Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Out of the darkness and into skepticism

Skepticism is a rather recent move for me. You see, when it comes to believing in the occult, the paranormal, the supernatural and the pseudosciences of the day I had a running start in the wrong direction. For starters, I was born and raised in Africa and this is one superstitious continent. Now some would argue that this applies only to the black people of Africa – utter BS. One only needs a superficial insight into the history of the Afrikaner people to know that we are fully African in this regard, superstition and belief in the supernatural runs thick in our blood. Added to this was the fact that I was not only raised Christian but that I was brought up in a Pentecostal, Charismatic church to boot. So it should come as no surprise that for a very large part of my life I fully believed in all things paranormal and supernatural. Sure, due to my strong Christian upbringing my beliefs tended to be divided rather sharply between supernatural events attributed to God and paranormal things that were the work of the devil. Miracles and everything in the Bible fell into the first category while ESP, mediums etc fell into the latter. To be fair, I did reserve a tiny sliver of gray for things like astrology (which I believed was just the influence of the planets, nothing supernatural) and aliens. By and large though my views on the occult were pretty black and white and I think that this has in a sense followed me to this day. I’ll get back to that later.

Now I believe I always had an inner skeptic who was just dying to be heard, but considering where I started off, he had a lot of barriers to break down before he was finally in earshot! I left High School as what skeptics refer to as a “true believer” – I fully believed in all things supernatural and there was nothing you could say to convince me it wasn’t all true. Skepticism at that point equaled closed-mindedness in my eyes and at that point in time I was rather proud of how “open minded” I was. Now you may think that going off to varsity to study something as scientific as Chemical Engineering would have changed that. You would be wrong. See, by some odd line of reasoning, the housing department decided it would be a good idea to house the engineering students and the art students in the same residence. Now please don’t get me wrong on this point – that was probably one of the coolest and most defining moments of my life and I will trade it for nothing in this world. But it was one giant leap backwards for my inner skeptic because suddenly a boy from a small town was all alone in a big city surrounded by strange and interesting people full of strange and interesting ideas.

But then, around my second year, a breakthrough for my inner skeptic came from the most unlikely of sources. I became involved in a hyper-charismatic student church. These were the kind of people who proudly referred to themselves as “charismaniacs” and they took things to such incredibly ridiculous levels that cracks finally started to appear in the walls of unreason that had been imprisoning my inner skeptic. For the first time I started to wonder why “prophesies” and “words from God” given with such confidence and conviction turned out to be utterly wrong. I started to have some doubts about people getting “slain by the spirit” (falling over when prayed for) when I realised the only force pushing me down in the prayer line was the pastor in front of me trying to push me over. I still clearly remembered the defining incident though. The church didn’t have an actual building and used one of the auditoriums on campus for their services. Now as it happened this was not the space they would have liked and they had their eyes on a larger, more luxurious auditorium. Now they prayed for this, believed the Lord for it, named it, claimed it and “prophesied it into being” – all very publicly, all filled with confidence that this is what God told them to do. Few weeks after that the campus authorities decided that no religious services of any kind could take place on campus grounds any more and suddenly, instead of moving on up they had to move on out and scramble to find a new venue somewhere in the city. Now had they at this point admitted that they were wrong in the first place, the damage would have been minimal. But no, they instead chose to ignore every stumble and without missing a beat told the church that this was what they had been planning to do all along. At this point I finally started to hear the first whispers of skepticism in my heart.

Of course it was still slow going after that – after all, you don’t simply lose over a decade of superstition in a few days. I found myself a less charismatic church and things went well for a while but the cracks were there and soon the drips of skepticism soon became streams. The more I looked the more some of the things I was so sure was true seemed completely detached form reality. (I’ll try to get back to this in another post – it’s a story all on its own. )

Over the next couple of years, every patently false statement and sweeping generalisation made from a pulpit kept making me more and more skeptic but the sledgehammer blow to my practiced unreason happened when I came across a little show by two Vegas magicians who loved to debunk the paranormal called, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Suddenly I came to see that mediums, psychics and pretty much every other paranormal thing I was once convinced was the supernatural work of the devil was in fact simply fake. They were brash, they were anti-Christian, they cussed and they were against almost everything I held dear but in Penn and Teller I found something I had trouble finding at church – a strong commitment to knowing the truth.

Thanks to Penn & Teller I went from being a true believer to being a doubting believer. The final straw that took me all the way into scepticism was when I ran across the video on Youtube of the dishonest televangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff and how he was exposed by a venerable looking stage magician and skeptic named James Randi*. In that moment I realised that had I been in Popoff’s congregation I would have been truly and absolutely fooled by his lies and deception. It is at that point that started reading various skeptic websites and I ordered myself a copy of The Skeptic’s Dictionary right away.

Now if you had read up to this point you would be forgiven if you were under the impression that I was outlining my journey from Christianity to agnosticism. I am however still very much a Christian, I just happen to be a very skeptic one these days. Now this begs the question, can I be a man of faith and a skeptic? Some would say: Sure, you can. Just because you think chiropractors and homeopaths are quacks and just because you don’t believe in ghosts, psychics and Bigfoot doesn’t automatically mean you don’t have to believe in God. After all, the dictionary definition of “skeptic” is “doubter” so if you have doubts then you can be a skeptic, even if you don’t doubt everything. On the other hand there will be those who say: True skeptics are dedicated to living in a real world without having any sort of magical thinking in their lives. If you want to be a skeptic you need to accept only that which is real and provable. Well both of these make good points. Me, I don’t really need a label, in fact I rather detest them. In fact, The Skeptics Dictionary lists 5 types of people and yet not one of these types feels like a good fit to me.

