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Honest skepticism is important for discovering the truth!

by Tom Crawford

revised 6/23/2008

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If you are reading my blog, there is a good chance that you are a skeptic.  Skepticism is an important attribute to have in many areas of our lives.  Here are three examples.

Scientists should be skeptics.  Good scientists in some ways are trained to be skeptics.  They need to be skeptical of new scientific claims.  In fact, peer review is an important part of the scientific method.  Did the scientist making the claim do things thoroughly?  Does it make sense theoretically?  Does it agree with what is known already?  Does it challenge something that we think we know and show that it was a false assumption?  Does it check out experimentally?  Are the observations and/or experiments repeatable?  There are even scientists (more than I would like to think), that accept the latest fad or junk science, not because it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt, but because either their peers might sneer at them, or because they can’t get government or other funding for their research unless they accept it.  Learning the truth about the universe depends in part on being skeptical of current and proposed theories, otherwise no new knowledge will be obtained.

Engineers should be skeptics.  Where I work, we have peer reviews of engineering designs and analysis that we have done, to make sure we are on the right track and so that we don’t embarrass ourselves or the company in front of a customer.  Sometimes lives may depend on my engineering designs too, making finding flaws up front very important.  Designing the best product means we have to look at our designs with a skeptical eye so that we can improve them.

Everyone at some level needs to be a skeptic.  Skepticism benefits us in our personal lives too.  We need to be skeptical of claims made by advertisers and salesmen.  Otherwise we get ourselves in a financial mess, or at the least, end up with a product that we don’t want or need.  Financial decisions I have made in the past that were spur-of-the-moment and made out of emotion, have almost always been bad decisions.  A couple have been costly.  In the upcoming election season, we also need to be skeptical of the promises and claims that the politicians are making.  Are they being truthful?  Do they have a trustworthy character?  Are they over blowing a problem (global warming, the economy, how evil one party or the other is, etc.) just to work up your emotions and get you to vote for them? 

Skepticism, according to the American Heritage Dictionary (©1981), means to have “a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind.”  This in itself is neither positive nor negative.  Skeptics can be either way.  A skeptic, who is honest with himself, or who is also skeptical of his own motives, can be skeptical in a positive way.  A skeptic of this brand (I’ll call him an honest skeptic) can be a positive influence in science, in engineering, in life, and even in religion.  On the other hand, there are skeptics that are belligerent and argumentative.  An honest skeptic is seeking the truth, and the betterment of all involved.  A belligerent skeptic many times is not interested in the truth at all.  Instead he is only interested in showing others how smart he is, or he is deceiving himself about how smart he is.

So what does this have to do with religion and Christianity and faith?  Well, honest skeptics are seeking the truth.  Honest skepticism, questioning and doubting things in pursuit of getting closer to the truth, is in some ways the opposite of accepting things by blind faith, and this is needed very much in religion.  Some examples:

  • The world is full of religions.  How many religions are there in the world?  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, Animism, Baha’i-ism, Wicca, New Age philosophy, Scientology, etc. – these are the ones that come to mind is just a few seconds of thought.  All religions may teach portions of truth, but they cannot all be true!  Why?  Because their teachings conflict with each other!  How can one decide?  An honest skeptic can ask the right questions, weigh the evidence, and move toward the truth.
  • Religious leaders can be deceived.  Even the teaching of a well meaning, good religious leader needs to be scrutinized, because people have flaws, and may themselves be deceived spiritually.  And none of us knows the motives in their heart.  An example of the latter would be:  The teachings of the Dalai Lama, Mohamed, the Pope, and Billy Graham cannot all be right.  I cannot attribute false or evil motives to any of them.  But since their teachings all conflict in one or more points, they cannot all be teaching the truth.  We therefore need to be skeptical of their teachings, as we examine the validity of what they are saying.
  • Cults and charlatans.  How many charlatans and cult leaders are teaching religious distortions for fame, fortune, or power?  Many (not all) televangelists seem to be in that career field because it can be lucrative.  Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists have hijacked portions of a major world religion, not for righteous purposes, but for global power.  Not every religious leader is a crook, but there are those that are.  We need to be skeptical of new teachings or the latest fad in religion.
  • Our own motives.  In your personal life, what are your motives for doing things?  Do you do things just to make yourself look better than your neighbor – so that you look pious or righteous?  (This is called hypocrisy by the way.)  Or do you do good things (pray, eat or drink certain things, do or don’t do certain things) because you think it will win favor with God?  Many times we do not know our own motives for doing things.  We need to be skeptical of ourselves and our motives.
… if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  But let each one examine his own work … Galatians 6:3-4 NASB®

The question is not whether we are skeptics; we should be in many areas of our life.  Skepticism, or not accepting things in blind faith, is important to discovering and honing in on the truth, and to keep from being deceived in many areas of our lives!  The question is – “Are we honest skeptics or are we belligerent skeptics?”  Are we willing to examine facts and evidence, accept them when it is appropriate, and move towards the truth?  Or are we just playing some game to show everyone how smart we are or deceiving ourselves by accepting a lie?

So to sum up, being a skeptic is not wrong.  Honest skepticism helps us advance our knowledge of both the universe and of God.  Skepticism also helps protect us from those who want to take advantage of us or even harm us, both physically and spiritually.  But we need to strive to be honest skeptics instead of belligerent skeptics.  And we need to be skeptical of ourselves and our own motives.  The ultimate goal of an honest skeptic is to move closer to the truth.  My next blog will take a look at some Biblical examples of honest skepticism.

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