Yes, being a skeptic is fulfilling. Really!

The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Olsson, former Anglican priest and current president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba. Jeff can be found at the Leave Faith Behind blog, and his book is available on Amazon.

Here, Jeff responds to some criticism that his last post received from David Driedger. Before you read on, I recommend reading Jeff’s previous post, Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling, and Mr. Driedger’s response to it, A skeptical rant.

Why should it surprise anyone that a skeptic can be happy and fulfilled, let alone that there would be more than ten reasons why skeptics are happy? Hell, I only chose the top ten reasons because I didn’t want to bore anyone by blathering on with the zillions of others. It should also come as no surprise to anyone that people of any different belief set or culture can be fulfilled and happy, well adjusted and socially connected. After all, Skeptics are real people, not the simple caricature that others would demand we are. We have hopes and dreams, families and friends. All of which are totally common to most of mankind. Why would you find it a surprise that skeptics would talk about this? Why would you call it “unhealthy”?

The blog post was not meant to be prescriptive, and it is not. Skeptics do not operate by edict as you apparently do. We think things through and decide if we disagree or not. The post merely recognizes what modern skeptics all over the world are saying. The top ten blog post was written by a skeptic for skeptics. The only surprise to me was that a liberal Christian popped in for a chat. So let’s chat.

Anyone can criticize the modern skeptical movement, we make mistakes and are open to correction, but I highly suggest any critic attend a conference, seminar or venue where skeptics meet. Sit and listen to the rhetoric, logic, values (hopes and dreams) and you will quickly see that we are indeed a happy group of people. If you lack evidence that skeptics are fulfilled by their endeavor look to the size of the recent national and regional conferences in Europe, Canada, USA and Australia and ask yourself “Why do they return in increasing numbers year after year?” The answer is obvious, “Because it’s fun!” (Can I get a skeptical AMEN!)

Now, let me directly answer a few of your concerns.

You wrote: “Okay I will grant the how we got here but who we are and how to improve our lot, really?”

What we are: We are an evolved species. An overwhelming accumulation of evidence shows how we got here; right from the big bang through to evolution, (as you seem to agree) but it also shows who we are in the context of what we are. I’ll explain further.

There is no tangible evidence for dualism, so answering who we are must be possible by looking to the empirical evidence that comes from the sciences of neuropsychology, sociology, evolutionary psychology, biology and anthropology, to name a few. There is no need for supernatural claims to answer that question. For example, we already know that various human cultures differ greatly but further evidence shows us there are many common factors that make us who we are, including our all too human abilities/traits such as, moral reasoning, empathy, logic, extraversion/introversion, sociability, disposition and neuroticism, humour, and anger. I assert that “who we are” must be definable in the context of a material existence. To define who humans are using a supernatural framework is to exceed the evidence available at this time. J. Anderson Thomson defined this well when he said “We are risen apes, not fallen angels.” If you doubt science has already defined who we are you need only look to the reams of evidence available at any secular university in the western world.

To improve our lot: Skepticism, and in particular, applied and theoretical scientific skepticism, has done more to improve our lot in this world than any other undertaking known to man, including all religions combined. Next time you have an infectious disease I suggest you drop the pretense and admit that you already know to visit a doctor who practices western medicine. If you car won’t start you already know to have it towed to a shop that uses modern diagnostic tools and methods. (neither rolling the bones nor prayer will make it start). All of this scientific knowledge comes from those giants who stood before us and dared to dream about better ways of doing things and better ways of living.

Here are just a few of the greatest scientific advances that have made it possible to live as long and as well as we now do: The germ theory of disease transmission, disease vector epidemiology, nutrition, potable water, penicillin, x-rays, rocket science, evolution and much more. Studies show that when asked, parents display an overwhelming consensus, and will tell you that they hope their children have a safe healthy and long life. Science has shown it is uniquely qualified to achieve that goal. Therefore hope is a term that now has a secular meaning. For many people, skeptics included, we cannot imagine a better world without science and technology in it. Four centuries of the enlightenment through skeptical inquiry have paid off big time.

You also asked, “How does a willingness to change make anyone better? There is simply no relationship here.” I know many skeptics who have renounced their former dislike/hatred of homosexuals because they now find it possible to doubt the writings of Saint Paul and because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows homosexuals are just like the rest of us, and not like criminals and murderers as St. Paul says. I also know many non skeptics who change their diet when evidence is presented showing that they should be getting more of this or that in their diet. Willingness to change ones beliefs (and habits) when presented with contrary evidence is a virtue. Yes, I said it is a virtue. Nowhere in religion have I found an edict that states, “question everything” or “learn and adapt” or “plan, do, check, act”.

