Does Skepticism Exclude Atheism Because God Can't be Tested?

Skepticism vs. Atheism

Testing for God
Testing for God. Yagi Studio; Taxi/Getty

I see two common errors when it comes to the intersection between skepticism and atheism. The first is treating atheism as if it were the same as skepticism (all atheists are skeptics, no "true" atheists believe in astrology, ghosts, etc.). The second is treating skepticism as if it excluded atheism ("true" skepticism doesn't deal with gods or religious faith).

Curiously, it's seems universal that anyone making one error will be quick to object to the second and vice-versa.

It's almost as if committing one error causes a person to react more strongly to the other.

What we need is for people to recognize both. I've written quite a bit on this site critiquing the first, but of the two I think the second is the most serious error because it threatens to damage skepticism as a whole.


Excluding God from Scientific Skepticism

Doubtful News provides an example of correctly objecting to the first error while committing the second:

Skeptic does not equal “atheist”. Many Skeptics are atheists, but not all. Skepticism is a process of evaluating claims, not a set of conclusions. Skeptics are a diverse group so lack of religious beliefs should not be assumed.

Scientific Skepticism is applied only to testable claims (such as “prayer heals”), not to untestable claims such as the existence of God, who is supernatural. “Is there a God?” is a question outside the realm of science. However, philosophical skepticism can be invoked in considering claims about the supernatural.

Can God be Scientifically Tested For? Whether we can test for the existence of "God" like we test other things in science (like the existence of Bigfoot) depends entirely on how we define "God." Saying that the question is outside the realm of science means that the skeptic has inappropriately assumed some particular definition of "God" when it's the claimant's job to do so.

Remember that there is no such thing as "God" generally. There are only particular definitions and conceptions of "God." Some are self-contradictory and some aren't. Some are coherent and some aren't. Some are compatible with each other and some aren't. It is possible that some are testable and some aren't; to say that it's not possible to test the claim "God exists" is to completely ignore all of this. At best, the statement is only true about for some definitions of "God"; in that case it's beholden on the speaker to specify which ones and why.

What Does it Mean to be Supernatural? Whether something is "supernatural" or not must also not be assumed in advance and for the same reasons. The proper stance of any skeptic or scientist should be to assume that some alleged phenomenon or object is natural and testable unless and until it is proven otherwise. Thus far, nothing has been proven to be otherwise — so why single out "God" as "supernatural" and "untestable" right from the outset? It's impossible to avoid the suspicion that this is a deliberate attempt to exclude a favored belief from strict, skeptical critique.

Can the Supernatural be Tested For? Whether or not something "supernatural" is also "untestable" is not something skeptics should just assume.

After all, we wouldn't accept the assertion that something "paranormal" is also "untestable," would we? What skeptic would accept the assertion that psychic powers are "untestable" and thus outside the purview of skeptical investigations simply because they are paranormal? What skeptic would accept the insistance that psychic powers be classified as "supernatural" and thus be removed from skeptics' scientific studies?

Can We Test for a Supernatural God? Fourth, even if we ignore all of the above, we still cannot conclude that the existence of "God" is outside the realm of science. Quite the opposite turns out to be the case, in fact. Merely doing enough investigation to conclude that "God" is "supernatural" and therefore "untestable" would, to some extent, have to qualify as a process of skeptical, scientific investigation.

At least, it should if you're doing it right.


God and Religion

Finally, even if we go so far as to assume that "God" is "supernatural" and assume some vague definition of supernatural as "outside/beyond the natural universe" (and therefore beyond the ability to test), where does that leave us? Well, that leaves us with a simple question: does this alleged "God" now, or has it at any time in the past, had any sort of impact on our universe? Has it now or at any time in the past affected the universe in any way, shape, or form?

If so, then we can test for that.

If not, then the "existence" of this alleged "God" is indistinguishable from nonexistence. What's more, by asking this question and investigating what sort of impact this "God" might or might not have or have had, we've engaged in the beginnings of a skeptical, scientific investigation! You know, that thing that we're supposed to believe isn't possible? It's not a full-blown study in a laboratory, but it doesn't need to be. Asking where, when, how, and if a claim can be tested is the start of the scientific process. So doing this qualifies as basic scientific skepticism, even if we don't end up going any further.

In reality, the attempt to remove "God" that much from the universe usually only appears on the desperate end of apologetics, after all attempts to defend belief in an active deity have failed. In reality, it's almost impossible to find anyone who believes in a deity that does not now and never has never had any effect on the universe — not even Deists.

This is why skeptics are typically involved in the investigation of all sorts of things that are closely related to belief in gods — i.e., miracles. Any half-way decent skeptical website, journal, or book will have material on faith healings, miracle cures, weeping religious icons, bleeding religious icons, stigmata, etc. It would be a lie to pretend that none of this has any implications for particular forms of theism. Ergo, such scientific investigations are indeed testing, even if only indirectly, the existence of certain definitions of "God".


The Ethics of Skepticism

So denying that questioning the existence of "God" is "real" scientific skepticism makes all sorts of errors. What's more, these errors cause harm because they undermine the principles and values of skepticism — in particular, the fact that skepticism, if it is to have any value at all, must be applied generally and broadly rather than narrowly and in a self-serving, limited manner.

If there is an ethical component to skepticism, and I believe there is, then it lies in committing oneself to the truth in all things, wherever it may lie. For a skeptic, there are no "sacred cows" — and the religious origin of that term is not a coincidence. For a skeptic, there can be no topics that are classified a priori as off-limits.

Obviously, it will never be the case that any individual skeptic will succeed in applying scientific skepticism to everything they encounter. Everyone has blind spots. No one is perfect. Ergo, no one will ever be a "perfect" skeptic, perfectly and consistently applying perfect skepticism to all areas of life generally or their life in particular.

What's more, even if people were perfect, they would naturally be more interested in certain subjects than in others. Some will prefer to focus on UFOs and not want to bother with astrology. Some will prefer to focus on Near Death Experiences and ignore Bigfoot. So the fact that some skeptics don't invest much time or effort applying scientific skepticism to any particular subject — even one as culturally and politically important and religion or theism — isn't a problem.

But that's not the issue here. We're not talking about people who simply aren't interested in applying skepticism to some topic. We aren't even talking about people with a blind spot when it comes to a topic. No, what we're talking about is an attempt to justify excluding some topic from scientific, skeptical scrutiny entirely and that contradicts the fundamental principle that skepticism be applied broadly.

It cannot be a coincidence that the topic, belief in "God," is something that large numbers of people consider very important and, when questioned, causes people to get very defensive and hostile. It cannot be a coincidence that skeptical critiques of "God" cause the critics to become targets of animosity and discrimination.

It is certainly no coincidence that the effect of excluding "God" from general skeptical critique would be to privilege theism and even religion in an unjustified, inappropriate way that is disturbingly analogous to attempts to privilege religion and religious ideology in the political and cultural realms. I doubt that this is always or even often the goal, but I do think that a lot of people have internalized the idea that it's impolite or inappropriate to target other people's theism and religion for pointed, skeptical criticism.