In Defense of Skepticism

One of the biggest downfalls of institutions, particularly religious institutions, is their demand for ideological homogeneity.  This mentality goes far beyond a unity of purpose and extends to the point where any disagreement, even a nuanced difference of opinion, is not tolerated.

The usual response from most institutional church members is a defensive, two-part reaction:

  1. “That’s ridiculous.  My church doesn’t do that.  We allow for differences of opinion—at least within reason.  We only demand adherence to the fundamentals.”

“So you’ll let someone teach Sunday school that doesn’t think that your water baptism ritual is something that Jesus commanded 21st century Christians to do?

  1. “Well, we have to defend the truth.  The Bible commands us to do that.  Therefore, we won’t tolerate anyone who doesn’t speak the truth [as we understand it].”

The reality is that if you don’t agree in exact detail with the institutional statement of faith, then you may be welcome to sit in the pew and submit yourself to indoctrination competent instruction of the Word—as long as you don’t dare express a dissenting opinion.  And if you have any questions that can’t actually be explained, you are required to “just have faith.”  Essentially, you are required to assent to a belief, and the foundation is someone else’s personal interpretation of a biblical passage or two.

I’ve written in the past about how detrimental this mindset is—to the questioner, as well as to members of the institution.

QuestionerWhenever we institutionalize our beliefs, we stifle learning.  We stop offering reasons for our beliefs and start requiring blind adherence to them.  We stop learning and growing because we feel that we’ve reached the pinnacle of the Truth.

Which is why I’ve always been a fan of skepticism.  Skepticism is almost universally denigrated by the Christian community (the same goes for most other religious and political communities, but they aren’t my primary focus).  Skepticism is treated as the enemy of faith or a rebellion against faith, whereas I would consider it to be the first step on the path to true faith.

I heard this quote yesterday from Neil deGrasse Tyson about scientific thinking: 

… it means knowing how to invoke skepticism.  Skepticism allows an open mind for things that you’re unfamiliar with to be true.  But it does not allow your mind to be so open that your brains spill out and you lose the capacity to judge what is true and what is not.1

I appreciate Neil’s willingness to have his views challenged, while still pursuing the truth without being naive.

I think the best approach is to pursue the truth, but be gentle with people whose views don’t exactly align with ours, and be willing to have our assumptions challenged.  We might be surprised what we learn.

_____________________________

1Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Tim Ferriss Show, “Neil deGrasse Tyson — How to Dream Big, Think Scientifically, and Get More Done (#389),” October 3, 2019, https://tim.blog/2019/10/03/neil-degrasse-tyson/

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