What does it mean to be a skeptic?

detectiveWhat does it mean to be a skeptic, or to be skeptical?

Being a skeptic means learning to be like a detective and question anything that’s important enough to deserve questioning. It doesn’t mean refusing to believe things. It means following the evidence.

I try to be skeptical of everything that’s important enough to question until I have evidence one way or the other.

I don’t question the loyalty of friends and family, because I’ve experienced their loyalty over and over again; and I’m equally loyal to them. The evidence is in the long past together and the loyalty has been demonstrated over and over, so there’s no longer any need to question it.

Neither will I question things that aren’t worth the energy. For example, if you tell me you’re hungry, I’ll believe you. You’re the expert on that question, and you are the one who may suffer if you make a misstatement about it. I have no reason to doubt your word.

However, people believe in many things for which there is no evidence and which must therefore be doubted. Some of these things are:

1. Gods, angels, demons, devils, jinns, genies, immortal souls and spirits, fairies, elves, leprechauns, and any invisible or supernatural beings or essences.
2. The War on Drugs.

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but it’s clear the “war on drugs” in the United States has become little more than a conspiracy to steal personal property from its rightful owners.

Have you heard of “forfeiture?” It’s a system that actually encourages crooked law enforcement agencies to steal your house, your car, the money in your bank account, and everything else you own! And keep it! And the individuals involved get rewarded for their crime. All they have to do is claim your property was involved in some way with a drug crime.

Notice I said claim; not prove. They can seize it, and usually keep it, even if they never charge you with a crime! You don’t believe me? You’d better! It is happening all around us. Right here in the USA! You could be next. I could be next. And it’s scary!

3. Creatures visiting earth from other places in the universe.

Could be, I suppose, but not likely. Other stars are just too far away, and it’s unlikely they would come from anywhere else. At the speed of light, it would take four and a half years to get here from the nearest one. Then it seems likely they would eventually want to go back home. That’s nine years minimum travel time. And it’s very unlikely they’d be travelling anywhere near that fast.

OK, maybe they figured out how to break the speed-of-light limit. But, at present, that doesn’t appear to be possible. Or maybe they live so long that nine years away from home doesn’t seem like so much to them. Well, maybe. As long as we’re just “maybe-ing,” maybe just about anything might be possible. I just said I’m skeptical. I didn’t say I’m sure.

4. I’m equally skeptical of the idea that there are NO intelligent beings in any other part of the universe.

There probably are many different species of intelligent beings scattered around the universe far smarter than we are. How many? I have no idea. It’s become almost certain, of course, that earth is the only home of intelligent life in this solar system, even though several other places still may harbor life of some kind. But it seems incredibly unlikely that earth would be the only place in the entire universe where an intelligent species could be found.

The universe is HUGE, and contains an unimaginable number of stars. Estimates range up to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or a trillion trillion stars just in the part we can see. The part we call “the known universe.” If that’s true, and if just one out of a billion supports an intelligent civilization, that would be a million billion civilizations in the known universe. Didn’t I say the universe is big?

Admittedly, those are some very rough approximations. But even if they are off by a factor of a million, that would still leave an estimated billion other intelligent races in the known universe. And it’s anybody’s guess how much larger the rest of the universe might be that we can’t even detect.

Of course, we could debate whether or not even earth has indigenous intelligent life.

5. Creationism.

If God created us, He did a pretty lousy job of it. And we have to ask who created Him.

6. That sex without marriage is always bad.

In my admittedly limited experience, it’s usually been pretty good, as a matter of fact.

7. That humans are inherently either bad or good.

Only Santa Claus knows for sure, and he has to keep a list; but I’m skeptical.

8. That we’re as smart as we like to give ourselves credit for.

Look around. Sure, you and I are geniuses. But how many other really smart people do you know?

9. Heaven or hell as places of eternal life or punishment.

I have seen no evidence. Furthermore, a kind and loving god could never have created such a place as the hell the Bible describes. There’s nothing  kind or loving about it. And nobody has ever described a convincing visit to heaven.

10. An infallible Bible, or Qur’an, or any other infallible book.

Regardless what people say, it’s ridiculously easy to show many errors and contradictions in the Bible. The problem is getting believers to admit it. The Qur’an probably has fewer, because it was written later in history when more reality was known, but the “infallible word of God” would have none.

11. Fate, destiny, or predestination.

“Your future has not been written yet. Write it well.” (from Back to the FutureI realize there are plenty of skeptics who disagree with this, and I admit I may be wrong.

This is what skeptics do. We understand that even our beliefs are tentative until we have convincing evidence.

12. Immortality.

Although technology may sometime make our descendants virtually immortal. Maybe relatively soon.

13. Virgin births, resurrections, ascensions to heaven.
14. Walking on water (without technological help), turning water to wine (without biological help), burning water (as Elijah is supposed to have done), producing striped livestock by putting the parents where they will see a striped environment (as Jacob is supposed to have done).
15. A 6000-year-old universe, or earth, or human race, as many Christians and Jews believe.

There’s more than adequate evidence that modern humans have been here for at least 195,000 years, that earth has existed for about 4.55 billion years, and that the universe is an awful lot older still. (The current estimate is about 13.7 billion years).

16. Anti-assisted-suicide laws.

Why should any government have a right to prevent a suffering person from dying quietly, painlessly, and with dignity? It should be the patient’s choice. A brave man like Dr. Kevorkian should be treated as a hero; not prosecuted and persecuted as a criminal madman.

17. That an embryo a few days old is a “person” in any significant sense.

There’s nothing magic about the moment an egg and a sperm come together. A clump of undifferentiated cells in a womb is not a person any more than an acorn is an oak tree.

18. When somebody says any of the following:
  • “It’s not the money. It’s the principle.”
    It’s nearly always the money.
  • “It’s easy.”
    It may be easy for somebody, but probably not you or me.
  • “I mailed it yesterday.”
    This one needs no explanation. Just be cautious. Maybe he’ll mail it today or tomorrow, if you’re lucky.
  • “The Lord did it.”
    Hogwash! Whoever did it wasn’t “the Lord.”
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