Being A Curious Skeptic

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The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.

Curiosity

However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

13 thoughts on “Being A Curious Skeptic

  1. Love what you did hear. And I admire your writing. Your post is a great example of clear, concise and compelling online writing. I wish more bloggers would imitate you.

    Let me be frank and cut to the chase: Christians start with a faith. And from there, they seek to understand that faith. I came to Christianity after spending 35 years as a hardened skeptic. And I didn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection, walking on water, the apocalyptic writing’s of Daniel and Revelation. Vaguely aware of them, yes. But I was never convinced of them or did anybody give me enough evidence to believe.

    The fact is, nobody persuaded me to be a Christian. I hit rock bottom when my wife busted me for infidelity and threatened to leave me, taking the kids with her. I begged her to stay, and said I would do anything to save our marriage. Something told me to start reading my Bible and as I did…and I listened to people like John Piper and Ray Comfort and John MacArthur…I began to recognize my depravity and began to plead to God for his mercy. Mind you, this was after I spent ten years as a very active member in a pentecostal church.

    Listen: I wasn’t convinced by enough evidence to become a Christian. And you won’t ever be either. So get rid of that thought. If you do come to a point in your life where you say, “Hey, I think I’m going to give this Christian thing ago,” expect to fail big.

    Eshu, I know parts of Christianity sound absurd. But the core of it is a historical figure named Jesus Christ. Much of what you’ve probably been exposed to is not historical Christianity. It’s gnosticism, enthusiasm, orphicism, semi-pelagianism, where the historical figure of Christ is cast out and our own personal experiences and feelings supplant reason. Harold Bloom documents this beautifully in “The American Religion.” If you can, get your hands on it.

    I’m super glad I’ve met you and I’m truly interested in who you are and I so appreciate your authentic, respectful attitude towards me and my faith. If my blog produces nothing more than a secure, rich friendship with you, it will have been a success. Believe me when I say this: I look forward to future discussion.

    C. S. Lewis kept agnostic and atheist company his entire life. Jesus did, too. I think all genuine Christians at some point want to. I intend to do the same. Even though you’re belief, naturalism, has nothing to offer me, you do: a fresh, sharp way of looking at things that will keep me on my toes. I hope we can continue this.

    Sincerely: Demian Farnworth

  2. Thanks Demian,

    Yes I’m aware that people don’t often change their minds for the most rational reasons, and it is hard to be completely rational in making decisions, but it is something worthwhile to aim for. I wrote about this in the context of beliefs a while ago.

    When you talk about “starting from faith”, it seems odd to me that your faith was chosen arbitrarily or at least not deliberately. Ever wondered where you’d be if you’d had the same experiences within a community of millions of Hindus?

    Thanks, I’ve been there and done the Christian thing. I had faith and like you tried to understand it. The more I thought, the less sense it made. The only way I could’ve carried on was not to think about it, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking. I eventually came to the conclusion that my faith in Christianity was wrong. I was already (perhaps unfairly) biased against all other religions, so agnosticism then atheism followed.

    Likewise I intend to converse with people who think differently to myself, particularly theists. Most of those I know currently are Christians, but I’m planning to investigate some other belief systems soon. Again, out of curiosity.

  3. “Ever wondered where you’d be if you’d had the same experiences within a community of millions of Hindus?” Good question. I couldn’t tell you.

    Good luck on your journey and let me know if you need anything.

  4. If I get the chance, I will. The point I was trying to make was that as around 98% of India is not Christian, you’d likely be following an entirely different religious tradition, strange as that may seem.

  5. I am curious, too, Eshu. And I am working on being as cool headed and eloquent as you when I speak to Christians, especially when they claim to know the type of Christianity I did follow.

    I also hate it when they say, “If you have any questions, let me know.” I find it so patronizing. It sounds like a doctor telling the patient to call if they have any problems. So the underlying assumption is that the offerer is knowledgeable and I am not.

