A friend of mine once shared her “skeptic origin story,” which also happens to be an amazing Christmas story. I’ll have to paraphrase the story from memory:
When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I couldn’t believe so many people had been lying to me. I immediately stopped believing in God, Jesus and dinosaurs. They all sounded like made-up fantasies told by the same people who lied about Santa. I eventually started believing in dinosaurs again.
This story is both funny and thought provoking. On one hand, it exposes the plain similarity between religious knowledge and the Santa myth — the latter being a ubiquitous lie in which nearly everyone knowingly participates. On the other hand, it highlights a continual challenge for skeptically minded people: where do I draw the boundaries of my skepticism? This is sort of the amateur version of the demarcation problem: where are the lines that separate (1) total junk; (2) reasonable but wrong beliefs; and (3) questionable topics that warrant further study?
There are lots of things that I believe to be wrong, and I can only study so much. There are thousands of fringe movements competing for our time and attention. Some months ago, I was drawn into a discussion about some literature written by a person who I would characterize as a holocaust revisionist. Although the book was not directly about revisionism, I refused to read it and described it as “trash.” The book’s publisher was not happy about that, and responded:
So you haven’t actually read it? Yet you call it ‘trash’? Because … what? Because ‘Holocaust denial’? … Read a book before you condemn it. That much is elementary, I should hope.
But it is not elementary. There are tens of thousands of books generated by thousands of fringe groups, and I won’t be reading many of them. By condemning those groups as “fringe,” can I legitimately condemn all of their books as well? I think it might be unfair to say that every book written by a fringe affiliate is junk. But I will say that if the author is associated with a discredited mythology, it significantly increases the probability that the book is junk.
Just one step removed from this is the courtier’s reply problem that I wrote about in my last post. Basically, critics accuse Atheists of making hasty generalizations about theology, without examining all of the specific beliefs and theories that have been advanced by theologians. There are countless critical reviews that accuse Atheists of simply being ignorant about theology. In effect, they are arguing that Atheists have overreacted to the Santa myths and disregarded some authentic factual beliefs (the metaphorical dinosaurs).
But here’s the thing: the “New Atheists” champion a rigorous style of thinking and a strong respect for empirical evidence. It is not a mere thuggish dismissal of religion; there is a clear epistemic viewpoint that beliefs need to be warranted with a high standard of evidence. This view is skeptical of any beliefs that are not empirically testable. Perhaps the main point is that all of our best knowledge — in science, mathematics, ethics, politics and other subjects — can be arrived at without any reference to god(s). We seem to have everything we need. The burden rests with the theologians to show that we’re missing some important contribution from theology, but it won’t be easy. I can go to a museum and look directly at a dinosaur. But how much theology should I dig through before my unbelief is considered warranted?