Christianity & Skepticism: Pardon Me While I Preach to the Choir

Being a religious individual, I know I don’t qualify as a Skeptic with a capitol “S”. While I fervently support skeptical inquiry, and work towards many of the same goals as the skeptic community, it would be misleading to call myself a Skeptic. However, I also feel that I am also misleading by describing myself as definitively not one.

Here’s an analogy to explain what I mean: I do not describe myself as a Feminist. I much prefer the term Egalitarian. My reason in abstaining from the Feminist label is not rooted in any objection to their goals, but because of the specific focus they have. Egalitarianism has a different, less specific focus, and while it overlaps with Feminism in significant ways, has its own approach to social ills.

 

I am not a Skeptic in the same way that I am not a Feminist. While I have the highest respect for both groups, it is still somewhat inaccurate to count myself as one of them. The reason for this ramble, is that just as Egalitarianism overlaps Feminism, I think there is an overlap between Christianity and Skepticism; at least, I think there should be. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard in my life as a christian individual is that religion is inherently irrational and hostile towards open inquiry. It’s always difficult to hear this without becoming defensive; mostly because while I don’t think this in inherently true of religion, the reality of it often is.

 

Religion is not science. It deals specifically with subjective questions that do not have an objective solution. There are plenty of people who would disagree with this, but that’s a different topic altogether. The questions of whether or not God exists, or if people have a soul, are in my opinion fair game for logical examination, but beyond human ability to answer with finality. However, the implications of these questions usually land much closer to the realm of quantifiable properties. When life begins may be a controversial question, but the progression of life is observable. The psychological ramifications of prayer, and whether or not it effects reality, is also testable under the right circumstances.

 

Because of this, Skepticism is not only beneficial, but an invaluable tool for the religious; for exactly the same reason it’s invaluable for anyone. The fact that Christianity has inherently subjective questions at its core does not absolve us of the responsibilities of intellectual integrity or rational cohesion. If anything, it should give us a greater sense of responsibility to subject our ideas to logical examination. History is full of examples of what happens when we don’t. That’s not a history I want to repeat.

 

To that end, here are today’s questions:

 

In your opinion, what would a more skeptical approach to Christianity look like from within Christianity?

 

How does someone wanting to be a better Skeptic get started?

 

How do different ideological groups establish a truly open and equal discourse?

 

11 Comments

  • May 23, 2013 - 8:07 pm | Permalink

    It’s great to read you again. Welcome back.

    I don’t know that i can accept the analogy between the Feminism–Egalitarian demarcation and that between Christianity and Skepticism. It might be noted that much of the contemporary skeptical movement is Christian, by belief or tradition, though those Christians within movement skepticism tend to treat religion more or less as you do—outside the domain of scientific skepticism. However, i’m taking the capitalization to designate these as cultural identities, and you’re right that the public face of Skepticism is a naturalist one. However, that only bifurcates the compatibility question: (1) Can a Christian be a naturalist? (2) Can a non-naturalist be a Skeptic? Dan has talked about (1) a bit; i hope he’ll chime in. While movement Skepticism argues over (2), a widely respected, if perhaps not majority-adopted, position is to relegate philosophical naturalism to the domain of Rationalism, thought of as a “parent” movement to (scientific) Skepticism, while asserting only methodological naturalism as a premiss of Skepticism.

    There’s something risky about saying “i’m a skeptic”, much like saying “i’m not racist”. Skepticism doesn’t fly to far as an identity; what makes one a skeptic is one’s approach—and specifically not one’s conclusions. Some topics we tend to view as “easy”, among them the factual and many moral tenets of organized religions…but any one of us may arrive at the wrong conclusion on any given issue with some non-negligible probability, and the history of the movement shows its own apparent consensus to be quite fallible.

    Anyway, i have some suggestions for some of your parting questions: To be a better skeptic, pay attention to the dialogue, and read debates among skeptics as well as between skeptics and credulous people. Specialize; learn the ins and outs and most popular and convincing arguments put forth by the wrong side of some specific topic. The deeper insights about the ways we argue and protect our beliefs will lend themselves to other topics.

    As to opening productive discourse, from the skeptic’s perspective i think the greatest risk is of deeming an opponent or idea too trivial to be worth one’s time. The skeptical movement is premised on lending an open mind and a thorough response to the most ridiculous of ideas—on taking people seriously and giving their ideas the attention they need before they can evolve (and meantime subjecting our own to uncommon levels of scrutiny). I think of this as the Sagan school, but Nickell, Novella, and Johnson are good sources, too.

