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Respecting the Right to Believe, without being uncritical about It


Vermeer The Allegory of the Faith

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My view as a skeptic is that the right of others to believe as they choose should indeed be respected, but let’s not confuse the right to believe with uncritical respect for or assent by silence of others about the belief itself.

Also, in respecting the rights of others to believe, I claim for myself the right to free expression, of free speech, and the right to respectfully inform others to the best of my understanding, without bullying or condescension, by whatever lawful means available, when a claim leading to a belief can and has been shown erroneous, or at least inconsistent with itself or the truth of what it concerns.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, though, and needed to get my thoughts in order, hence this particular post.

It’s not my right, nor my interest, to coerce or deceive someone into believing or not believing something. I’m not out to make people “not believe,” or any similarly absurd canard.

My focus is on the claims themselves, not the beliefs. Nor is it my interest to relieve someone of the burden of faith, only giving them the means to relieve themselves of the burden of credulity, to accept things by way of good judgment on the basis of the reasons given for them.

To me, dogma, in the sense of holding a claim, proposition, or principle infallibly true on the pronouncements of authority, is anathema, and its antithesis is modern skepticism. Dogma excludes the freedom to question.

It’s mistaken to confuse claims with beliefs, or faith with trust. They are very different things indeed, as I will attempt in my own clumsy way to explain, my somewhat limited understanding being ever more evident as I continue.

I distinguish faith from trust, and when I use these words, I have very specific meanings in mind.

A claim, simply put, is a proposition or statement that something is true or false, at least to a degree, whereas a belief is the acceptance of that claim, a position taken on it, whether this acceptance is critical or uncritical in nature.

Faith, as I use the term, involves belief without (or even in spite of) sufficient evidence, and in this sense is inherently non-rational if not irrational at times.

Trust, in the sense of putting stock in the relevant and true expertise, or in the friendship and the general goodwill of others we know, is based upon evidence, the evidence of reliable honesty and past successful performance or advice of those we come to call trustworthy.

I’m hoping that this entry has made clear my perspective on this, and though I can’t speak for other skeptics without their say-so, I strongly suspect that I’m not at all exceptional in this.

There’s no silly rule saying that you have to be a baby-eating ogre, or at least a jerk, to be skeptical.

You Can’t Trust Science!


My thanks for this go out to Ken P. of the blog Open Parachute, and the Guardian. This is bound to ruffle a few feathers. Not for the ideologically thin-skinned…

A Weekend Conversation


I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over the past weekend, and while it started on the subject of a set of miniatures that he had recently bought at a convention, it quickly evolved, rather than devolved, a good thing in any case, into a talk on what he’s rather well-versed in — history.

In particular, we discussed the societal conditions and circumstances influencing the development of science from the 18th century onwards. We discussed some of the factors responsible for the scientism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the science of the period was then, just as it is now, influenced more or less by the social pressures and prejudices of the times, specifically those conditions that no longer apply to the present day.

First we talked about early paleontology and its origin, as with other sciences back then, as a pastime of the wealthy and those with wealthy patronage, for then, as now, cutting edge research requires funding. Of course, this was before the days of public funding for research, and a situation that led to the even today popular-but-now-erroneous image of the gentleman scientist. We discussed the social climate’s effects on rigidity and resistance to new ideas, again, conditions differing from the present.

There was the initial refusal during the 18th century to accept the existence of meteorites, much of it being due to an intellectual reaction against any claims that smelled even remotely like superstition, and probably the dominance at the time of aristocratic France on scientific thinking, the French having inherited the mantle from the previous holder during the last couple of centuries, Italy.

There appears to have been a sort of class-bound prejudice against accepting ‘old wives tales from unlettered commoners’ that stones fell from the sky, a situation that was resolved by the results of the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was overthrown and it was now the ‘unlettered commoners’ who were running the show.

On pain of committing an argument from authority, hopefully more of an argument by authority, I trust a good portion of what my friend tells me, for in my experience, he gives me leads to follow up on, and tends to be rather consistent in his factual accuracy when I check up on the leads.

Is this faith?

I would say not — it’s trust, but not blind trust. It’s trust based on the evidence of prior and relatively consistent accuracy in his statements, and so far he’s gotten a good batting average. It’s always a good idea to doubt when given sound reason, but without it, doubt becomes not skepticism, but irrational cynicism and contrarianism.

My friend and I have widely differing views on a number of matters, especially politics, but it’s a good indication that he’s being objective, and probably correct, when both he and I can agree on matters of politically-charged topics like history, and when he can state and address to my satisfaction my positions and any objections I may have to what he says.

Is he merely being a tricky fellow, merely pretending to accurately state and address my views like a skilled lawyer?

I doubt it, and for a good reason: It’s entirely inconsistent with what I’ve known about him over the years, since he’s far too straightforward and sincere, maybe even blunt, about his views and opinions and hasn’t ever shown a shred of duplicity in his motives. Again, doubt should be exercised when and where it’s appropriate, not as a knee-jerk reflex against anything that conflicts with one’s personal ideology and prejudices.

There’s a fuzzy but real demarcation between being a skeptic and being a denier along a continuum of attitudes and intellectual strategies, and in the arguments they use, not just the label. Fnord.

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