Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Are you a skeptic?

For 25 years or more I think I have been a skeptic without realising it.  Only now I appreciate that there is a real community of like-minded people.  Skepticism is more a philosophy of life that can open your mind to learn something new and surprising every day.  I am sure that the skeptical movement has only become so accessible to all of us because of the freedom of the internet, but other influences have started to play a significant role.  For me, I think that Richard Dawkins' excellent book, The God Delusion, was the catalyst to the way my thoughts have changed.  After reading that book I started to read other works which resonated with my own thoughts more than anything I had read for a long time.  Not all of these were by the people known as 'the new atheists', but several were.

I might have been unaware of my natural 'affiliation' until recently, but this is not to say that I was unaware of the term or the difference between skepticism and cynicism.  Indeed, whenever accused of being a cynic I have always (for as long as I can remember) tried to put on a wry smile and say that I preferred to be thought of as a skeptic.

Even without thinking about it, it seemed obvious that skepticism did not have the destructive undertones of cynicism, which asks questions to undermine rather than to seek information.  I'm not certain that this difference is obvious to everyone though.  It is not a particularly subtle distinction but people often seem to use the two terms interchangeably, especially to try to criticise skeptics when they run out of rational arguments. 

Of course with some people, it is not possible to say anything at all without causing offence.  In particular, I am thinking of many (not all) people of a deeply religious persuasion.  Although apparently it is possible to be a religious skeptic, I suspect that this is quite rare.  Most of the skeptics I know are more or less atheist and in many cases agnostic at the same time.  (Yes - many people really are both.)

There is nothing negative about skepticism, whatever critics may claim.  The logical process of thinking skeptically is 'evidence based' and rational.  We skeptics also have a selection of tools to detect when people try to misrepresent evidence.  (See Delusional Logic.) 

In skepticism we examine claims and judge their value on the basis of something along the lines of 'the scientific method'.  You do not have to be a scientist to do this, and even as a science graduate I received no formal training in critical thinking or 'the scientific method' in its broader sense.  I think this is not uncommon.  A friend who is a PhD qualified physicist told me the other day that she had only learned about these skills through attending classes about philosophy.  Philosophy classes were part of her wider education rather than her specific training in science.

Although science might be a gateway to skepticism I think there are others, most notably comedy.  Comedy writers have to have a special way of looking at the world in order to point out the things that others do not notice.  Their skill-set has a lot in common with the skeptical way of thinking, and humour is undoubtedly a great way to open channels of communication with people.  (Mind you - try making a joke about the Koran and you will see that humour does not always open channels of communication that are useful.)

If you are a fellow skeptic, how old were you when you realised it?  Do you wear the badge of skepticism with pride?  Has it affected your relationships with close family members or friends?  It is a philosophy that can be applied to the whole of your life, and in fact it may be impossible to limit it to just a subset of your everyday experience.

Once you have learned to think skeptically it is a skill that can not be unlearned.

1 comment:

Derby Sceptic said...

I have had concerns for many years but never sat down and questioned things properly. I became a true sceptic about two or three years ago and also found Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' a significant turning point, along with his programmes on Channel 4.
My wife is also a sceptic, perhaps less than myself, and apart from knowing that my mother in law is a devout Christian with whom I would not dare cross swords on the subject yet, I haven't raised it with other close family members yet. This process is starting however so I will see how I get on!