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?

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