Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why I'm a Skeptic

One of the reasons I started this blog is that I think people these days are missing a great opportunity. The internet could help us better understand each other, but far more often it demonstrates how badly we misunderstand each other. When I watch arguments unfold in online comment threads, I'm always struck by how severely people misconstrue the other side's basic arguments and motivations. All too often, people misunderstand the motives and reasoning of those on the other side of an ideological divide. Put crudely, they think the folks on the other side believe what they do because they are stupider and meaner than the folks on their side.

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.

But beliefs do have consequences. People act on their beliefs, and those actions have real effects. For thousands of years, millions of people literally believed in the story of Adam and Eve. Because of this, many of them believed (and some still believe) that women are inferior and secondary to men, and that they are the source of much of the evil in the world. And they didn't just believe it; they acted on it, treating women as second-class citizens, to do menial chores under the watchful eye of men. This false belief caused an enormous amount of needless injustice, and history is full of similarly toxic beliefs. In fact, the world is still full of them today.

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.


  1. 1)supernatural... do you want to go stay at the myrtles sometime?
    2)astrology: sometimes its just fun to suspend belief and pretend that b/c the paper/my fortune cookie says it, my life will change today
    3)i appreciate the part where you go from the story of adam and eve as why women are treated as second class citizens
    4)couldnt help but notice you skipped over evolution entirely...

  2. I would like to go to the Myrtles sometime, actually. I don't rule out the possibility of ghosts 100%. More like 97%. Once I actually looked on youtube for purported ghost videos to see if any looked convincing. No dice. As for evolution, I'm all for it ;)

  3. Just because you don't believe in it doesn't make it not true. Just sayin'. Plus I hope your right about the Jesus thing 'cause if your not....? Then what? Try it, you might just like it :) It looks like your searching for something....I really hope you find a place for your spirit to be at peace.

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment. I'm up at 4:30 in the morning (because I've got a sore throat, not because my spirit isn't at peace). "Just because you don't believe in it doesn't make it not true" I agree with that completely. I also agree with the converse: Just because you believe in it doesn't make it true. The fact is, I'm not positive I'm correct. I think it's quite possible I could be wrong. Which is another reason I'm a skeptic.

    When you say "I hope you're right about the Jesus thing", do you mean that if I'm not I will go to hell? The thing is, I don't think the fact that a belief includes an internal coercion to believe it means that it is true, or that you should believe it. The idea "if you don't do x (believe, in this case) something bad will happen to you, but if you do x something good will happen" is very good at spreading itself, because it bullies people into spreading it. It works exactly like a chain letter: "If you don't forward this letter, something bad will happen, but if you do, something good will happen". That's how chain letters spread, by intimidating people into spreading them.

    I'm not trying to insult Christianity by comparing it to a cheap chain letter; I'm just saying that particular justification for faith is like a chain letter. Surely there are better reasons for believing than being afraid not to believe? I think a reasonable, good God would expect us to use our capacity for reason, and see that the carrot/stick factor of an idea is not a reason to believe it. The only good reason to believe it, as I repeat above, is that it is true.

    Also, the same logic for believing in the divinity of Jesus (because you'll go to hell if you don't) could apply to any religion. If you had grown up Muslim, you might think that if you didn't believe that Allah is the only God, and Muhammad is his prophet, you will go to hell. Imagine that you grew up Muslim: Do you think you would be justified in believing this?

    The thing is, I have tried Christianity. I grew up going to Baptist and Methodist churches, and never questioned Christianity until I was nearly 20. I honestly didn't like it; I found it too guilt-ridden and dogmatic. And I promise my spirit is pretty much at peace. Sure, I think about this kind of thing a lot, but that's because I'm fascinated by these ideas, not because I'm tormented by a hole in my spiritual life.

    I don't mean to sound aggressive or defensive, especially since you seem like a nice person. I just want you to know my response to the points you make. I really do appreciate your kind tone and your concern. If I'm going on and on, well, what else is there to do when you're up with a sore throat at 5 in the morning. Cheers :)

  5. Hey there,

    Yeah, I hate religion too. I am still saved, but currently don't go to church. 'church' for me is in my heart mind and spirit. The exact places that Christ wants to dwell. I don't really think he gives a rip about the building I would go to every Sunday. I am the temple for Him. I don't like organized religions because they can breed guilt, but, by belief I am saved, I do not have to work for it.. I believe it's really simple...God asks for faith in his son, you make that decision, and He will prove his existence to you. Muslim is a man made religion, all lies, our God is not Allah, Allah asks too much and is fictitious... When the Holy Spirit dwells within all the lies become crystal clear. It seems like the churches in your early life had a religious spirit and really turned you off. I once was there too.I've just seen some things/had some things happen that were absolutely encounters with Christ. I asked for proof and had to get past my pride. As for the hell thing.... Hell was created for satan, not for us. But the reality is, we live in a fallen world, and for those who do not believe in Christ, it is a reality. That's a hard one....even for me, and I'm not going there.... It's just a choice, really. It's a threat people hold over our heads, not God. They are freaked out for people's eternal resting place. It's a spiritual law....just like the law of gravity, even if we don't believe in gravity it still exists. Hell shouldn't be the focus for belief. God just wants relationship with us, not our money, good works, guilt, etc etc...that is the churches that have given his love a bad name. They made it into a business. I do not allow anyone else to represent God to me except God (by his word)and by our relationship. The Bible has many interpretations of it's scriptures, and I let God tell me what is and what isn't. Not some preacher condemning me on Sunday.If you have a relationship, He will let you know what he means. The pro lifers take God's word and bully people with it, contort it and turn people totally off of Christ. There is nothing a person could do that would disqualify themselves from the 'prize' of heaven, except to not believe. Not abortion, not murder, not the worst of the worst...just lack of faith. It's so simple, but it gets represented in a wrong way. And if I may be completely honest, I believe by your large thread, you are searching....which is awesome.

  6. Do I know you? It doesn't matter; just curious.

    The thing is, I don't think we are going to convince each other of anything, because we're playing by different rules. You're stating things as facts, and only offering your faith as proof. I just don't accept that as proof. I don't believe a statement until I can put a foundation of evidence under that statement that seems capable of holding it up. By evidence, I mean either logical proof, or observational evidence that more than one person can verify.

    You believe things based on faith and a conviction that a sensation you felt was God's presence. The human brain produces those sensations in religious people, no matter what the religion is. I don't mean to be dismissive at all, but I don't trust those sensations, no matter how strong they are. I'm sure lots of ancient Greeks had powerful, overwhelming sensations of Zeus speaking to them directly. I'm sure that it was absolutely convincing to them, but that doesn't mean I think Zeus really spoke to them.

    Anyway, we have two different ways of deciding what is true. I don't accept your criteria, and you don't seem to be interested in considering mine. It's like we're trying to play cards, but you're playing Hearts, and I'm playing Spades. The game won't work, unless we can agree on a way of keeping score.

    But that's OK. The important thing is that we can respect each other, and not decide that, because we don't see things the same way, we must be enemies. I'm a decent person, and so are you. If we can agree on that, I'm satisfied.