With regard to my “laughable” description of a skeptic cheering when the truth is discovered. I remember working with a team of colleagues performing tests on a synchronous governing system for many long nights while we were trying to restore it to service. We were confounded by its inability to control the speed of the machine it was connected to. When we went back to the office we looked at our drawings and each of us developed a hypothesis of why it would not work and then defined the tests we would use determine the fault. When one of my colleagues finally took her turn to run a test she removed and replaced a linkage that transmitted a signal from a compensating dashpot that we later discovered had been installed upside down. The unit immediately began to do its job. Everyone cheered. The only comments made by ALL of those whose hypotheses were proven wrong were, “Mark the lever so we will never have this problem again”, “Update the manuals”. No one else cared that their hypotheses were wrong, they only cared that they now knew the truth. (A one degree difference on the angle of the linkage would upset the whole machine.) We made sure we documented both the symptoms and the solution and moved on to solve other issues with that system.

And so it is with most skeptics who are applying the scientific method in a whole variety of ways. These are people who are trying to make a difference in some way. When someone comes along and finds a solution we all cheer, because we are often working towards a common solution with a group of others.

Please, laugh at that if it pleases you. Go ahead.

Regarding your reference to “strands of Pentecostalism” I consider such a silly statement ill tempered.

Perhaps you were having a bad day when you wrote your response.


10 thoughts on “Yes, being a skeptic is fulfilling. Really!

  1. Jeff,

    It would have been good if you had taken better note of how I prefaced the whole the post with the acknowledgement that your own post was subjective and therefore no real criticism of skepticism being fulfilling was even possible. I am not surprised you are offers find what you are doing fulfilling I was just working out my associations. Your post just struck me in how I related it to my own experiences of particular religious communities, namely as a unique sub-culture.
    As far as my initial comment about your post being prescriptive in my mind you picked a bad style to go about it. I suppose if you would have just placed it in the first person that would have cleared it up for me. As it stands it really does read as being very prescriptive. Because really, I get it, you are articulating that you are pumped about this stuff.
    In your responses to some of my comments you seem to make a lot of assumptions about me. I suppose I read the ‘improving our lot’ comment in a more existential and also political manner. Until ‘skepticism’ can become more political as opposed to a puppet of global-capitalism I will continue to have my reservations about our improvements being achieved by it. No where do I make appeals to dualism or some transcendent signifier. There are many atheists and materialists I take much direction and inspiration from . . . these folks however do not tend to congregate in these circles (Michel Foucault and Slavoj Zizek would be a couple of examples).
    And where do you get the idea that I am opposed to seeing a doctor?
    The comment about ‘willingness to change’ was probably a throw-away comment in that an abused partner can always claim ‘to want to change’. People can be open to and improve in destructive practices. Anyway, fine, a silly point. And I agree many religious circles are the worst possible examples of how positive change can happen.
    Your response to how skeptics ‘cheer’ when they are wrong also sort of proves my point. Your example is completely ‘in-house’ while in this cross-pollination between us I don’t imagine the other will cheer for being ‘proven’ wrong by the other.
    Perhaps it is the ‘who we are’ thing that sticks the most. I am happy to learn from any and all disciplines but when there is rigid view of ‘who I am’ coming strictly from the natural sciences, well, that tends to fall flat in terms of how I engage life. I suspect I am a bit Dostoevskian in this matter. This takes me back to my original point. It is simply not fulfilling. I am not saying you are not fulfilled. As I mentioned at the end of the post I was actually going to scrap the post because I was just trying to work out my own internal response to your post. I just don’t connect, there is not much more to it than that. It doesn’t make sense in the way I see ‘skepticism’ functioning for the people I encounter. People have been hurt in all sorts of ways and are seeking all sorts of things so I can understand that ‘skepticism’ would be a fulfilling place for some folks.
    In terms of actual criticism my main concern is that the expressions I come across in this sub-culture do not appear to be sufficiently political (or are able to develop political resources) to have appropriate influence or if they are political they believe in some conservative purifying approach to culture (as it seems Hitchens ended up in).
    As to your claim that no religion asks us to ‘question everything’, well, I would say that comes pretty close to the Hebrew prohibition of idolatry . . . and yes I would say that most Christians are indeed idolators.

    1. I’m somewhat bemused as to why you characterise skepticism as “a puppet of global-capitalism”.

      But perhaps I can attempt to clear up a misconception. You say that that “these models of skepticism/atheism … continue to strike me as so profoundly lacking as an overall approach to life.” I’d reply that neither skepticism nor atheism is meant to provide an approach to life. Neither of these things are worldviews or religions or philosophies.

      Atheism is a single answer to a single question. Do you believe in any gods? No? Then you’re an atheist. It doesn’t say anything about what you believe, only what you don’t. Atheists are of diverse opinions on matters philosophical, economic, ethical, social, political, etc. You might as well criticise disbelief in UFOs for not providing an approach to life.

      Skepticism is a method, a toolset, for evaluating the truth-value of claims. It’s a systematic process of doubt used in science and in other disciplines that enjoins us to proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence that supports it. That’s all. It doesn’t tell you what you should believe or what you should stand for—it just says (in brief) that you should have evidence for claims before you believe them, and the more unusual the claim, the greater the evidence you ought to demand.

      If you’re to learn more about a worldview that is consistent with atheism and skepticism and that goes further in providing an “approach to life”, as you put it, I’d recommend humanism.

