The fact is, there are nasty, stupid people on both sides. But there are usually reasonable, well-meaning people on both sides, too. That's why I think it would be good for people to spend less time denouncing those with different beliefs, and more time explaining what they believe, what they don't believe, and most important, why. This would help those on the other side understand the thinking behind their beliefs, and realize it may be less nefarious and more logical than they thought. Now that the internet makes it easy to make your thoughts available to millions of people, we have a perfect medium for explaining why we think the way we do. We just need to start doing it. It won't stop us from disagreeing, but it could keep us from wasting our time misunderstanding and vilifying each other.
With that in mind, I'm going to do my part by explaining a belief I have that is often misunderstood. I'm a skeptic...one of those pro-science secular humanists who thinks doubt is preferable to misplaced certainty. As a skeptic, I believe that if there's little or no evidence for something, then I shouldn't believe in it. If an idea isn't supported by direct observation, science, or logic, then I'm going to assume it isn't true, at least until I find proof to the contrary. This means I'm very skeptical about anything that involves the supernatural—basically, anything that appeals to mysterious forces that science can't find any evidence for. I don't even think the idea of the supernatural even makes sense. I doubt there is supernatural. I think everything is subject to the laws of nature, even if we may not understand those laws. I think if we observe a phenomenon, and have no explanation for it, that doesn't mean it's supernatural. It just means we don't understand it yet.
My skeptical worldview means I don't believe in most of the ideas generally grouped under the heading “New Age”, including astrology, psychic powers, alien visitations, ghosts, and so on. I'm also very skeptical of lots of alternative medicines, especially if they're based on “energy paths” in the body or other processes that can't be detected scientifically, as in Reiki and similar systems. It's not that I think all alternative medicine is worthless, or that all mainstream medicine is effective or beneficial. I just think that just because a bunch of people claim some herb or traditional therapy can cure you, that doesn't mean it really can.
Finally, I don't believe in most of the tenets of any tradition religion. I'm not an atheist; I'm an agnostic, which means I don't claim to know whether there is a God or not, because I don't think I have enough evidence to make a decision. While I admire many Christian ideas about forgiveness and loving thy neighbor, I don't consider myself a Christian. I think Jesus may have been a spiritual genius, but when it comes right down to it, he is a shadowy figure that we don't really know much about. I don't believe he was a divine being, or the son of God. I'm also very doubtful that there is a heaven or hell. I think that this life is likely to be the only one we get, which means it's a tragedy when people disregard life in this world in favor of a life in the next world that probably isn't coming. I certainly don't believe I'll burn for all eternity if I don't believe or behave a certain way. There are better reasons to treat others well than a fear of eternal damnation.
Now, I want to make clear that I don't think people who believe in New Age ideas, alternative medicine, or traditional Christianity are fools. Most of the people I love and respect most believe in at least one of these things. In fact, I respect them enough that I want to explain exactly why I disagree with them. Also, I don't think all these belief systems are created equal. Religious devotion, for example, has much more moral gravity than most New Age beliefs. Far more people have devoted their lives to helping others for religious reasons than because their horoscope told them to. On the other hand, far more people have killed each other over religion than over horoscopes. Religion can cause a whole lot of good and a whole lot of bad. In comparison, something like astrology is pretty frivolous. And, while I think most religions can offer some deep insights and advice for living, I happen to think astrology is an unusually pure form of hogwash.
With that in mind, and with the added advantage that no one is likely to shoot me for bad-mouthing astrology, I want to use astrology to discus how a skeptic decides what to believe, and why. I believe a constellation such as Aquarius or Capricorn is the mind's way of imposing order on a basically random arrangement of stars; which are, after all, gigantic balls of incandescent gas so far away that their light takes years to reach us. Some of the stars in a constellation are hundreds of times as far away as others. They only seem to form a pattern when viewed from Earth, and they are moving, so in a few thousand years Capricorn will look even less like a goat than it does now. These considerations, and many others, suggest there's absolutely no reason to believe the stars influence your personality or your fate. It's not that I think astrology is uninteresting. I think it's very interesting, from a cultural standpoint, and I actually enjoy reading about the history of astrological thought. It's just that I don't think it's literally true. Therefore, I don't think people should rely on it to tell them how to live their lives.
But a lot of my friends do. In fact, a lot of them are genuinely surprised when I say I don't believe in astrology. Some even seem sad, as though they've discovered some ugly skeleton in my closet. Skeptics, alas, are not highly regarded in many circles. In general, people tend to see us as small-minded, as being stiff-necked conservatives, as killjoys, or as rude, disrespectful elitists. It's partly our own fault. Magazines like the Skeptical Enquirer can be very disrespectful of non-skeptics, and so can writers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Many of the recent books promoting atheism have a scornful, elitist tone that I find both distasteful and counterproductive. No self-respecting person will be convinced by someone who is scoffing at them, and being disrespectful is just plain rude. But skeptics don't have to adopt that tone, and I try hard not to.
