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.

Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling

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 (from which this entry is cross-posted), and his book is available on Amazon.

Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling

1. As a skeptic you love science and know that the scientific method is the best method mankind has ever invented to understand who we are, how we got here, and how we can improve our lot in this universe. You know that if we refrain from asking the hard questions we give up making a better life for mankind.

2. You know that reality is a puzzle and that it will take a lot of effort to understand it. At times truth goes against what seems to be common sense. You have discovered that the struggle to understand reality reveals truths that are, at times, deeply profound. That knowledge will keep you searching the for the truth for the rest of your life.

3. Your drive to discover the truth about who we are and what is real has revealed contradictions to your prized personal beliefs and your most deeply held prejudices. Your belief in a God (or Gods) is probably already gone. You have learned to adjust your beliefs to match reality rather than remain prejudiced. You possess a willingness to learn accompanied by a willingness to change, that’s why your skepticism makes you a better person.

4. I have only ever met one group of people who cheer when they have been proven wrong. Skeptics. Especially those who employ scientific skepticism. You may be bold when you ask those annoyingly tough questions, but underneath it all you are humble enough to know when you have discovered the truth. After all, evidence is evidence and that’s good enough for you.

5. You understand that being skeptical on it’s own just doesn’t cut it. You temper the need to be skeptical with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to let others prove themselves. This means that the road to understanding is long, complicated, potentially confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But that’s ok, real joy comes when you finally untangle the truth.

6. You understand the need to question authority. This may be the most uncomfortable part of being a skeptic, but you know that anyone who claims to know best for everyone else must themselves be subject to scrutiny. It is at this point that many skeptics realize who their real friends are. Go ahead and ask those tough questions when a politician puts forth a seemingly crazy idea using public money, or when a sunday school teacher tells your children they risk going to hell. Pull out the test equipment when someone claims there is a ghost. We’ll stand with you. We may even applaud.

7. You are willing to admit it when you don’t know and you are big enough person to handle ambiguous concepts. What came before the Big Bang? You don’t know. Is there life after death? You don’t know and you are ok with that. Which leads me to my next point…

8. Your willingness to admit you don’t know all of the answers to the many mysteries we face is your greatest asset. Why? Because it leads you to ask the questions that others miss. One day humankind may eventually tease out the answers to questions like the ones above, but you know that day will never come until some one willing to admit they do not know dares to speculate about how we can figure out the real answers. When you see others ask those questions it makes you feel like cheering.

9. You understand what it is to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and you enjoy the education it entails. Learning is fun and you are first to dig in to the books. By learning what those before you have discovered, you unfold the tapestry of knowledge that has brought so many of the advances that our society enjoys. You work to advance the knowledge of those giants who went before you.

10. Through your skeptical endeavors you have found your social conscience, a sense of camaraderie and have made friends for a lifetime. To spend your life working in the sciences is to live a life of privilege, discovery and enlightenment. Prior to the last century, only a select few of us could ever have dreamed of living such a life of discovery.

Congratulations, you have learned to think!

Thanks, Jeff!