Science vs. religion and how I discovered the skeptical movement

Frequent readers probably know that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Steven Novella, who’s an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, president of the New England Skeptic Society, blogger, and lead host of the most popular skeptical podcast in the world, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Novella is a major reason I call myself a skeptic today.

I’ve been an outspoken atheist for some time but it’s only been about three years that I’ve even known about the skeptical movement. It was the autumn 2007 that I first discovered James Randi. Randi was being interviewed by an internet atheist radio show I listened to and on their website, they’d linked to some videos of Randi on YouTube. One of those videos was a lecture Randi gave to Yale University years ago. It was the standard Randi lecture but it was the first time I’d seen it. And at the time I was still a bit of a believer in a number of classic paranormal claims but was already sort of realizing that there wasn’t much to them. Randi’s Yale lecture pushed me one small step closer to renouncing my woo woo beliefs.

Around that same time I discovered YouTube videos of Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine. And I found myself liking a lot of what he had to say. And by the time, later that fall, I caught Shermer debating the evidence for alien visitation on The Larry King Show, I’d already moved to a position where I completely agreed with Shermer that the evidence just wasn’t there. Shermer’s opponents in that debate were Stanton Friedman and Buzz Aldrin, both long-time heroes of mine. It was during that debate though that I realized my hero Stanton Friedman was a complete nut.

The one issue that I did take issue with Shermer on though was that in many of the videos I’d caught of him on YouTube, he rejected the label “atheist” and embraced the label “agnostic.” Then on November 15, 2007 I attended an atheist event where several famous faces were in attendance, one of whom was Michael Shermer. I briefly talked to him about the current Uri Geller television show at the time that also featured skeptical magician Criss Angel. I wanted to ask him about the “atheist” label issue but didn’t get around to it. But when I heard him use the label himself later that night my concerns were alleviated.

As I was leaving that night I saw several fliers for other upcoming events and one of them was a Saturday afternoon lecture hosted by a group calling itself the New York City Skeptics. The speaker was someone I’d never heard of by the name of Steven Novella. It sounded interesting enough and so I attended. And I was so impressed by Dr. Novella’s lecture that when he mentioned that he hosted a podcast, I decided to check it out. And today, it’s my favorite podcast. I also now write for the New York City Skeptic’s official blog, the Gotham Skeptic. But since that lecture, Novella and the other skeptical rogues on the podcast have become my biggest skeptical influences and were the biggest reason I’m part of this movement.

But as Steven Novella reminded me this week, there is at least one issue we do not see eye to eye on, and that’s whether science and religion can coexist peacefully. While he identifies as an “agnostic” and feels science is agnostic toward the untestable claims of religion, I disagree.

The problem I have with this position is that just about every issue skeptics address is unfalsifiable. Maybe our primitive science just can’t detect the water memory of homeopathy and anyone testing the efficacy of homeopathy is sending out negative vibrations that screw up the tests. Maybe vaccines really do cause autism but all the data to the contrary has just been faked by an omnipotent evil conspiratorial force that will stop at nothing to poison us with toxins in the vaccines. Sooner or later, every form of pseudoscience, denialism, and paranormal claims moves its goalpost outside the bounds of falsifiability. And yet we never seem to have this conversation when it comes to homeopathy or ghosts or vaccines. But some skeptics seem to feel they need to apply special pleading to religion because it’s religion.

Few people seriously argue the “hard atheist” position that we know with certainty that no gods exist. The principle argument is that there’s no evidence to believe that one exists and the burden of proof lies with those claiming otherwise. And it’s because the burden of proof is on the believer, that once they introduce an unfalsifiable position, they fail to meet the burden of proof and thus automatically lose the debate. This is true whether we’re talking about homeopathy or religion.

But for all intents and purposes one can reasonably conclude that gods almost certainly don’t exist. It seems that some don’t want to put their nickel down on a position and risk the minute possibility that they could be wrong. But I have no problem being wrong. I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. And if one day new evidence is presented that proves a god does exist I’ll gladly admit that I’m wrong. But until then I have not been sufficiently persuaded that I am wrong. Take the Bible. The very first verse of the book is objectively and scientifically wrong by many orders of magnitude. And it only gets worse from there. It’s scary to me that in another universe we might all be having this same insane discussion over whether science can conclusively dismiss The Cat In The Hat.

At a certain point it’s unreasonable to keep a case open. If Judge Ito was an agnostic, the OJ case would still be running because maybe one day new evidence would drop from the sky. No, make a bloody decision, at least provisionally, and move on.

Now to be fair to Steven Novella’s position, he does address the unfalsifiable claims of pseudosciences like homeopathy. However, I don’t happen to find his answer particularly satisfying.

I don’t feel that once the true believer makes it a faith argument that the skeptic just has to take it on the chin and has to concede that they can’t disprove it. There are certain ideas that are simply too idiotic to even entertain in intellectual discourse and that line in the sand is falsifiability.

Unfalsifiable claims about reality have no place in intellectual discourse and are cause an immediate disqualification from the realm of science. The believer hasn’t met their burden of proof so they’re done. Case dismissed. We can proceed to mock them. What you don’t do is keep a case open indefinitely just in case new evidence one day comes to light. It’s about practicality. If a claim can’t be demonstrated or doesn’t say anything useful about our reality, why am I paying lip service to it? It’s utterly useless. It’s garbage. And I have no problem being honest enough to tell the believer this, especially since it’s proven far more persuasive than being coy and overly agreeable. And at least they’ll know that I respect them enough to be honest with them instead of treating them like fragile children. And sure there are skeptics who believe in some god or another. There are skeptics who believe in ghosts too. They’re simply wrong.


13 Responses to Science vs. religion and how I discovered the skeptical movement

  1. Jim says:

    I too disagree with those skeptics who suggest that religious claims are somehow out of bounds when it comes to science and skepticism. I find the whole position just odd. I just wrote a post asking just who the targets of the kind of defense that Novella mounts really are. That’s the strangest thing to me. Novella and others admit that religious claims about things that affect the world in discernible ways are open to scientific and skeptical investigation. He just seems to think that this does not include the vast majority of religious claims. It’s there that I find I have no idea who he’s defending from criticism. Almost no one cares about deists. Rather, the concern from the “new atheists” (as a catch-all) always centers around claims that have an impact on the real world, the very kinds of claims Novella says science and skepticism can address. That leaves me puzzled on whom he thinks needs defending.

  2. Maria says:

    This is an excellent read. Your history as a skeptic is similar to mine — I didn’t discover that there was such a thing as a “skeptic,” let alone a whole “skeptical movement,” until about three years ago. It was a huge relief to find that there were people who shared the same kinds of thoughts I had about religion and woo.

    But you say: “Unfalsifiable claims about reality have no place in intellectual discourse and are cause an immediate disqualification from the realm of science. The believer hasn’t met their burden of proof so they’re done. Case dismissed. We can proceed to mock them.”

    I can agree with the first part of this statement but not the last. Mocking believers will get us nowhere. They outnumber us and already hate us. Why alienate ourselves more than we already have by simply not believing and being brave enough to admit it publicly?

    Or am I just oversensitive because I live in a red state surrounded by people who believe all kinds of crap?

    • mjr256 says:

      As you say, they already hate us, so we’re not making any new enemies. But I do believe mockery is an effective tool of persuasion. I think it’s at least a better tool of persuasion than placating the believer. And if recent history is any indication, bluntness is more effective than being coy. Ideally, I advocate the atheist movement following a similar path as the gay movement, encouraging more and more people to come out of the closet as atheists.

      • Maria says:

        Mockery will work on intelligent people who care how they are perceived by other intelligent people. But I don’t think it will work on people who base their beliefs solely on faith. These people truly believe that they have god on their side and that we’ll all rot in hell. No amount of mockery will convince them they’re wrong.

        I do agree that atheists should come out of the closet. We also need to speak up for the separation of church and state and to keep religion out of our public school systems. We need to firmly establish ourselves as a group that not only has certain beliefs and moral values, but votes.

