On scepticism and god

Warning: contains religion and uncertainty

I have come to realise that the way I think about things has a name. Scepticism. It’s easy to spot sometimes. Internet scams, bogus medicine, bizarre ideas and rumours, I can easily see that I am a sceptic when it comes to those. Generally when something new comes up I use the scientific method to determine fact from fiction.

Over the last few months I have been paying a lot more attention to sceptics and scepticism. I follow a few well known sceptics and scientists on Twitter and read their blogs. In the last few days an argument has been brewing relating to the Skepticon convention. They have been accused of being a purely atheist convention rather than catering to all sceptics. It has led several prominent atheists to stand up and say that scepticism and atheism are the same thing, and others have said that they are not the same thing but religion is the most important thing to be sceptical about because of the amount of harm that religion has done. It has also been said that Skepticon is not an atheist convention, with only three out of fifteen speakers talking about religion, although others have claimed that more talks ended with atheist conclusions.

Since it is not possible to prove a negative, it is impossible to say that god does not exist. Technically this means that a sceptic that has concluded there is no proof of god should become an agnostic, not an atheist. The justification that has been used for becoming an atheist instead has often been the Null Hypothesis If you have a hypothesis about something, you must come up with the opposite hypothesis, and then test statistically whether one or the other is more likely. For a brilliant explanation involving aliens and socks, have a look here. Atheism can be seen as the null hypothesis, with the existence of god as the alternative hypothesis to be tested.  To me, it seems partly a cop out that non-believers would choose to be atheist rather than agnostic, but at the same time I can see how the same concept applies to things like homeopathic remedies or horoscopes.

It does seem to be the case that most self-identified sceptics are also atheists. I have had conversations where I have been told that I cannot be a sceptic without also being an atheist. I have to admit to struggling with this idea. Why do I believe in god when I question everything else? I can’t answer that in any acceptable way. I just don’t know.

This leaves me in a difficult position. I believe, not because of any kind of logic, but purely through experience. I have been to church, prayer times and worship meetings and have worshipped god, and been truly lost in the worship. I have seen great examples of faith around me. At the same time, I constantly struggle with claims of healing, (which seemingly does not apply to me) and recently walked out of a healing service our of sheer frustration. I struggle at people that pray and ask god for things that I think he is never going to give, often because people can sort that stuff out themselves. I frequently have the thought “God doesn’t work that way!”

I am left with the option of compartmentalising my faith away from my scepticism, or going with logic and losing my faith completely. I have gone with the first option for months now, but I am consciously aware of the division in my thinking, and not owning an electric monk, the breakdown in logic is causing a lot of frustration.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

18 thoughts on “On scepticism and god”

  1. the way i see it, regardless of what you believe, whether it be science or the big G…anyone will doubt what they have chosen. eventually you’ll find your choice and probably stick with it till the end of days. choose what you think is right or become neutral, there is no wrong answer. even the greatest minds of science were skeptics about what they believed in, and im sure even God himself (assuming he’s out there) doubted stuff too. after all, we were created in his image right? who’s to say he doesnt have all out traits as well?
    the way i see you latent, you have lots of faith towards the transcendent. your energy is that of a true believer of the purest term and not a zealot pushing it onto others like some crazy salesman. you may not know all the answers you would like to know, and this will manifest itself as your skepticism, but keep in mind and heart that even God himself doesnt have all the answers.

    1. I have to say, your comment shows a complete lack of knowledge of scripture, from even a basic literary level. Not to mention the implication that God is not different to humans, it is in fact the Bible that says he knows all our needs and works in his timing which although we wouldn’t necessarily understand, for instance, while a child dies via miscarriage and a dying old Grandmother continues to live, but this is life, and there is a purpose. I maintain that the purpose is revealed little by little through a personal relationship with God.

      That last sentence is most likely nails down a chalkboard for Atheists but, nevertheless it works. It is not merely that God indeed has all the answers, but in creating us and knowing us as intimately as he does, he knows all the questions too.

      Just for fun, why don’t you take a look at Psalm 139, even if you have already, and see what you think? Hopefully you’ll take that as a true Christian action of offering the message as all Christians are asked to do, but we are also told (to prevent overzealousness) walk away when the message is rejected.

      So, no offense intended, just a slight correction.

