When the irrefutable evidence of collective human knowledge fails us in our search for Truth, I believe in the saving power of skepticism. Recently I participated in an informal discussion group contemplating the nature of faith led by Lutheran Pastor Don, an ex-Catholic Priest. After much reading, study and animated deliberation, our small crowd, consisting of a retired HR exec., a physician, a college professor and me, a church musician, decided that all religious mythology is, on its face, preposterous. We also agreed, however, that this doesn’t diminishes the depth of faith or sincerity of believers, but believing religious dogma is, by definition, accepting empirically unverifiable truth.
We then proposed that faith comes from essentially the same place in the cornucopia of human emotion as love, and any lasting love embraces mystery. We lose our way, however, when we mistake dogma for universal meaning,. Ending the search for Truth at the altar of any faith’s canon, we can easily lose empathy with nonbelievers. True believers tenaciously cling to the skeleton of faith found in ancient theology, where certainty is proclaimed and doubt is forbidden, excluding and marginalizing those who don’t share that tradition. We are creatures of our cultures, with the influence of our parents, peers, geography, social standing and personal perceptions creating the foundation of conscious choice. We each say ‘I believe’ based on these givens, a choice, however, that is ours alone, and central to our identities. Skepticism, born of experience and applied with an open mind, can soften the brutality of life, defeat fanaticism and create tolerance.
Imagine the intellectual curiosity simply didn’t exist that courageously challenged commonly held beliefs and led to established truths we now universally accept. What if there had been no skepticism that fire was a god, or the earth was flat, or therapeutic bleeding cured mental illness. Conversely, historical examples that skepticism could have changed everything are legion. What if, in any brutal tyranny’s infancy, someone of courage had expressed honest, persuasive skepticism of the fanatic’s rant?
Do you believe in Santa Claus? How about Thor, or Zeus, the Easter Bunny, or Beowulf? With instinctual skepticism we exercise the most precious of all freedoms: choosing what to believe. An enormous weight of persuasive influence rests on us, but through all the arguments and enticements, it comes down to a single moment of choice that cannot be denied us. Even in the endgame ‘your money or your life,’ and the choice is to believe or die, it will finally be our decision alone.
All around us, our suffering planet cries out for vigorous, honest questioning. I believe skepticism must be scrupulously applied in our public discourse, personal faith, political will, and interpersonal relationships if we are to survive and thrive. I pray to the God I’m pretty sure exists somewhere, I think, that She, or He, rain down upon us the life-giving balm of honest, courageous, well-expressed, powerfully persuasive skepticism.
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