On May 7, 1959, British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered an influential Rede Lecture at Cambridge University. His lecture concerned the intellectual division between the sciences and the humanities, and contained the following famous passage:
I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, ‘Have you noticed how the word ’intellectual’ is used nowadays. There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include
Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.’
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.
Snow’s lecture caused a sensation, and its title entered the language. There is still, I think, considerable evidence that his observation holds today, too. Unfortunately, in Snow’s time, most scientists were literate and cultured enough to be able to comment with at least moderate intelligence on aspects of the humanities; the ignorance flowed only one way. These days, unfortunately, it is obvious that many scientists are as ignorant of the most basic information outside their own discipline as were the humanities academics when Snow was writing his lecture. I particularly notice this when it comes to the ‘third discipline’ of law, which is neither science nor humanities but borrows bits from both, as well as from moral philosophy. Both scientists and humanities scholars, for instance, often fall into the trap of believing that the solution to some social ill is to ‘pass a law’.
All that is by the by, however, for the simple reason that a version of ‘The Two Cultures’ arises whenever there is a difference in perspective and attitude, even when the relevant people agree on many other points. Indeed, one manifestation of the ‘Two Cultures’ of interest to me is that which has arisen between skeptics and atheists.
Regular readers of this blog may be curious and a bit nonplussed at this point, partly because I don’t write about skepticism as often as I ought (so failing to live up to my nic and this blog’s name), and partly because you may perceive that there isn’t a huge amount of difference between the two. Skeptics are skeptical about supernatural claims, right? Everything from Bigfoot to Zombie Jesus, yes? Atheists reject supernatural explanations for things, yes? They demand evidence for extraordinary or miraculous claims, right?
Well, ish… Part of the conflict between the two related ideas has its origins in what biologist Athena Andreadis calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, but part of it is also to do with an intellectual division of labour. This division of labour tends, I think, to have its origins in what position one adopted first, often as a child. In my case, I can’t remember whether I began to be skeptical or atheistic first, although I do know that from the beginning my disquiet with religion was not based on its factual assertions, but its social effects. When it made claims that were then enacted into law, and that law produced destructive outcomes, I rejected it. This is very much a skeptical style of rejection. When religion makes testable claims, then those claims should be put to the proof. If they are found wanting, then the people who hold them–if they are intellectually honest–should give them up.
My skepticism did not (and does not) involve arguing over proofs of the existence or non-existence of God: neither claim is falsifiable in the same way that assertions about the social effect of morality as enacted into law are falsifiable, or accounts of the miraculous (if properly formulated) are falsifiable. Of course, bad arguments for the supernatural are often pseudoscientific, but as Richard Dawkins found out when theologians and philosophers had a go at him over his arguments against the existence of God in The God Delusion, arguments for the existence of God (or Gods) are not pseudoscientific. They’re just not testable.
They can, however, be ranked qua arguments, which is, I think, a useful exercise. It was John Finnis, a Catholic jurisprudential scholar (and one of my tutors at Oxford) who pointed out to me that Aristotle’s argument for the existence of gods is an excellent argument for polytheism and henotheism, because it does not assume omnipotence or omniscience or omnibenevolence. It is a bad argument for monotheism, because as soon as it is applied to monotheism, it runs smack dab into the Problem of Evil. For this reason, Finnis doesn’t make use of it in his scholarship. That struck me as excellent thinking, even though it was about something that cannot be demonstrated one way or the other. In other words, not all non-testable claims are bad or useless.
This intellectual division of labour meant that historically, skepticism steered away from tackling religion ‘head on’, so to speak. Many of the founding fathers and mothers of the skeptical movement were deists (one thinks of everyone from Adam Smith to Mary Wollstonecraft to Harry Houdini), although of course there were atheists, like David Hume and Lucretius.
Atheists–often–were interested in the social effects of religion, thereby keeping themselves on the skeptical side of the equation, although even then there were difficulties. Some atheists allowed themselves to be diverted into attacking all religion (and religious believers) as an undifferentiated lump. Many have tied atheism to political progressivism, forgetting that some of Richard Dawkins’ most powerful arguments in The God Delusion came from Barry Goldwater. Meanwhile, some skeptics became so focussed on dealing with pseudoscience and claims for the miraculous that they abandoned even outcomes-based religious critique, leading to a situation where we became known for sitting around laughing at people who believed in Bigfoot and UFOs. This is unfortunate, because traditional skepticism had (and has) important contributions to make to scientific literacy. The efforts of skeptics the world over in debunking the claims made by the anti-vaccination crowd are vital (as in, life-saving), and something we do very well.