      1. ah and you are right, i lack the knowledge because i dont read the bible or any sort of scripture, i choose not to read all this. im an agnostic and before that was atheist. the reason i say this is from my own thoughts, opinions and beliefs about such things. ive created my own sort of “religion” how would you say, or a better use of terms my own “belief system”…based on concepts i have thought about. it may be wrong in every aspect but thats who i am and what i chose. i shall take the correction in stride for i like the feedback and it makes me think. thank ya ^__^

  2. I’m not sure that scepticism in and of itself is necessarily an enemy of faith. For example, I am sceptical of homeopathic remedies – but if they were demonstrated to work, I would no longer be sceptical. I don’t think it will happen, but still.

    So evidence is one reason for not being sceptical. I would say your experience of God is ‘evidence’. I also think that there is plenty of of historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ. (William Lane Craig is good on this). The point is, I think people who have any kind of religious belief are probably believing because of their own experience, but it’s not like they’re believing in a vacuum, as if there was no other evidence apart from themselves. This is a mistake which atheists / sceptics often make when accusing Christianity of having “no evidence” (a claim which often annoys me).

    The other thing with scepticism is, if you take it to its logical conclusion you have to be sceptical about everything. Including the need to be sceptical. Where does the belief that we need to be sceptical come from? Can that be subjected to the same sceptical analysis? If you are sceptical about everything it’s a reductio ad absurdum – you can’t be sure about anything because you can’t prove anything. Everyone by necessity needs to believe some things they can’t prove. Even the most hardened sceptics have to make some (or a lot of) basic assumptions about the world in order to function. But for some strange reason the basic assumptions people make about God are open to scepticism whereas the basic assumptions people make about themselves and the world we live in are not. That’s probably a bit unfair but I just want to make the point that no-one can be a true sceptic about everything 🙂

    1. In the New Covenant/Testament books we are told to question everything, and hold on to what is true and good.

    2. I understand that no one will be a sceptic about everything. My problem is that various aspects of religion and christianity have rung alarm bells for me, and now I can’t ignore them.

      I am currently trying to read St Augustines Confessions in search of a narrower definition of what I believe. I think I may end up with a more refined faith, discarding a lot of the crap that people seem to add.

      Perhaps part of my problem is in not attributing enough weight to the evidence that we do have.

      1. I’m just curious which aspects of religion and Christianity ring alarm bells for you, Steve? Maybe you could do another blog post on that at some point when / if you feel comfortable doing so?

        From the sound of things I’ve been having a similar experience to you recently. I’ve been reading various atheist blogs (such as Common Sense Atheism) on and off, my reasoning being: a) it will better prepare me to discuss matters with atheists if I can understand their point of view; b) faith that never stands up to intellectual scrutiny is worthless – and I believe that Christianity should stand up to scrutiny.

        Anyway, after all this I’ve found that there are still valid reasons for belief. Most of the sceptical analysis of things like the resurrection ultimately concludes “it probably didn’t happen”. Not, it couldn’t have happened. We’re dealing with probabilities all the time. And I still think there’s a very strong case for the resurrection (Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig which Sam mentioned is very good).

        Anyway, a “more refined faith”, as you put it, is definitely not bad thing I’ve found I’ve learnt from my experience. It’s never a bad thing to be better informed 🙂

  3. @Steven – My own personal journey through faith and science sounds similar to yours; I have come to the conclusion that I don’t need (and cannot) know the answers to every question, but I can build a reasonable understanding of what I believe and why I believe it.

    You said “Over the last few months I have been paying a lot more attention to sceptics and scepticism” – is it any surprise that this is leading to a surge in scepticism in your own life? What goes in comes out; what we meditate on colours our world view. I’m not saying not to read other points of view, but you have to have a balance.

    I currently reading Stephen Hawking and William Lane Craig (Hawking’s The Grand Design and Craig’s Reasonable Faith) – I would thoroughly recommend Reasonable Faith as a counterbalance to scepticism. Science is the observation of our world and the means by which we understand creation – but I’ve not read a single book, research paper or theory that precludes God. I read a lot!

    Above all, I hold to the God that I know, have experienced, heard, touched and seen. I know that God is good, that He loved me enough to send His Son to die for me and that true peace does not exist apart from Him. This is my experience, on which I build understanding though the bible.

