When Did Religion Get To Avoid Skepticism?

image of blogger PZ Myers
PZ Myers

Skepticism is the questioning of what is stated as fact and is one of the primary tools I use as a free thinker. I am also an atheist. I don’t subscribe to any religious belief. I have considered the arguments for and about religion and rejected the conclusion. The process I used to get to my conclusion was Skepticism. In a recent blog post PZ Myers, responded to an idea I’ve seen and read myself where some people think religious beliefs shouldn’t be subject to Skepticism. Like Myers, I think that’s stupid.

Steven Novella has written a post taking exception to some things I’ve said, specifically on the issue of the overlap of science, skepticism, and religion. I have to say, though, that what his post actually does is confirm my claim: that a lot of skeptics strain to delimit the scope of skepticism in ways that are not rational, but are entirely political and emotional.

Skepticism has a broad brief. The skeptical movement does not. There’s a difference there; there is a lot of bigotry against atheism, for instance, within the skeptical movement, and much contempt for atheists that gets expressed. I think Novella’s privilege is speaking here; skepticism focused on alternative medicine is part of the traditional package, and he’s not going to get any pushback against his skeptical specialty. Skepticism about religion, however, has been stigmatized and traditionally excluded from the scope of skepticism, so I get to see the ugly side of the skeptical movement far more often than he does.

A reply to Steven Novella

I agree. There is a lot of bigotry against atheism and that includes the skepticism movement. I’ve experienced it myself in discussions and in reading articles from skeptics who think religious beliefs are some how off limits.

I do think that even some skeptics who question everything else in their life carve out a no skeptic zone around their religious beliefs. They either don’t want to follow their questioning to the logical conclusion – atheism – or they get sucked into the false idea that questioning religious beliefs makes people sad and should be avoided at all costs.

Avoiding skepticism isn’t limited to protecting religious beliefs. I know some atheists who avoid skepticism when it comes to some cherished belief like being against vaccinations or knowing the “truth” behind 9/11.

All ideas, including religion, should be open to examination through skepticism.

As PZ Myers writes, the reaction by people, like Steven Novella, has more to do with an agenda and ideology that the skepticism movement complains about in their atheist bigotry. I particularly liked the following passage in Myers’ essay:

And here, somehow, Novella has managed to rationalize those haters, by claiming political neutrality as a guiding principle of skepticism. This isn’t true; there’s no such thing as political neutrality. Silence is an argument in favor of the status quo. A refusal to address an inequity is a strategy for maintaining that inequity. Similarly, a refusal to address a demand to fire a friend is actually a political statement supporting them (and good for Steven Novella in refusing to bow to the shrieking mob).

Like Myers, I believe that if religion, political, moral, or social ideas are out of bounds for skepticism then skepticism isn’t relevant or useful anymore.