Skepticism: Virtue or Vice?

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality." - G.B. Shaw

The word skepticism comes from a Greek word that means to reflect on or examine. The term "skeptic" refers to one who by nature doubts what he hears and reads. Today, that definition has been expanded to include someone who questions the fundamental doctrines of a religion, especially Christianity. Some synonyms are atheist, unbeliever, and agnostic. Now that's unfortunate, not only because it sells fundamentalist books, but also because skepticism is not a case of black and white, atheist or believer. Each one of us makes choices about which beliefs to protect and defend and which to scrutinize. There is a continuum of belief between Mark Twain's "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" and Pope Urban VIII, who in the early 17th century said, referring to apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that "it is better to believe than not to believe, for if you believe and it is proven true, you will be happy that you believed. But if you believe and it should be proven false, you will still receive all blessings as if it had been true, because you believed it to be true." Does that philosophy sound familiar? Believe and you will be saved. It doesn't matter how you live your life. Just believe ... belief is sacred.

So the ancient Greeks were really our skeptical forefathers. Socrates is called the father of reason. As the story goes, when Socrates began his campaign to teach truth, he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in the world. Now he was sure this couldn't be true, so he consulted with other wise men. But they only agreed with the Oracle, so Socrates concluded he must be the wisest man in the world. After all, he was the only man who knew that he wasn't the wisest man in the world. But the greatest skeptic of them all was Pyrrho of Elis, who founded a school of philosophers who called themselves Skeptics and taught that nothing whatsoever is certain and that the wise man will suspend judgement on everything.

There are some, particularly in the field of parapsychology, who feel that there is an organization today that follows in the absolute skeptical tradition of Pyrrho: the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP was founded about 16 years ago by the philosopher Paul Kurtz and a group of writers, magicians and psychologists including the James 'The Amazing' Randi, Ray Hyman, Martin Gardner, and Marcello Truzzi. CSICOP began publishing a magazine called the Zetetic which Truzzi edited. Truzzi, who was the most moderate of the group of skeptics, left CSICOP after editing only two issues. The magazine then became the Skeptical Inquirer and took an aggressive and popular approach to debunking the paranormal. The current circulation is over 35,000 and it is an influential publication in the sciences. CSICOP has over 60 fellows of the committee and a similar number of scientific and technical consultants. The consultants have a very wide range of expertise, but among those who actually control CSICOP, there are very few scientists ... they are primarily either philosophers or editors. CSICOP does no scientific research but comments on the work of others.

CSICOP is very loosely affiliated with local skeptic groups in over 30 states and 23 countries. Since CSICOP is not a membership organization, except for the hundred or so invited fellows or consultants, the local skeptic groups provide a means for anyone to participate in skeptical activities, primarily education-oriented. The local group which covers DC, Maryland, and Virginia is the National Capital Area Skeptics or NCAS. There are no formal ties between CSICOP and the local groups other than moral support such as providing speakers and facilitating communication among skeptics. NCAS was founded in 1987 and has about 300 members.

Even though the intent of CSICOP and local skeptic groups is to avoid matters involving religion, it is difficult at times, particularly when claims are made concerning miracles, like the recent weeping statues at a Catholic Church in Virginia, or when the young-earth creationists of the Institute for Creation Research come to town to give a seminar on Back to Genesis. And try as they might, many skeptic groups cannot hide their obvious ties to secular humanism. CSICOP was formed at the 1976 meeting of the American Humanist Association. Paul Kurtz edited the Humanist magazine of the AHA and CSICOP shares it's offices with the Counsel for Democratic and Secular Humanism or CODESH, which publishes Free Inquiry. The new "Center for Inquiry" in Buffalo will house both CSICOP and CODESH. Prometheus books, a publishing venture of Paul Kurtz, is probably the largest distributor of skeptical and secular humanist books in the world. The result is that skeptics are almost always assumed to be secular humanists. I guess one can't blame those folks who think that the Anti-Christ is alive and well and living in Buffalo. But the whole truth is that, while I would be willing wager that all secular humanists consider themselves skeptics, all skeptics do not consider themselves secular humanists. Not even close. The tradition of skepticism by believers within religion is long and unfortunately, often tragic.

To illustrate that, I'm going to use one of the oldest puzzles in the world: the question of who actually wrote the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are known as the Pentateuch or the Torah. Jewish and Christian tradition says Moses wrote them, even though nowhere in those books does it say he's the author. Tradition however becomes the revealed word and the accepted truth. Early skeptics were devout believers in the God of the Bible ... they just questioned the contradictions. For example, that there could be both two of each animal or fourteen of each animal on the ark; that Moses would go to the Tabernacle in a chapter before he built the abernacle; and that Moses described his own death or that he would call himself the humblest man on earth. The rabbis of the centuries following the completion of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament spent untold hours explaining the contradictions within the boundaries allowed by their tradition or truths. They explained it in terms of interpretation or revelation ... what I like to call theological gymnastics. How did Moses know all those things he couldn't possibly know? Well, he was a prophet, wasn't he?

At the beginning of the second millennium after Christ, skeptical voices concerning the authorship of the Torah finallybegan to be heard. In the 11th century, Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish Court physician of a ruler in Muslim Spain suggested that part of Genesis was written by someone who lived after Moses. He was immediately labeled as "Isaac the Blunderer" and suggestions were made that his book should be burned. The person making that suggestion was a Spanish rabbi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, who later wrote about the Pentateuch in a somewhat skeptical manner, that "if you understand, then you will recognize the truth ... and he who understands will keep silent".

