Skepticism for Christianity: Why Doubt is our Best Friend

Illustration by Seth T. Hahne

If we take time to study more than just answers from a textbook, but the actual system of rational and logical thought we use to support our beliefs, we will be able to stand on a more firm foundation, and thus be able to live in the Truth.

If I were to ask you to define a Skeptic, how would you do it?  Likely, the words “Atheist”, “humanist”, “Scientist”, and “Attacker of Christianity” would pop to mind.  And with names like Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer, and atheistic entertainment act Penn and Teller acting as some of the most well-known skeptics, that’s not hard to believe.

But that definition is inadequate. The men and women who wish to challenge the common pseudo-scientific beliefs of the day: if one were to study their basic methods, one would find a prime example of seeking out and validating objective  truths about reality.

“But why?” You may ask. I believe that Skepticism is one of the more helpful frameworks for testing and discovering truth, and these “Godless Heathens” have something to teach us about that.

Defining Skepticism:  

But what is Skepticism, exactly?  According to professional skeptic and Skeptic Magazine Editor Michael Shermer, “Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims…..Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it…When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, ‘That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.’”

Skepticism is not necessarily a “Humanistic, atheistic” party. It’s more a party of “doubt”, where we take time to consider whether our beliefs AND the reasons for them hold up to the magnifying lens of reality.

Doubt is a thing which many Christians see as opposing their faith. Many have fought it and its prevalence in the modern minds of man. 19th century pastor Robert Turnbull once  stated that “Doubt, indeed, is the disease of this inquisitive, restless age.” Many people react negatively towards any feelings of doubt that they may have, fearing that this doubt means that they aren’t fully committed to God.

However, this fear of doubt is dreadfully dangerous. Not every man who doubts his faith loses it. And if they look at most human lives, they’ll find that if one doesn’t doubt, then one isn’t human. It is a necessary idea for any believer, for it acts as the catalyst and tool for a man or woman to grow. Timothy Keller explains the necessity of faith extremely well:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’.

Clearly, doubt matters. And learning to become a skeptic takes their ability to analyze and fact-check, and tests the claims which are not easily proven in order to see if the belief holds up to a larger objective standard or not. The doubt becomes the catalyst to a proper questioning of anything and everything. This questioning acts as a sharpening stone, allowing us to test and reveal whether or not our beliefs about things hold up to logic, to the physical world, and to general and special revelation. In choosing to perform this act, we develop a more thorough framework of faith and of one’s relationship to reality, God, and humanity.

It’s worth noting the difference between being a total skeptic and a selective skeptic. A total skeptic, in theory, is someone who has critically analyzed every aspect of their life and weighed it accordingly. While many claim to have acted in a manner resembling total skepticism, they actually haven’t. Social scientist Tony C. Riniolo tells a story about Einstein, considered one of the greatest scientific skeptics of our time, who was very selective in his judgment of political societies.  He criticized nations like Germany and the US for their flaws and their inability to encourage proper scientific growth. He saw the Soviet Union as a better model for encouraging scientific growth from an economic perspective. However, as evidence came out which disproved this notion, Einstein never shifted his opinion. Why? Because he wasn’t acting consistently as a skeptic. He was selective.

No skeptic is a perfect man who judges all of his beliefs. Most are simple “Selective skeptics” who challenge some ideas but not all. Many self-proclaimed skeptics do anexcellent job of challenging inaccurate beliefs that are based on emotion or pseudoscience, but they often accept other beliefs with less of a critical eye, beliefs which some (including the author) believe to have been proven fallacious, such as the ability of science to explain everything, or the reliability of certain theories of origin.

But even if there is no such thing as a total skeptic, there are plenty of selective skeptics (especially those who tend towards atheistic and naturalistic explanations of the world) who are doing a wonderful job of digging through the lies and finding the Truth, wherever it may lie.

Evangelicals are often fighting with the modern skeptic, in fear that the skeptic will tear others from Christ and create chaos.  However, Skeptics practice more than a few habits which we Christians could learn from, in order to live in the Truth.  Christians, as a demographic, do tend to vary across the spectrum of beliefs, with some believing in false doctrines, while others reject scientifically proven things like normal medicine or Pasteurized milk. How do we weigh these things and their actual validity? We need to look at all of these using a proper method of skepticism. This will not only increase our odds of seeing through lies, but will help us to stand our ground in defending our beliefs and the Truth in all its wholeness.

Here are three ways that Evangelicals can help to develop a proper habit of skepticism:

1. Emphasizing Critical thinking:  Do you know how many educational editorials I’ve read about students having no critical thinking skills? Too many.  The Hechinger Report stated that “Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college….After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called ‘higher order’ thinking skills.”

Christians and Atheists all agree, students need to learn to think. In fact, most apologists and teachers wish to see a cultural shift where logic is more emphasized in education.

