It is often argued that the atheist or secularist also takes a position of faith by not believing in God.
But this assertion is dead wrong. And to remain ignorant of this very important distinction can keep a society plagued by superstition, perennially imprisoned within the echo chambers of faith.
Let’s look at the fundamental differences between faith and skepticism:
What is faith? It is belief in something without sufficient evidence. Billions of people pride themselves as being people of faith. Conversely, the atheist prides herself in being skeptical. I.e. she withholds faith until sufficient evidence presents itself. If she were to make a statement of fact without persuasive evidence or argument, she is no model for atheism and is equally guilty of credulity.
The implacability of anachronistic, superstitious beliefs become apparent when a person loses her faith, not as a result of skeptical inquiry and reason, but after having suffered an offense in one way or another. In reaction to her, now defenestrated, childhood teachers, she swiftly espouses other forms of mysticism, substitutes her faith for that of a sister religion, or her admiration for the night sky inspires her to search for meaning in her horoscope. And if she’s a millennial, she’s particularly likely to take on modern notions of spirituality that mix Western Christian ideas with elements of Asian, especially Indian, religions.
All these examples serve to implicate that she has not changed her thinking in any way, at all. She merely transferred her affection for the obese Father Christmas onto the grotesque Ganesha. If she has not acquired a new set of skills, which include skeptical interrogation of the veracity of a statement, idea or experience then she remains up for grabs for the next charlatan political or superstitious zealot who comes ambling along.
She is also likely to remain a victim, of the pernicious Illusory Truth Effect, which is the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure . Politicians, preachers and especially the media are guilty of wielding this illusory weapon of mass destruction.
The venerate author, literary and social critic, Christopher Hitchens summarizes the argument against faith most eloquently:
“Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
And equally important, the person described by Hitchens, does not ring-fence so-called spiritual experiences and beliefs against reason and skeptical inquiry. The same thinking she applies in the physics class, she also applies to reading the newspaper, to making a business decision, to selecting a diet, and to seeking answers for the big questions of life and meaning, regardless of how disconcerting the answer may be. She recognizes that if she allowed superstitious thinking in one area of her life, she would be more likely to be swayed and influenced by charlatans in other areas of her life.
But how does one acquire the skills associated with skepticism and free inquiry?
I studied engineering, but I do not recall being taught about this very important method of knowledge acquisition. Historically, the Scientific Method has been reserved for those in ivory towers, who do research in physics, economics, cosmology, etc. It is something that “those” people do... the Scientists.
But I wish to challenge this belief. I propose that it should be taught in school, from a young age, with a specific focus on how it can be applied in everyday life to discern fact from fiction. These are the tools of skepticism, free inquiry and open-mindedness.
Not very long ago, I was guilty of this way of thinking. Or shall I say, non-thinking. Perhaps you recognize your own lack of non-thinking. Do not despair. If you wish to inoculate yourself or your children against the daily fictions and superstitions that buffet and plague society, then you can equip yourself with just a little bit of reading.
And once you are armed with Carl Sagan’s ‘baloney-detection toolkit’, that I call a bullshit-detection toolkit , then make every effort to also develop the skills of emotional intelligence and compassionate conversation. Together, these tools can help to make possible a more propitious result when you engage with fellow human beings and can be of great value as you strive to build a more meaningful society.
About the photos:
Cape Town 2015