Monday, February 18, 2008

"The Games Skeptics Play"

I tried googling my blog's title, and look what I found. I'm the first hit, of course. The other hits, unlike me, use "play" in a negative sense. There's a letter called "Do Skeptics Play Fair?" but that looked boring. More interesting was the second hit, an essay called "The Games Skeptics Play" on a website called

A. S. A. Jones first takes a moment to distinguish "anti-Christian intellectuals" and "ordinary skeptics". He defines anti-Christian intellectuals to be those who will ignore opposing arguments because they have an axe to grind. Ordinary skeptics are those who will acknowledge sensible arguments when they see them. His criticisms are directed at the anti-Christian intellectuals, whom he will refer to (for the sake of simplicity) as "skeptics".

"Skeptics", he claims, know how to manipulate an audience, generate an uneven psychological playing field, and use specious arguments. He gives an example of a professor named "Mr. Owl" who gives a rather poor argument involving justice and mercy. I'd call straw-man, but apparently Mr. Owl is based on a real person.

Now, obviously, I call myself a skeptic, but I'm not sure that we really mean the same thing here. I fully realize that when most people talk about "skeptics", they're using some sort of negative definition that doesn't exactly match the positive definition used by the skeptical movement. Jones even said so himself that he is only using the word "skeptics" for simplicity's sake. Nevertheless, I will treat the argument as if he is talking about the skeptical movement, if only so I can have an excuse to talk about it.

His portrayal of skeptics does not quite match what I know about the skeptical movement. Here are some discrepancies:
  1. The distinction between "good skeptics" and "bad skeptics" sounds similar to the distinction I might make between skeptics and denialists. But I wouldn't make the distinction on the basis of attitude (being angry does not make you wrong). I would make the distinction based on the types of arguments they use and their respect for science.
  2. He appears to be describing spoken debate. It is in fact a common sentiment among skeptics that spoken debate should be avoided. For one thing, it's difficult to cite scientific papers on the spot. I much prefer written debate, and not the sort you find on the typical internet forum either.
  3. He ignores the fact that skeptics, at least in principle, go out of their way to avoid fallacious arguments, not use them. Being able to recognize logical fallacies is a standard skeptical topic. Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit is considered classic skeptical literature.
  4. He seems to use "skepticism" and "atheism" interchangeably. They are related, but not equivalent. There is a reason my blog isn't called "Atheist's Play". As a matter of fact, you can be a skeptic and a theist simultaneously (at least in my opinion). I might even call Jones a skeptical theist, though he is free to disagree with this assessment.
One thing of note is that in Jones' reconversion story, he says he used to be a nihilist. I'm not going to dispute that fact, but I will point out that this sets him apart from most atheists I see these days. I've written against nihilism myself. Being a nihilist atheist disqualifies him from representing the typical atheist. Therefore, the whole sympathetic "I was once an atheist" angle mostly fails.

Look at this quote:
What is the best way to witness to an atheist? Live your Christianity, don't debate it.
I greatly appreciate and respect this attitude. But I don't think it would be particularly effective as apologetics, since the existence of friendly Christians is only contradictory to the most nihilistic of atheist philosophies. Oh well, who says witnessing has to be about apologetics anyways?

1 comment:

intrinsicallyknotted said...

Nice discussion--I will have to check out that site. I don't get anything like that when I google my blog's name; just math papers (but I intended it that way!)