Apr 05 2010

Skepticism and Religion – Again

The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.

Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)

However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that fall under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.

Science is a Process

I think the primary confusion stems from this – defining science vs religion as a set of beliefs vs a set of methods or processes. A commenter on the SGU forums represents this confusion well when they write:

“…what the hell kind of skeptic movement would give an approving nod to the theist saying ‘I’m a skeptic–I won’t believe in ghosts without good evidence, …unless they’re holy ghosts.”

His comment focuses entirely on the beliefs themselves, but the agnostic position is about method not beliefs. It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts – it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.

The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter – it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever – they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science. This, of course, is Sagan’s invisible floating heatless dragon – creating a belief that cannot be tested.

It is important, in my opinion, for skeptics to be crystal clear on this point, because often the purveyors of pseudoscience will try to evade falsification or the negative effects of evidence on their claims by positioning the claim outside of science. At that point the skeptic must acknowledge that science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith. You can believe in the kind of bigfeet that are immune to all scientific investigation, but then you have to also stop claiming to have evidence for this bigfoot, or that you are doing science. Belief in bigfoot has become a tenet of your faith.

Religion is More than Faith

Often in this discussion we may use the term “religion” to refer to faith-based beliefs. I actually try to avoid it, because it is confusing. The fact is – religions routinely make fact-based claims. They intrude upon science on a regular basis, and whenever they step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game. No one I know denies this, and any regular reader of this blog, or listener of the SGU, knows that we will address head on any scientific claim, no matter its source.

However, whenever we state that science cannot address “faith” (beliefs that are outside the realm of science), this is commonly misconstrued to mean that it cannot address any claims of “religion,” which is not true and not the “agnostic” position.

Religions are multifarious – they often contain tenets of faith (the ultimate meaning of things), claims about history and the nature of reality, a source of cultural identity, and a code of morality. Freedom of (and from) religion means that people have a right to any tenets of faith they choose, they have a right to their own moral code (within limits, of course), and they also have a right to frame their personal and group identity how they wish.

People do not, however, have a right to their own facts. So when religions make claims about history or the nature of the material world, they are within the purview of science. Religions should not dictate to science, to limit its scope or its conclusions. It is also logically invalid to claim that faith is an appropriate approach to factual claims.

Philosophical Naturalism

There are many proponents of philosophical naturalism within the skeptical movement  – the position that the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is. I am personally a philosophical naturalist, in that I do not “believe” in anything outside the natural world, but I do not think that science (and by extension skepticism) is dependent upon philosophical naturalism. Science, as I stated, can only be agnostic toward any notions outside the grasp of its methods – such beliefs are unknowable.

It is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. All such beliefs are by necessity arbitrary, and most people end up believing whatever is taught to them by their parents and culture. So again, I agree with the position of philosophical naturalism.

But it has to be acknowledged that some people can and do accept and practice methodological naturalism and simultaneously maintain personal articles of faith for questions outside the realm of science. There is nothing inherently inconsistent in this position, and largely I find it difficult to care (as long as that faith does not also intrude upon science nor is used to justify a malignant morality).

Skepticism and Religion

There is a tangential issue, which is often conflated with the philosophical issues I discussed above – what should be the strategic approach of the skeptical movement toward religion and the religious? While this issue often garners the most heated debate, this is mostly a personal choice and not something which can be objectively resolved. It is part of the reason why the skeptical movement is a loose collection of individuals and organizations, and not one cohesive whole.

My personal approach is to focus on science, which includes tackling any religious claims that intrude upon science. Genie Scott took this position as well in our discussion. But there are others who also wish to promote philosophical naturalism or atheism. I have no problem with this – everyone can do as they wish, and as I said the skeptical movement is very much a bottom up spontaneous movement without any top-down control or organization. I do not pretend to have the “one true way” of skepticism, only my way.

I do feel (and this is just a feeling) that the skeptical movement is most effective when we are clear about the boundaries of science and the nature of science vs faith vs religion. I prefer to give people critical thinking skills and a love for science, and not worry about their faith. It is also quite possible (again, this is only my bias, as I do not have any solid evidence to back it up) that you will lead more people away from faith by this approach than by tackling their faith head on.

And again, this is my personal approach but I do not presume to dictate to other skeptics what they should do.

Genie Scott brought up the point that the skeptical movement will only limit its reach if it defines itself as, by necessity, including only non-believers. There are many good skeptics who also choose to be theists, and they should not feel excluded. Of course, as I said there is no card-issuing skeptical organization. This has more to do with the culture of skepticism – how we make people feel, not about any imposed rules.

It should also be pointed out that there are sister movements (atheism, humanism) that do tackle faith and the other aspects of religion. These movements include many people with expertise and interest in these areas. So part of my approach is a matter of specialization. However, whenever I say this some people conclude that I am saying it is all about specialization or strategy. It is not – as I discussed extensively above, it is about clarity of philosophy, logic, and definition, which also happens to be in line with what I think is an effective approach and how much of the skeptical movement is already organized.


This issue is an enduring point of heated discussion among skeptics. It has remained so for the last 15 years that I have been part of the skeptical movement, and those who have been at this longer than I have tell me it goes back as far as they can remember also. I think it is a healthy and very useful discussion for us to have, and I have resigned myself to the fact that I will have to endlessly clarify my own position.

But each time I do I try to get better at focusing on the real issues and illuminating the source of any confusion or disagreements. I hope this latest attempt at the issue has been useful.

The take-home point of this post is to understand that the “agnostic” position is about the difference between science and faith as differing methods, not about the paranormal and religion as different belief systems.

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