The intellectual differences between atheism and skepticism have been forced into the open of late in large part because the former has grown at the expense of the latter, but also contributed to exponential growth in the latter. The atheists (attracted by the writings of the aforementioned Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Ophelia Benson and others) want to contribute to skepticism as well, and are left wondering at the reluctance among many skeptics to use their (very considerable) intellectual weapons on religion.
They have a point, but not every point. Let me explain.
G.K. Chesterton once observed that, for many people, an end to belief in God meant the start of believing in anything. Organised skepticism stands athwart this process (you know, exchanging Jesus for crystals) and doesn’t just yell ‘stop’. It provides methods for interrogating claims, and helps to ensure that people who have abandoned one form of pseudoscience don’t get taken in by another. Skeptics are foolish if they attempt to fence off their skepticism from making religious critiques, a point PZ Myers makes here:
I can understand turning away from purely philosophical abstractions that have no weight in the real world: skeptics will not be able to quantitatively resolve the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But faith has real world consequences, and the metaphysical claim that a god is dispensing information by undetectable means to a chosen few on earth, which is certainly a common claim in Christianity, should have effects that could be measured, and that they don’t have such effects is not a reason to recuse the subject from inquiry, it’s a reason to reject it.
However, another virtue of skeptical thinking about the outcomes attached to different religious beliefs and traditions (rather than theorizing about the existence of God) is the capacity to draw meaningful distinctions between religions. Quakers (the historic leaders, along with the pantheistic Stoics, of abolitionism) are different from Catholics, and both of the former are different from various Islamic groups, and so on. What they believe has different social effects.
However, it’s become clear to me that many of the new participants in organised skepticism and atheism hold to canards of their own, and these beliefs are just as vulnerable to skeptical enquiry as UFOs or Zombie Jesus (there is a broad strap of social constructivism in much modern feminism, for example, and that really does cry out for skepticism). They also don’t get to remake skepticism in their own political image, for the simple reason that many political claims are like religious claims: they, too, are empirical, and ought to be subjected to skeptical enquiry. This is one point that noted skeptic Daniel Loxton makes with some force:
Grothe spoke up on that historical theme, emphasizing that while movements may change, it is important to begin with an understanding of the work done so far—the mistakes made, the lessons won, and the history of things we’ve done right. For decades, skepticism has very deliberately worked to stay close to what it does best: tackling empirical questions in the realm of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and (as the other side of this same coin) promoting scientific literacy.
This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes.
I wouldn’t go as far as Loxton: claims about the badness of gay marriage or abortion or gun control or nuclear power are typically empirical claims, and can be scrutinised in the same way that claims about ESP or Bigfoot or the social effects of Islam on women can be scrutinised. However, the moment both skepticism and atheism become cosy communities of left-liberals, failing to interrogate left-liberal claims in the same way that religious and pseudoscientific claims are interrogated, then both movements will have lost their way, utterly.
That this could one day come about is evidenced by statements like the following (from Amanda Marcotte, in response to Daniel Loxton above):
In other words, the kind of ‘diversity’ he supports is one where a bunch of well-off, older white men can enjoy talking about the silliness of Bigfoot without having to bother with those political concerns that are unavoidable when people who get the shit end of the stick–women, non-white people, poorer people, disabled people, gay people–get involved. There are many flavors of white-dude-whose-privilege-shields-him-from-having-to-be-politicals, but those darn diverse people are forever being political because they don’t have an option to ignore oppression that directly affects them. Personally, I’m far more concerned about a group that’s politically diverse only because they all live in the same bubble than one that’s got racial and gender diversity because everyone has a shared concern about religious power.
In other words, I support a diversity of viewpoints, not a diversity per se of views. A group of skeptics isn’t made stronger because some people diverge from the norm because they believe they have an army of small fairies to do their bidding, but it is strengthened by improving the number of women and people of color who can speak to communities who aren’t currently being reached.
I’m afraid this is the beginning of totalitarian thinking. If Marcotte thinks that diversity of skin colour or disability or gender trumps intellectual diversity, then there are many fine churches she can no doubt join. Churches (with a few notable exceptions) are generally pretty good at making sure the people in the pews are all the colours of the rainbow, and typically do a nice job of disabled access. Oh, and they have plenty of women members, too–as opposed to skepticism and atheism, which are still male-dominated.
Diversity, I’m afraid, is not a per se good. It’s only an instrumental good. If it were a per se good, then we’d all have to change our view of Islam PDQ: the annual Hajj in Mecca is the most diverse gathering of humanity on the planet. I’m hoping that’s not the sort of argument Marcotte wants to make.
In sum: skepticism is a cast of mind, and when done properly, it can be used to consider and examine religious, political and scientific claims. While religion should not be walled off from scrutiny, the cosy assumptions of politics ought not to be protected either.