    I, too, want to change people’s minds, particularly when it comes to religion, because I find it so Victorian (in the old-fashioned sense). And truly, asking questions that reveal the glaring contradictions is the way to go.

    It was those questions that skeptics asked that eventually helped me walk away. The questions entered my brain and nagged me. They also accumulate–in the same area of the brain probably. And one reaches a point when the questions can no longer be ignored.

  6. I too visit Christian blogs out of curiosity and I’ve gotten into quite a few debates. When I was younger, the debates could become very heated. As I’ve aged, I try to be less emotional and far more rational. The other side may become just as heated as before; my temperature tends to stay down now.

    There is one other reason for engaging in these types of exchanges — it often helps me better formulate my own beliefs. It provides a forum for me to thresh out ideas that may have been swirling in my head for some time.

  7. Lorena,

    That’s kind of you to say. However, I can assure you that in real life I’m not so cool headed and eloquent. I try to be, but I often get confused, frustrated and distracted onto topics I had not intended discussing and end up forgetting to say what I had intended! The Internet is far easier in that respect. I wrote about my experiences of debating face-to-face a while ago.

    I also hate it when they say, “If you have any questions, let me know.” I find it so patronizing.

    Hehe, I think such statements are generally intended well, but yeah it can come across as an implicit assumption of having all the answers or being right.

    I’m glad to hear you had a similar experience to me with regard to the questions of skeptics. It’s encouraging to know that such questions can change people’s minds, albeit slowly. I certainly took years to get to grips with my own and others’ questions. I was a skeptic long before I was an atheist.

  8. Hi Rambling Taoist,

    The other side may become just as heated as before; my temperature tends to stay down now.

    I aim to avoid anyone getting heated. Emotions interfere with rational thinking. As an aside, rational thinking can also interfere with emotions. If you’re upset and panicking, then counting backward from 200 in steps of 7 can help calm you down.

    In any case, if you actually want people to understand your arguments rather than to embarrass themselves with emotional outbursts, aiming to keep it calm and friendly is the best way, IMO.

    There is one other reason for engaging in these types of exchanges — it often helps me better formulate my own beliefs. It provides a forum for me to thresh out ideas that may have been swirling in my head for some time.

    Yes! Thank you for mentioning that, it’s a good point that I unwittingly left out of my post.

  9. Eshu, this is a great post and has proved its worth by garnering some great comments. My remarks may appear to ramble a bit (if so, it will be because they do)… ;)

    If I lived in a community in which all or most considered and called themselves Eshuists, I might come to think of myself as an Eshuits and represent myself as such to those outside the community. Likewise, if I were to identify myself as an “Eshuist” to all who encounter me, my doing so would not correctly identify me with you. But those observing my behavior would form an association between us in their thinking. All this could happen even if I had never met you, never read or heard a word you had said, and never known anyone who had had direct contact with you. But I would not know you, nor your thoughts or ways.

    So to have experienced “church” or religious education, training, associations, etc. is not necessarily to have known or to have been associated with God or Christ.

    Although we have travelled what may appear to be opposite-heading pathways, my experience has in some ways paralleled yours in that, as a Christian, I am now more open to and intrigued by the personal views of non-christians than I was as an unbeliever.

    …I can assure you that in real life I’m not so cool headed and eloquent. I try to be, but I often get confused, frustrated and distracted onto topics I had not intended discussing and end up forgetting to say what I had intended!

    We surely have this in common. :(

    Lorena said: I also hate it when they say, “If you have any questions, let me know.” I find it so patronizing. It sounds like a doctor telling the patient to call if they have any problems. So the underlying assumption is that the offerer is knowledgeable and I am not.

    To that I will reply that, in my personal experience, many (perhaps most) professing Christians cannot accurately account for why they think they believe as they claim to. The patronizing stance is likely taken as a defense move against hearing arguments they cannot answer, the immediate objective being to make the hearer feel inferior. At least that was how I used it when I thought I was a Christian but didn’t understand what a Christian really is.

