Musings of a Skeptic

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Skeptic – One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; an inquirer after facts or reason – Websters Online

I am a skeptic, by which I mean that I like to focus on an evidence-based approach to life and the world. Actually it’s more than ‘I like to’. I can’t do otherwise.

This doesn’t mean that I am compelled to investigate everything first hand – that way leads to madness. Rather, I place trust in those who also profess an evidence-based way of life. Actually if you want to categorise this as some kind of ‘faith’, then go ahead.

Critics of skepticism (usually of the religious kind) often deride skeptics for this ‘faith’, as being no different to their brand of faith. But there is a qualitative difference: mine is a faith in a process and the achievements of mankind, while theirs is a faith in the existence of one or more gods/spirits/etc. One is demonstrable, while the other is defined by its inability to demonstrate its existence.  One is a testament to the observational and creative skills of humans, while the other asks that its adherents suspend their skills and practice credulity.  One allows us to revel in the discovery of the nature of the universe and ourselves, while the other demands that credit for the universe be given to some being and that our lives be lived on the basis of a variety of texts of dubious origins.

Religious types often pose the questions “but don’t you feel alone? Isn’t existence pointless without some belief in God?” or similar sentiments. To me, these questions simply betray the mindset of the questioner. They feel alone, and they need to belong, or be guided. They are also extremely inflexible about the manner in which these feelings are addressed. No, it has to be Jesus, Ishvara, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or Thor etc. In fact, some people join the army for the same reasons. Don’t question; do! It’s all in the Standard Operating Procedures. Become an officer, and tell others in the group what to do. Don’t tow the line, and we’ll throw you out or otherwise punish you. Work tirelessly to kill or convert the enemy.

Many have written about the evolutionary origins of these feelings, and I find these theories generally plausible. But why is it that I, and many others, don’t share these feelings? My brain is not special – it did not have a unique upbringing. I can confidently say that my feelings on this are hard-wired – in fact, to repeat a phrase in the first sentence in this post – I can’t do otherwise.

Despite being carted off to church with my parents from a young age, it just didn’t do it for me – it was just fiction and mumbo-jumbo. But give me a book on dinosaurs, or space, or comic books, or put me in front of the TV for ‘superman’ or ‘lost in space’ or ‘star trek’, and the scene was set. A good question would now be: “then how come you eschewed one form of perceived fiction for another?” I’m unclear on this, but I think the answer has something to do with a connection to science, and the potential for the my sort of fiction to be real. Of course, to respond that my chosen fiction is preferred because it is not being represented as being a reality, is to create a circular argument.

The potential is the thing. That word connotes a pressure to change, and characterises our learning, discovery and advancement. H.G. Wells summed it up beautifully in a single phrase, in the title of his book ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, published in 1933. And potential is precisely what religion seems to lack; indeed, there is a pressure to stay the same – inertia instead of potential, to use the jargon of physics.

So to wrap up this ramble, no I don’t feel alone, nor do I feel existence is pointless, precisely because the natural world is awe-inspiring in its mere existence and potential. How much more interesting does something need to be???? The inexorably unfolding story of nature is as gripping as my small brain can imagine.  It’s potential is the point. On the other hand, I simply cannot imagine a world whose entire sweep is limited by a series of lame historical stories, bounded above and below by heaven and hell, and offering, in return for obedience, the chance to avoid burning in hell for eternity.

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3 thoughts on “Musings of a Skeptic

    neutralturn said:
    November 30, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    I don’t disagree with anything said but my experience of theism was a little different. I was brought up in an ordinarily religious family and became a conventional theist because all the authority figures in my life said that there was a god. I was ( and generally still am) a respecter of authority so I believed it. When I grew up and came to see that the whole business was absurd I threw it all overboard and experienced a great feeling of relief and freedom. Really, I had served as but a conscript in god’s army. I had never connected emotionally with any of it. But some people do. I wonder if I had have experienced feelings of security and comfort from religion, rather than the anxiety and menace I actually felt, would I have so quickly have abandoned it; or would I have found some workaround enabling me to retain both my religion and my rationality? I sometimes think atheism is as much a reflection of personality type as much as of a rigourosly rational mind set. Pure reason is only part of human intelligence; the term “human intelligence” here being used as one might speak of dolphin intelligence or canine intelligence.

      rationalbrain said:
      December 1, 2010 at 9:31 am

      Couldn’t agree more with:

      I sometimes think atheism is as much a reflection of personality type as much as of a rigourosly rational mind set. Pure reason is only part of human intelligence;

      This is what I think I meant with the ‘hardwiring’ description in my original post. However, my point was that simply describing the preferences as personality is somewhat circular – i.e. if we define personality as a set of thoughts and actions (or preferences for them) , then I’m asking:why are my thoughts and actions determined by my thoughts and actions?
      I guess the real question is, what shapes the personality to be so? It’s fairly trite to say that we all have different personalities, but this issue is not a subtle one; it’s not that person A has a sunnier disposition than B – person A actually has some substantially different wiring in respect of what it takes to be religious. So how does that come about? Maybe there is a simply normal distribution, and we are talking about the tails, but it seems more polarised than that to me.

    neutralturn said:
    December 2, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    I think personality type and atheism are quite different beasts. The former exists within the subconscious (or is it technically the unconscious?) whereas the latter is(appears to be) a product of the conscious mind. About hard wiring for religious belief, I think all humans are so wired. Anyone who,like me, uses expressions such as, “Touch wood!”, or “Don’t say it!” or even “All going well” is paying deference to them up there; they who watch and listen, who own the future and guard it jealously against the presumptions of mortals who might make claims to predict it. To say out loud, without qualification, something like, “I’m a bound to get the job” is seriously to compromise the chance of actually getting it. To say, “I’m in with a chance, all going well” is much better. The interesting thing is that, while I know they up there are not real, the unease I would feel in overtly stating a belief in my future good fortune would be real. So I don’t do it. Sometimes I think I should, as a matter of loyalty to my position. Then that would be irrational; to do something I know will discomfort me to make a point to an abstract, non-existent witness. So my behaviour is modified by entities I know do not exist! This seems to be a case of belief and disbelief coexisting. Consideration of this paradox perhaps offers a window into the nature of religious belief.

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