Atheism, to me, represents no group. It is not an organization. It does not have a set of beliefs you must follow and it is not a religion (nor does it act like one). The Oxford dictionary defines it as, “A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.” That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Atheism is merely a consequence of lacking belief. Having recognized what this word means it becomes a pointless semantic exercise to continue its use to describe the entirety of an individual’s belief system.
We have a word in English that already covers all disbelief in the supernatural – of all variations and quackery – and that word is: Skeptic. There is a very important connotation that is implied with this. Often some atheists will proclaim that there is absolutely no God. Okay, well, that’s a little total for me. A touch too sure of itself for my liking and I suspect the very reason why a lot of unbelievers distance themselves and refuse to recognize themselves as atheists.
On the other hand, the skeptic’s position is as followed: I cannot say that there is no God for sure, but I will say that there is inefficient evidence to convince me of his/her existence. This position leaves open the possibility of being proven otherwise. It becomes dogmatic if it is insisted that one cannot be proven wrong. If you wanted to refute the theory of gravity, all that would be required is the formulation of an experiment in which an object did not fall towards Earth; it fell away instead. This makes the theory falsifiable. It shows that while we are very certain of the mechanics of gravity, we must also be open to the possibility that it could be wrong, this is how intellectual progress is made.
To show what this would look like if someone was to argue that the theory of gravity was total and completely unfalsifiable we can imagine someone successfully pulling off our gravity experiment (revolutionising physics in the process). The ball was dropped and the earth repelled it – imagine that – then all our brightest physicists and mathematicians just ignored our experiment and said, “oh yeah, gravity can do that too.” Imagine if Einstein did this? If he had read over Newton’s work and thought, “eh, close enough”, We’d be living in a totally different world. This is why the skeptic’s position has always – always – been the most progressive position to take. Because a belief can never be total, the skeptic recognizes the temporary nature of beliefs and ideas, and is always willing to change position where substantial and credible evidence is found.
We can never be 100% sure of anything, but that’s not to say that we cannot be sure of anything. We work with probabilities, we shave our disputes with Occam’s Razor, we use past observations to make predictions about the future. We all do this. Some of us consciously practice it; others do it subconsciously.
The conscious bunch of skeptics will be on guard at most times.
I was implored to view a documentary regarding the state of Bee’s in America and their supposed destruction at the hands of agriculture companies. There is no doubt that the death of any species is tragic and should be stopped if humans are the cause or hindered if nature decides to take back one of her species. But it was alleged in this reactionary film that if the bees were to die, the U.S food supply would go with it. You’d be glad to know I took some time to look into this claim for myself before sharing the alarming news. It turned out the bees that do most of the pollinating in America are actually European bees. Yes, that means they’ve only been on the American subcontinent for roughly 300 years. The Native American Bee is less prolific in its pollinating skill and is far more finical in its choice of flower. So prior to European settlement in the Americas all the plants were pollinated just fine. This is evidenced in the diaries of some early settlers who’d never seen such lush forests or estuaries given the trait of having more fish than water.
That took me a whole 10 minutes to learn. Yeah, so what. Who cares? Right? Good on you, Bryce. Well, I care and a lot of other people care. I use the same reasoning I use in regards to education when thinking about the propagation of disinformation on social media, it goes like this: I don’t mind paying taxes that go directly towards education, I welcome the notion that one day Australia’s contribution towards research and innovation will rise to 3% of the total GDP. Why is education so important to you? You may be inclined to ask. It’s simple. I do not wish to live in a society full of idiots (myself included). That’s not to say I believe in some intellectual utopia in which everyone is fluent in mathematics or understands the difference between loose or lose (however hard that distinction seems to be). But I think a tertiary understanding of science and philosophy can only be a positive thing for any culture. Would anyone disagree?
I use this same thought process when it comes to social media. I don’t see it as wasteful to invest 10 minutes of my day to check a claim that could be viewed by others as arbitrary or perhaps my actions cynical. This is a positive investment. I am now the better for knowing that bees are dying and that it is not the doomsday scenario I would be lead to believe. This is what it truly means to think for yourself. I’m still working on it because thinking for yourself is hard. I take comfort at times in perusing through older writings of my own – having kept a record of my thoughts and ideas – I can see how I have developed in some areas and still lack in others.
Many of us (I’d argue almost all of us) have an intuitive skeptic tool-kit, which until recognized, goes mostly unnoticed and unused. Now I’m sure all of us had some monstrous apparition we feared as children. Mine was the bogeyman and I was convinced he lived under my bed. I distinctly remember pulling the arm of my mother to buy me a bunk bed so I could utilize the protection afforded by height – such was my fear. One evening I decided I would confront this bogeyman and query his incursion (assuming he spoke English). To my disbelief the underside of my bed was suspiciously void of any such apparition. I checked each and every night from that night forward. I was subconsciously becoming a skeptic, at least in this small field of fantasy anyway. My prior observations conducted each night soon assisted in my own predictions: it wasn’t there last month, it wasn’t there last week, it wasn’t there last night – therefore it won’t be there tonight. Without even realizing, I had conducted my first ever (albeit basic) science experiment.
Being a skeptic is simple when done automatically but a little harder when you do it on purpose. Look for yourself. Invest your time in learning or reading. If you hear or see something that you find interesting, write it down, check it for yourself later. Far more happiness will come to you this way and of this I am convinced. I’ve been asked by some readers who send me messages asking: where do I start? Or, what should I read? Well apart from the fact I’m woefully under-qualified as a teacher, my advice would be simple: start with yourself. Challenge your own world view and your own positions and biases first. It will be uncomfortable, especially finding out the post you shared years earlier was actually a complete load of shit. And that overly important social movement you’d defend to the death at social outings was actually based on nothing but pure fantasy and fabrication (Zeitgeist; Thrive; Loose Change – I’m looking at you).
Being fooled is one thing; refusing to admit one was fooled is a bestowal of dignity to the dogs.
Being an atheist is not a total identity. It’s merely a side effect of asking honest questions. When exercising the mind with the tools of skepticism one must remember – above all other things – the person who should garner the most of your suspicion haunts you at every waking minute, yourself. Neitzche was perhaps right in saying that we could all do with a little more self-mistrust.