Religious skepticism

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Religious skepticism is a type of skepticism relating to religion. Religious skeptics question religious authority and are not necessarily anti-religious but skeptical of specific or all religious beliefs and/or practices. Socrates was one of the most prominent and first religious skeptics of whom there are records; he questioned the legitimacy of the beliefs of his time in the existence of the Greek gods. Religious skepticism is not the same as atheism or agnosticism and some religious skeptics are deists.

Skepticism or scepticism is generally a questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief or dogma. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality, theism, or knowledge. Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.

Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.

Antireligion is opposition to religion of any kind. It involves opposition to organized religion, religious practices or religious institutions. The term antireligion has also been used to describe opposition to specific forms of supernatural worship or practice, whether organized or not. Opposition to religion also goes beyond the misotheistic spectrum. As such, antireligion is distinct from deity-specific positions such as atheism and antitheism ; although "antireligionists" may also be atheists or antitheists.



The word skeptic (sometimes sceptic) is derived from the middle French sceptique or the Latin scepticus, literally "sect of the sceptics". Its origin is in the Greek skeptikos, meaning inquiring, reflective or one that doubts. [1] As such, religious skepticism generally refers to doubting or questioning something about religion. Although, as noted by Schellenberg the term is sometimes more generally applied to anyone that has a negative view of religion. [2]

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning at least 3500 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

J. L. Schellenberg is a Canadian philosopher best known for his work in philosophy of religion. He has a DPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford, and is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University, both in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The earliest beginnings of religious skepticism can be traced back to Xenophanes. He critiqued popular religion of his time, particularly false conceptions of the divine that are a byproduct of the human propensity to anthropomorphize deities. He took the scripture of his time to task for painting the gods in a negative light and promoted a more rational view of religion. He was very critical of religious people privileging their belief system over others without sound reason. [3] [4]

Xenophanes Presocratic philosopher

Xenophanes of Colophon was a Greek philosopher, theologian, poet, and social and religious critic. Xenophanes lived a life of travel, having left Ionia at the age of 25 and continuing to travel throughout the Greek world for another 67 years. Some scholars say he lived in exile in Sicily. Knowledge of his views comes from fragments of his poetry, surviving as quotations by later Greek writers. To judge from these, his elegiac and iambic poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of ideas, including Homer and Hesiod, the belief in the pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and the Greeks' veneration of athleticism. He is the earliest Greek poet who claims explicitly to be writing for future generations, creating "fame that will reach all of Greece, and never die while the Greek kind of songs survives."

The majority of skeptics are agnostics and atheists, but there are also a number of religious people that are skeptical of religion. [5] The religious are generally skeptical about claims of other religions, at least when the two denominations conflict concerning some stated belief. Some philosophers put forth the sheer diversity of religion as a justification for skepticism by theists and non-theists alike. [6] Theists are also generally skeptical of the claims put forth by atheists. [7]

Argument from inconsistent revelations argument against the existence of God. It asserts that it is unlikely that God exists because many theologians and faithful adherents have produced conflicting and mutually exclusive revelations

The argument from inconsistent revelations, also known as the avoiding the wrong hell problem, is an argument against the existence of God. It asserts that it is unlikely that God exists because many theologians and faithful adherents have produced conflicting and mutually exclusive revelations. The argument states that since a person not privy to revelation must either accept it or reject it based solely upon the authority of its proponent, and there is no way for a mere mortal to resolve these conflicting claims by investigation, it is prudent to reserve one's judgment.

Michael Shermer wrote that religious skepticism is a process for discovering the truth rather than general non-acceptance.[ citation needed ] For this reason a religious skeptic might believe that Jesus existed while questioning claims that he was the messiah or performed miracles (see historicity of Jesus). Thomas Jefferson's The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth , a literal cut and paste of the New Testament that removes anything supernatural, is a prominent example.

Michael Shermer American science writer

Michael Brant Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. The Skeptics Society currently has over 55,000 members. Shermer engages in debates on topics pertaining to pseudoscience and religion in which he emphasizes scientific skepticism.

Jesus The central figure of Christianity

Jesus, also referred to as Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, was a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. He is the central figure of Christianity. Most Christians believe he is the incarnation of God the Son and the awaited Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

Modern religious skepticism

The term has morphed into one that typically emphasizes scientific and historical methods of evidence. There are some skeptics that question whether religion is a viable topic for criticism given that it doesn't require proof for belief. Others, however, insist it is as much as any other knowledge, especially when it makes claims that contradict those made by science. [8] [9]

There has been much work since the late 20th century by philosophers such as Schellenburg and Moser, and both have written numerous books pertaining to the topic. [10] [11] Much of their work has focused on defining what religion is and specifically what people are skeptical of about it. [12] [2] The work of others have argued for the viability of religious skepticism by appeal to higher-order evidence (evidence about our evidence and our capacities for evaluation), [13] what some call meta-evidence. [14]

There are still echoes of early Greek skepticism in the way some current thinkers question the intellectual viability of belief in the divine. [15]

In modern times there is a certain amount of mistrust and lack of acceptance of religious skeptics, particularly towards those that are also atheists. [16] [17] [18] This is coupled with concerns many skeptics have about the government in countries, such as the U.S.A., where separation of church and state are central tenets. [19]

Selected historical occurrences

Socrates was raised in polytheistic society in which the gods were not omnipotent and required sacrifice and ritual. Socrates' conception of the divine was that they were always benevolent, truthful, authoritative, and wise. Divinity was to operate within the standards of rationality. [20] This critique ultimately resulted in his trial for impiety and corruption as documented in The Apology.

