Faith vs. Skepticism

Today in my religion and science fiction class we focused on the X-Files. The assigned reading was a chapter from The Philosophy of The X-Files which compares Mulder and Scully, and philosophers James and Clifford, on the topic of belief and its justification.
At one point the choice between these approaches was summarized in what I think is a very helpful way. If we adopt a skeptical approach, we are less likely to believe things that are false, but will also probably not believe many things that are true but for which evidence is lacking. If we take a credulous approach, by believing everything we may be certain that we have believed everything that is true, but we will inevitably believe many things that are false as well.
Which approach do you consider preferable? Is there any real way to find a middle ground between them? And for those whose religious standpoint leads them to believe that God prefers one or the other of these approaches (or looks favorably on humans who adopt one or the other), why do you think that might be the case?
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  • Jay

    I think the reality is that the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle already. Perhaps people find it more comfortable to reserve skepticism for things they have little or no personal stake in – e.g. UFOs, Sasquatch, or the Templars, while they're simply more likely to believe things which agree with what they already consider to be true. (And yes, I know this is almost a trivial analysis, but someone had to throw it out…)Aren't we simply discussing Pascal's Wager here?

  • Mitchell Powell

    I don't think we're discussing Pascal's Wager at all here, though it's related. I'd have to say that the skeptical approach is superior to the credulous, with one provision: it is our job to be out looking for truth, not to simply sit back thinking we can't know anything.

  • Bryan R

    I consider skepticism preferable because it provides a method for differentiating claims that are supported by evidence from claims that are not. It also provides mechanisms for evaluating evidence, and re-formulating hypotheses to better fit the evidence. Faith provides neither, it confirms everything. I think you are right that a skeptic will "not believe many things that are true but for which evidence is lacking." However all is not lost for the skeptic in such situations, she will change her mind if new evidence comes to light. The faithful will not. Also I will pick a nit with this claim of yours: “If we take a credulous approach, by believing everything we may be certain that we have believed everything that is true…” This isn’t quite right. A credulous believer can only claim to believe things that they are exposed to, not “everything that is true.” A credulous believer may hold almost no true beliefs at all. For example, a truly credulous person growing up in a fundamentalist community will believe very few true things about history or science at all. What does a credulous believer do when exposed to contradictory claims? Believe them both, I suppose.

  • terri

    non-sequitur…sort ofWhat do you think the religious affiliation of most 9/11 Truthers, and Moon Landing Skeptics is?I think those kinds of conspiracies are more related to the way Jesus Mythicists operate, to draw upon an earlier thread.Is anyone completely skeptical or credulous about anything?

  • Bill Warrant

    It's just all about the evidence. Faith vs skepticism is a false dichotomy. Faith does not allow you to make a valid judgement, but that does not imply skepticism. Favoring one hypothesis over the other can only be done on the basis of evidence, but that is not skepticism. it's just following the evidence wherever it leads.For example, (to follow up on a previous thread) favoring the Jesus myth hypothesis is not skepticism, it's just a judgment that it's the hypothesis that best explains the data (if you happen to be a Jesus mythicist).

  • James F. McGrath

    I think Bill's example illustrates an important point: accusations of being too skeptical or too credulous are common in debates. There are supporters of the Jesus myth viewpoint who understand themselves as skeptics – Bill Maher, for instance, who claims to advocate skepticism yet reproduces claims about alleged parallels between Jesus and other figures that he clearly has not investigated skeptically or even critically. And so we can persuade ourselves that we are deciding with appropriate faith or appropriate skepticism, but in fact all of us illustrate at times the one truth that seems universal – even when we mean well and seek to be appropriately critical/skeptical, we are prone to being deceived and even deceiving ourselves. Dale Allison's recent book on the historical Christ and the theological Jesus is impressive inasmuch as Allison actually offers an illustration of how his own scholarly conclusions may have been shaped by the experiences he was going through at a particular point in his life.