There is the true believer. These believe in all things supernatural and no amount of fact or evidence to the contrary can sway them. This I used to be but am no more.

There is the believing doubter. These are the people who are prone to believe in the paranormal but they have some doubts. At this point in time I’m not prone to believing paranormal claims at all. In a move that is a long time overdue I’m training myself to ask questions, look a little deeper and seek for a real world answer instead of jumping to supernatural conclusions. For instance today, should I see someone move a pencil using (supposedly) psychic powers, my first thought is no longer “Whoa, he is using the power of demons!!!” but rather “Wait, is he maybe just blowing on it?”

There is the open minded seeker. They make no commitment to or disavowal of occult claims. Now this seems pretty good on some level I guess – being open minded and all that sure sounds like a virtue – but that fact is that I do commit to some things and I do disavow others so I cannot fit in here.

There is the hardened skeptic. Now these people have a strong disbelief in ALL things supernatural. Since I still believe in God I clearly do not fall into this category.

Then there is the soft skeptic. They are those people who are more prone to doubt than to belief. Now this one actually sounds more like me. In fact I wouldn’t mind awfully if someone labeled me a soft skeptic. (Well, apart from the fact that no one likes being called “soft” when they are a man and not a teddy bear of course...) The whole idea of not simply ruling anything out by default but yet being enough of a doubter to not be easily fooled seems to work for me. The thing is however that “soft skeptics” tend to become “hardened skeptics” after a while so it’s more of a transitional form. The more they learn, the more hardened a “soft” skeptic tends to become. In a sense I have already walked this road. After actually checking the facts and getting in touch with reality I no longer doubt things like alternative “medicine”, cryptozoology, drowsing, pyramid power and the like – I utterly disbelieve them. At the same time I completely believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, demons and miracles.

So then, you see my problem? I am hardened skeptic who also happens to be a true believer. And here you thought I was exaggerating about being juxtapositioned!

It seems that my former black and white view of the supernatural has evolved along with me. On the one hand, I believe in God and therefore in the supernatural and I have no problem believing that the miracles recorded in the Bible were real. On the other hand, when it comes to things like psychic phenomenon and the Loch Ness monster I utterly disbelieve it. Does this mean I am guilty of having a double standard? Certainly. Does that bother me? Not at all. For one thing I have mercifully grown past the point where not fitting someone else’s definition of what I need to be bothers me. For another I’m not really interested in believing what is most likely, my commitment is to believing what is true. Since I believe in God completely I accept that some supernatural events can be true. Regarding that, an agnostic friend of mine recently asked me if – hypothetically – Vishnu appeared on the clouds tomorrow and we all learned that he is in fact the true God of the universe, would I accept Vishnu as my God. Now that’s not an easy question for a Christian to answer, but honestly, if it turned out Vishnu was the true God I wouldn’t have a choice but to accept him**. Like I said my commitment is to the truth. Now at this point some hardened skeptics may interrupt me and point out the fact that I cannot prove that God exists and therefore I cannot say I know He is the truth. At this point I would have to point out to said hardened skeptic that I was careful to use the word “believe” instead of “know” throughout for that very reason. I know I cannot prove God exists. I'm not going to try either. In fact I have heard probably all the “proofs” offered by believers from the mathematical to the ethical and I admit that I can see why they don’t sway a whole lot of atheists. Yet I still believe it to be true, even though I know I cannot prove it I still believe it. But I’ll expand on how I manage to have both faith and reason (and therefore skepticism) in the next entry on mysticism.

Oh by they way, I still have a small sliver of gray in this black & white view of mine. Astrology doesn't live here anymore but I am not totally opposed to the existence of aliens. To be clear, I don't believe that aliens are out there experimenting on rednecks. But its a big ass universe - there could be life out there somewhere. I don't expect we will ever come across it (and if we did it would probably not be cool Sci-fi aliens) but if we did I'm certainly not going to bury my head in the sand about it.

This is my journey so far. I am a skeptic because I love the truth. I am a skeptic because I hate deception. I'm a skeptic because I hate to be made a fool off. I am a skeptic because I would rather make informed decisions than ill-informed ones. I have been walking the path of a skeptic for only a short time but so far it has been eye opening and fun. You don't need magical thinking to appreciate the wonder of the world. Quite the opposite actually! I think I am more in awe of the world I live in now that I have a better relationship with reality! They say its easier to believe a comforting lie than a depressing truth. That may be true, but I would rather be depressed and on solid ground than to be comforted by trusting in a flimsy foundation of truth.

* The man is my hero, I wish he was my grandpa! I could sit at his feet and listen to him for days on end

** Some of my fellow Christians would accuse me of blasphemy for even considering such a hypothetical. I however believe that the God who once asked more or less the same question to Israel through Elijah (1 Kings 18:21) would be more understanding than that.


TPluckyT said...

A big ass universe indeed . . . I like how open you are concerning your journey . . . I saw a sign in an engineering office the other day that said, "Doubt = Truth" . . . I don't know that I absolutely believe that, but I get the point and personally I think skepticism can be healthy.

Eugene said...

Actually I would disagree with the "Doubt=Truth" poster, there is a difference between doubting something and knowing that something is false. To me (and I once saw The Amazing Randi tell pretty much the same to a very young Oprah) being a skeptic doesn't mean ruling out the possibility of anything being true. The best you can say is that something has never been proven or that all attempts to prove something has failed or that something is extremely unlikely to be true. I can't say that every psychic who ever lived was always a fraud, just that every psychic who has ever been tested has been shown to be a fraud and that there is a better, more reasonable explanation for what they do than supernatural powers.

But I digress. What I meant to say is I agree, its healthy to be skeptic. There is way too much woo-woo in the church today and people are getting away with murder .