In ancient India, there was a materialist philosophical school called the Cārvāka, who were known as being skeptical of the religious claims of Vedic religion, its rituals and texts. A forerunner to the Charvaka school, philosopher Ajita Kesakambali, did not believe in reincarnation. [21]

The historian Will Durant writes that Plato was "as skeptical of atheism as of any other dogma." [22] [4]

Democritus was the father of materialism in the West, and there is no trace of a belief in any afterlife in his work. Specifically, in Those in Hades he refers to constituents of the soul as atoms that dissolve upon death. [23]

In De Natura Deorum the Roman statesman Cicero calls into question the character of the gods, whether or not they participate in earthly affairs, and questions their existence. This a significant evolution from his earlier writings wherein he was more accommodating to religion [24]

In the poem De rerum natura Lucretius introduces Epicurean philosophy to the Romans and proclaims that the universe operates according to physical principles and guided by fortuna, or chance, instead of the Roman gods. [25]

Thomas Hobbes took positions that strongly disagreed with orthodox Christian teachings. He argued repeatedly that there are no incorporeal substances, and that all things, even God, heaven, and hell are corporeal, matter in motion. He argued that "though Scripture acknowledge spirits, yet doth it nowhere say, that they are incorporeal, meaning thereby without dimensions and quantity". [26]

Voltaire, although himself a deist, was a forceful critic of religion and advocated for acceptance of all religions as well as separation of church and state. [27]

In Japan, Yamagata Bantō (d.1821) declared that "in this world there are no gods, Buddhas, or ghosts, nor are there strange or miraculous things". [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable. Another definition provided is the view that "human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist."

Theism belief in the existence of at least one deity

Theism is broadly defined as the belief in the existence of the Supreme Being or deities. In common parlance, or when contrasted with deism, the term often describes the classical conception of God that is found in monotheism – or gods found in polytheistic religions—a belief in God or in gods without the rejection of revelation as is characteristic of deism.

An argument from nonbelief is a philosophical argument that asserts an inconsistency between the existence of God and a world in which people fail to recognize him. It is similar to the classic argument from evil in affirming an inconsistency between the world that exists and the world that would exist if God had certain desires combined with the power to see them through.

Philosophical skepticism is a philosophical school of thought that questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge. Skeptic philosophers from different historical periods adopted different principles and arguments, but their ideology can be generalized as either (1) the denial of possibility of all knowledge or (2) the suspension of judgement due to the inadequacy of evidence.

The skeptical movement is a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism. Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims. The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing "the extension of certified knowledge". The process followed is sometimes referred to as skeptical inquiry.

Nontheism or non-theism is a range of both religious and nonreligious attitudes characterized by the absence of espoused belief in a God or gods. Nontheism has generally been used to describe apathy or silence towards the subject of God and differs from an antithetical, explicit atheism. Nontheism does not necessarily describe atheism or disbelief in God; it has been used as an umbrella term for summarizing various distinct and even mutually exclusive positions, such as agnosticism, ignosticism, ietsism, skepticism, pantheism, atheism, strong or positive atheism, implicit atheism, and apatheism. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology.

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion and popular culture.

Antony Flew British analytic and evidentialist philosopher

Antony Garrard Newton Flew was an English philosopher. Belonging to the analytic and evidentialist schools of thought, Flew was most notable for his work related to the philosophy of religion. During the course of his career he taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading, and at York University in Toronto.

Robert Todd Carroll American philosopher

Robert Todd Carroll was an American writer and academic. Carroll was best known for his contributions in the field of skepticism; he achieved notability by publishing The Skeptic's Dictionary online in 1994. He was elected a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in 2010. He described himself as a naturalist, an atheist, a materialist, a metaphysical libertarian, and a positivist.

Russells teapot Analogy coined by Bertrand Russell

Russell's teapot is an analogy, formulated by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others.

Criticism of atheism is criticism of the concepts, validity, or impact of atheism, including associated political and social implications. Criticisms include positions based on the history of science, findings in the natural sciences, theistic apologetic arguments, arguments pertaining to ethics and morality, the effects of atheism on the individual, or the assumptions that underpin atheism.

Jewish skeptics are Jewish individuals who have held skeptical views on matters of the Jewish religion. In general, these skeptical views regard some or all of the "principles of faith," whatever these may be, but historically Jewish skepticism is directed either at (1) the existence of the God of Judaism or (2) the authenticity and veracity of the Torah.

Popularized by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, the spectrum of theistic probability is a way of categorizing one's belief regarding the probability of the existence of a deity.

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Matt Dillahunty American activist

Matthew Wade Dillahunty is an American atheist activist. He is the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, a position he also held from 2006 to 2013. He has hosted the Austin-based webcast and cable-access television show The Atheist Experience since 2005, and formerly hosted the live Internet radio show Non-Prophets Radio. He is also the founder of and a contributor to the counter-apologetics encyclopedia Iron Chariots and its subsidiary sites.

Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.

Kylie Sturgess Educator, sceptic, Podcaster

Kylie Sturgess is a past President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, an award-winning blogger, author and independent podcast host of The Token Skeptic Podcast. A Philosophy and Religious Education teacher with over ten years experience in education, Sturgess has lectured on teaching critical thinking, feminism, new media and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. She is a Member of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) Education Advisory Panel and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications, and has spoken at The Amazing Meeting Las Vegas, Dragon*Con (US), QED Con (UK). She was a presenter and Master of Ceremonies for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention and returned to the role in 2012. Her most recent book The Scope of Skepticism was released in 2012. She is a presenter at Perth's community radio station RTRFM, and a winner at the 2018 CBAA Community Radio Awards in the category of Talks, with the show Talk the Talk


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