The Ubiquity of Belief: On the Outside, Looking In — A Skeptic’s Perspective

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

G’day. As a former theist and paranormal believer, I hold what I understand only to varying degrees of probability, nothing as completely certain outside of formal logic and maths, and those as certain only by virtue of arbitrary but accepted and useful conventions of logic.

As a theist, I had been brought up to see my religion as uniquely privileged to the Truth™ and in this I find that I was not unique at all.

Many of us raised or indoctrinated later in life into a religious belief system find it difficult to pierce the bubble of continuous doctrinal reinforcement and confirmation bias that surrounds us.

As a theist, I’d been paradoxically blinded to religion by that very thing. Religion was so much a part of my thinking that it was always in the background, always so well, blindingly obvious as to be just out of sight, and hence out of mind.

I never noticed it in the cultural environment I grew up in. It had never come to my attention how religion and religious belief was so pervasive.

In the religious tradition of my upbringing, I had been taught that unbelievers (everyone not a Bible-believing Adventist) were at best delusional and at worst evil. How ironic that it was only a few years later I became one of those same unbelievers, as my indoctrination waned from a lack of reinforcement.**

The same applies to my paranormal beliefs. Growing up with shows like In Search Of, including having attended a lecture at Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research & Enlightenment, I accepted nearly every sort of claim that made the tabloid headlines at the time.

Yes, the beginnings of an interest in science were there, but lacked a crucially important tool; a well-calibrated and functioning baloney detector.

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was neither the understanding nor the skill to filter the good science from the very, very bad science.

I knew about people called skeptics, but knew very little of them, and not in a positive light. They were ill-tempered meanies, spoiling my fun by debunking all of those cool things the media said psychics were doing. Skeptics too, were unbelievers held in almost the same light as those evil atheists.

Almost, though not quite as bad.

It was the 1970s, during the birth of an organized skepticism I knew next to nothing about, and the paranormal was everywhere in the popular culture, from tabloids, to movies, to comic books, toys, animated cartoons, television, and paperback fiction billed as nonfiction. There was so much of it out there that it was almost invisible. Again, hidden in plain sight.

I was literally, in a psychological sense, blinded to the prevalence of supernatural and paranormal belief by immersion in that very belief. I suppose It’s possible to internalize a set of beliefs so much that you think of that set as normal, acceptable, and desirable, and only notice when they are lacking, like those diabolical black-hat atheists and skeptics who I had foolishly thought so in denial of obvious reality and normalcy.

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original c...
Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original caption: “Founding of the Planetary Society Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, the founders of The Planetary Society at the time of signing the papers formally incorporating the organization. The fourth person is Harry Ashmore, an advisor, who greatly helped in the founding of the Society. Ashmore was a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There resided in my skull not a smidgen, not a molecule of good critical sense.

But things changed since my teens. There was the move from magical thinking and religiosity to, in time, a worldview valuing reason and evidence, if nothing else because that was what helped you make credible arguments whether you won or not, and the novel discovery that it’s okay to be wrong as long as you admit it, correct it, and move on.

But is it possible that I’ve just traded one sort of blindness for another? Was there now credulity for skepticism?

That’s just as silly as it sounds, since the first thing learned as a skeptic is to consider all sources, all authorities, as fallible, and to follow any claim to its primary source whenever possible. There is questioning and testing of even conventional claims when better data comes to light, even those of other skeptics and scientific research workers.

Such is the case with any branch of science. Even established findings are subject to this, and many may need revision or rejection in the face of better observations when these are made. Science questions itself much more than it’s critics assert with every new finding it makes, much more than in most other endeavors.

Try to find that in politics or religion without it resulting only in doctrinal schisms or ideological purges.

There is the testing and so the questioning of assumptions, to see whether they at least are still useful in producing effective results, whether they are true as well as useful. Assumptions which fail such inquiry are abandoned for better ones. Skepticism has a set of values that apply to it, but is not itself an ideology nor a belief system. It’s a method of asking questions which requires only that we accept the answers we get even if we must force ourselves to accept what the data say despite our wants and wishes.

I see the skeptical approach at work plain as day as well as the effects and influence of religious and paranormal claims everywhere now.

Others, better skilled than I are to be learned from, not hero-worshiped, their knowledge tested, not taken as a given, their authority questioned within the bounds of good reason, not knee-jerk rejection, their facts and credentials checked in relation to those of similar training, experience and knowledge background.

English: Ann Druyan (born June 13, 1949) is an...
English: Ann Druyan (born June 13, 1949) is an American author and media producer known for her involvement in many projects aiming to popularize and explain science. She is probably best-known as the last wife of Carl Sagan, and co-author of the Cosmos series and book, along with Sagan and Steven Soter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are men and women I admire and respect, not uncritically, the living and the departed, who have taught me much of value, who’ve enjoined me to learn more on my own, and I hope I’m not embarrassing those major contributors of skepticism and secular thought still among us by mentioning their names; Michael Shermer, the late Martin Gardner, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, the late Paul Kurtz, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, the late Isaac Asimov, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell…

I believe that for a robust skepticism, one must know the human side of their heroes, both the light and the dark. To know them in the context of their lives and relation to the world they lived in. The glitter and the tarnish. For a realistic worldview, nothing else will do.

**text added, paragraph #6, at 12/26/2012, 1:24 am EST.

4 thoughts on “The Ubiquity of Belief: On the Outside, Looking In — A Skeptic’s Perspective”

  1. Great post. I don’t think that anything in this universe should be blindly worshiped. I recently read the Sagan quote, “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself”. I have long held the same conviction. I see our creator as still learning and we are the part of the lesson that holds the answer. The more we interact, question, and negotiate the quicker the lesson is learned. It seems to me that life needs to be human in order to find value within the divine.


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