This is one area where Christians and Skeptics agree.  What is sad is that as I found that Skeptics, in general, lay a larger focus in their training on Critical Thinking.  Skeptics present themselves as the only ones who think completely. This becomes semi-apparent with studies like the recent one from Harvard University, which supposedly found a connection between weaker “critical thinking skills” and religious thought.  If one even just puts into Google the terminology “Critical Thinking”, they will find few resources dealing with it from a Non-atheistic perspective.  Thankfully, Ministries like RZIM and Stand to Reason are providing some resources on basic logic, but there are few tools that help people to master simple Critical Thinking. One could connect this to Critical Thinking being an ideologically neutral tool, but that doesn’t account for the increasingly noticeable amount of Anti-Christian Critical Thinking resources.  This prevalence of resources makes it seem that atheists know the basics of logic and reasoning more than the church seems to know, making the Christian Church look unintelligent and unable to dialogue on the same level of thought.  Also, atheism is often based in some form of rationalism, while Christians can accept the faith without even considering the rational arguments for Christianity. This can place the Christian in a place of fear, where they are unable to interact with the rationalistic mind of a skeptic, and thus be overwhelmed. If we take time to study more than just answers from a textbook, but the actual system of rational and logical thought we use to support our beliefs, we will be able to stand on a more firm foundation, and thus be able to live in the Truth.

2. Recognizing Biases and Assumptions:  Sometimes, when I talk to other Christians, we eventually end up on topics such as “God Told me that…” or “I felt the Holy Spirit in there”.  Often, what comes out of their mouths is either unbiblical or abiblical. But if God told them, then how can it be wrong?

Well, this is an issue of Psychological effects and tricks.  For example, consider the simplest psychological trend; the bias. A bias is any simple inclination in one’s actions or thoughts.  It can work like this: when some of us are in pain, we want to blame the pain on an outside source, such as our past (which we cannot control) or an institution, or something akin to that.  However if another ends up in pain, then we blame the person in pain.

Why do people react to such occurrences like that? It’s because of a tendency in the human mind which psychologists have called the “Actor/Observer Bias”. And this isn’t the only bias. As of March 2013, there are over a hundred biases that have been psychologically classified which affect our actions and decisions. Now, some biases are small and irrelevant to our decision-making, but others can exist for years, influencing us without ever knowing they exist. For example, the bias known as “Backfire effect” occurs when one sees evidence contrary to your current beliefs. The person simply buckles down into their own beliefs, ignoring the blatant evidence that exists before them.  This is contrary to how one should react to truth, where we learn, analyze, and modify as is necessary.

If we neglect the clear existence of these biases, then we harm ourselves in the process.  We neglect the reality that we humans and our perceptions of our events are nowhere near as accurate as we want them to be.

3. Challenging Everything:  As both Richard Weaver and Summit Ministries state: “Ideas have consequences”.  And false ideas have the most dangerous consequences, for we are attempting to interact with the world using a false basis.  That is an action that tends to be detrimental to our ability to properly interact with the world. For example, the ideas of Birtherism seem simple from some people’s conservative viewpoint, but this idea tends to be affiliated with a mindset that creates an unhealthy mistrust for authorities, which may or may not have any proper foundation. An overemphasis on demonic influence can reflect the spiritual realities, but it may also cause others to fear demonic activity all over the place, as well as misunderstand human action as a whole.  But how do we even know that these beliefs are true or false?  After all, false prophets and incorrect teachers all have evidence that makes it seem that they have the facts.  It is for this reason that we must question. Looking at our beliefs and testing them against some form of standard of Truth can and will help us to prove that there are problematic elements in our system of belief.

That’s why, no matter who you are or what beliefs you have about the world, we must consider and test our beliefs vigorously as a good habit. By doing so, you will find yourself living more in truth than in falsity.

The modern skepticism movement often judges and berates religious thought, presenting themselves as rivals to Christianity, instead of allies. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from it.  The modern skeptic’s desire to emphasize finding objective truth and legitimate facts about everything is something that every person can learn from, especially the Christian community.  We must seek the truth, no matter where it leads. Skepticism is one of the tools which makes seeking that much easier.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne and Tim Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Christopher Hutton

Chris Hutton is a college student and Freelance Writer from Bloomington Minnesota. Since he was young, he loved books and ideas. Science was one of his favorite topics, as well as technology. It's one of the issues that has mattered to him consistently. Hence, Chris tries to bring a critical/helpful take to the modern understanding of technology. You can find Chris' home online at liter8.net, or you can tweet him via @liter8media.

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  • http://hdssh@weebly.com Hadassah

    The opener is the essay: “If we take time to study more than just answers from a textbook, but the actual system of rational and logical thought we use to support our beliefs, we will be able to stand on a more firm foundation, and thus be able to live in the Truth.”

    Q: With the evangelical emphasis on bible study, why do we seem to miss one of the most fundemental lessons?

    The people of God argued with God … they were not mindless robots of “because he said it, I’ll do it”. Rather, they wrestled with God, and while the end results was always the same (God is right), the were more mature for it.

  • João Tavares

    Pope Emeritus Benedict VI on doubt:

    “No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true.” That perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape wither doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.” Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, 46-47.

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