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The Deist Skeptic— Not a Contradiction

Kylie Sturgess

Volume 19.2, June 2009

For a while now, I’ve been quite uncomfortable about an assumption sometimes expressed: “skepticism must equal atheism.” It’s simply not true.

From my own personal experiences I’ve had while teaching in faith-based schools, I’ve seen that religion and skepticism can coexist. I’ve attended skep-

tic conferences where skeptical people happily discuss their faith (Christianity, Juda­ism, etc.) over dinner; I’ve even heard the responses of those same people when presenters on a skeptic conference stage think they’re talking to atheist-only skeptics! Sure, the demographic of any sample-size of skeptics at a skeptical gathering will most likely contain plenty of atheists, but we cannot claim that those who hold religious beliefs don’t stand along with them.

My first experience with the “deist skeptic” question came from attending The Amazing Meet!ng 3 back in 2005. I recall some of the discussions that stemmed from that time—Penn Jillette made inflammatory comments about religious people from the stage, Julia Sweeney discussed her own journey of faith, and we spoke in person with the very approachable Richard Dawkins. Naturally, the question of whether skeptics could believe in God came up again and again, long after TAM3 ended, among skeptics online and in personal discussions.

There was even a panel discussion at TAM4 about deist skeptics—a podcast episode featuring Hal Bidlack on deist skeptics was presented on Skepticality. I’m certain that there are more and more people over time who will point out that Martin Gardner, the late Jerry Andrus, Harry Houdini, and even employees and forum moderators of the James Randi Educational Foundation believe in the existence of a god. I probably don’t have to point out the millions of blog entries online that approach skepticism with atheist leanings, but where are the blogs that acknowledge “the other side”? Where are the blogs that talk about how atheism and skepticism are not one and the same?

When it came to writing about religious and deist skeptics, I couldn’t resist writing to my friend Mark Henn about our shared experiences. He attended TAM3 and 4, was selected as a Fulbright scholar in 2008, and is a professor of psychology in New Hamp­shire. You can see his contribution to the first Skeptic Zone podcast episode as the interviewer of Mark “Gravy” Roberts, who presented a post-mortem of the “9-11 truthers” movement.

Kylie: A few years back, we attended the Amaz!ng Meeting 4, where there was a debate all about “deist skeptics.” I had heard one criticism of that presentation was that it only featured emotionally-based arguments for “believing in god and yet being a skeptic.” Can one actually be a skeptic and a deist due to other reasons?

Mark: Of course! Skepticism is a process, not a conclusion. The conclusions we reach through critical evaluation must necessarily depend on the evidence that is there for us. American culture, as an example, is thoroughly saturated with belief in god. A skeptical thinker (I am picturing a child, adolescent, or even a young adult) could ask the people known to be trusted and legitimate authorities in his or her community for evidence and opinion and be provided with information that is biased toward belief in a god. How is this person supposed to know better? Given the information provided to this person (and that information alone), perhaps a good skeptic would be forced to conclude that a god does indeed exist!

After that, the same belief perseverance mechanisms that we all have kick in. Once a belief is accepted, a skeptic will be willing to abandon it for another if evidence insists …  but frankly, it would not be terribly adaptive for us to have our fundamental beliefs flap with each breeze. There is a reason for the requirement that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and evolution found that out before Carl Sagan did. We do not change our fundamental beliefs easily; many of us do not change them at all.

I know many skeptics who pooh-pooh religious belief but who simultaneously have no problem believing in a causal free will. Indeed, they will actively defend this utterly irrational belief and belittle me for my correct stance!

Kylie: Yes, that’s something that is often said by the likes of Skeptic.com’s Michael Shermer and Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton—that “skepticism is a process.” Sometimes I wonder if it’s said enough! I’ve occasionally come across a rather “gung-ho” approach of “we must challenge religious beliefs, that’s what skeptics are about: critical thinking equals skepticism equals atheism” that often seems more limiting than productive. Does that really get religious people, let alone people sympathetic to those who believe in a god or even just open to the possibility, on our side?

Mark: Of course, critical thought is not a requirement for atheism at all!  Atheism is simply the privative condition, the negatively defined “none of the above” category designating no particular religious faith.  An individual may choose to be an atheist based on a great deal of critical thought, very little thought, or no thought at all!  All it takes is not being a member of any of the positively-defined belief categories (Muslim, Jew, Christian, etc.).

Critical thinking is not a prerequisite for atheism, nor is a lack of critical thinking required for any religious belief.  There may be correlations, but the assumption you are examining is that of identity—that all atheists are critical thinkers and that no religious believers are.  That, of course, is just plain wrong.