  3. Maria says:

    @Jim: Personally, I think it’s fear that makes some skeptics exclude religious claims from their criticisms. They don’t want to open themselves up to the wrath of a very large group of very irrational people. Novella probably doesn’t want to put his job at risk — either consciously or unconsciously. And I’m sure he’s not the only one.

  4. Tom in Vermont says:

    I’m new here and this was the first thing that I read. I really enjoyed it. I found the skeptics movement first through Skepticality and then found SGU, DJ Grothe (maybe the best interviewer I have ever listened to), James Randi and many more. I agree with you, but I would have enjoyed this even if I didn’t. I think I’ll have a look around now and see what else you’ve written.

  5. Paul says:

    Excellent post. I think the stance that Novella and so many other skeptics take on this one issue is the Achilles’ heel of skepticism; the stance defies common sense. In my opinion, the reason they take this position is because they don’t want to risk their own popularity by “offending” some of their followers, so they rely on some form of “pretzel logic” to rationalize their position. What this reveals to me is that, in many ways and deep down, most skeptics aren’t always that much different than members of other organizations, contrary to what most of them believe. Fame trumps honesty. After all is said and done, they’re only human.

    • Maria says:

      Paul: You hit the nail on the head. Fame does trump honesty. The more you have to lose, the less likely you are to say/do something to risk losing it.

      Unfortunate but true. And it’s tough to blame him.

      • Paul says:

        Maria: I don’t know if I’m as willing to let him (or anyone else) off the hook that easily. Unreason is difficult to defend regardless of the motivation, methinks. Then again, it’s probably another of those pesky human traits that are simply too difficult to vanquish. Woe is us.

    • Maria says:

      I’ve been in the situation where I was asked by one of my clients to take down a blog post I’d written. Saying no would have cost me a recurring book contract that earned me $20-$40K in royalties every year. What do you think I said?

      There comes a point where opinion has to be muzzled or toned down to preserve your ability to make a living at what you do best. I don’t know whether Novella earns enough income as a skeptic to jeopardize his other work, which might be the source of his livelihood. He probably thinks it’s better to be on board as a skeptic for MOST issues than to go all the way and possibly lose his job.

  6. […] during the Jewish high holy days. I also did attend Hebrew school classes for several years. Now I’ve told the story of how I discovered the atheist and skeptical communities before elsew…, so I won’t get into it here. While I know plenty of atheists who are not very skeptical of […]

  7. […] Science vs. religion and how I discovered the skeptical movement – “I don’t feel that once the true believer makes it a faith argument that the skeptic just has to take it on the chin and has to concede that they can’t disprove it. There are certain ideas that are simply too idiotic to even entertain in intellectual discourse and that line in the sand is falsifiability.” An excellent read for new members of the skeptic movement. On Skepacabra. […]

  8. Mitch Myers says:

    I have been in church all my life. My family is extremely religious, therefore as a kid church on Sunday and wednesday was a given. I believe that as a kid when our brains our still developing, the things we learn about effect the things we will believe tremendously. I mean didn’t we all believe in Santa clause. That being said, when u are told every week about this invisible being in the sky that is the creator and reason we are all here and if u don’t believe in him then u will be separated from your “mommy and daddy” , not to mention the whole burn FOREVER in a lake of fire that is 20,000 times hotter than normal, when u die, then I think we can all see how ppl come to believe what they do without question. Yet if u tell someone the paint is wet, they feel they have to touch it to be certain. I was able to question things thankfully and it became very obvious to me that you have to take a bigger leap of faith to believe in stories that you could find in a comic book rather than logic and reason. Hell is the main reason people refuse to question. I may have never opened my eyes to all this if a friend would not have challenged me to question. I respect other people and what they choose to believe, it is their right just as it is ours. I simply want people to at least know what they are believing in. I find do many people that live a life based on their parents beliefs. We will never all agree on the topic of science and religion but it is good to know that more people are starting to at least question things. Maybe one day people will be able to live a life not based on fear of a hell. I’ve enjoyed everyone’s posts on here and am happy to be part of this movement.

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