Monday, June 18, 2012

Why I'm a skeptic

PZ Myers has been running a series of posts on his blog lately entitled "Why I'm an Atheist".  He's invited readers to submit their personal stories, and he posts at least one a day.  I'll be honest; I haven't read them all.  Many of them start to seem the same after a while, with a few exceptions where the writer gets into some deeply personal experiences.  I've been tempted to write my own entry as well, and one has been swimming around in my head for some time now.

I've also wanted to write this because every now and then, I'm asked why I am an atheist by somebody.  Now, when I get asked this, it's not so much that they want to know why I don't believe in ANY gods; it's that they want to know why I don't believe in their particular deity of choice.  Either way though, I have a hard time coming up with a simple answer.  I'm tempted to be snarky and say, "'Cause what you believe is hella bull and crap" or "Because your beliefs are frikken' nutty".

While not completely an inaccurate representation of how I feel, answers like that aren't very constructive or illustrative of exactly what happened.  They would only serve to amuse my fellow nonbelievers, and I'll be honest with you: I'd rather give an answer that makes the other person think a little about exactly why he believes what he believes than an answer that just turns him off completely to my point of view.

So, that's the problem.  I struggled coming up with a simple answer, and I think that I finally have it.

I'm an atheist because I'm a skeptic.  Now, I've had Christians tell me that they're "skeptics too" and maybe they are when it comes to 99% of the fantastic claims that are made, but you don't get to be a real skeptic if you dismiss unicorns, astrology, and alien abductions but still make room for a magical carpenter who was his own son.

I suppose I should explain what I mean by being a skeptic, and I reckon that it's a definition with which most skeptics would agree.  A skeptic is a person who requires evidence in order to believe something, and the more fantastic the claim, the more fantastic the evidence must be.  If you tell me that you have a penny in your pocket, I don't need to actually see the penny, since I have evidence of pennies and people owning pennies.  Sure, you could be lying, but it's not really important to my life if you are, so it's fine for me to just believe it.  Now, if you say you have a gremlin in your pocket, then you're going to have to show me that gremlin because as far as I know, there is neither evidence of gremlins nor is their evidence of people owning them and keeping them in their pockets.

Therefore, if things like psychics, astrology, alien abductions, etc. were indeed true, then the world I'm living in would be drastically different from what I understand it to be.  So if I'm going to believe in those things, then I'm going to need some compelling evidence to do so.  And of course, same goes with the notion of an all-powerful being who created the universe.  I'm going to need something solid, and no circular argument or special pleading is going to convince me.  After all, it doesn't convince me of the other stuff; why should it convince me of something that's potentially even MORE important?

But why be a skeptic?  Why hold this particular world view?  Because it's the only way that gets to the truth as far as I can see.  If I don't apply the same standards to what I accept and what I don't accept, then believing one thing over another is completely arbitrary.  I mean, I really dig the idea that aliens built the pyramids.  I think that would be really cool if that happened.  However, I'm not going to believe it just because I like it more than other beliefs with similar flimsy proofs.  (What about Jesus?  Wouldn't I want him to be real?  Actually, no.  But that answers why I'm also an antitheist, which would be another blog post.)

How did I get to be a skeptic?  Blame astrology.  I always had a sneaking suspicion that it was all a load of malarkey, even when I was a kid.  Even though I didn't have the vocabulary to express it, everything about it was so vague that even a twelve year old could suss it out that those descriptions could apply to anybody.  As I got older, I was cursed with working with people who, like the worst sort of religious proselytizers, would always talk about their signs and mine as though it actually meant something.  Again, I knew it was bunk, but I sought out those who could provide me with the language to explain WHY it was bunk.  That led me to Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, which led me to Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things and ultimately to James Randi's Flim Flam!  (James Randi is the dude with the beard in the picture.)  I became a student of skepticism, and I started to understand its rules, and I took them on as my own lens with which to see the world - even though I had already been doing so when it came to astrology, at least.  In time, I started to realize that my heroes were nonbelievers as well when it came to a god, and it was because they applied their skepticism to that the same way they did everything else.

What was I to do if I was to be honest about how I look at the world?  How could I have any sense of pride if I held some things to one standard but my religious beliefs, which again are arguably even more important, to another?

I realize that a lot of people think of us skeptics as closed minded individuals.  We just won't believe in anything, will we?  You'll notice though that these accusations are only leveled at us when we don't believe what the other person would have us believe.  Somebody accused me of being like this with Christianity.  The fact that my attitude is exactly the same toward Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Scientology, etc. didn't seem to be a problem though.

I recently stumbled across a quote by Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist from the 19th century.  His explanation of skepticism perfectly defined what it is for me:  "I am too much of a skeptic to deny the possibility of anything..."  Because that's what it is.  Being a skeptic doesn't mean that I automatically dismiss all of those fantastic claims.  I think that any one of them could be true.  I could be TOTALLY off base when it comes to this whole Jesus thing.  (That's where the Christians think, "Wow, there's hope for him!")  I could also be wrong about this whole Scientology thing.  (That's where I lose the Christians.  I mean, Xenu?  Come on.  He ain't no Satan, which is perfectly more sensible, eh?)

In other words, I'm totally open-minded.  In fact, I reckon we skeptics are more open-minded than most religious people, who wholeheartedly embrace their belief system while easily dismissing other ones that have just as much evidence as theirs.  I suppose that this is where I should include Huxley's entire quote:  "I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything — especially as I am now so much occupied with theology — but I don't see my way to your conclusion."

One last thing - oftentimes I've been told that I sound more like an agnostic than an atheist.  I realize that many folks who read my blog already know this, but I want to point it out for those who don't.  An agnostic is one who doesn't know if there is a god or not.  I have never made the claim that I know whether a god exists or not.  So yes, I am an agnostic.  However, my opinion is that there isn't a god, and I'm not going to believe in one until I have a good reason to do so.  This is why I'm also an atheist.  (And yes, it's possible to be an agnostic and a theist - which is what I was for some time before I became an atheist.  Perhaps that's yet another blog post.)

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