Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Midnight Ramble: Skepticism, Atheism, Science, and Freethought

It could be said that skepticism, atheism, and freethought go hand in hand.

But they also can stand on their own.

When I was a believer I still upheld the values of skepticism, of questioning the world, of having doubts. Of course, I was always told to have faith, and to walk the good path, and to listen for God's calling... but the more I learned, the more doubts I had.

Eventually my skepticism overrode my credulity. I could no longer maintain a standard on incredulity based on my desire to uphold faith above all else -- even if it meant maintain the faith when I knew it wasn't truth. I just valued Truth more than Faith.

And, no, they are not one and the same thing as so many religious friends have tried to tell me. That's just a religious semantic trick to try and stronghold the truth and make it "God's truth" and then say if you don't believe in that then you don't have the truth. It's an empty shell game, because anyone who claims to have "God's truth" on their side has obviously picked what they want God's truth to be.

A skeptic is skeptical precisely because they know about subjectivity and things like objective standards, and these must be taken into consideration before claiming you have any sort of truth. 

So gradually my skepticism compelled me to question my faith. And it was a decade long practice.

That is to say, the truth doesn't come easily. You have to work for it. You have to want it.

Those who say that faith is all you need don't care about the truth.

They've merely conflated their faith for the truth, and that's a dangerous thing to do.

Freethought is an exercise in thinking skeptically. The Golden Age of Freethought championed people who openly questioned the institutions of their day, including religious ones. Robert G. Ingersoll is among my favorite Freethinkers, and he once said, "The intellectual advancement of man depends upon how often he can exchange an old superstition for a new truth."

I couldn't agree more.

When people find out that I am an atheist, they often accuse me of championing the New Atheist movement because I support things like science and rationality over faith and spirituality.

I often get labeled a proponent of scientism, and I doubt that the people who frequently lob that word around even know its philosophical significance. But the so-called New Atheism wasn't the first to champion the benefits of science and the scientific method. Once again, Ingersoll elucidates us: 

"The glory of science is, that it is freeing the soul, breaking the mental manacles, getting the brain out of bondage, giving courage to thought, filling the world with mercy, justice, and joy." 

The notion that science could help enlighten us with truth and knowledge has been around a long time. It is something I have incorporated into my form of atheism, along with a healthy dose of skepticism and a desire to be more rational minded. If this makes me a "New Atheist" the so be it. But anyone who is familiar with the term Freethinker will know it originated there first, and like the Frethinkers of the past, I too feel that science is a beneficial tool in helping humanity progress to the next stage of technological, social, and even moral evolution.

But that doesn't mean I am preaching scientism. It just means I don not think science's ability to explain things is limited only to one sphere of understanding. But at the same, do I think science can and will explain everything? I tend to doubt it, after all, the skeptic inside of me wouldn't be satisfied unless I did.

I guess you might say I have faith in science, as it has an astonishing track record thus far. But this faith is akin more to a kind of confidence in the succes rate of science. An unwritten understanding that my faith in science is justified. So whenever someone tells me that I need as much faith to believe in science, or my kind of athiesm, as they do their faith in God (or whatever else they might believe) I have to correct them and say, no, I'm sorry, but my faith is based on a known success rate of something we have tested and found to be reliable. Your faith is based on what you wish to be truth.

These are entirely different kinds of faith.

Another favorite Freethinker of mine, the blaze Brit G.W. Foote, said it best I think, when he stated:

"What is Faith? Faith, said Paul, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is a faith that sensible men avoid. The man of reason may have faith, but it will be a faith according to knowledge, and not a faith that dispenses with knowledge. ... Religious faith, however, is something very different. It is not belief based on evidence, but the evidence and the belief in one. The result is that persons who are full of faith always regard a demand for evidence as at once a heresy and an insult. Their faith seems to them, in the language of Paul, the very substance of their hopes; and they often talk of the existence of God and the divinity of Christ as being no less certain than their own existence."

This sort of religious faith, the kind that does not dispense with knowledge but has, for mainly emotional reasons, exceedingly high levels of certainty is the kind of faith I think we should all be a little skeptical of.

If science didn't dispense with knowledge in the way it does, then I'm pretty sure I'd be skeptical of it too. But seeing as it has been tried, tested, and proved -- I think it's safe to bet on science.

So all these things comprise the type of atheism I like to believe in and so too the kind of atheist I am. Of course, in the future these may change. My values may shift. I might add or take away from the belief system I have worked hard to develop. 

But, at the end of the day, I can be satisfied knowing that I have come to a point in my life where things finally make sense, and where the questions and doubts I have finally seem to have available answers, or at least the promise of real answers -- rather than just the promise of a truth that is so unfathomable that it requires that wishful form of faith to even believe it is true in the first place.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist