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Posted by on Apr 19, 2013 in Religion, Skepticism | 8 comments

Skepticism about gods and ghosts

In the lead-up to TAM, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the relationships between the concepts of atheism, scientific skepticism (and other forms or ideas of skepticism), naturalism of various kinds, and denialism. I expect that my talk will touch on at least some of this stuff, though I won’t be there to shove atheism down the throats of people who may be religious believers. Hopefully I can say something a bit more interesting and useful than that.

But I’ve become interested in the philosophy that underlies scientific skepticism, if there is one. If there is one, does it also entail atheism, or at least skepticism about religion? If not, why not? From what vantage point can you be sceptical about the sorts of things that scientific skeptics tend to focus on while not being skeptical about some religion that you favour? How do reconcile the two? I get that some people interpret their religions in non-literal ways, but what if you really do buy into your religion’s supernatural claims?

I also get that you could be an atheist without being a scientific skeptic – as I said a few posts back, there could be various paths into atheism. But I still think there is some mystery about how it can go the other way, how you can be a scientific skeptic without also being skeptical about religion, at least if you think it right through. I say “some” mystery, because I can make up narratives as to how someone can be skeptical about various claims about ghosts, quack cures, paranormal perceptual abilities, etc., without embracing an overall metaphysical position that entails atheism. But surely many of us are skeptical about these things precisely because they are difficult to reconcile with the scientific picture of the world. But if that is our motivation, why are we not skeptical about other claims that are difficult to reconcile with the scientific picture of the world, such as claims about the existence of immaterial, supernatural beings like the Abrahamic God?

I have some ideas, as explored in previous posts. I do think there are paths by which you could come to such a position, and I’m not suggesting that people who’ve come to such a position via one of those paths should be made unwelcome in the scientific skeptic movement. On the other hand, I find any such position intellectually unsatisfactory.

But rather than worry away further at that, I’d be interested to hear more from others, especially people who are skeptical about the existence of ghosts, the efficacy of homeopathy, the operation of astral influences or anomalous perceptual capacities, etc., but not about the existence of the Abrahamic God. What distinction are you making? I’d also be interested to hear from anyone who thinks the other way – i.e., an atheist who believes in, say, ghosts or psi. I’m not even looking to have an argument (and certainly not a flame war). I’d be genuinely interested to hear how people with these combinations of views reconcile their positions, or what deeper starting point they might have that leads them to their views.