The Importance of Skepticism to Atheism and Secularism

William and I discussed the intersection of skepticism and atheism (understood to include agnosticism/apatheism for my purposes here) during our last podcasting session and I felt that the topic deserved a slightly more formalized examination here. I think that the “skeptical bug” is a key motivator for many who have lost their religion and that it is a powerful tool for undermining religious authority in every sphere of inquiry. The impact of the skeptical argument can have pragmatic, real-world impact for atheists that I believe can only be positive for secularly minded. I would like to lay out my thoughts on the natural alliance between skepticism and atheism, how I view this interaction, and how vital I think skepticism is for the spread of secularism and atheism into the future. Skepticism is, more than anything else, a mindset - a way of approaching the world and what we can know about it. It rather simply states that we should always be wary of saying we know something (anything) with absolute certainty because we can always be wrong. The basic claim is that for any given bit of supposed knowledge, we can imagine a way (however convoluted) by which we would be mistaken about that knowledge.

For example, I could be an immaterial mind, floating in the ether, and the rest of the world is merely a delusion that I mistakenly believe to be real. Every possible counterargument is subverted by the possibility that the world is drastically different from the way I think that it is. Nothing is, in principle, safe from the skeptical argument; it is an unverifiable claim, but the philosophical and psychological impact has survived thousands of years. Skepticism is an epistemological acid, eating away at the certainty of any knowledge claim because it acknowledges that we can always be mistaken about our claims, however well-founded they may be.

To be sure, the skeptical argument can be taken to almost irrational lengths. When you seriously begin questioning perfectly reasonable assumptions – such as the idea that there is an external world, separate from your mind – you are straying pretty far down the skeptical path. This irrational type of epistemological fear is not, however, self-defeating because the skeptical argument does not require you to go that far. Rather, it simply highlights that you could go that far without being contradictory. Skepticism is the acknowledgement that you could be wrong, not that you are wrong, about a given premise. The skeptical argument does not even attempt to make a claim about its own validity. It very well could be false, but we can never know that it is false because we could always be wrong about the premises that prove that very falsity!

If you cannot tell, the skeptical argument is endlessly entertaining because it forces you to confront the shakiness of the ground on which every conceivable argument must be built. It is a sort of philosophical protection against epistemological hubris. The ability of the skeptical argument to worm its way into your brain, like some sort of twisted little bug hell-bent on destroying your hard-won knowledge, is delightfully effective. This is where its true power lies - it is a constant checked on unwarranted certainty - and where I think skepticism and atheism become entwined.

As should be obvious, atheists reject gods and the authority such beings have on any given matter. Most religions are based on the supposition that their supernatural authority has handed down truths about reality by which the adherents to those religions should understand the world and humanity's place in it. Even if we cannot determine a single way to interpret those truths (just take a look at the theological schisms that have shaped the current Protestant Christian landscape), we can be certain that those truths are absolute. After all, how can the creator of reality get things wrong about the way the world is? Particularly for the Western traditions, I think that this certainty is important. People very often turn to religion because it holds answers to questions that people very strongly want answered. For all of the supernatural trappings, religion is incredibly human in this regard.

It is in just such a relevant and (supposedly) secure environment that the skeptical bug can wreak the greatest havoc. The ability to undermine seemingly unassailable truths is where skepticism shines, and religion is one of the few philosophical realms wherein absolute truth is said to reside. Given the danger I think absolute knowledge poses, I think combating those unassailable truths is critically important. If there was ever a hope to weaken the sort of assurance that I think lies at the heart of many people’s religious experience, skepticism fits the bill nicely.

The potential secular impact is huge. Think of the crimes that are committed in the name of religious zealotry: these are transgressions that are done, often explicitly, because people are certain that they are doing the right thing. I cannot imagine ever being so sure of myself that I would be willing to bury someone up to their neck and then pelt them with stones with the explicit intent to kill them. A more pertinent example would be the recent slaying of Lee Rigby in the middle of a London street in full view of the public. The two attackers were retaliating in the way their religious ideology taught them to react to attacks on their faith: violently and without question.

I cannot think of any cause in which I believe – atheism, secularism, and humanism included – for which I would be willing to so callously murder a fellow human being. I cannot help but think that had these men had the skeptical bug eating away at their certainty, they might have stopped themselves from committing such inexcusable violence. I cannot think of a single intellectual force that could so readily undermine such ardent conviction as the skeptical argument. For this reason, I think it is important for secularists and atheists to advocate for skepticism whenever we can.

There is no single way to do this, of course, but some obvious plans of attack come to mind. We can continue to advocate for stronger science education in our schools. The entire scientific enterprise is based on methodologies that complement the skeptical creed “what if I’m wrong about X?” I can only imagine that it would help inoculate children against unfounded belief if we can instill in them the epistemologically cautious scientific worldview.

Another option is to continue public relations campaigns aimed at justifying and advocating atheism and secularism in the public sphere. The more reasonable that we seem as a group, the less easily we can be dismissed by our detractors and intellectual adversaries. We can also actively confront the excesses of epistemological absolutism in the world, calling out those who overreach with their claims or who commit crimes against their fellow man because of questionably-founded beliefs. I can only think of the woman who confronted the two attackers mentioned above, telling the blood-soaked men (who were still holding their bloody knives) that they (Muslim extremists) would be opposed by the very people they were trying to intimidate. While I cannot speak to her motivations and do not claim to say she is a skeptic, secularist, or an atheist, I only hope that skeptics around the world would be so willing to confront religion whenever it rears its head in such a disgraceful fashion.

The stakes are too high to let religions spread their “truths” unchecked. This is not a matter of saying that any given religious teaching, dogma, or tradition is wrong. Very often, there is simply no way to determine the truth of such a matter. This does not mean, however, that we do not reasonably and respectfully assert that such “truths” are as equally vulnerable to acidity of skepticism as any other truth is. This is not a matter of being right or wrong. It is, however, the willingness to accept and assert that we can always be wrong, no matter how certain we are, and that that uncertainty should impact how we interact with one another and the world around us. In light of the secularly invested interests I think most atheists have, skepticism is a readily available tool to wield against religion in its worst forms.


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