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Carson Holloway on the Unreasonable Faith of Skeptics
Published by the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), The Skeptical Inquirer primarily seeks to explain—not to say debunk—supposed experiences of UFOs, ESP, ghosts, and the like. It is a serious enterprise: Among CSICOP’s fellows are Harvard’s E. O. Wilson, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, MIT’s Steven Pinker, and F. H. C. Crick of the Falk Institute, and the magazine has a circulation of about 35,000, more than any similarly serious religious journal.
In its special March/April issue, the “Magazine for Science and Reason” turns its attention to weightier concerns than UFOs or ghosts. The issue, titled “Science and Religion 2004: Turmoil and Tensions,” is chiefly of interest, however, not so much for what it reveals about “Science and Religion” as for what it reveals about the mind of the skeptic. Skepticism turns out to be—contrary to the claims of its adherents—more like a faith than a straightforward commitment to reason and evidence, more an alternative religion than an alternative to religion.
The Church of Skepticism shows some signs of ecumenism. Thus, the editor’s introductory remarks graciously rank religion, along with science, as one of “two great manifestations of human culture.” This conciliatory note appears to be a mere gesture, however, for much of the rest of the issue reveals a faith that is Militant and even Triumphant. Many of the authors suggest, not too subtly, that Skeptics are distinguished by their commitment to reason and evidence, while, evidently, traditional religious believers are characterized by a gullible acceptance of superstitious nonsense.
The militancy and triumphalism of Skepticism are especially evident in the issue’s cartoons. One depicts a ghost, a bigfoot, and an alien on one side, with a bishop and a rabbi on the other. “That’s not my department,” the alien says, pointing to the two clergymen. Get it? The paranormal spooks are embarrassed to be associated with the representatives of biblical faith. Another cartoon shows a broom labeled “SCIENCE” sweeping the Star of David, the Crescent, and the Cross into what appears to be the dustpan of history. Subtlety, it seems, is not a hallmark of Skeptical humor.
I note in passing that if the Church of Skepticism wishes to pass successfully from militancy to a fully triumphant phase, it needs to reconsider its moral doctrine. Skepticism, it turns out, is somehow related to disapproval of alcohol. In his “New Year’s Message,” Paul Kurtz, Chairman of the Center for Inquiry–International, notes that the center is affiliated with “skeptical, secular humanist, and abstinence organizations worldwide.” I take it that abstinence here refers to abstinence from alcohol, both because of a previous reference to “SOS” (Secular Organizations for Sobriety), and because one of the authors in the issue makes a point of classifying as “barbaric” the “sexual morality” taught by traditional religions.
Skeptical believers might do well to heed Tocqueville, who warned the religions of democratic times—that is, times dominated by the moral authority of the majority and obsessed with easy pleasures not incompatible with public order—that it is unwise for any religion that wishes to flourish to antagonize public opinion unnecessarily or to insist on any unduly demanding moral practice. The Skeptical Magisterium needs to lighten up, perhaps at least by indicating that abstinence is only a counsel of perfection—like, say, celibacy or poverty in Catholicism—and not a universal obligation.
Of course, doctrinal accommodation to modernity often creates dissension, especially among the most devout; and one finds that in relation to this concern, the Church of Skepticism reveals divisions similar to those found in more traditional religions. It seems, on the basis of the Letters section of the issue, that in a previous issue some liberal Skeptical bishop or dissenting theologian had flirted with heresy by criticizing “scientism,” the belief that scientific investigation can explain everything worth knowing. This questioning of the Skeptical god’s omniscience generated a good deal of outrage among the letter-writers—Skeptical fundamentalists, it seems.
At this point, Skeptical believers might complain that I am merely having fun at their expense. They would also surely claim, more seriously, that I am deviating from the proper method. After all, I have only asserted that Skepticism is a religion, without proving it by a reasoned appeal to the evidence. Fair enough. What, then, does the evidence show?
Skepticism is surely not religious if by religion we mean some kind of belief in the supernatural, which Skepticism forthrightly rejects. Skepticism is a kind of religion, however, in the sense that its adherents accept certain fundamental premises on faith. This faith-based element of Skepticism is visible, first of all, in its moral commitments. The aforementioned Paul Kurtz recognizes the concern of some that skeptical empirical inquiry might debunk not only traditional religion but also all values on which a decent society depends. Not to worry, he contends, for “many ethical questions may be resolved by scientific inquiry.”
As a result, Skepticism need not lead to “moral collapse or nihilism, for there are alternative systems of ethics that we may find both reasonable and viable, independent of appeals to faith or authority.” While it might be true that some kind of ethics is possible on the basis of some understanding of reason (consider, for example, Aristotle or Kant), the Skeptical understanding of reason purports to be strictly empirical, and therefore seems powerless to issue in any value judgments whatsoever. Kurtz is confident in empirical science’s ability to justify some ethical principles, yet he favors us with not a single example of an ethical truth justifiable in terms of empirical evidence.
This is blind faith, as is made even more clear in his concluding remarks on this issue. After asserting that skeptical inquiry can lead to ethical principles, he suggests that “how and to what extent this is possible is a topic” that “the skeptical community needs to address.” That is, we are not sure how Skepticism can provide a moral teaching, but we are sure that it can do it. Skepticism works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.