    I’ve been there and done the Christian thing. …I eventually came to the conclusion that my faith in Christianity was wrong.

    There really is no Christian “thing,” and yes, to believe in Christianity is wrong. That would be a belief in a belief. Christianity is belief in Christ. I hope you understand that I am not hair-splitting here, but trying to establish a vital distinction.

    Finally (for now), I won’t attempt to define sin but will offer what is to me a clear example: spilling leek and potato soup under any circumstance, asteroid or no… ;)

    Thanks for the discussion venue, and very best wishes,
    al

  10. Hi al,

    Thanks for joining in here.

    Likewise, if I were to identify myself as an “Eshuist” to all who encounter me, my doing so would not correctly identify me with you.

    Hehe, that’s an interesting example! The thing you leave out however, is the Bridging Scriptures! People who share a religion are linked by their shared scriptures and to some extent the culture around it. Except in the most strictly enforced orthodoxies there will be variation in beliefs, but with a common scripture there is (almost certainly) some common beliefs. Eshuists who’d never met and had no historical, cultural or scriptural link could believe utterly different things, chosen arbitrarily.

    There really is no Christian “thing,” and yes, to believe in Christianity is wrong. That would be a belief in a belief. Christianity is belief in Christ. I hope you understand that I am not hair-splitting here, but trying to establish a vital distinction.

    Interesting. I’ve noticed lately a desire amongst some Christians to separate themselves from other professed Christians who’ve “got it wrong” or “not really taken the Bible seriously”. For my part if someone tells me they’re a Christian, I’d assume that means they believe Jesus Christ died for their sins. I certainly did. I doubt I was as knowledgeable about it as you, but in all reasonable senses of the word I was a Christian. Who is it who decides who is a real Christian and who is not? How does this intersect with those who are saved and those who are not?

    The confusion about God’s alleged message(s) leads people to wonder how good a communicator he is.

    I won’t attempt to define sin but will offer what is to me a clear example: spilling leek and potato soup under any circumstance, asteroid or no… ;)

    Agreed. I’m irked by any kind of waste, especially if I have to clean up afterwards!

  11. The thing you leave out however, is the Bridging Scriptures! People who share a religion are linked by their shared scriptures and to some extent the culture around it.

    With your indulgence, I would suggest there is a world of difference between there being a “shared scriptures” and the actual sharing of those scriptures. Our separate communities may be united in the mutual recognition of The Book of Eshu as our source of authority and inspiration while we all remain individually unaware of its content. We are satisfied with our social, family, and personal lives as interpreted to us by those who have studied the book (or so they assure us), and to follow their lead. When I reach the point where their teachings are no longer believable to me it will be because I have no first-hand knowledge of their source or its author.

    I’ve noticed lately a desire amongst some Christians to separate themselves from other professed Christians who’ve “got it wrong” or “not really taken the Bible seriously”.

    While I appreciate your perspective on my comments, they are not meant to reflect such sentiments. By acknowledging the existence of professing Christians whose views differ (often radically) from mine, I do not infer a desire to be separated from them, even though they may choose to separate themselves from me.

    Who is it who decides who is a real Christian and who is not?

    God. No one else is entitled or enabled to make that judgment. There will be “educated” guesses, of course, some apparently easier made than others: Hitler, Pol Pot; Billy Graham, etc. But we cannot know with certainty the hidden conditions of heart and mind or final-moment conversions , and therefore ought not pontificate on the state of another’s soul.

    How does this intersect with those who are saved and those who are not?

    God told His prophet Samuel, …the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1Sam.16:7). God will always have the last word as is proper, we being His creations. As Jesus told Peter when the latter asked concerning John’s destiny, …what is that to you? You follow me!” The life of a Christian is one of personal involvement with and discipleship to the God and Lord of the universe at the deepest (and from the disciple’s position ever-deepening) level– nothing less qualifies.