Monday, September 8, 2014

Skepticism (or Is It Scepticism?).

A few days ago, on my Facebook feed, someone quoted Dallas Willard on scepticism. Lots of people gave this quote a big “Like.” Willard’s words irritated me though. What follows, I confess, is a bit of a screed. In any case, this is what Willard wrote:

"We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character … Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright."

Clearly, Dallas Willard did not think very highly of skepticism (we’ll run with the American spelling, I guess). But is he right?

Well, for starters, in fairness to Willard, he doesn’t actually say that skepticism is bad in itself. It is our culture’s skeptical “fashion” that he specifically has issues with. That’s good, because individual skeptics have often made valuable contributions to our shared good or understanding. We could go as far back as Socrates, for example and his doubts about the Greek pantheon—not that the people of faith in his era were very tolerant of his skepticism. Jennifer Hecht, in her book Doubt describes the role skepticism played in the theologies and philosophies of dozens of important scholars—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists—since Socrates. The scientific method itself is based—in part—on a systemic skepticism that other scientists actually got it right. New theories, for example, don’t have much currency until other scientists have been able to replicate the experimental results that undergird those theories. Without skeptics we might still believe in a flat earth or a geocentric universe—or, moving on to other widely held notions—the inferiority of First Nations or African peoples, or the Manifest destiny, or the idea that God helps those who help themselves.

On the other hand, it is hard to separate individual skeptics from the culture they are a part of. Can one really say that some cultures are more or less skeptical than others? I don’t know. So, for example, I live in Toronto. You don’t have to drive far to find mosques, temples, synagogues, churches, and even the odd cathedral. People of many different faiths worship in these buildings. Most of them probably have a deep faith in their own religious outlook and deep skepticism about the faiths of people who don’t believe as they do. So what are they? True believers or religious skeptics?

Of course, there are also scads of people in Toronto who hardly ever think of religion or philosophy. They go along to get along. They are invested in “me, myself, and I,” though most of them don’t even realize it themselves. Their choices are uninformed by wider study or self-examination. They’re not skeptics about anything. Perhaps they construct syncretistic and personal faiths out of all sorts of otherwise unrelated beliefs. This sort of uncritical worldliness, in fact, is often the butt of many sermons and criticism from Christians. Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, once wrote: “One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we’ve developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.” Muggeridge, I take it, would not agree with Dallas Willard about the central role that skepticism has played in our culture. He wishes for more.

I do agree that sometimes the press likes to sensationalize the latest intellectual fad—the new atheism, perhaps—because it is scandalous and that makes it newsworthy in their eyes. But it is only scandalous because the press thinks most people will be shocked by such outrĂ© ideas. Some of these skeptics do, of course, make a big deal of their views—sometimes they’re posers—but that has more to do, I think, with their marketing savvy than anything else. Ultimately, I think our culture—between those who could care less about ideas, pro or con; and those who have very settled ideas—our culture isn’t of one mind on skepticism at all. In The New York Times, for example, columnists like Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and Nicholas Kristoff regularly and intelligently reflect positively about the role or potential of faith. Not too many people, in any case, would deny that these writers exercise “intellectual method and character.” And of course, there are thousands of “religious” scholars in every field who do likewise.

I also wonder what Dallas Willard means when he says that, “for centuries” our culture has been skeptical. Will Durant famously suggested that the “Age of Faith” lasted from Constantine’s conversion until sometime around the fourteenth century, with beginning of the Renaissance. Of course, it was usually uninformed faith, as most Christians couldn’t read and knew little more than the Ten Commandments, a few Jesus stories, and the Lord’s Prayer. No Bible studies or Religious Confessions or skepticism for them. I can’t help but think their inability to be skeptics was also their loss, though.

Since the “Age of Faith,” there are some pretty impressive skeptics—but also some pretty impressive believers, too, as any historian or philosopher will be happy to explain. So I think skepticism is pretty hard to tie down to the overall culture of any era. Were the Reformers skeptics for calling Rome’s sway into question? Has Christian practice always been in decline since the American Revolution? I don’t think so. Before the Great Awakening, in the United States, church attendance was probably quite low (though this is sometimes disputed). But the highpoint of church attendance in North America was almost certainly in the years directly after World War II. Given the consistently large percentage of North Americans who went to church or synagogue until very recently, it is hard to see skepticism as holding great sway in our culture for hundreds of years.

Of course, one possibility that Willard doesn’t consider is that skeptics are right, and non-skeptics are really as stupid as cabbages. For example, what about climate change deniers? Six-day creationists? Evolution deniers? People who believe Obama is a Muslim (17% according to a 2012 Pew poll—37% more didn’t know)? Being gay is a choice? Apparently some FOX commentator has been arguing lately that there is no such thing as White privilege. We’re back to something like Muggeridge’s quote again, except that the people who will believe anything, in this case, tend to be conservative Christians. This group, in fact, is the one that for all their theological wizardry too often displays little very little intellectual method and character when it comes to other matters. Or so I think. Still, I wouldn’t argue that all people who hold such views are as stupid as cabbages. It isn’t true to fact, or nice to say so. And many of them are actually as sly as foxes.

Well, then, there is also the historic and recent non-skeptical certainty of the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Maoists, the North Korean regime, Al Qaida, ISIS, and other religious fundamentalists in several religions (as well as their followers), and right-wing conspirators like the Aryan nation types or those who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma. The truth is that there are far too many instances in recent history that argue for a lot more skepticism, not less.

There is more in Willard’s statement that bugs me. Are all skeptics individualists? Probably not. A lot religious skeptics I know, at least, are socialists. Many of my skeptical, non-religious friends are willing to pay higher taxes to support the universal Canadian health care system, or better public daycare, or better roads. Over the past century, a lot of important non-religious true believers have been communists. You don’t have to like them to be impressed—and dismayed—by their certainty.

Ultimately, I’d say that Dallas Willard’s statement is just wrong. Perhaps even prejudiced and unkind. A gross over-simplification. A sweeping generalization. It suffers from lack of clarity. It makes him seem like a crybaby. Perhaps the fault is that he was quoted out of context. I hope so.

The truth is we—personally and corporately—cannot avoid faith and skepticism both. I certainly think our society would be better off if we all thoughtfully held to core Judeo-Christian moral views or positive communitarian philosophies. And we always need to test the spirits—and the fashions and the old dogmatic saws and the unspoken presuppositions—of our communities and culture. The trick—or wisdom—is to hold faith and skepticism in healthy tension, constantly examining ourselves, while making the good of all neighbours our ultimate life goal.


  1. Willard actually has an entire lecture on skepticism, and as you noted it isn't all negative.

  2. I think the heart of the quote is the reliance on fashion rather than inquiry. Beliefs of course sometimes do the same thing. If its fashionable to believe a certain think and not test it it is guilty of the same charge.


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