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Selectively Skeptical

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?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t have much to add to your post, but thought I’d leave a couple of reading suggestions to add to your research:

    1. Michael Shermer’s recent open letter to Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris from the journal Scientific American: Rational Atheism. Here Shermer proposes 5 ways to strengthen the skeptical movement, hitting on a few of the weaknesses you’ve pointed out in the post above.

    2. Check out the 13.2 issue of Skeptic, the magazine edited by Shermer. In it, there is an article that proposes reasons why religion persists — specifically, in the Soviet antireligious climate of the 20th century.

    August 27, 2007
  2. Bad #

    “it was odd to find that a substantial number of its pages were devoted to what it was against.”

    Well, it is named “Skeptical Inquirer,” so you can’t really blame them for not warning you…

    “or its suitability to address everything humanly relevant.”

    Straw man: no one I’ve read in the magazine, or any of the atheists you write about, makes this claim.

    “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.”

    Scientists and skeptics generally have no problem with this notion, and in fact tend to mention it pretty reliably when discussing what science is. The problem of course, is that recognizing that science is of a strictly delimited scope does not magically make any and all things outside of that scope reasonable or justified as knowledge claims.

    August 27, 2007
  3. “Well, it is named “Skeptical Inquirer,” so you can’t really blame them for not warning you…”

    It’s not skepticism I have a problem with. I am quite skeptical about many things myself, including things pertaining to my own faith. I don’t even have a problem with a publication devoting itself to skepticism towards specifically religious beliefs, although I do think that such a publication ought to advertise itself as such. The title Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason does not in and of itself suggest or demand antagonism towards religion. Maybe I was being naïve in expecting a more balanced approach.

    The point I raised in the post was that the skepticism on offer in the issue I read seems to be of a very selective sort. As I said, I’ve only read the one issue; if Skeptical Inquirer has previous issues which express skepticism regarding science and reason (i.e., the potential limits of both), I will happily admit my error.

    Re: my claim that contemporary atheist writers present science as being the only tool for the job of discovering things important to human beings, you said – “Straw man: no one I’ve read in the magazine, or any of the atheists you write about, makes this claim.”

    You seem fairly knowledgeable about the contemporary advocates of atheism. What methods of discovering “humanly relevant” information, other than the scientific one, do you read them as advocating?

    “The problem of course, is that recognizing that science is of a strictly delimited scope does not magically make any and all things outside of that scope reasonable or justified as knowledge claims.”

    I agree (although I don’t remember claiming anything of the sort).

    August 27, 2007
  4. Becky, Jerry’s wife, here. The earlier comment I attempted to leave didn’t publish. How New Testament of me, I’m now left to communicate through my husband.

    What I wanted to add to the conversation were two links/articles that are relevant to what you’re complaining about, Ryan. First of all, in the latest Scientific American, there is an open letter to Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris that addresses some of these issues you’ve pinpointed in your casual perusal of Skeptical Inquirer. The open letter is written by Michael Shermer, the editor of the magazine Skeptic — which I’m guessing is a companion publication to Skeptical Inquirer. The open letter, entitled “Rational Atheism” is found here.

    Secondly, I wanted to point you in the direction of the latest issue of Skeptic, 13.2 (website here), where there is an article that does indeed address the “persistence” of religion — specifically, the religious impulse that survived the antireligious environment of the Soviet Union of the 20th century.

    Both of these articles may be of some interest for your growing skepticism about atheism and your ongoing thesis project.

    Cheers.

    August 27, 2007
  5. Bad #

    “The title Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason does not in and of itself suggest or demand antagonism towards religion. ”

    SI is not, in fact, overall “antagonistic” towards religion: some of the people in it are (like Pug), and others are not (Michael Shermer is certainly not). Of course, to some people, any criticism of religious claims at all is shocking and an attack on the special privilege and authority of religion.

    The thing is, in our society, a heck of a lot of extraordinary claims are made by religions. There is thus a lot to be skeptical about. In contrast, those who do not believe in those claims rarely make any that are anywhere near as overarching or pervasive: they tend to be far more modest, sticking to scientific knowledge and then doubting claims of others to be able to bypass that and jump right to the specific truths of the entire universe all from the ease of their armchairs.

    “You seem fairly knowledgeable about the contemporary advocates of atheism. What methods of discovering “humanly relevant” information, other than the scientific one, do you read them as advocating?”

    Simply being human and having values, and emotions, for starters: all of which are non-scientific, at least on the level of experiencing them and arguing over them.

    And again: listen to ANY of these people talk about science and they will pretty clearly say that while the hold science (and empiricism) to be the best tools for figuring out objective reality, it has limits and there are many many things outside its scope. There is no universal agreement on what other things are relevant, largely because most of them are subjective.

    August 27, 2007
  6. I am not one of those people who consider criticism of religion to be an attack on any special privilege that I have, nor do I claim to “be able to bypass” scientific knowledge “and jump right to the specific truths of the entire universe” from the ease of my armchair. As I said, I am skeptical by disposition myself, but I like to think that my skepticism goes beyond the claims made by religion.

    “Simply being human and having values, and emotions, for starters: all of which are non-scientific, at least on the level of experiencing them and arguing over them”

    These are some fairly important things to be relegated to the “simply part of being human” category, from my perspective. In my view, things like ethics, values, emotions, etc are some of the most important things in life, yet these are precisely the things that a naturalistic worldview is of very little use in explaining or justifying. I want to be able to say more about them than that they just happen to be a curious part of the human animal (an “evolutionary misfiring,” as Dawkins puts it). Consequently, I find the idea of a God who created creatures to value and respond to these things to be a compelling one.

    “And again: listen to ANY of these people talk about science and they will pretty clearly say that while the hold science (and empiricism) to be the best tools for figuring out objective reality, it has limits and there are many many things outside its scope.”

    Well, I’ve read most of the atheists that are currently grabbing headlines over this summer (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett…), and as I recall, humility with respect to the limits of science, or the notion that “many, many things” fall outside its scope are not prominent themes in any of them. So I would have to say that I have listened to at least some of these people who talk about science, and they do not exhibit anything like the humility you suggest. I don’t doubt that there many atheists out there who are a good deal more humble than those selling all the books, but I haven’t come across them just yet.

    August 28, 2007
  7. Thanks for the links Becky – I’m not sure why, but your comments only showed up this afternoon. Maybe the external links aroused the suspicions of WordPress’s all-seeing spam-catcher, who knows.

    I appreciated Shermer’s letter, both for its insight and its tone. I look forward to reading the other article if I can hunt down a hard copy somewhere.

    August 28, 2007

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