    • Jaime Wise
      May 23, 2013 - 10:47 pm | Permalink

      Thank you very much for the response. These are all questions I’m still sorting through myself, so I appreciate the comprehensive answer.

    • May 24, 2013 - 12:43 am | Permalink

      “(1) Can a Christian be a naturalist? (2) Can a non-naturalist be a Skeptic? Dan has talked about (1) a bit; i hope he’ll chime in. ”

      Well, as far as Christian naturalism is concerned, it’s a tremendously small movement. Michael Dowd is probably the most popular person in that movement, and I think most Christians — including Jaime, I would suspect — would have a hard time calling his views “Christian”.

      As far as the supposed distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is concerned, I don’t think that the distinction which people draw is convincing. But even if it were, it’s important to note that there are at least two forms of methodological naturalism:

      –Intrinsic methodological naturalism: This is the statement that there is something intrinsic to either science, religion, or both that makes the two of them distinct domains (or, at the very least, disables science from investigating certain religious propositions).

      –Provisional methodological naturalism: This is the statement that there is nothing intrinsic to either science, religion, or both that makes them distinct domains, but, through experience, it has been discovered that *provisionally* we should not formulate or evaluate scientific hypotheses on the basis of religion. This is the idea that we have learned that religion does not work for doing science. It’s called “provisional” because it has the potential to change as our understanding of the world increases. It could turn out, for example, that science eventually proves the existence of the Christian god. For the time being, however, that seems hugely unlikely.

      It would seem that Jaime would side with the intrinsic version — she states that religion concerns itself with the “subjective” while science deals with the “objective”. I don’t agree with Jaime about that distinction, but, if she’s right, then science and religion would intrinsically be distinct. And she certainly would not be alone; plenty of theologians have thought something similar.

      On the other hand, I would side with provisional methodological naturalism. I don’t think that there’s anything intrinsic to science which somehow bars it from investigating religious hypotheses. Nor do I think that we would have been able to tell, prima facie, that a scientific method is superior to a religious one. However, we have learned how to do science and we have learned what sort of method works for assembling bridges and so on.

      • May 24, 2013 - 1:02 am | Permalink

        Oh, I forget to address whether or not a non-naturalist can be a skeptic.

        Well, there are tremendous problems with actually defining what the term “naturalism” is supposed to refer to. Non-controversially, people say that the term is supposed to refer to the belief that nature is all that exists. But then we have to address the problem of what nature is supposed to be, and what it would mean for something to fail to be part of nature (so that we can identify non-naturalists). There are plenty of philosophers who run around calling themselves “naturalists”, but have all sorts of wacky things in their ontologies. Even some very famous naturalists have strange ontologies; Quine is considered to be one of the champions of philosophical naturalism, but begrudgingly found that he had to accept the existence of (at least some) mathematical objects to remain consistent with the rest of his system.

        For this reason, we can wonder whether or not a theist could be a naturalist. Many theists would deny that their god is part of nature (God is supposedly part of “supernature”). However, pantheists would claim that nature *is* God; so, I suppose that they would be naturalists. Nonetheless, this comes down to the theist first accepting a certain kind of view about what nature is and then declaring God, who they think exists, is not part of what they take nature to be.

        Now, on the other hand, there are plenty of positions that are called “non-naturalistic” but do not include supernatural entities in them. For example, David Enoch provides a defence of the view that there are “non-natural moral properties”. Can Enoch be a skeptic? He’s not a supernaturalist, but he does think that there are some things — namely, moral properties like “goodness” — that exist independently of nature. Yet he would not want to accept those moral properties without a great deal of argument. And he goes to great lengths in his book “Taking Morality Seriously” to substantiate his claim that such properties exist. So it would seem to be that Enoch tries hard to be a skeptic.

        It seems to me that we should at least consider Quine to be a skeptic, if not Enoch. But even if we only consider one of them to be a skeptic — and not both — then it seems acceptable to say that “skeptic” and “naturalist” do not co-refer. If we consider both to be skeptics — and I think we should — then we have even more reason to think that skeptics and naturalists are not the same thing. Nonetheless, this doesn’t really tell us much, since in either case we can only call these two non-naturalists if we conceive of nature in a particular way. In Quine’s case, he would not have even accepted that he was a non-naturalist.

        I would argue that skepticism is an approach that one can take to claims, but is not a statement about the conclusions that one makes.

