Mr. Eccles Presents | “Do They Really Believe That?”

“Matt Dillahunty has been hosting The Atheist Experience, a live call-in show for more than 11 years.”

“Matt has challenged assumptions and opened minds and engaged in thousands of conversations over the years. Matt looks back and reflects on some of the difficulties he’s encountered and the lessons he’s learned.”

“Before discovering skepticism and humanism, Dillahunty spent 25 years as a Southern Baptist with ambitions of becoming a minister.”

“In this talk at CFI headquarters in Amherst, New York, on May 13th 2016, he discusses how we all have firmly held beliefs that we will discover to be false at some point in our lives, and how we can have meaningful conversations with people who hold beliefs different than our own.”

“Check out more of our roundtable reasonable talks:”

“Learn more about CFI:”

Ubi Dubium… | The Three Faces of Skepticism

Rather than go into a single definition of what modern skepticism is, already done in great detail on this blog’s Media Guide to Skepticism page by Sharon Hill, I’d like to discuss those aspects, those three faces, that to my understanding make it up.
What are those faces of skepticism? They are:
  1. Skepticism is a set of values, both intellectual and ethical: Skepticism favors intellectual honesty, sincerity, integrity, and a high value on the truth of whatever matter we look into. It is to have little patience with those who deceive, save those ‘honest liars,’ professional conjurors who are forthright about the inherently deceptive nature of their trade. Those who knowingly defraud, harm, or manipulate others are fair game for skeptical scrutiny and critiquing. Skepticism acknowledges and respects the limits of human perception, understanding and reasoning. It tells us about and arms us against our biases. It tells us that “I don’t know,” is a better answer to a question than an answer that is not only demonstrably false, but isn’t even worthy of being wrong. If a skeptic is in error, or is knowingly dishonest, they can be and ought to be be corrected, or exposed, by others who are not. Whatever their personal inclinations, if they are not honest, other skeptics will be, and they will be found out.
  2. Skepticism is a set of methods, a way of evaluating arguments and evidence to determine the likely factual status of claims. These are the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry. Skepticism lets us know when someone’s trying to put us on, or putting others on, and that’s the first step to exposing them. Skepticism lets us distinguish sound claims from unsound and good argument from bad. It lets us know, when we are careful, when our prejudices are being pandered to, giving us the first line of defense against fraud and chicanery. These methods assume scientific literacy, scientific thinking, and an understanding of how we deceive ourselves and others through biases and motivated reasoning.
  3. The values and methods of skepticism assume a particular approach to reality. It assumes that there are such things as facts and truth. It assumes the world is knowable and that it is possible to tell truth from falsehood. It assumes that the world is real, regardless of the nature of that reality, it exists, and that it must for anything at all to be meaningfully true, false, or even possible. It assumes that the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry are valid, useful, and powerful ways of knowing reality. It assumes in its methods that solid, reliable and effective ways of knowing are preferable to those that not only lead to error, but are neither self-correcting nor concerned with the actual truth of a matter. While it doesn’t necessarily assume philosophical naturalism, it does assume naturalistic methods, and so eschews resorting to unobservable or unfalsifiable ‘explanations’ for phenomena. But it has no trouble investigating anything that is knowably real and open to objective inquiry.
These are the three faces and together they form the core of my understanding of skepticism as an endeavor, whatever the state of organized skepticism at any time.

Apostasy: Feelings of Loss & Liberation

For those of us among the newly deconverted, recognizing and accepting our unbeliefs can be painful at first. I found my own letting go of religion difficult, initially accompanied by a deep sense of loss, and I do not believe that I’m unique in this regard.

I think that for many of us without the benefit of secular intellectual and emotional support, there may be a residue of belief, or at least an initial sense of something ‘missing’ and a sense of being tossed about in a vast ocean no longer driven by meaning, purpose, or human centrality, much less our personal centrality.

No matter how it’s phrased, there’s a question that gets asked, “Without a god to help me, what do I do now?” More liberal theists describe hell, not in the crude, visceral, gut-wrenching horror of a fiery place of torture, but something more subtle, what I would think more frightening altogether; an eternal separation from the divine and those who walk with it, including all those whom they knew and loved in life — forever apart, forever isolated.

The ultimate solitary confinement.

