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3/18/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Choosing Skepticism

by J.C. Samuelson

Since my first tentative steps into skepticism back in 2003, I've learned a great deal about faith, religion, critical thought, history, science, human nature, culture & society, and HTML tags. And I've had the great pleasure to meet the electronic shadows of hundreds of others - both believers and skeptics - whom I treasure for their contributions to not only my learning but to humanity. Some of them I'm very happy to be able to count as friends. It's truly humbling to meet so many great minds, though it was disconcerting to realize that I'm not the smartest person in the world after all.

It's very difficult to summarize what I've learned, but if there's one thing I could suggest as an advocate of skepticism for someone just beginning to doubt religious faith it is this: Not all truth claims are equal. Question everything, including skepticism. At the end of the day, the provisional certainty it offers is, in my opinion, far more comforting than any religious dogma ever could be.

Every attempt ever made at explaining the world, or reconciling our place in it, has been and forever will be an attempt to gain a feeling of control over chaos. We have always feared the unknown, the unexplained, the uncontrollable. Finding an explanation (or creating one) reduces that fear to a more manageable level, even if most of those things remain forever beyond our control.

Over time, our explanations have improved and so have our methods, tranforming fear into a useful tool that drives exploration and innovation. Instead of cowering in abject terror, we stand in awe of the universe and all its marvelous natural intricacy. We still can't control it, but our fear of chaos no longer paralyzes us. That is, we can be comfortable saying "I don't know, but I can't wait to find out."

Religious faith - the sort that presently confronts the world in the form of martyrdom-motivated terrorists and emotional, but ultimately dogma-driven evangelicals - is anathema to that statement. To paraphrase Sam Harris, adherents to first-century dogma have access to twenty-first century weaponry. Thus, religion has ceased to be a reliable way to maintain or improve the human condition, regardless of what good it may have done in the past or even still does on a limited scale. Instead, it holds us back from discovery and even threatens us with destruction.

But others have said as much already and with greater eloquence, so I'll focus on how I think religious faith places arbitrary limits on knowledge and discovery, while healthy skepticism encourages growth.

In the Catalog of Ambitious Human Projects, religion sits securely at the top of the list. No other endeavor or school of thought can claim to have addressed so broad a range of issues with as much ruthless efficiency as religion. With one phrase the religionist can explain the universe and everything in it (including the entire range of human experience and thought) by saying, "God did it." The ambition of this statement is eclipsed only by its astounding simplicity, and contrasted by its complete lack of profundity.

To be sure, explanations of how and why "God did it" are plentiful and highly detailed. So are those that explain why we should think that phrase is meaningful. Many highly intelligent people have written books that contain these explanations. An entire industry has grown around these books. The market for apologetics has never been greater, at least here in the U.S.. This is perhaps a testament to the increase in demand for evidence, and signals a trend toward evidence-based beliefs. Yet these books perhaps also hinder that trend, by offering the same tired explanation couched in the language of reason and science.

Yet, it seems significant to me that all of these books, regardless of how well-written or how seemingly sensible they may be, trace their origins and their raison d'etre to one book. It's a book that hasn't been revised in nearly 1,700 years, but is promoted as the source for all knowledge concerning God and its doings since before humanity raised its demon-haunted head out of the muck (apologies to the late Carl Sagan for co-opting part of his book title for that). To my mind, it is overall a terrible book in spite its occasional flashes of philosophical insight.

This is a book that gives license to tyrants and helps silence dissent. It gives a reason for reason but is reason's worst enemy. It gives comfort to the sick and the dying, but offers no cure. For science it is an obstacle to funding and the doom of discovery. It sanctions war, slavery, and intolerance but is strangely offered as a solution to all of them and more. It is the refuge of the ignorant but is referenced even by the wisest among us. Yet despite its many shortcomings it is considered above reproach. Why?

The only explanation ever offered is the same as the one already mentioned, with one word changed: "God wrote it." This is, in a word, pathetic.

Contrast the above with the practice of healthy skepticism. Referring back to the Catalog of Ambitious Human Projects, healthy skepticism ranks somewhere between religion and our more mundane pursuits. Its goal is far less lofty than the claims of religion, but is no less challenging. With one phrase the skeptic tames arrogance, promotes exploration and innovation, and drives us toward self-improvement: "I don't know." As astoundingly simple as the one described above, it is eclipsed only by its unpretentious nature and stands in stark contrast to the claims of religion.

Instead of one answer for everything, the skeptic seeks many answers addressing many different ideas. If skepticism can be said to have guiding principles, that of open inquiry is the first. Nothing is exempt from scrutiny, even skepticism itself. Every concept is a potential target, and has an equal opportunity to have evidence presented in its favor, including religion. Every answer and every piece of evidence offered is evaluated and interpreted according to rigorous standards that apply equally across the board.

