Skepticism and Religion

May 9, 2013

The divide within skepticism over religion is centuries old, and won’t go away. Fasten your seatbelts.

PZ Myers just announced his divorce from the Skeptic Movement, based on manifestos by Jami Ian Swiss and others. Many have commented on this development. Daniel Loxton has supplied a lengthy defense of Skepticism’s “No Comment” attitude towards the heart of religiosity, carefully explaining why Skepticism must give an exemption to essential religious claims about supernatural and transcendent gods and the like.  

I can’t say who really “speaks” for the skeptic movement. I can observe that much of the current leadership of Skepticism (capitalized and organized) advocates only scientific skepticism. Scientific skepticism was not promoted by scientists centuries ago (few scientists could afford to even be openly agnostic). Nope, the biggest public advocates for scientific skepticism were modernizing theologians during the Enlightenment era and after.

Why does modern theology benefit from scientific skepticism? It’s a simple matter: so long as religion’s supernatural claims cannot be contradicted by anything science would ever say, then religion can continue to enjoy its own reasonable autonomy as a source of genuine knowledge about god. All scientific skepticism has to do is agree to this proposition: Where science can never disprove, science must fall silent. The Enlightenment bargain was struck: science is limited to knowledge about the natural world, and religion knows about the supernatural world. Not all of Christianity agreed to that bargain, of course — fundamentalists insisted on observable miracles, visible angels, hurtful demons, and the like — but much of Christianity has moderated to the point where plenty of good Christians don’t really believe much of that outdated claptrap anymore. Which was one of the goals of modernizing theology. 

Enlightenment theologians had to strike a bargain with scientific skepticism since they were terrified by a different, far older kind of skepticism: ancient Greek Skepticism. This rationalistic skepticism demanded high standards of provability before accepting anything as knowledge. The basic idea for a rationalist skeptic during the Enlightenment was something like this: Where reason and empirical inquiry cannot confirm, it must be disbelieved as unreasonable. For this rationalist skepticism, all the gods must go. The core of religion, and not just the claptrap, is entirely unreasonable and unbelievable, since no theological argument demonstrates a god’s existence and no empirical evidence is sufficient to support a god’s existence. Instead of saying “No Comment” to religion’s core claims, rationalist skepticism says “That’s unreasonable for anyone to accept.”

To this day, many skeptics rely on both scientific skepticism and rationalist skepticism. It’s all about the appropriate use of reason. That is why being a genuine skeptic means being a disbeliever and being open about disbelieving everything religions talk about. But joining up with this current Skeptic(TM) movement means never having to tell the faithful how their god isn’t real. Is that too big a price to pay, to get more science accommodated by society?