It is often argued that the atheist or secularist also takes a position of faith by not believing in God.
But such an assertion is dead wrong and both people of faith and too many atheists are implicated in this popular misconception about the scientific mindset. A society that remains ignorant of this very important distinction will continue to be plagued by superstition and lack a valuable tool of the Enlightenment that can spur meaningful progress.
To explain, let’s begin by looking 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 and superstitious beliefs is often evident when a person loses her faith, not as a result of skeptical inquiry and reason, but as a result of having suffered a personal offense in one way or another. In reaction to her, now defenestrated, childhood instructors, she swiftly adopts mysticism or substitutes her original faith for that of a sister religion, or the grandeur of the night sky beguiles her to search for meaning in her horoscope. Particularly popular amongst millennials today, are modern notions of spirituality that mix Western Christian ideas with elements of Asian, especially Indian, religions. This is likely due to the association with a pseudo-tolerance towards all religions of the world, when they are in-tolerant to conservative values of any kind.
All these examples serve to implicate that she has not changed her way of 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 thinking-skills, which include skeptical interrogation of the veracity of an idea, statement 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 for skepticism and 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.”
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 when reading the newspaper, when making a business decision, when selecting a diet, and when seeking answers to the big questions of life, regardless of how disconcerting the answers 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 hold a bachelor's degree in Engineering, but I do not recall having been taught in any way about this very important method of truth distinction and knowledge acquisition: The Scientific Method. For too long has it been reserved for those in academic, ivory towers who do research in physics, chemistry, cosmology, etc. For too long have we thought of it as something that “those” people do... the Scientists.
But today I challenge this notion, especially our preconceptions about the Scientific Method. 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 we associate with skepticism, free inquiry and open-mindedness.
Not very long ago, I was guilty of this way of thinking. Or shall I rather say, non-thinking. Do you also take statements as truth, on faith, without persuasive evidence or arguments? Perhaps you recognize your own lack of non-thinking in everyday life. How can you dispel this disingenuous illusionist? Do not despair. If you wish to inoculate yourself and your children against the daily fictions and superstitions that buffet and plague society, then you can equip yourself with the myriad of tools made available to us by the heros of the Enlightenment.
I suggest you start by arming yourself with Carl Sagan’s, very practical ‘baloney-detection toolkit’, which I call a bullshit-detection toolkit. Other heros of mine include Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, Maria Popova, and Christopher Hitchens.
In conclusion, once your brain is purged from superstitious thinking, make every effort to embellish your new found skepticism with the skills of Emotional Intelligence and Compassionate Conversation. Together, this ensemble of tools can ensure a more propitious outcome as you engage with your fellow human beings and can be of great value as you strive to build a more meaningful society.
About the photos:
Cape Town 2015