Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 1)

Something I often hear from "Believers" is that atheism is just like a religion. Usually, this argument is put forward in order to illustrate a claim that we non-believers or Skeptics (or whatever) are no more open-minded than they are.

These same people often accuse us non-believers of following some unstated agenda, and claim that our minds are made up in advance of our consideration of evidence. In other words, they're accusing us of dogmatic thinking. (Which is one of the hallmarks of organized religion.)

I've always been rather dismissive of this accusation - never really giving it much serious thought*. I personally don't belong to any group that tells me what to think. We skeptics are a pretty much unorganized bunch. I mean, sure there are a few organized groups out there, like the Center for Inquiry, or American Atheists - some more "out there" than others. Members of these groups tend to have similar modes of thought**, else they wouldn't have joined together. But that's much different from a religion, where most people are either born into it, or converted into it by friends or family - and where, once one is involved, the organization then tells one what their doctrines are, and which tenets of their faith are most important to believe.

Obviously, in order to be classified as an atheist, one must profess a disbelief in a god. By definition, an agnostic has doubts or reservations about the existence of such a being. But outside of that, anything goes? Right? There certainly aren't any dogmatic tenets of belief set forth for atheism or skepticism.

Or are there?

I've been wondering about that ... mulling the question over in my mind ...

I think for the categories of "atheist" and "agnostic," this is true. The definitions of these terms are relatively straightforward, though there's probably some grey area between them. But the term "skeptic" is a bit different from those.

The term "skeptic," as it's being used within the "Skeptical Movement†" seems, to me, to be a bit fuzzy - and that's where part of the problem lies. I mean, a lot of people have been skeptical about many things. Fundamentalist Christians are often skeptical about the Theory of Evolution. Some on the political Right are skeptical about the circumstances of President Obama's birth. There have been many who are skeptical about the Apollo landings, or whether the Earth is spherical in shape. ††

Those people are all lower-case "s" skeptics. But, I don't think any of those people fit in with what most of us consider to be (capital "S") Skeptics.

What we're currently calling the "Skeptical Movement", then, must have some notable features beyond the simple definition of skepticism. Else, why refer to it as a "Movement" at all, and not just refer to it as a simple stance as it relates to any particular topic or phenomenon?

It seems to me that there is a sort of loosely-affiliated group of beliefs, or maybe hypotheses that are beginning to to coalesce into a sort of "dogma" of Skepticism. This concerns me.

I'll relate why I think this, and what my concerns are in Part 2.

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* A reaction which cedes their point to some extent, I suppose. (Hence this post.)

** Even those groups, though, encompass people with many different beliefs. CfI, for example, includes people who are politically or socially conservative, liberal, libertarian, what have you. Members & supporters run the economic and philosophical gamut from socialist to laissez-faire capitalist. Some consider themselves agnostics or atheists, others prefer the term Humanist, or unchurched. Some may even believe in a nebulous "greater power" or "first principle" of some sort, but not in organized religion. There are even those who may identify themselves "culturally" with a particular religious tradition.

† It should be noted that while there are organized groups within what could be termed a "Skeptical Movement," there really is no organized movement, as such. What most people refer to as the modern Skeptical Movement is really just an organic growth in the number of people and organizations that are identifying themselves as "Skeptical" in a more public way than in the past.

†† It should also be noted that these particular skeptical views are held despite the overwhelming evidence, which leads to a whole other topic. There are plenty of other places where this subject is addressed - often by real experts in their fields - and there's probably not much I can add:

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