Summer of 2004. I have considered myself an atheist at least since the summer of 2004. For the sake of feeling smart and consistent, I believe I’ve considered myself an atheist for much longer. But I only have documented evidence of such a stance dating back to the summer of 2004.
Did I have some great logical awakening that roused me to critical thinking and clear-headedness? No. I know I did not. I know I didn’t become a perfect bastion of scientific thinking because, in the summer of 2004, I believed in handwriting analysis.
A knowledge-thirsty little 10th grader, I still believed then that if someone with a PhD wrote a book, that book had to contain gospel truth. I didn’t know the difference between bad science and good science. I didn’t even realize such a rift existed. So handwriting analysis, with all of its certain language and its sheer lack of cited empirical evidence, seemed as valid as medicine or geology.
Only half a year or so later, as I struggled to tell a friend that the dominating middle region in her script belied a permanently childish outlook, did I begin to realize exactly how idiotic this whole graphology thing sounded.
I hope I’ve made my point clearly: atheism did not protect me from having moronic faith in things not supported by evidence. The empiricism I had used to destroy God did not extend automatically to all other silly things settled in my head. I had to force out all of the cobwebs.
Recently, I’ve taken a more active interest in the so-called Skeptical Community, though my personal skepticism began the day I looked for evidence supporting handwriting analysis. I would recommend podcasts like the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and blogs like Skepchick and Science-Based Medicine to anyone, even hardened atheist curmudgeons. As I’ve exemplified, even the curmudgeoniest of us can hold on to empty faith of the less godly sort.
Skepticism differs from atheism because it makes for a much more continuous process. While an ideal atheist would forever continue to examine their beliefs and inspect their logic, most of us do place our lack of faith on a shelf and forget about it for extended periods of time. It becomes static and neglected. Skepticism, on the other hand, requires that we scrutinize scientific claims with the mettle that we once used to tackle claims of God. Do these claims follow valid logical reasoning? Does the evidence support this claim? Does the research in favor of this claim follow proper procedure? Does the theoretical explanation make sense? And so on. And so on.
The atheists and other assorted heathens on this blog no doubt already undergo this process rather often. But despite our well-reasoned positions on God, I suspect we all have “cobwebs”, like mine regarding multivitamins and graphology. Skepticism and the idea of a “community” of skeptics comes in handy for this particular situation. Momentously unscientific claims usually get caught in our conscious attention, as in the case of ghosts or psychics. We don’t need help or a “community” to see the flaws in those fakes.
But the really dangerous claims sound plausible, or have a botched attempt at scientific explanation. These ones slip under the radar. Until looking into the Skeptical Community, I took many of these things for granted. Take for instance this post on Skepchick about the efficacy of different lotions and other beauty products. Yeah, I used to think expensive creams worked better, too.
For this reason, I make my claim that skepticism “matters” but atheism doesn’t. Atheism addresses a fleeting, supernatural belief, and doesn’t have any application to real life. In life and outlook, an atheist and a deist measure up about equally; in the end, that last step of denying a “God” is intangible and largely irrelevant. Skepticism, however, deals with actual practical questions- should I really drink eight glasses of water a day? Should I try that new cancer “cure”? Should I fail to immunize my child out of fear of Autism?
The answers to these questions can directly change your habits, and even your life. Denying the existence of a “God”, no matter how important it sounds or feels, has far fewer real life results. I would more quickly trust the judgment of a skeptical theist than a true-believer atheist. It’s the skeptical approach, which often leads to atheism, that has value. The atheism itself does not.