There are two standard questions people like to ask skeptics, imagining they’re challenging: what our position is on religion, and whether we haven’t ever seen anything that overcomes our limited philosophies, our closed minds, and our endemic fear of the unknown. The first of those two questions is the less common of the two. I intend to answer them both here and now, so that in future I can just point people at this spot and save myself some time.
Skepticism is inquiry. It is not a simple refusal to believe anything that’s unfamiliar; that has more in common with cynicism than with true skepticism. (Or, as Humphrey Appleby explained to Bernard Woolley in Yes, Minister: “A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.”) The difference is easy to codify. When the little green men finally land in the middle of Arthur Ashe stadium right before the US Open finals in front of an audience of 23,000 people and the world’s TV cameras, so that the evidence is indisputable, here is how they will react. The believer will say, “Oh, my God,” and clutch the neighbour in the next seat. The cynic will say, “What a dumb gimmick, getting a guy to dress up like that.” The skeptic will want to take a closer look and find out which theory is correct. Skepticism is the habit of mind behind science, which demands careful, methodical research and the replication of results by different teams of researchers.
What makes skeptics often sound like opinionated bozos, though, is that the same claims keep popping up over and over again. Take astrology. You would think that anyone glancing over the tenets of astrology would rapidly get the feeling that this was an early attempt at explaining what people saw in the sky, and that it had been superseded by the modern science of astronomy. After all, astrologers didn’t shake their heads in puzzlement for years because some horoscopes didn’t match the way they expected and then say, Aha!, when the outermost planets were discovered. Instead, it was astronomers who hypothesised that there must be some bodies there, unseen, which were influencing the orbits of the other planets, and who were proved right. Besides, astrology so clearly reflects the time when humans could still believe that the entire universe revolved around them and their chunk of rock; now we know, less flatteringly, that we are fly specks in what Douglas Adams once called the unfashionable end of the galaxy.
This all leads back to the first question, about religion, by a circuitous route. Skeptics generally have no opinion on religion. I mean, individual skeptics may have personal views, but it is not possible to tackle religion with the tools of skepticism and produce any useful results. The reason is that religion is a matter of faith, which is not something that can be tested. You may, for example, tell me that you have absolute faith that an invisible, intelligent alien in the form of a small, pink cloud is running the universe, and that by placing your faith in it you have found it possible to live a fuller, richer, more spiritual, and happier life. There is nothing I can say to that, especially after you’ve established that the small, pink cloud is completely undetectable by any of the physical measurement systems we have: it can’t be heard, smelled, seen, touched, or detected by radar, Geiger counter, or infrared camera. (Actually, I’m stealing the small, pink cloud from Alexei Panshin’s The Thurb Revolution, in which a small, pink cloud erroneously believed it was God.)
However, if you now tell me that the pink cloud can predict the future in some specificity, or rains on command, then we have something that can be tested, and you are back in the realm which skeptics can usefully talk about. We could, for example, set up a series of trials in which you write down the predictions the cloud makes for judging by an independent third party against subsequent events, or compare a randomised sequence of instructions/no instructions from you to the cloud with the meteorological records. Once all that was done, of course, and the cloud’s abilities established, the mechanism by which these things were happening would have to be studied, again by forming a hypothesis which could be tested. But that’s another matter, and one beyond the expertise of most skeptics. We just want to know whether the cloud’s abilities are real. You can pray to it either way, and we won’t say a word. Even though you’ll be a really tempting target.
That line – where something can be tested – seems to me to reflect another useful distinction, between the public and the private. To me, faith is, or in most cases ought to be, an intensely private matter. It is not my business to interfere in anyone’s relationship with whatever they choose to define as God; life is hard enough and confusing enough for most people that they have a right to whatever mechanisms keep them on an even keel as long as those mechanisms don’t harm anyone else. Making specific, testable claims, however, is public in the sense that it affects other people’s understanding of how the world works. It tampers with the knowledge supply the way adding chemicals changes the water supply. If that’s going to happen, it seems to me that there ought to be a good reason, and that the good reason ought to be that the claim is actually provably true.
Of course, this process is often inverted so that the person making the claim demands that skeptics disprove it. But science doesn’t work that way: if it did, then every crackpot idea that came along would have to be accepted until it could be shown to be absurd. The standard response I hear to this is that there are many ideas that science initially rejected and then was forced to accept – the shifting of tectonic plates, for example. This is true; but in accepting those ideas science demonstrated its capabilities as a self-correcting system, the precise opposite of typical belief systems, which claim to have all the answers up front.