Skepticism is committed by faith not only to the possibility of an empirically verifiable ethics, but also to particular moral positions. Thus Kurtz speaks of the need to “develop rational, ethical alternatives,” because the “continued disparities between the affluent and poorer regions of the globe emphasize the importance of reducing poverty and disease and extending the benefits of education and democracy to everyone.” “We believe,” he continues, “that science and reason are the best way of expanding discovery and knowledge, and bringing about a more peaceful and prosperous planetary community.”
Thus, particular values that have been cherished by elites in particular countries during a particular epoch in human history—typically modern, democratic preoccupations with equality and prosperity—are presented as somehow enjoying a scientific status. Yet they are merely posited without any effort to provide a rational justification for them.
A New Enlightenment
Indeed, one of the key tenets of Skepticism is a moral principle held on faith. Skepticism is not so much about reason and science as about the popularization of reason and science.
Thus Kurtz notes that the Center for Inquiry’s “main interest is the public understanding and appreciation of reason and science and their application to questions of value.” Thus CSICOP’s highest award is given to those who make great contributions to “the promotion of science and the defense of reason,” and its greatest dishonor is bestowed upon those who conspicuously contribute to “the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.” “We are interested,” Kurtz sums up, “in helping to develop a New Enlightenment.”
Empirical science cannot demonstrate that its findings should be popularized, however. Therefore, the commitment to its popularization cannot be accepted but on a kind of faith. Indeed, this central Skeptical moral aspiration seems to be held not only in the absence of empirical justification but even in the face of its apparent impossibility. After all, few things are more evident than that most human beings, after hundreds of years of attempted enlightenment, still gravitate just as eagerly toward unenlightened, supernatural, and superstitious accounts of things, as even the Skeptics admit with dismay.
The ardor of their faith blinds Skeptics to the possible limitations of their empiricist creed. Thus another contributor, Christopher Whittle, bemoans the “dismal” results of studies showing that most scientists “do not use their scientific knowledge when voting” and that they “use non-scientific approaches in personal and social decision-making.” It simply does not occur to him that such results might not be “dismal” but normal, the natural result of real scientists’ sober appreciation of the limits of their discipline.
Religions typically provide not only an authoritative moral teaching, but also an understanding of the nature of the world. Here again Skepticism is as faith-based as the traditional religions it scorns. Skeptics claim to be open-minded inquirers into things, yet they assume “naturalism”—that is, the impossibility of supernatural explanations—as the basis of their investigations.
In one context Kurtz claims that “Skepticism is a method of inquiry primarily, not an attitude or posture or philosophical viewpoint that denies entities or phenomena out of hand,” but in another he is quoted as saying that Skeptics “are committed to scientific naturalism.” Similarly, in her piece on science’s superiority to religion, Susan Haack reserves her “greatest admiration for those who (as Mencken puts it) ‘delight to exercise the mind, no matter which way it takes [them].’” And in the same article she also says that Skeptics “eschew appeal to any supernatural, otherworldly, spiritual forces.” She admires those who follow reason wherever it leads—so long as we begin by discounting the possibility of its leading to the supernatural.
This dogmatic commitment to naturalism leads to the most remarkable leaps of faith. For example, in “Exorcising All the Ghosts,” Taner Edis contends that the skeptical debunking of purported psychic phenomena suggests that there is no God. After all, “if we cannot find magic even in our minds, it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that we live in a bottom-up, naturalistic world.” This conclusion is drawn on the same page on which he admits that even the most ordinary aspects of human consciousness—such as “vision or attention or awareness”—still involve “plenty of mysteries, enough to keep cognitive and brain scientists busy for many centuries yet.” For this Skeptic, we have only imperfect knowledge of the mind, but we know enough to claim definitively that, whatever it is, it involves no spiritual principle.
One might object to my argument as follows: Skepticism cannot really be a religion, because religion involves worshiping something or someone, and Skeptics engage in no such worship. The object of Skeptical worship is admittedly obscure, but perhaps it comes into view, briefly, in Susan Haack’s piece.
There she approves of Mencken’s celebration of “the triumphs over nature that humankind has achieved through the exercise of its intelligence.” She adds that she sees “nobility in the human capacity to puzzle, dream, calculate, check, and test, to work to find out how things are, to refuse false comfort, to try to find ways to make life better.” On this view, it seems, the exercise of the intellect is to be valued not simply for its own sake, but because it makes possible, in Francis Bacon’s terms, “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” Nature is to be subordinated to man and manipulated for the sake of man’s appetites. Skepticism is thus humanism, in the sense of human self-worship.
Despite its pretensions to intellectual superiority, Skepticism is actually distinguished from traditional religions by being less coherent. Traditional religions admit that they are based to some extent on faith, that some of the key truths by which they are guided are beyond reason’s grasp. Skepticism disdains faith even as it unconsciously relies upon it.
Traditional religions hold that man enjoys a special place in the universe—an exalted place accompanied by special privileges and duties—because he is created in the image of the Creator’s divine intelligence. Skeptics hold that humanity is an insignificant phenomenon that emerged through chance and necessity, and yet that it is perfectly appropriate for us to make ourselves masters of the universe through technology.
I admit that this account of Skepticism as a kind of religion is not original. It has been made in generations past by abler critics concerned with more thoughtful Skeptics. This fact, however, only makes the case of religious Skepticism all the more interesting, for its adherents seem not to have understood, or to have utterly ignored, such critics. In our time, those who boast most loudly of their commitment to reason may actually be the most impervious to it.
Carson Holloway is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of a book on Darwinism and political theory from Spence Publishing.