a context, when we want to stress that the view concerned is not privileged in some relevant way. E.g. we want to stress that we don’t think it should be imposed on others by law, or don’t think it is or should be the view of the organisation we belong to, or don’t think it should have any special status within our social group, etc. But the question as to whether atheism should have some of special or privileged status within scientific skepticism is precisely what is up for debate here. Many skeptics think that it should have such a status, perhaps because they think that belief in God is just as open to scientific debunking as belief in, say, the medical efficacy of homeopathy. They may be wrong (though I actually think there is at least some force in their position), but it is question-begging to suggest that they are at the outset. Some kind of argument has to be put as to why belief in an all-powerful supernatural being falls outside the remit of organisations that spend a lot of time debunking other supernatural beliefs. After all, I can’t imagine Loxton taking pains to suggest that his skepticism about astrological influences is a merely personal belief with no privileged status in skeptic circles. Why should belief in God be different?

Loxton describes his atheistic position on the God question as non-scientific. Well, perhaps it is. People end up being atheists as a result of different experiences and encounters with different arguments. Perhaps in his case the reasons genuinely have nothing to do with science. But for many other people, me included, that is not the case. Whether or not Loxton’s own reasons for being an atheist relate to science, that does not make atheism inherently non-scientific. Compare the many people who have no belief in the efficacy of homeopathy, perhaps because they have never heard of it, or because they have simply been socialised to be suspicious of it, or for some emotional reason (such as dislike for an enemy who happens to be a homeopath). While such people exist, the fact remains that there are scientific reasons to be very suspicious of homeopathy. The trouble is that there are also scientific reasons to be very suspicious of theism. Perhaps the best case that can be made out in favour of atheism will depend, in part, on considerations from outside of science (perhaps from the humanities, such as in the work of historical and textual scholars), but it will at least be very much scientifically informed. So Loxton’s talk of “non-scientific” beliefs is at best misleading.

Is atheism a theological position? That is really pushing things. Even if you defined theology in such a way that any view on the God question was technically “theological”, the word gives the wrong impression. Historically, theologians have been believers arguing among themselves about doctrine, often depending on exegesis of holy books, reconciliation of traditional materials, and so on. When someone holds to an atheistic view from a background of disciplined inquiry into the issue, that inquiry would usually be regarded as belonging to philosophy of religion, not to theology. Sure, theologians do get involved with philosophy of religion, just as they do many other things, such as church history, textual translation, etc. The fact remains that atheism as an intellectual position is best described as a philosophical position, not a theological one. When I put arguments in favour of atheism, I do so as a philosopher, not as a theologian. Furthermore, modern analytic philosophy is heavily informed by science. It is not obviously inappropriate for it to inform, in turn, the scientific skeptic movement, whereas it is fairly obvious (don’t you think?) that theology should not. So the choice of words here is pretty important.

What about “beliefs“? I’m not as worried as some people about calling atheism “a belief”, but historically it would not have been necessary for someone to form a positive belief in the non-existence of God for them to be denounced and distrusted as an atheist. All that was really needed was an absence of belief in God or gods, and whatever goes with it. For example, Locke would have considered anyone who lacked a positive belief in God and the afterlife to be untrustworthy (and fit for state persecution). More worrying, saying “beliefs” (plural) makes it sound as if atheism is a body of doctrine, when it is, at the most, a single belief on a single point, i.e. the belief that no gods exist.

Thus, Loxton has chosen a formula that is far more misleading than the more accurate one that would apply to the views of people who think that atheism deserves a privileged place in the skeptic movement. For them, it is a position on a single issue (so not a body of beliefs), which is informed by considerations from science (and so not, at least not entirely, non-scientific), which is philosophical, not theological, and which they are not prepared from the outset to see as merely “personal” in the sense of not meriting any privilege in this context.

I refer you to Loxton’s overall post/article, and I don’t propose at this stage to discuss all his arguments. Perhaps, however, some of them will be debated in the thread. In the end, though, there may well (as I’ve said, I’ve come around on this view) be good pragmatic and historical reasons not to try to make atheism a focus of the scientific skeptic movement (or a shibboleth for participation). But there are also, I think, reasons why science-based arguments in favour of atheism have a legitimate place in the movement. E.g., I think it would be legitimate for someone to put the arguments for this at TAM.

This may seem like an unsatisfactory or even cowardly, compromise. Maybe it is, or maybe I’ve been “captured” by hanging around more with people from the skeptic movement who think this way. For what it’s worth, though, it makes sense to me, if only because the movement is partly defined by what its focus has actually been as a matter of history. Perhaps it could evolve over time in some other direction, perhaps becoming more focused on skepticism about religion or even on aspects of philosophical skepticism. But that is not what it has been so far, and the legacy, personalities, etc., make me think there is a useful division of labour for the broad secular movement with the scientific skeptic component remaining in something like its current form. But can scientific, or scientifically informed, atheism be excluded entirely? I don’t think there’s a principled reason for this.