        • Jaime Wise
          May 24, 2013 - 2:41 am | Permalink

          Wow, thanks Dan. I see now I was far too simplistic with the use of “subjective” and “objective”. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

          • May 24, 2013 - 7:18 pm | Permalink

            Well, as far as the “objective” versus “subjective” distinction, the main problem that I see is that I’m not sure what the distinction is supposed to be.

            It seems to me that very often what we mean when we say that something subjective is something along the following lines. Suppose that Bob says:

            (a) “I find this painting to be beautiful.”

            Most people would interpret the sentence (a) as subjective. But it seems that this is sentence is actually expressing something like:

            (b) “As Bob, I have the particular psychological reaction to this painting that we call ‘experiencing beauty’.”

            Now the only reason to think that (b) might be subjective is the use of the indexical “I”. But notice that the following sentence is not usually considered subjective:

            (c) “I am wearing shoes.”

            There is an objective fact about whether or not the speaker of sentence (c) is wearing shoes. Therefore, the mere presence of an indexical cannot indicate whether or not a sentence expresses something subjective.

            Was (b) subjective? It seems that there is an objective fact about whether or not Bob had a particular sort of psychological reaction to the painting. If you are uncomfortable calling it a psychological reaction, another way to put the same point is that there is an objective fact about whether or not Bob finds the painting beautiful.

            So, it seems that in this case the line between the subjective and the objective is difficult to draw. I’m not saying that it can’t be drawn; just that there is a great deal more subtlety than one might have thought.

            Here’s another go at the same issue. Suppose that Bob states:

            (d) “The painting is beautiful.”

            Now, we might think that the truth of (d) is indexed by the person. That is to say, (d) is true for Bob but not for others. Maybe another way to construe that would be to say that (d) is true when said by Bob but not when said by others.

            Nonetheless, it seems that the only reason (d) could be true when said by Bob but not by others is if either:

            1. The predicate “beautiful” is actually indexed to the person. So the sentence “the painting is beautiful” is true when said by Bob but not by Sarah because what Sarah means by “beautiful” is not what Bob means by “beautiful”. But then if Sarah said something like “the painting is beautiful_Bob”, where “beautiful_Bob” is Bob’s version of “beautiful”, she would be saying something true. Apparently, so long as we use the correct predicates, this isn’t even subjective at all.

            2. The sentence suppresses a clause. When Bob says (d), he really means “As Bob, I think the painting is beautiful.” But now we’re back with sentence (b) and with all the problems that (b) had.

            So that version of “subjective” can’t be right either.

            Whatever it is that “subjective” is supposed to mean is really opaque to me. Insofar as religious language is concerned, it seems to me that there is another problem. Most of the religious propositions that I can think of seem to be statements of objective fact, and not statements that are, somehow, indexed to individuals. Consider:

            *In the Eucharist, the essence of this bread turns to Jesus’ flesh, while the outward appearance remains bread.

            *Jesus was crucified, was dead for three days, and then was resurrected.
            *Human beings have a need for a Savior.

            *There exists a triune godhead, such that the Son is God, the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, but the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. And God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

            *God reveals particular propositions to humankind and creates covenants that bind humankind into contractual agreements with God. We are presently bound under a covenant established by Jesus’ death on the Cross.

            *There was a Creation, Fall, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

            All of these are central either to Christianity in general (5 of them) or are particular to particular denominations (1 of them). Either way, I would be hard pressed to believe that these statements are saying something subjective when they seem to be uncontroversially statements about the way that the world really is.

  • Jaime Wise
    May 25, 2013 - 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Excellent points Dan. I guess I was mixing up subjective with unknowable (at this point). Although, I would say that much of the disparity between denominations comes from subjective interpretations of what the central claims about the world implicate; and the question of what claims one must or must not make in order to be considered “Christian” can get more confusing than it should be.

    And I’d just like to say I really appreciate you,cornelioid, and others for taking the time to help me work through the assumptions and knowledge gaps I have. I’ve realized I need to do a lot more studying before I re-approach this issue in the future.

    • May 26, 2013 - 8:40 pm | Permalink

      I would encourage you to continue the conversation as you continue studying! I’m bad at this myself (wanting to be completely right before sharing my thoughts on something in writing) but i’m working on it. And anyway the exchanges are helpful for me too.

      • Jaime Wise
        May 27, 2013 - 2:13 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the encouragement. I’m starting to read more philosophy independently, but the major drawback is the absence of people (especially more educated people) to talk it out with. Perhaps my next series will focus on working through Plato or something.

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    • Jaime Wise
      May 27, 2013 - 10:26 pm | Permalink

      If I understand your question correctly, Yes, you can reprint this if you like.

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