There has been much discussion lately on this blog and elsewhere about the relationships among skepticism, atheism, and politics. I have roundly criticized Richard Dawkins for extending scientific skepticism into areas that are more properly the domain of philosophical analysis, as well as Penn and Teller and Michael Shermer for doing the same with politics to support their libertarian views. Of course, even a cursory reader of this blog will easily find my own pieces about religion and politics, which may make it seem like I’m a sinner throwing stones at my fellow skeptics.

In reality, this debate has been going on for decades, and it has at times involved some of the great figures of skepticism. Just think of Paul Kurtz’s struggle to balance his own organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism (which publishes Free Inquiry) and what is now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (which puts out Skeptical Inquirer), organizations that most certainly not always see eye to eye when it comes to mixing skepticism, religion and politics. Michael Shermer, on the other hand, has been criticized on his own multi-author blogfor not making a distinction between scientifically defensible notions and political positions. And of course, Penn and Teller’s absurd denial of global warming, and recent Dawkins award winner Bill Maher’s insane criticism of “western medicine” complete this increasingly messy picture.

Before continuing, therefore, let me be clear about what it is I am trying to do . I am most definitely not seeking to tell people what to write about and what to stay away from. Not only would that be futile, but it is contrary to the spirit of open inquiry that I hold as one of my highest ideals. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, I can easily be seen as a repeat offender on this very blog, and coherence is another ideal I hold pretty high (despite one of my favorite quotes by Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”).

What I am attempting is a serious discussion of the differences and commonalities among the three areas pertinent to the topics in question: (scientific, or evidence-based) skepticism, atheism, and political philosophy. This blog is about all three because those are my interests and because I am presumptuous enough to think that I have something relevant to say in those domains. But I am in fact continuously switching among three not automatically interchangeable hats: (former) scientist, (current) philosopher, and politically-minded intellectual. All of that said, let the game begin!

First, let me define what I mean by skeptical inquiry, atheism and political philosophy. Skeptical inquiry, in the classic sense, pertains to the critical examination of evidential claims of the para- or super-normal. This means not just ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, UFOs and the like, but also — for instance — the creationist idea that the world is 6,000 years old. All these claims are, at least in principle, amenable to scientific inquiry because they refer to things that we can observe, measure and perhaps even repeat experimentally. Notice, of course, that (some) religious claims do therefore fall squarely within the domain of scientific skepticism. Also in this area we find pseudohistorical claims, such as Holocaust denial, and pseudoscientific ones like fear of vaccines and denial of global warming. Which means of course that some politically charged issues — like the latter two — can also pertain properly to skeptical inquiry.

Second, let us turn to atheism. Once again: it is a philosophical, not a scientific position. Now, I have argued of course that any intelligent philosopher ought to allow her ideas to be informed by science, but philosophical inquiry is broader than science because it includes non-evidence based approaches, such as logic or more broadly reason-based arguments. This is both the strength and the weakness of philosophy when compared to science: it is both broader and yet of course less prone to incremental discovery and precise answers. When someone, therefore, wants to make a scientific argument in favor of atheism — like Dawkins and Jerry Coyne seem to do — he is stepping outside of the epistemological boundaries of science, thereby doing a disservice both to science and to intellectual inquiry. Consider again the example of a creationist who maintains in the face of evidence that the universe really is 6,000 years old, and that it only looks older because god arranged things in a way to test our faith. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that could contradict that sort of statement, but a philosopher can easily point out why it is unreasonable, and that furthermore it creates very serious theological quandaries.

Lastly, let’s consider political philosophy. Again — just like with atheism above — it would be silly for a political philosopher to reject pertinent empirical claims: we do have some evidence from the social sciences and from history about what happens when certain economic or political systems are seen at work in human societies. But political philosophy is fundamentally a matter of values: one starts with certain “rights” for instance that one thinks ought to be safeguarded, and then builds the best political/economic system that is likely to do the job. Talk of rights is, again, philosophical in nature, not empirical. One can (and should) defend what one means by “rights” and why one considers certain rights to be more fundamental than others. But all such discussions largely transcend empirical evidence (which, again, should not be ignored).
If the distinctions above are so clear, why, then, do we keep running into the mess with which I started this essay? Because the three areas in question do have a common underpinning, as illustrated by the diagram accompanying this article: atheism, skeptical inquiry, and political philosophy are all exercises in critical thinking and rational analysis. The differences among them is in the relative role that philosophical and scientific/empirical considerations play in each case.

That is why, for instance, I can coherently say that Penn and Teller are wrong about their libertarianism and about their position on global warming: in the first case, I am talking about philosophy, in the second about science. There is, of course, much more leeway in the first than in the second case. That’s also why there is no contradiction in me praising Bill Maher for his political views and yet thinking of him as a hopelessly inept commentator when it comes to his opinions on medicine. To consider one more example, this is also how I can agree with Dawkins’ and Coyne’s philosophical positions (and disagree with “accommodationists” like Ken Miller) and yet distance myself from them on the ground that I think they are stretching the tools of science beyond what is reasonable.

All of this may seem confusing and perhaps even an irrelevant exercise in hair-splitting, but it is in fact what makes discussions within the skeptic community — and society at large — so interesting and delicate. By all means, let’s continue to argue about atheism, politics and UFOs. But let us be mindful of the fact that the types of arguments and evidence that are pertinent to one area do not necessarily carry over to another one. Which means that people should refrain from using the venerable mantle of skepticism to engage in silly notions like denying global warming or the efficacy of vaccines. That’s an insult to critical analysis, which is the one thing we all truly cherish.

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