A couple of days ago, a friend gave me a copy of the latest Skeptical Inquirer due to the fact that it contained an article which referred to the recent swell of popular books characterized by a rather aggressive form of atheism (a central part of the thesis that I am in the process of researching and writing). I had seen this magazine a few times in Regent’s library over the last couple of months, but had not had the chance to check it out. I’m not sure what I was expecting as I don’t know much about Skeptical Inquirer (i.e., whether it is a publication that is taken seriously in the broader philosophical/scientific communities or not), but I was surprised and disappointed by what I found.
The article on Dawkins’ book wasn’t what really grabbed my attention—it’s too short, scattered, and philosophically naive to address any of the issues adequately, and basically ends up just parroting Dawkins’ (scientific?) assertion that theology is an imaginary discipline because God can’t be the subject of direct empirical investigation (I continue to be amazed at the number of writers in this genre who seem to be of the opinion that is new or revelatory information), and that being an a-theist is as reasonable as being an a-unicornist or an a-flying-spaghetti-monsterist. It’s almost as difficult to take this kind of rigid empiricism seriously as uncritical religious dogmatism, and it’s almost as as easy to dismiss.
What actually intrigued me about this publication (and I have admittedly just perused this one issue—July/August 2007)) was the sheer amount of space devoted to religious themes. In a magazine whose subtitle boldly proclaims that it is “The Magazine for Science and Reason” it was odd to find that a substantial number of its pages were devoted to what it was against. No less than ten articles/editorials/book reviews and fourteen letters to the editor were directly devoted, in some form or another, to debunking religious claims or bemoaning the lack of atheist influence in the broader culture. Granted, a good number of the letters were responding to an issue on science and religion (March/April 2007), but I could not help but be struck by the extraordinary amount of attention that was being paid to what can only be, on the view of many of those who write for and read this magazine, an intellectually deficient worldview.
Of course it could be claimed that the attention being paid to religion in The Skeptical Inquirer is due to the role that religion is currently playing in global politics. I suppose this is fair enough, as far as it goes. I remain unconvinced that the best way to address this issue is to recycle the same arguments for atheism, only more angrily, loudly, and derisively, and than in the past. It’s a common enough strategy, and one that is employed across the religious/philosophical spectrum, but it doesn’t seem conducive either to the honest skepticism or reason that is alluded to on the cover of the magazine.
At any rate, I was perplexed by the fact that a publication such as this one – which claims skepticism as a major part of its raison d’être—extends this skepticism mainly, as far as I can tell, to only one ideological arena, namely, the religious one. One searches in vain for anything resembling skepticism regarding the methods and goals of science, or its suitability to address everything humanly relevant. It might seem logical, for example, to inquire as to why, in an age which enjoys the innumerable material benefits that modern science has provided, religious belief persists. It’s possible that all religious people are just incorrigibly stupid and blind to reason and this is basically the line that many of the neo-atheists take; it’s also possible however, that there are things that matter to human beings that a rigidly materialistic worldview cannot adequately address (Peter Berger refers to these as “signals of transcendence”; Gil’s been reflecting on some of Berger’s ideas here and here).
At the very least, the notion that there might be some sphere(s) of existence where science is not the best tool for the job seems like a live option that might be worth considering. A magazine which claims to value skepticism above all else ought to consider turning its attention on its own commitments and assumptions from time to time—to be, dare I say it, a little more skeptical of skepticism?