Yet the skeptic recognizes the limited nature of human cognitive effort, and seeks ways to circumvent human failings. Because of this recognition, the skeptic doesn't consider anything absolutely certain. Comfortable with uncertainty but desiring progress, the skeptic accepts answers established by quality evidence as provisionally true pending further evidence. In a sense, the certainty of skepticism is that nothing is absolutely certain.

There is no dogma in healthy skepticism, except to the extent that its guiding principles are considered sound (but can themselves be subject to revision). These include open inquiry (as already mentioned), evaluation of all truth claims according to similar but equally rigorous standards (dictated in part by the claim itself), critical thinking, and evidence-based belief. Moreover, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The hope of the skeptic is to find the most reliable picture of reality available.

This is not to say that skepticism isn't without flaws. Skepticism can help to foster controversy, and can slow the decision-making process, sometimes even to a halt. There is also, as I can well-attest to personally, the danger of information overload. It can be exhausting work. Skepticism does not proof an individual from irrational beliefs either, though it can mitigate them due to its guiding principles. Also, there is no divinely-inspired book to give the skeptic comfort or guide his/her actions.

Some misidentify skepticism with cynicism. This is unfortunate, because skepticism does not insist on disbelief or assign a default minimal value to every idea. Unlike the cynic, the skeptic has hope, and recognizes the value and necessity of imagination, intuition, faith (of the less-than-divinely-inspired sort), hope, creativity, and love to the human experience, bringing each to bear in the persistent search for quality answers. Moreover, the practice of skepticism humbles a person in the face of the overwhelming immensity of what isn't known. Contrast this with the cynic, who often persists in doubt for its own sake, and thinks very little of human endeavors.

In short, the practice of healthy skepticism can be among life's more satisfying pursuits. Indeed, it becomes a part of who a person is and guides many of the decisions he/she makes. It has been so for me.

What are your thoughts?

28 comments:

Rapper X (Heaven Sent) said...

Warning for J.C and other Ex-Christians to Return to the Lord


Message to Ex Christians from Rapper X of Christ Posse

Jesus Unit, Jesus Team, we bringin da aftamath
We gotta get the Get Well cards for these atheists

Dave, don't think Christ wont get ya cuz u popular
He got a dozen angels that he can pop at ya

U never had a flaming sword by yo waist, and blood on yo shoes
Cuz Jesus sent a dire warning straight to u
U aint been thru, what He been thru
U not like Him, and He not like u

Now, Christ is like an animal when he warn ya its crazy
One site is not enuff, u need at least an uzi to move Him
Christ is gangsta to da hood, dave, u cant move Him
U scared of Him, u not prepared of Him, but the Son of God is back

Christ writes His life, u write wat u see in blasphemous movies
Rich or poor, He will keep knockin on ya door
And Christ know u like that

And Dave, its absurd, how u write your every word
Cuz in your hard heart u know that nothing can be worse
Then being condemned by Jesus' every word

This century is packed with promised fakers (atheists)
Never realizin the precious gift (salvation) they is wastin'

Institutionalized the bytch atheists' logic fail by the bundle
They hearts so hard they will fail
I'm with Jesus Unit mothaphuckas, we ballin


Catch me countin cheese and when He's callin
Accept His call

Christ done been to Hell, and He aint scared
He lookin fuh yo heart, but it aint there
Lil faggot named Dave think he alive like He
Too bad the lil fag couldn't save like He

Dave got a head wit no screws in it
His posse thinkin they can stop Yaweh
They losin it'

And webmaster Dave, you live in fantasies wigga,
Christ reject yo deposit
When yo lil gay ass go come outta da closet?

Now he wonder why Jesus Christ blowed Him out
Next time grown folks talkin, dave close yo mouth

And Dave yous a mothaphuckin punk and you'll see God with gloves
Quit scarin them kids wit yo ugly a$$ mug

And u can tell them atheists u roll with, whatever u want
But u and God know whats goin on

Payback time, God know yo bytch ass from way back
God is strapped to the max, u know he dont play that

All these old atheists tryin to advance,
Its all over now take the blood of Christ like a man

Dave lookin like richard dawkins all flabby and shit
Tryin to playa hate on Christ's shit

Its funny, the Devil got this dave wigga crazy
Against all odds, Jesus can again make him whole

~ Peace, Rapper X from Christ Posse Millenia 2000x

Astreja said...

Awesome post, J.C. I particularly like this line:

"...We can be comfortable saying "I don't know, but I can't wait to find out."

Uncertainty is the path to knowledge. Certainty is a dead end. Better a million unanswered (or even unanswerable) questions than one false answer.

Jamie G. said...

J.C.,
Absolutely great post! I am going to send this to a couple of friends of mine.