I want to try to show my true-believer friends that skeptics aren't necessarily conservative or small-minded, nor do they like being killjoys. First, most skeptics are either liberals or libertarians--skepticism and religious-right conservatism are pretty much mutually exclusive. I myself am a political independent with liberal tendencies. And I hate the idea of being a killjoy. If someone finds astrology fun, satisfying, or comforting, I don't say I don't believe in it in because I'm trying to steal their joy. I say I don't believe in it because, well...I don't think it's true.
And that's where I part ways with a lot of people. If I say I believe something, I mean “I think it's actually true”. But a lot of people seem to have a different definition of belief. People believe things for all sorts of reasons, including:
- the belief is comforting or otherwise satisfying
- it's what they were brought up believing
- it's what their friends believe
- they think disbelief would lead to immorality
- they think that some things must be accepted on faith, and that people are capable of arriving at truth via faith.
When people who think in these ways talk about belief, they mean “I want to think that this is true”, “I should think this is true” or perhaps, “I've always assumed it's true, and never stopped to question it”. These are very different definitions of belief from mine, and ones that I can't in good conscience accept. All the things above might be good reasons to want something to be true, but none of them are good reasons to actually think that they are true. The only reason to believe something, as far as I'm concerned, is that there is good evidence that it is true.
But why should I be so hard-nosed about it, especially if doing so is unpopular? When I tell people I don't believe in astrology, the ensuing conversation is surprisingly predictable. It's amazing how often they respond, “But why not, it's fun!?” Then I say I don't think the fun of an idea has anything to do with its truth. Then, 9 times out of 10, they say, “But what's the harm? If I enjoy it/it makes me feel good/it gives my life a sense of meaning, why shouldn't I believe it?” These are reasonable questions. For me, the fact that it isn't true is reason in itself not to believe it. I don't want to go around half-deluded, thinking the world is a certain way, when it really isn't. I would feel that way even if false beliefs didn't have consequences.
In the case of astrology, I have to admit that it isn't an especially high impact belief. Most people don't base major decisions on it. But some do. Some people meet others and assume they have certain traits as soon as they learn their astrological sign. Or they decide they should date someone based on their sign, even though that person is clearly a jerk. If astrology really is nonsense, then putting a lot of faith in it is not likely to turn out well.
But the impact of astrology is not my main point here. I'm talking about why it might actually be a good thing to be a skeptic—to hold off on believing things until you honestly have good reasons to think they're true. If you don't believe a bunch of things you have no evidence for, you run less risk of acting in a needlessly harmful way based on falsehoods. That's the main reason I'm a skeptic, and I think it's a good enough reason that I can handle being called a close-minded killjoy, or an amoral nihilist. I'm not amoral because I'm a skeptic; I'm a skeptic, in part, because I think it will help make me more moral.
Of course, if I'm skeptical of traditional foundations of morality, such as “God said not to”, or “You'll go to hell if you do that”, then I have to find other things to base morality on. I think there are perfectly rational, non-supernatural reasons to behave in an ethical way. This is not the place to spell them out, except to note that the the Golden Rule makes sense whether you believe in higher powers or not. It's true that if people abandoned old reasons to behave well, without adopting new ones, then the world would be a pretty nasty place. But there are new ones available, and some of the old ones led to a lot of nastiness anyway.
The final point I want to make is that being a skeptic is not the same as being close-minded. For me, skepticism means not clinging to any belief so fiercely that you can't bear to ask whether it's really true or not. I'm willing to accept that any belief is true, if someone gives me really good evidence that it is. If someone convincingly demonstrated that they could read minds, and a bunch of skeptical scientists couldn't catch them cheating, then I would tentatively conclude that mind reading is actually possible. Then I would wait for someone to demonstrate the physical laws and mechanisms that allow it to happen. I wouldn't conclude that there is such a thing as the supernatural; just that we had to expand our definition of natural. The point is, I would be open to the possibility, if the evidence were strong. Of course, if someone claimed they could read minds, I would suspect they were wrong or dishonest, simply because current science doesn't know of any mechanism by which mind-reading would work. But there's always the possibility that today's science will drastically reconsidered. It's happened before.
In short, I think skepticism and open-mindedness are two sides of the same coin. That coin is a stance of not latching on to any belief strongly until you have good evidence for it. It's true that I tentatively presume something is false until proven otherwise, but that's because far more ideas turn out to be false than true.
As I look back over this rather dry essay, I'm not sure I've succeeded in showing that skeptics aren't a bunch of killjoys. It's tough to write something that's both entertaining and closely-argued. But I hope I've dispelled some other misconceptions about skeptics. I can't speak for other skeptical types, but my motives have nothing to do with taking away anyone's fun, with trying to seem superior, or with trying to make anyone else seem dumb. My motive is simple: I want what I believe to actually be true. That's why I hold all beliefs at arm's length until feel like I have a real basis to accept or reject them—based on evidence, not desire, social pressure, or habit . While doubt may not be as satisfying as true belief, in a world where so many things actually are uncertain, doubt is far more realistic. For a whole lot of life's big questions, the most honest answer is “I don't know”. There many, many things I don't know, but there's one thing I'm pretty sure of: Misplaced certainty has caused a lot more suffering, and killed far more innocent people, than principled doubt ever has.