Unfortunately, for them, other skeptics didn't take Ibn Ezra's suggestion to keep silent. In the 16th century, Andreas van Maes, a Flemish Catholic, suggested that an editor inserted phrases or changed place names in Moses' writings. His book was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books.

In the 17th century, Issac de la Peyre're, a French Calvinist, wrote that Moses was not the author of the first 5 books of the Bible. His book was banned and burned. He was arrested and told that he would only be released if he recanted and became a Catholic. He did.

At the same time the Jewish philosopher Spinoza also questioned the Mosaic authorship. Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism and condemned by Catholics and Protestants. His book was banned and an attempt was made on his life.

In France, Richard Simon, a Catholic priest, wrote a work that he intended to be critical of Spinoza. Unfortunately for him, he hedged and said that there were some additions to the Mosaic text by divinely-inspired prophets. Simon was expelled from his order and his books were placed on the Index. All but 6 of the 1300 copies of his book were burned. An English version of his book came out, translated by John Hampden. However, Hampden later repudiated the opinions he held in common with Simon ... and was then released from the Tower of London.

In the 19th century, William Smith, a professor of the Old Testament in the Free Church of Scotland College at Aberdeen and editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica wrote and published articles regarding the non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He was put on trial before the church and cleared of heresy but still expelled from his chair. At the same time, John Colenso, an Anglican Bishop in South Africa was dubbed "the wicked Bishop" for holding similar opinions.

Today there is hardly a reputable biblical scholar in the world who would claim that the first 5 books of the Bible were written by Moses, or by any one person for that matter. All these skeptics who suffered for their doubt were deeply religious. But when they questioned an "accepted truth" that was defined by religious authority, they were ridiculed and punished. No matter how sincere their belief in God and their religion. We've come a long way ... right? Have you ever heard of Salman Rushdie?

Of course, the suppression of skeptics doesn't only apply to religious authority. Those who defied the inspired racial myths of Nazism suffered similarly from that secular authority. And while today's truths of science are based on theory and experimentation, rather than tradition and revelation, they are held by some to be as inviolate. Skeptics sometimes forget that two hundred years ago the scientific consensus was that meteorites were of terrestrial origin. Thomas Jefferson said that "he could more easily believe two Yankee professors would lie than stones would fall from Heaven". Skeptical opponents were ridiculed ... but they were right ... the scientific consensus was wrong. Science is not an unchanging belief system. It is not a faith. Those who defend science as if it were a faith are just as wrong as those who defend their faith as if it were a science.

But what about faith? What place does the skeptic have among the believers? Is skepticism an enemy of faith? I don't think so. Gullibility is not a measure of spirituality. Doubt is an integral part of the growth of all religion. All the great religious thinkers were doubters. Jesus warned his followers to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" when surrounded by wolves. And indeed, speaking of wolves, it is only when fundamentalist beliefs return a religion to the "good old days" that doubters and skeptics are not welcome.

Let me conclude with a few thoughts about skepticism that I'd like you to use to examine your own beliefs. Aristotle said that the ability to doubt is rare, emerging only among cultivated, educated persons. Well, I certainly can't disagree with that, but I will add that skepticism thrives in an atmosphere of comfort and satisfaction. Put a skeptic in a position of personal crisis, whether it be a life-threatening disease or a foxhole in the middle of a battle, and his skepticism is easily lost.

And finally, coming full circle to something I said before: Think about the choices you make about which beliefs to scrutinize and which to protect and defend ... and why. In terms of God or a Divine Providence, at some point we each draw a line and say "I can no longer examine this critically ... I must either accept it on faith or reject it". At the current state of our science, we cannot prove the crucial belief of most religions ... the existence of life after death ... ask the parapsychologists who have struggled in vain for over a century. If we believe, we believe on faith alone. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Even Steve Allen, a strong supporter of CODESH and secular humanism, and author of one of the best and most thought-provoking commentaries on the Bible that I have ever read,accepts the probability that there is some kind of divine force, since that appears to be the least preposterous of the two possible assumptions. Some of you go beyond Steve ... perhaps there are some who won't even go that far. More important is that we respect and understand the beliefs of others, whether they include a belief in God or not. When skepticism goes beyond that limit and is used as a club to hurt others it is not skepticism ... it is demagoguery. When skeptics attempt to enforce their beliefs through subtle or not so subtle means, it is not "spreading the scientific truth ... it is proselytism. And whether evangelism is carried out by fundamentalists on the 700 Club, Witnesses selling their faith and magazine, Saints doing door-to-door missionary work, skeptics debunking the paranormal in the Skeptical Inquirer, or secular humanists ridiculing religion in the pages of Free Inquiry, they are just as offensive. I'm not saying "don't defend yourself". I'm not saying to abandon the humanist warcry "On the Barricades". I am saying "don't lower yourself to the level where you are hurting other people and enjoying it."

So is skepticism a virtue or vice? It is, like most things in life, a vice when used in excess and outside acceptable moral limits. And a virtue when used in moderation.

Mike Epstein

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Frederick, Maryland, December 6, 1992