The only negative thing I can point out is the fact that Rapper X wasted comment space below your post. All I read was, "blah, blah, blah, Jesus, blah, blah..."

Thanks J.C., looking forward to more posts from you.

J. C. Samuelson said...

"The only negative thing I can point out is the fact that Rapper X wasted comment space below your post."

I don't know, I kinda liked it. ;)

Seriously though, glad you enjoyed the post.

JT said...

Whos this Rapper X?? Hillarious! They should hang a picture of Rapper X on a Poster and have it say something like "This is what happens when you continue to believe in the imaginary sky daddy"! LOL

Anyways Once again Well written JC! Well thought out!!

J. C. Samuelson said...

"Better a million unanswered (or even unanswerable) questions than one false answer."

Sums up the credo of skepticism in a nutshell. Outstanding! Thanks, Astreja.

.:webmaster:. said...

Hey Jeff,

How come you write this article, and I end being called a gay-ass wigga?

Wut up wit dat?

Anonymous said...

We B payin a big price fo dat cotten.

Younowatimsayin?

dano said...

I watched a documentary about the "Heavens Gate" cult last night.

If two goofy people can start a cult, with a whole hodgepodge of new age garbage, and old age Christian shit, mixed up together, and suck in seemingly intelligent people like that, and talk them into castrating themselves, and then ultimately killing themselves, for a chance to hitch a ride on a comet, it makes you wonder if the human race is ready, or even capable of being weaned off of religious mysticism!
Dan

J. C. Samuelson said...

Dave,

You knew that someday this would happen. In the atheist webmaster by-laws it quite clearly states in Paragraph 3, subsection D, under "Abuse":

iii. Someday Rapper X will call you a "gay-ass wigga."

It's not our fault if you didn't read the contract!

superman4real2000 said...

Congrats JC. I think it is good to reflect as such several years latter. I turned to skepticism in 2003 also. The road has been interesting. I was lucky to move out of the south just after 2003. It made my transition easier. I wrote a testimony of frustration in 2003 and just read it again. I then wrote a departure testimony in 2004 and posted it on here. I don't comment much because I am busy in school and work. I do find time to read most things and ponder. The strangest thing I can think of at this point in my non-belief is how people treat me. I have become very strong in my non-belief and I piss off just about everyone. The strange part about it is I also pissed off everyone when I was a believer. That is strange.

I am working on my reflections as a non-believer now. It is long, but if covers about everything. I hope to post it in the next month.

Riley J.

boomSLANG said...

Good article, J.C.S...not that I expected anything less = )

To elaborate briefly, it seems that there are generally two kinds of "skeptics", nonetheless----the "Agnostic skeptic", and the "Faithful skeptic". Thus, showing once again, that skepticism is a position that one takes, not a "belief" or "worldview". The Theist will label the Atheist/Agnostic as a "skeptic", when if fact, they are skeptical of someone elses "god".

Moreover, the "Faithful skeptic" might doubt something if it has not been proven to be true, yet, they won't dismiss it as false if it cannot be proven false...thus, "defaulting" to the former on "hope"..i.e..Faith.

Of course, we, as "Agnostic skeptics", see the blatant problem with that.

Take care.

Telmi said...

JC,

Top rate! Congrats!

Ever thought of becoming an author? Or are you one already?

Rapper X(Heaven Sent) said...

To boomSlang:

boomSlang, keep sayin mothaphuckin thangs befo Jesus phucks u up,
aint no losers in His kingdom brotha, see u in hell fella

boomSLANG said...

Rapper X: boomSlang, keep sayin mothaphuckin thangs befo Jesus phucks u up,
aint no losers in His kingdom brotha, see u in hell fella


...::bomp chhh, b'bomp-bomp, chhh::...

..Yeeah, Rapper Buh'wheat 'n all you fundies,
Duh ones wit' IQs of that dude Al Bundy,
Check dis shit out..'n listen up good,
We done buyin' "dope" from the apologetic 'hood

So cling to yo' Gawd like a baby to a nipple,
And stay on yo' knees like a weak-ass cripple,
No thanks! no thanks!...my mind is free,
Dat deaf, dumb, blind Faith shit ain't fuh me

And dat's tuff shit if I seem a bit crass,
But I ain't duh type fo' kissin' ghost ass,
If you believe lies, well dat's yo' business,
Santa Claus sends you a merry Christmas

Now click on yo' mouse, 'n move yo' ass along,
We done heard enougha yo' dance and song,
Reason's here, and it's here to stay,
Legendary thinkin's in slow decay

PS: Blasphemy is a BLAST FOR ME!!(MUAHhahahahaaa!)

superman4real2000 said...

Rapper X, I am here to flex
You’re another Xtian rapper reading out of context
As I perplex, Yo will be shot down and I will be like…next.