  2. David said: Jeff, It would have been good if you had taken better note of how I prefaced the whole the post with the acknowledgement that your own post was subjective and therefore no real criticism of skepticism being fulfilling was even possible.

    Dear David Why then did you proceed to call the ideas I put forth as “Laughable” and “pentecostal”. I suggest that you are not being completely forthright in your criticism. After all of that, In the post above you assert that I make assumptions about you. I merely make my point, and if the shoe fits…

    My writing style was selected carefully for the intended audience and they received is VERY well. I did not write the blog for you, although I am willing to discuss the ideas therein with you. So if you have any meaningful criticism please make your point.

    I find it laughable that the greatest advancement in the worlds history is so easily dismissed by you. If you cannot understand how control of disease and expanding the lifespan of the average human brings hope to people accross the globe I just don;t know how you can see hope in anything. What makes you happy? Do you have a source of hope?

    1. I am certainly not against technology but to say that it has ‘improved out lot’ given the various economic and environmental conditions is a bit of a stretch. It has certainly made life easier and more comfortable for those with the means to access them and protect themselves from the more negative effects (but I cannot say this is true for most of the world).
      I am torn between your response and Gem’s. Gem claims a very specialized role for skepticism. In fact when I read the main page of this site I see, “The Winnipeg Skeptics is a community organisation that aims to promote science and to advance critical thinking with regard to pseudoscientific, supernatural, or paranormal claims.” That makes sense to me. That is what I come across in these circles. And to that I really have nothing to add to the conversation. But in practice, as your post demonstrates, people enter into and express these categories of skepticism/atheism/etc. as grand narratives that give hope, fulfillment, and orientation to life in general. That is where I have a problem because I see it as very limited and partial (a little of how Gem describes).
      I remain torn though because indeed science does have great influence and as such it cannot be just a ‘tool’. It must be engaged in with more politically and ethically oriented folks. Otherwise it does become a destructive tool. I call it a ‘puppet’ because global capitalism is based on ‘growing economy’ and how does an economy grow? It secures markets partially through military technology and it creates products through technological innovation. So yes it strikes me that the vast majority of scientific advancement comes in direct service to some notion of ‘economic growth’ that is actually have devastating effects.

      1. You might be interested in reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World; one of the concerns that Sagan expresses in this book is the fundamental amorality of science. It can, of course, be used for good or ill. A certain Oppenheimer quotation comes to mind. But Sagan lays out very clearly, in my opinion, that this is not a problem of science; it’s not a failing of the fundamental quest for understanding that science represents. Technology has been used for ill or for personal gain since the first flint-tipped arrow. Again, if you’re so inclined, Sagan’s book might clarify some things.

        I’m personally very fond of Jeff’s article, because it expresses excitement and joy at learning new things. I think that the power of a skeptical toolkit can be inspiring. Skepticism doesn’t need to be an all-encompassing worldview in order to inspire wonder and excite the imagination.

  3. Sure, I mean people are pumped about all sorts of things without it being all things to all people (though, again, that really is the tone Jeff starts out with). I am just trying to understand this expression as a cultural phenomena, which it is, and furthermore try to understand how it can be more or less healthy in its cultural expression. I probably need to just come to realize that many of the things I find interesting or valuable to pursue simply don’t surface much in these circles.
    The reason I frequent them is to better understand this movement because it has cultural capital and as such does not tend to remain in the ideal disciplines that you outline Gem. So I want to see how folks are engaging questions of politics, economics, and existentialism because what I tend to see in main stream media is quite conservative and often frightening (a la Hitchens). But I see that for the most part these things are not engaged in this format. So, fair enough.

  4. I find you last post most interesting of all. It’s good to see that you, like myself, are looking around at the world and testing out the ideas for yourself. Thats always a good thing.

    It’s been fun communicating with you. Thanks!

  5. Something I’ve been wondering about that comes off the back of this stuff; global warming scepticism. Isn’t it anti-science scepticism? Certainly many of the people who self-identify as global warming sceptics spend a lot of their time attacking scientists, their funding and their ability to know anything via their methods.

    I suppose I could say that they’re not real sceptics, or maybe that what they are attacking is not real science, but why? To protect my own happiness? These people seem to be using scepticism as both a banner and a method to stop scientific progress or the implementation of science to improve people’s lives.

    So this seems like an example of where “science” as a tradition of building models to understand the universe, and “scepticism”, about not taking people’s ideas on until you have investigated them thoroughly yourself, seem to be at loggerheads.

    1. I should probably mention for honesty’s sake that I’m not really worried about these people calling themselves sceptics, but I did try to justify their existence within the normal schemes and couldn’t manage it while keeping integrity.

    2. I think that it’s important to distinguish between skepticism as a method and skepticism as simply a position on a subject. Certainly some people may express skepticism about evolution or about vaccination or even about the germ theory of disease or Galileo’s heliocentric view of the universe. Scientific skepticism merely posits that we should examine all claims before accepting them—not that we shouldn’t accept any claims.

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