My brothers and sisters who take it upon themselves to evaluate and criticize religious claims are often asked “Why bother? Why not leave people who aren’t harming others to their own beliefs?” Some of us are accused of being caustic, intolerant, or arrogant. Aren’t we guilty of the same crime as those who wish to force their religious agendas on others? Perhaps some of us are guilty of these charges at times, but I’d like to make the point that, on the whole, those of us who dare to challenge faith-based assertions are doing noble and useful work.
My starting point might seem odd. I want to say a word on certainty, since so many seem to think that self-proclaimed skeptics appear more certain of themselves than the name calls for, and it can alienate skeptics from believers.
The Face of Certainty
It is difficult for many – most, in my experience – to distinguish between “I do not accept that X is true” and “I am certain that X is false.” No matter how much explaining I do, many around me are determined to believe that the questions and arguments I apply to their particular views on politics, religion, and science convey my certainty that they are incorrect. Nine times out of ten, when a rational person denies a claim, he is employing the former “I do not accept that X is true” and would be embarrassed to inhabit such a silly state as certainty. More on that later.
When I was religious, I was absolutely certain that there was a God, and no evidence could speak against him. I held dearly and carefully catalogued each of my beliefs about him, and all new evidence could accomplish, at best, was to provoke me to revise my reasons for believing to accommodate it. At the end of each day, my beliefs remained identical while my stated reasons for believing evolved with the new information I received. And yet, my fellow believers did not once accuse me of arrogance for feeling so secure in my (our) highly specific view of God, nor for our shared confidence that the vast majority of the world failed to understand him as well as we did.
To offer an extreme example, I recently asked a member of the clergy how certain he was that he was correct – not merely in the belief that there is a God, but in the belief that the reverend has correctly identified him, properly interpreted his word, and stands in the smallest minority of those who do. He assured me, after repeated attempts on my part to clarify, that he is no less than 100% certain. I asked whether he might be rounding up from a modest 99.999%, which he flatly denied. That is the face of certainty, and if you find it on the skeptic, presumably on her worst day, she is failing spectacularly to live up to the name.
The Face of Skepticism
I believe life on earth is the product of a long and gradual process of evolution by natural selection because the evidence is such that it seems absurd to deny it. I would, however, be most willing, even on this proposition, to alter my view in a single day if evidence were introduced (such as J.B.S. Haldane’s “rabbits in the Precambrian”) to throw the proposition into question. As it happens, my confidence in evolution is not rooted in certainty, but survives in fair proportion to the strength of the evidence in its favor, which happens to be decisive. My rejection of the proposition that life was created by any of the gods represented in any religion is quite a different thing.
That rejection is not a belief but a lack of belief, based on a corresponding lack of persuasive evidence. I have taken seriously the philosophical, scientific, and anecdotal arguments in favor of a vast array of religious claims and do not find them convincing. That is not certainty. Certainty, to which I was once so hospitable, is now an ugly creature in the corner of my mind to be warded off when it inches near.
This way of evaluating claims and investing or withholding belief does not make the skeptic better or smarter than anyone else. It is merely a more effective way to obtain information and form beliefs. A skeptic isn’t a better builder; he is a builder who has decided to use tools that are proven to work more effectively. The confidence – often mistaken for certainty or arrogance – is (or should be) placed in the superior tools and not in personal ability, mental capacity, or depth of knowledge, none of which are vouched safe to be relied on as reliable sources of truth.
But self-proclaimed skeptics seem so arrogant!
It can admittedly be hard to swallow the apparent arrogance of many unbelievers, even if it does pale in comparison to the true arrogance of religious certainty. I’d like to devote a short moment to supply a few possible explanations.
First, those who reject religious claims are in a minority, and it can be hard for a Christian, for example, to imagine what Christianity looks like to someone who is not indoctrinated by it. I will speak for myself on this topic and confess that Islam seems no more or less likely to be true than Christianity – I am untroubled in the face of questions like “What if you’re wrong?” for the same reason the average Christian would be untroubled when confronted with the same question with respect to Islam.
Some skeptics do mistakenly begin to attribute their escape from indoctrination, not to their adherence to effective thinking tools, but to their own superiority. This is an egregious mistake but an all too human one.
Some features of our culture also tarnish the way we view skeptical inquiry. Chief among these is the likelihood that any unsolicited attempt to educate or question someone else will be perceived as condescending or presumptuous. Some of us might have more friends if we abstained from the practice altogether, but I’d like to offer an analogy to help others understand just how difficult it is for us to hold our peace.
Imagine you are living in another time and find yourself among the 1% – 4% of people who do not believe in magic, curses, and a host of pagan deities. Everyone around you accepts off-hand that spells and magic rituals are a daily necessity and concern. Most believers are fairly harmless, but the extremists among them sacrifice animals to appease angry gods. Even the benign believers show troubling symptoms of this system. Most of them believe that dark and light skinned people should not be allowed to breed or marry, for the ancient texts read “It is an abomination for the seed of darkness to corrupt a child of light; even so, does not nature itself declare it is a shame that dark skin should know the light?” Most don’t believe such breeding should be punishable by death – that is an old and barbaric practice – but they do pity those who do so, for the texts state that an eternal Feast of Daemons awaits them, as well as those who support their heinous acts.
Pardon the inclusion of what is probably a clumsy and artless same-sex marriage parallel, if you can, and imagine the frustration you would experience as you daily watched people make serious decisions, personal and political, based on unfounded superstitions. Would you find it easy to consider passively the sophisticated, moderate pagan, who for the most part lives his day-to-day without reference to his faith, visits the local witchdoctor only once a week, but who nevertheless does nothing to improve a society whose members actively seek to systematize intolerance for religious reasons? And on those occasions in which your frustration overcame you, how would you react to charges that you are too sure of yourself and can’t possibly hope to prove sacrificing animals will not bring rain. How would you take to the accusation that you are an intolerant bully who would do better just to live and let live? It is after all, only a “personal conviction” that different races should not interbreed.
The Force of Devotion
I live in a culture wherein some of the most loving, understanding, compassionate people I know earnestly believe that homosexuals commit high treason against God when they commit sexual acts, and that legally allowing their unions is a threat to marriage as he prescribes it. They believe the punishment for refusing to accept that Jesus was tortured to death for our wrongdoing is worse than death. They believe they were born sick with sin and have been commanded to be well on pain of eternal suffering, which they and everyone on earth rightly deserves. Some of them even accept asinine scientific claims based on their favorite reading of Genesis. When they voice other, seemingly inconsequential, beliefs and values, I am inclined to question, even to correct, because even the benign beliefs are obtained by the same deficient method as the beliefs they hold which really doharm other people.
I repeat: it is not the false belief the skeptic truly detests, but the faulty means by which some beliefs are obtained.
Each of us has a stake in something about which we simply cannot “agree to disagree.” Some devote themselves to particular causes you and I might find bizarre, in part because people don’t always get to decide what causes and values earn their devotion. When we are truly devoted to a thing, we can’t help but share it; and we construct groups and forums and even elaborate communities in which to do so. When something is important enough to us, we will share it even if it means chaining ourselves to trees to protect old-growth forests.
The skeptic would chain himself to the truth, if he could. The truth is, however, often elusive, and we are all distanced from it by the same biases and pitfalls. So we chain ourselves instead to the methods by which truth is most reliably obtained. We chain ourselves to science, free discourse, and a deliberate disregard for our most cherished opinions. And some of us do our best, at the risk of being branded intolerant, caustic, and arrogant, to help others see the value in this practice.