  • Scott F

    Does agnostism enter this debate? A wise skeptic will reserve judgment on those things where the evidence is lacking. It seems to me that Pascal's wager is a good illustration of the issue at hand. Anything of importance – say your fate after death – would require good evidence before favoring one position over another. Christ is not the only alternative, after all. My own position is that in those things that I can not comprehend, a neutral stance is warranted. The offshoot of this is that my conduct is not affected by said things and hence results in an effective denial of them. Martin Gardner affected the opposite position, positing that a belief in life-after-death that does no harm does not require his defense. (I hope a haven't mangled that one too badly)

  • Qohelet

    I prefer skepticism to credulity because experience (and probability) has shown that there are more ways of being wrong than there are of being right. I refer you to Philosopher-Biologist Massimo Pigliucci's discussion of Type-I & Type-II errors in relation to beliefs.

  • David

    The credulous approach is the basis of all empirical observation. You can not prove truth – yesterday's scientific "truth" is today's joke – but instead you must use the logic of the null hypothesis to seek the least false conclusion.Truth cannot be rationally known because there may always an unknown factor involved. So you walk backwards from the false towards the true, eliminating what is more false from what is less false but never able to rationally reach certitude.This is why all scientific studies contain a statistical analysis estimating the amount of falsity in the conclusions. Proving the truth is impossible and the researcher settles for finding a null hypothesis which is false within certain statistical parameters.All scientific knowledge consists not of truth but rather belief in a known untruth – albiet the least untrue rationalization possible. Science and reason is only an exercise in reducing falsity, so put me down 100% on the side of credulity.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Ooops, I see Qohelet beat me to it by pointing out that this would be the phenomena of Type I and Type II Error in statistics.Interestingly, such analysis is used in spam filtering adjustments too — which I can see having many interesting parallels here. And with further parallel humor, Harvard economist Raiffa jokingly suggested "a candidate for the error of the fourth kind: solving the right problem too late" !

  • goprairie

    Let's just take email as a trivial example. If I am prone to acceptance, I will forward every sappy story, send the cards to the sick kids, forward emails to earn the coupons, believe there are plots to follow me via my credit cards and my electronic tollroad pass, believe that i can help someone free money from a foreign bank. I will fill up others' email boxes, clog up the network, waste money on cards that were for a kid 7 years ago, live in fear and paranoia of various plots, waste my time and the time of others. If I assume all such things are fake and refuse to pass them on and even debunk one now and then, I save time, mine and others, prevent further network clogging, save my own time and money pursuing nonexistant cash and coupons, enjoy the freedom from that fearfulness, and so on. What if there is genuine deal where if i go to a website and answer a question I will get a coupon or some sick kid really does want a million cards? I missed a coupon and the kids got one less of thousands of postcards from a stranger. No real harm done. Because people are so prolific and creative at generating such bullshit and because most people are so gullible in trusting and spreading it, anyone of the slim minority who has an ounce of skepticism owes it to society to exercise theirs to the max to keep the level of nonsense in the world as low as possible. If you look at religion and religions and spirituality, the claims that are made are an excellent example of the ability of people to generate massive quantities of nonsense but this time, it has supernatural power and moral obligation behind it, so the skeptics are fewer, the pressure to conform is greater, and thus the skeptic's responsibility to contribute to sanity by speaking the real truth is even greater.

  • Breckmin

    This is all evasive to the fact that you should be just as skeptical of naturalism as you are of theism. Why? Because you are defining the observation of the empirical world as natural. To do this is "atheistic" (aw-theistic) and it is an assumption which equals the conclusion. Why? Because you have "defined" what the empirical is (natural) without being present at its creation or without knowing if it is Sustained by a Higher Power or Infinite Order or Infinite Creator.You are exercising "faith" that it is natural..and NOT being as skeptical about your circular reasoning to assume the empirical IS somehow natural as you are about assuming that it is the result of a Creator.This is easy to identify. Circular reasoning in defining the empirical world as being "natural."IF you say "that is because the natural world is all that we see" – this is incongruous to defining what you see in the empirical world as being natural and not creation. It is also evasive to deductive arguments which lead to Intelligent causation once you eliminate the circular reasoning that causes you to falsely claim that theistic implication in science is somehow an appeal to ignorance.It is only an appeal to ignorance because you have eliminated theistic implication with your circular reasoning of requiring naturalistic explanation.Question everything! It just might lead you to the logic of Information comes from an Intelligent Source, complex mechanical working systems do not arise on their own..and IF-THEN algorithmic programming is clearly that – Programmed by a Creator.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    Belief may make you feel swell, but doubt is what gets you an education.