Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.


In the video here Rebecca Watson from Skepchick, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Curiosity Aroused, etc,  addresses the question “What does atheism have to offer?”  Her answer?  It’s a bullshit question.  And she’s absolutely right.


The kind of question about which she’s talking here is of a type that is often posed by people from a number of sides of various issues, and it’s always bullshit.  The presumption in such a question is that there must be some sort of benefit to conferred upon the holder of the position at issue, else there is no good reason to hold it.  Worse, in that case, there is reason to hold the opposing view.  But this concern from some practical benefit has nothing to do with the truth of the issue.  Nothing.

In a clear way this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely improper to ask what the benefit of holding that belief is.  What does it matter?  How does that affect the truth of it?  It doesn’t.  In terms of the way things are, your happiness is completely irrelevant.  You might be utterly miserable believing some particular truth.  It might cause an existential crisis of such a degree that your life is irrevocably ruined, but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. 

This is not to say there is no room for discussions about pragmatic concerns.  There’s plenty of room for that.  But we need to be clear when we talk about such things that we are not talking about whether or not that makes the thing discussed is true.  They are just different questions.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.  I’m not talking about atheism here, even though that’s the question that provoked the response Watson gives in the video.  Whether or not atheism is a justified view is completely beside the point I’m making here.  I’m saying that in a debate about a principled issue, the practical concerns of the consequences of the issue are just not relevant to the discussion.  So, in terms of the question of atheism, it just does not matter if not believing in a god makes you unhappy when the concern is which position is epistemically justified.  The same goes for theism.  If you’re a theist debating with an atheist about whether or not one is justified in believing in a god, and if that person says something like “But what good does it do to believe in you god?” tell them that they are asking a bullshit question and skirting the real issue.  It’s a red herring, and it should be pointed out as such.

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The Principled Vs. the Practical

There is an issue that seems to get missed, or get in the way of, genuine dialogue both in the blogosphere and in real life.  This issue involves the distinction between principled points and practical points.  While practical concerns are certainly legitimate issues to be discussed, we must keep in mind that they are not the same thing as and do not affect the correctness and legitimacy of any particular position.

As a way of highlighting this concern, let’s look at the issue of accommodationism that has been repeatedly discussed here on this blog.  Accommodationism here refers to the attempt to reconcile scientific explanations with religious explanations, and it is a topic I have discussed at length.  One of the common arguments put forward by the accommodationists is that telling religious folk that there is a distinct tension between science and religion will only ostracize potential allies from those who are interested in pushing for greater scientific education and greater overall scientific literacy in our society in general.  That is, if it is the acknowledged position that science and religion are often in conflict, then, when push comes to shove, most people will choose their religion, and that leaves science out in the cold.

One clear case of such possible tension has to do with the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools.  There is a very vocal group of religious fundamentalists, primarily Christians here in the U.S., who maintain that evolution is diametrically opposed to Scripture.  In such a case, as they take Scripture to be the Truth (note the capital ‘T’), evolution must clearly be false, and, as such, should not be taught.  Various means have been attempted by these groups to remove or diminish the teaching of evolution in the biology classroom, and all of these attempts put such people at odds with defenders of science who do not want religious concerns to corrupt the teaching of the best science available to us.

However, while this group of fundamentalists may be quite loud, they’re also a minority in most, though not all, areas of the country, and this prevents them from completely taking over school boards and other avenues of control in public education.  In order to be successful in such an attempt to wrest the power to decide what gets taught in the science classroom from genuine educators, they need the support of the majority of voters.  This majority also happens to be religious, though not of the fundamentalist persuasion.  That said, they do like to think of themselves as “people of faith.”  One way fundamentalists can build bridges to this majority is to show that the science is at odds with the religious teachings of even this religiously liberal majority.  A very easy way to achieve this would be to point out scientists and proponents of strong science education saying that there is, in fact, a definite tension between science and religion.  In this way it appears that the pro-science camp is saying religion is false, thus pushing the liberal majority into the waiting arms of the fundamentalist minority.  Science education comes out the loser, and it appears that a strong aspect of that loss is the result of the actions taken by those science advocates who suggested that religion and science are somehow at odds.

At least, that’s the story told by the accommodationists.  I think there is evidence that this just isn’t the problem we are often told it is, but that will have to wait for another post.  The important point to note here is that nothing in that story has anything to do with whether or not science and religion really are at opposed to each other in some way.  That is, the concern expressed by the accommodationist view in this story is entirely of a practical nature, and it has nothing to do with the principled concern of such a tension.  It is quite possible that it is true that such a tension exists while at the same time being true that the highlighting of such a tension would result in the advocates of science losing this battle.  So, from a practical standpoint it might well be a good idea to downplay or ignore a point that is, in principle, true.  But, again, that has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not such is, in principle, true.

The kind of analysis given above, obviously, does not merely apply to the debate about accommodationism.  I only used that example as it so often seems that those with whom I disagree on the issue express concerns that completely miss the points that I and others make.  But there are issues that arise daily that result in exactly the same kind of error.  Anytime anyone points to the practical consequences of something, they are discussing something other than the principle issue, and such concerns have no bearing on the truth of that issue.  It is irrelevant to the accommodationist issue whether or not admitting such a tension would result in a net loss for science education.  It is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God whether or not life would be meaningless without God, whether or not morality would be possible without God, etc.  It is irrelevant to the issue of free will vs. determinism whether or not not having free will makes people sad.  It is irrelevant to the efficacy of homeopathy whether or not believing it to be efficacious makes someone happy.  And on and on. 

Principled concerns are not the same as practical concerns, and offering up the latter in a discussion about the former is as good as conceding the argument to your opponent.

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