Kylie: ah, I see.…

Mark: We must also bear in mind that it would be extraordinarily rare for one’s religious beliefs to actually, meaningfully, be challenged. Deistic belief is often criticized (by the atheist skeptics you speak of) as being unfalsifiable, which of course it is. Modern deism posits a “hands-off” god, a god that therefore never strongly contradicts one’s work in chemistry, physics, biology … let alone plumbing, programming, or politics. A superfluous god is not problematic in the way that an interventionist god is, and while such a god may not be a necessary element to one’s work, neither is such a god obviously contradicted by one’s everyday observations (“hand me the pipe wrench and offer up a burnt offering to Thoth, and we’ll have that leak fixed in no time!”).

Our perceptual systems are geared toward seeing correlations—seeing what goes with what (this is arguably the basis for a good many superstitions, such as the belief that the full moon is responsible for … any number of things, actually). We are much worse at seeing what does not go with what (“it’s not what you did; it’s what you didn’t do”). A god who does nothing is not noticed but is not actively contradicted by observation. In the absence of such a challenge, it is not surprising that there is little change in belief.

Kylie: After attending a local atheist meeting, I had someone question me about whether the former Australian Skeptic of the year, Dr. Karl, had an opinion about faith and science—so I took the opportunity to ask him for the Skeptic Zone podcast. He spoke on a recent episode about how a well-known scientist in Australia (Laurie Peak) divides his views on faith and science. He said that in his view faith and science were “orthogonal and separate”—and he could not see why a population saw a conflict between evolution and religious belief. So, what is the big issue?

Mark: There is a conflict because not all religious beliefs are orthogonal to science. Religious belief varies tremendously, and while some (by some accounts, the vast majority of) religious believers hold views that are indeed independent of science, some hold beliefs that are in clear opposition to the knowledge base of science. This number may be a small percentage of believers, but in some places they hold disproportionately great political or social influence.

Different areas of science, too, differ in their independence from or relevance to religious belief. Experimental psychology, for instance, with its subject matter of sensation, perception, memory, cognition, belief, learning, and more, is uniquely suited to evaluate the sorts of individual, personal experiences that many claim as the reason for their belief.

Kylie: We’re sometimes presented by ex­tremist views of faith—that it’s “damaging and dangerous,” perhaps akin to a form of abuse to expose children to religion. Can deist skeptics really challenge what is rapidly becoming a popular stereotype of “skeptic equals atheist” and contribute to promoting science and reason despite an assumption that “their beliefs come first/will trump skepticism”?

Mark: Can one? Certainly. There is no reason to exclude such a person. There should be no reason to specifically include this person, either, because non-deist skeptics should understand the psychology that can lead to the tremendous variety of skepticism and belief. (I suppose a deist skeptic could be just as blind to that, come to think of it. Far more important than some nominal category is the ability to understand that list above … memory, cognition, belief, etc.…)

Kylie: With that last question, I admit that I’ve taken the position that a skeptic must contribute to “science and reason.” Are there really any “requirements” for one to be a skeptic anyway? After all, there’re plenty of people who care about frauds, scams, who fight for consumer awareness and rights, and their religious beliefs don’t get in the way of this.

Mark: There must be—otherwise it would be synonymous with “human.” We always say, “skeptics say ‘show me the evidence,’” don’t we? Skeptics are not merely cynics; skeptics don’t say “I don’t believe it!” They say “what is the evidence for it?” and if there is sufficient evidence, they change their belief. This is why, in question 1, it is not at all difficult to allow for skeptical deists.

Just as “believing” does not imply belief in any and every god, “skepticism” can only be applied to the topics we apply it to. If we have no reason to doubt a particular fundamental belief, why should we actively examine it? A person may be the best at applying skeptical thought to, say, the methodological flaws in Sheldrake’s “sense of being stared at” protocol and yet have never once had reason to critically re-examine her or his belief in a god. Beyond this, there are the social reasons to remain a member of a religious group, above and beyond belief with every tenet that group holds. I suppose these are similar reasons to remain a member of skeptical groups.…

Kylie: Finally, what, in your view, would be the best way for skeptically minded people to view religion? Is it really our “job” to limit skepticism and its reach?

Mark: Religion is … human. It is not any more (or less) fundamentally human than any number of other social activities. There is, as William James wrote, a variety of religious experience; any simplistic explanation of belief will at best explain only a portion. On the other hand, we should not shrink from studying religious belief; it makes a wonderful lab rat. We believe any number of things that are not true; here we have the luxury of self-identified samples that systematically believe a similar set of things. And of course, skeptical individuals who happen to be religious may have a unique and valuable perspective. For example—at what point in her odyssey did Julia Sweeney cross the line from believer to skeptic? My answer—she started being a skeptic very early on and quit being a believer very late in the process. Most of the journey, she wore two hats.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.