    To question is healthy – blind unquestioning acceptance is not – the bible commands us to seek God, that is an active, questioning pursuit. Don’t give up on that 🙂

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    @Brolythegingerbreadman – God, by definition, has all the answers; if He were not omnipotent and omniscient then He could not be God. We can’t define God in terms of humanity – to do so is to limit Him and again render Him less than God. To say “God doubts” is to say that he does not know the beginning from the end, which Scripture clearly says that He does. If He doesn’t know something, then He is limited and again not God.

    1. Learning that I cannot know the answer to every question is probably the hardest thing that I have to do. And yes, I know i have brought it on myself to question things by following various sceptics. I have never advocated supporting a belief by sticking my fingers in my ears and singing “la la la la la I’m not listening” though!

      “Above all, I hold to the God that I know, have experienced, heard, touched and seen.”

      That basically sums up where I am, or at any rate would like to get back to.

  4. Up front i’m going to say that i’m atheist/agnostic. I hold that the existence of whatever sort of deity you want is patently unknowable but i’m verging on the side of “nope, not there” based purely on my own experiences.

    Were I religious to any degree I think i’d find it difficult to hold on to that and be a skeptic at the same time. Having said that, I have plenty of beliefs most of which lie in science. I believe that carbon dating works, I believe that we evolved, I believe that quantum mechanics is real. All of these are beliefs for the simple reason that I haven’t checked the science for myself. I trust the scientists doing the experiments and checking these things to get it right.

    I could find out all these things for myself, but I have neither the time nor the patience/knowledge/interest to do these things. Everybody has unproven (to themselves) beliefs that they rely on every day.

    As for being skeptical about things like homeopathy, it has been demonstrated several times that the only real benefit to the treatments is purely the placebo effect. I also did a quick search on the efficacy of prayer (and i’m sure i’ll get flamed left right and centre for this) and came up with this article which indicates that no real, proper double-blind studies have been done, but the studies that have been done indicate that it’s just a placebo effect again.

    Before you compose a response to that, i’m well aware that the standard answer is going to be that “god won’t help them because faith shouldn’t be tested” or something along those lines.

    The placebo effect isn’t a bad thing though. If you think it helps then so be it. I’d still recommend a more scientific treatment with a proven track record of helping though.

    Serious question for a moment Steve, when you say that you have been “lost in worship” do you think the same thing would have happened if you were on your own, without people around you doing the same thing, singing the same thing, playing the instruments, chanting and whatever else happens during a session?

    To finish this, i’ll just leave these here

    1. I have experienced the same euphoria in worship even when it has just been me playing my guitar. As a worship leader in the past I have been very conscious that it is possible to direct people in to this state using the structure of the worship session (and caught myself doing that) There have been people that object to sung worship on this basis. I don’t know that I have done it to myself though.

  5. Just want to say I have just discovered your blog. I can relate so much to it.

    Now I just go if I get proof then okay this is either way. I am agnostic and no that is not a fence sitter as I have been referred to I am agnostic and I am comfortable with that.

    I respect people and their religion or personal views if they will do the same of me. I do find it difficult to have discussions with people who are very relgious or a hard and fast atheist. I now what I belive or dont belive and I am happy with that. I am also skeptical about things and feel that you can be religous or non religious as they are mutally exclusive. I do wonder if people are deeply religious then they may struggle to be skeptical and appply rationale thought. This does not mean they cant it really is just my way of going I am unsure if this is possible.

    I am not big at all on this atheist movement that is going on around the globe. That their are leading atheists who are also leading skeptics and they are only this way because they have a decent education and are the only ones to apply scientific knowledge. Science and religion can go hand in hand just depends on the topic of discussion.

    To sum it up I dislike extremes in view points I find them unsettling and a little arrogant.

    Thanks for your blog I will be back I came here to initially look over the videos you had on the recent student protests in the UK.

    1. Hi! I’m glad you like my blog. It is a little disconcerting that so many thousands are suddenly reading it where previously about ten friends did though!

      Can you clarify what you mean by this? “I now what I belive or dont belive and I am happy with that”

      Most Christians get very upset by the idea of picking and choosing beliefs, but only when it comes to spirituality. (They do it anyway.) I suspect you mean a much broader spectrum than that though.

      I do wonder if people are deeply religious then they may struggle to be skeptical and appply rationale thought.

      Nope, I am deeply sceptical nowdays and am struggling to apply religious thought.

  6. In “The Grand Design” Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same “eternal” event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the “seeing” which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from my e-book on comparative mysticism]

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