Yo buy-bull is unreliable
Unverifiable, just down right stupifiable

Yo gawd kills babies and virgin ladies
Yo gawd is co-pilot of yo Mercedes
Ya know ya been sexing it up since the Eighties

Hypocrite, lip full of shit…
in da house, ha, ho

Yo gawd says to run over the unbeliev-a
Yo sky daddy is you, the deceiv-a
Ya know U tappin’ that beav-a to reliev-a

Have another drink, a kink…
in the xtian armor,
Bring out da jebus bomber

Droppin those jebus bombs like every day
Ya smoking that xtian hay-hay
ya got from lit’l ray ray

Puff, puff, pass, Ha, Ho
Pray, pray, gas

Ya caught up in the cult game fo-rizal
Ya tell everyone they will sizzle
When all we do is fizzle

Don’t be skerd of death
When ya take ya last breath
Ya worm food dude.

4 wedding and a funeral...
Da xtian way without da tribunal

Yo religion justifies and testifies to racism
Yo following place-ism, in-case-ism
I am here wit some in-yo-face-ism
I arrive like a cataclysm

Jebus aint’ risen
99 percent xtian in prison
Ya imagination is not a vision

Ya livin’ in da xtain matrix, dawg
Takes dat red pill and get outta fog

Der ain’t no hell under the erf
U’ve been brain washed since yo berf
Yo gawd is imaginary like a smerf

Der ain’t no heaven in the sky
Don’t cry, stop da lie
Get a piece of dat cherry pie

Start livin’ because this is all UR given
And Jesus ain’t commin back eva-eva eva-eva
Go head seva…those ties to lies before U’s dies
No woman, no cries

NO heavenly faddor, don’t bother,
G to the O to the D, the priest got her

Sexual assault, it’s yo gawd’s fault

Evil is da xtian fundy
Murderous like Ted Bundy
Convertin’ killers every Sundy

As I break it down, yo preacha is an ass clown
If he come around, I beat him down to the grown

Ain’t no easter bunny, ain’t no santa
Jim Jones gave you that cyanide with fanta

I ain’t drinking that kool-aide
Joel Olsteen just wants to get paid
I met his wife and got laid

Ain’t no Jebus, ain’t no god, alas,
It is too bad they ain’t fo real to kiss my ass


Riley J.

Something stinks in Jebusville and Rapper X is the Mayor.

Homo Sapiens said...

I say you two, Boom and superman.
I'll just say this, I'm your super fan.

In just two neat tries at rap.
You have raised it up, from Neanderthal crap.

From ebonical gibberish, to something deliberish.

I think you both have a future in rhyme, that deliberately rankles.

If you can learn do it with your hat on backwards, and your crotch at your ankles.

J. C. Samuelson said...

Someday when boomy & super are big rap stars and they've forgotten all about the little people, we'll be able to come back to this post and reminisce, saying "we knew them when..."

*sniff*

J. C. Samuelson said...

Telmi,

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

I'm only a part time blog author, here and at my spot. I've thought about it but don't think I could hold a coherent purpose for an entire book. Tangents seem to be my "thing."

:)

Rapper X(Heaven Sent) said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Astreja said...

Anyone can read blogs and google someone's name, RapperX.

But if your god really did do the things you claim it did, it's not worthy of worship.

And, whether you realize it or not, by playing the "God's will" card you prove your god to be evil. If your god meddles in our day-to-day affairs and prevents us from pursuing goals of our own choosing, the Free Will Defence can be discarded.

Telmi said...

JC,

Tks for the feedback.

Would you consider being a co-author, for a thesis I am working on, tentatively titled: "God? A Matter of Perspective"? It is almost completed [written in blunt language, no-holds barred and would appear blasphemous to some people]

rgds Telmi

tigg13 said...

Ah yes. That classical christian argument that perfectly portrays the depth of their intelligence -

"I'm right 'cause your a stupid head!"

Rapper X, are you going to actually make a point or just make noise and insult people?

.:webmaster:. said...

Rapper is a troll.

His posts will be deleted when noticed.




Hi Goldie.

gimmeadrinkawater said...

superman4real -
i know just the guy who can do your rap at an open-mike in New York City. Would you give me permission?

Naomi

superman4real2000 said...

Naomi,

I have no problem with it. Just tell me where I can go to open mike night in NYC. I travel to the UN all the time and stay for weeks. I might make it in September.

Superman4real2000

J. C. Samuelson said...

Telmi,

Sure, I'd consider it, and I'm very honored to be asked. Email me sometime (check the profile - there's an email link there).

gimmeadrinkawater said...

Superman,

here's the link to the Nuyorican Cafe on the lower East Side. http://www.nuyorican.org/
So you'd rap this yourself? I'd love to see this. Will you let me know? click on my user name and you can send me an email.

Naomi