To me, that sounds very much like what those of us who lose our religion go through initially. I envy those who were raised in secular families, who never had to experience the sense of emptiness when belief wanes and finally disappears altogether. Atheism in many ex-believers requires a certain tough-mindedness and committed integrity to sustain, and doesn’t always last, No True Scotsman arguments notwithstanding.

What made it disturbing was that I was simultaneously feeling as if relieved of a great weight, all while wondering what my still-devout relations would say if they knew.

I found myself saying, “Maybe I don’t really need anyone to watch me in wakefulness or sleep. Maybe I’m better off without a god, but let’s not tell too many people about it, not just yet. They don’t need to know.”

I’m personally ashamed of my lack of courage then, and I offer no excuse.

At the time, I had little in the way of a secular support network, or a broad reading of secular authors, indeed little acquaintance with atheism or skepticism even as they were then.

I felt adrift, alone, an atheist in a sea of potentially hostile theists, and for a time, I drifted from one religious or spiritual idea … reading up on them, though not practicing any, looking for a ‘new’ path that might possibly fit my needs, and little did I know that none of them would make the grade, none of them would prove suitable, none of them could in any way ‘fit.’

It was soon clear I had to look outside religious and spiritual traditions to find meaning, and it was afterward I discovered that the source I would discover lay outside parochial theological musings or New Age beliefs altogether, and within our species’ secular intellectual heritage — the arts, ethics, the sciences, history, philosophy, logic, rhetoric – things I had thought less of as a churchgoer, though I’ve always had a love of science as a child.

A powerful influence on me during the years of my waning faith was my exposure to secular writers, starting with Isaac Asimov’s SF and non-fiction books.

Without religion to impose purpose and meaning upon me, I was free to discover my own, indeed, I had no choice but to, since the religious ideas where no longer credible.

As a churchgoer, I passively allowed others to give me direction, but as an atheist and skeptic, I can find my own, and the seeming emptiness that religion once vacated has been replaced with the more robust heritage of and allegiance to my species as a whole, not the tribal bigotries of faith, doctrine, or dogma.

What I lost as a former theist has been recompensed many times over to something far better and richer by comparison, making a life of religion seem shallow, unsatisfactory and inauthentic to me now.

I don’t think I would have it any other way.

Considering Conspiracies

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

Image via Wikipedia

I was looking through the January-February 2011 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and was especially interested in the issue’s feature article, The Conspiracy Meme, written by sociologist Ted Goertzel.
Rather than rehash the article here, I thought I’d add a little commentary and a couple of observations I’ve made about conspiracy theories in general.

Now, while it would be silly to suppose that conspiracies don’t happen–after all, anytime you have two or more people secretly gathering to plan something, that could be considered a conspiracy–there is no one universally accepted definition of a conspiracy, and everybody has their own take on what constitutes one.

Most such theories, however allege something outright evil, or in the more likely theories, merely illegal, or at the very least classified, about the nature of the conspiracy.

To me, in any claim of a conspiracy, it’s more parsimonious to attribute incompetence to a serious f*ck-up than sinister intent by agencies unseen unless there is a good reason to suppose the latter.

As one of my commenters pointed out in an earlier post, the terror attacks of 9/11, 2001 couldn’t have been an ‘inside job’ by the Bush administration because of the simple and graphic fact that they succeeded as well as they did.

Interestingly, those fingered as conspirators are attributed with both incredible intelligence and incredible stupidity at the same time–smart enough to cover their tracks to the rest of the sheeple, but somehow just not bright enough to hide their diabolical plans from the intellectually superior conspiracy theorists themselves.

I’ve found it useful to be suspicious of such claims unless they are reasonably supported and the following may be of some value in assessing them:

The likelihood of any given conspiracy theory being true is inversely proportional to the amount of unsupported rationalization that goes into it,

…and the corollary of this observation:

The successful, well-organized and secret conspiracy is the one that nobody not ‘in on it,’ even you, know about–After all, it’s a secret, and if you know about it and are not part of it, it’s no longer successful nor well-organized nor a secret.

Regarding those who claim poorly substantiated and often implausible conspiracies and who think themselves ‘skeptical’ of large institutions, I think that it’s a good idea to be skeptical of their skepticism.