Skeptical atheism, religion and politeness

It’s long been a concern of mine about the skeptics movement that some skeptics find themselves unable to behave civilly when confronted with religious people. So it’s with some interest that I see that David Allen Green has published a civility and inclusion policy that seeks to address the very real problem that some skeptics seem to believe themselves so infused with their quasi-religious fervour that, quite literally, anything goes. Even the essential moral obligation to treat fellow human beings with dignity.

I coin the term ‘skeptical atheism’ as the form of atheism which aggressively seeks to put down religion, often in disparaging, rude terms, rather than the mere expression of personal disbelief in God. God is often a great comfort to people at critical points of their lives. To deny that, even in kind terms, would be improper. To do so in the strident, carping tones of the skeptical atheist is totally unacceptable.

From a personal point of view, I ended up at religion as a result of the study of science. I found that there were simply too many questions that science was unable to answer. This is inevitable given its narrow instruction set, which insists that experiments must be reproducible. Science also tends to be more comfortable with theories and hypotheses that support the existing literature rather than contradict it, even when the possibility must always exist that the existing literature is flawed. Therefore science doesn’t build in a linear fashion, but lurches forward in a series of catastrophic revolutions.

Demand for reproducibility and an absence of wonder in the scientific literature means that religion is excluded almost by definition. Unfortunately, skeptical thought falsely treats the lack of need for religion as proof that it doesn’t exist. But we know that this line of reasoning must be false, due to the nature of knowledge acquisition itself. Descartes acknowledged that, from first principles, the only thing you can know is that, because you think, you exist. Beyond that, you’re having to take things on faith. You must trust that your eyes aren’t deceiving you, that your memory isn’t flawed or being tampered with, and that scientific laws and constants don’t vary. Worse than that, so much of the body of scientific knowledge is built upon experiments that most skeptics have never observed and – indeed – don’t actually understand. Ultimately their argument becomes that they trust [insert your favourite celebrity skeptic here] more than they trust a religious leader. While you could construct some arguments from first principles as to why this might be desirable, it’s certainly not qualitatively different, as skeptical atheists seem to believe.

Some of these issues may get aired on Monday June 25, when Canon Dr Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary Newington, presents at Westminster Skeptics on the subject “Being suspicious about the Skeptics.” I urge you all to attend. And it will be a very significant and potentially serious test of Green’s civility policy. It’s only a few weeks old; let’s hope it can have a long and happy life.

Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence. A Hackney SITP review

Last night, I went to a Hackney “Skeptics in the Pub” event. The big draw was lawyer David Allen Green, aka blogger Jack of Kent, who was speaking on the subject “Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence“.

The good parts. David is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The main thrust of his talk was interesting: he wished to disabuse those present of the notion that the legal process is a quest for “the truth”. Instead, the law wishes solely to dis/prove legal liability. Having found that someone is liable, it can then do things to them. Fine them. Make them do community service. Send them to jail. Whether someone is liable therefore depends solely on assessing evidence in accordance with the law as laid down. The truth isn’t so much a consideration.

David illustrated this thesis with a catalogue of cases, all of which will be familiar to the Skeptics movement or to readers of his blog or his New Statesman writing. For example, it matters not that we all know that Paul Chambers never intended to actually blow Robin Hood airport sky high. Liability was established under the law, so bad things can be done to him (there’s a further appeal due in February).

That contrasts with science, which believes that it (and usually scientists believe only it) aims to get at the truth.

It’s certainly an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, that’s as far as he went with it. I was waiting for him to develop it further, but he spent a lot of time wallowing in the past, without really explaining what the implications for his thesis were. It’s good to play to the gallery at times, of course, but I would have welcomed a deepening of his hypothesis.

Both law and science rely on models. The scientific model aims at truth, if you’re a scientific realist, or perhaps usefulness, if you’re an anti-realist. The legal model aims at establishing liability (as David explained). A major difference between science and the law is that where science finds discrepancies between “truth” and its model, it will change the model (this is a gross simplification for the purposes of keeping this blog post short!). Because the law isn’t concerned with the truth, this can’t happen. However, egregiously unfair cases may lead to the law being changed or “bent” to produce a temporarily or permanently fairer outcome, as perhaps happened in the Simon Singh case. Exploring why we operate law and science differently would have been interesting, especially if you were to contemplate whether you could run them the same way. Further, it would have been illuminating to look at other disciplines, such as history, economics or accountancy, to determine whether they follow the legal or scientific model, or whether they have an alternative approach. (My starter for ten is that history is more scientific, accountancy is more legal, and economics has aspects of both.)

As I say, it’s a pity that David didn’t go there. But it was an enjoyable evening in a great venue with excellent company. It’s well worth keeping an eye on their future agenda.

Science vs religion

You can find knowledge and learning without science. But, given that science works so well, why would you?

You can find peace, meaning, a sense of ethics, and inner calm without religion. But, given that religion works so well, why would you?

It’s silly to criticise religion for something that it patently doesn’t set up to do in the first place.

And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.

The Gospel according to St Mark chapter 12, verses  14-17.