In a recent article for The Huffington Post, Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, called me a skeptic! Admittedly, he didn’t use my name, but he did define my position. Here’s how he defines skepticism:
In principle, skeptics are neither closed-minded nor cynical. We are curious but cautious. Or, I often hear, “Oh, you’re a skeptic, so you don’t believe anything?” No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe.
Being a skeptic just means being rational and empirical: thinking and seeing before believing.
Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.
On these points, we are in total agreement. Shermer believes in the germ theory of disease. I do too! He believes that vaccines are good for societal health. Same here! However, we do disagree that aliens are out there somewhere, mainly because I haven’t seen any scientific proof for the existence of aliens. But I think that’s part of skepticism: sometimes you will disagree with other skeptics.
The Baloney Detection Kit
One of the practical tools he mentions is Skeptic magazine’s “Baloney Detection Kit,” which is a series of questions that skeptics use to separate fantastic claims from reasonable ones. Let’s look at these in order, with particular attention given to the central claim of Christianity: that Jesus bodily rose from the dead by the supernatural power of God.
Does the source of a claim often make similar claims? Pseudoscientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts, so when individuals make numerous extraordinary claims they may be more than just iconoclasts.
As a self-identified skeptic, this strikes me as a very helpful question for self-examination. I try to be measured in the kinds of extraordinary claims I make. I don’t see the Virgin Mary in my food, I don’t experience miracles on a daily basis, and I have come to accept that my iPhone doesn’t actually operate on magical power. By contrast, when I affirm something like the resurrection, I do so only after carefully considering the evidence for and against this claim. The formation of our most important beliefs should be done with the utmost of carefulness.
• Have the claims been verified by another source? Typically pseudoscientists will make statements that are unverified, or verified by a source within their own belief circle.
Historical claims are non-repeatable, so we can’t see if another laboratory can duplicate the results of, say, the resurrections I’ve experienced in another science lab. But just as multiple historians can come together, look at the evidence fairly, and agree that “JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald,” as Shermer affirms, we can conduct the same kind of rigorous investigation for events like the resurrection of Jesus.
• Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought? This is the confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek confirming evidence and reject or ignore disconfirming evidence.
When it comes to Christianity, there are few other religions that have withstood the kind of skeptical scrutiny that Shermer and I believe is so essential to a rational outlook on life. Tens of thousands of scholars from multiple fields (linguistics, comparative religions, history, science, textual criticism, theologians, and so on) have subjected the resurrection of Jesus to incredible analysis. Yes, people have gone out of their way to disprove the claim, and a serious examination of their arguments is a challenging process. Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jesus emerges from the fray as a respectable conclusion.
• Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?
There are dozens of explanations to account for the facts of Jesus’ crucifixion, empty tomb, and postmortem appearances: the disciples lied, it is all a legendary myth, the gardener stole the body, the tomb was never found, and so on. As we just noted, a great deal of scholars have done their best to provide more reasonable explanations than the resurrection itself. But, I’ve found their arguments to be less convincing than those in favor.
Do the claimants’ personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?
This is the most grueling part of honest investigation. I can’t help the fact that I was raised Christian. But that shouldn’t keep me from ever having intellectual legitimacy in believing it is true. I grew up believing “that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the continents” too. Do I have to give that belief up on the basis of personal bias? Surely the courageous act would be to defy the scientific and social consensus on this matter!
When I studied at Oxford, I specifically requested an atheist professor teach me a tutorial on the best atheistic arguments against the existence of God. In those classes, I learned the problem of evil was the most potent argument, so I took a second tutorial on that topic in the following term. Perhaps Dr. Shermer can see into the depths of my heart and psychoanalytically deduce that I have a biased, close-minded perspective. But as best I know, I’ve tried to follow the evidence in an open-minded manner.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
That is, the more fantastical the claim, the more skeptical you should be unless the evidence is equally fantastic.
Personally, I find this to be an extraordinary claim! I would need incredible amounts of evidence to believe that it is true. As Satoshi Kanazawa explains in Psychology Today,
The problem with the dictum is that there are no absolute criteria for what counts as “extraordinary claims.” In particular, what counts as extraordinary depends entirely on what you know and believe. In the extreme case, if you know nothing, then everything is an extraordinary claim.
The biggest problem with the dictum “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is that it is often and usually used politically. It is used too often to silence and censor politically incorrect claims that people do not like.
So, I think we need to be a little more skeptical of this over-reaching epistemological principle. My hunch is that atheists like to use this principle because it allows them to tell the Christian, “sorry, but you haven’t provided enough evidence,” no matter how reasonably the Christian has made the point.
Furthermore, I find that atheism often leads to extraordinary claims. For instance, Dr. Alex Rosenberg, in his book The Atheist’s Guide To Reality, claims the following:
What is the purpose of the universe?
There is none.
What is the meaning of life?
Is there free will?
Not a chance!
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?
There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral?
Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?
What is love, and how can I find it?
Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
If you needed some extraordinary claims to find extraordinary evidence for, Dr. Rosenberg has you covered. (I’ve discussed the significance of his debate with William Lane Craig).
I’m Proud To Be A Skeptic!
To put it succinctly: Michael Shermer’s understanding of skepticism is tremendously encouraging.
He has my endorsement for the value of “being rational and empirical: thinking and seeing before believing.” And I am strongly in favor of “the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.”
Why is this worth noticing? Because the atheist’s claim to uniquely love reason and science is just not true. And the stereotype that Christians are stuck in the mud on blind faith and science hating is overblown. (Check out True Reason for more).
Are you an atheist? Let’s look at the evidence together.
Are you a Christian? I invite you to join me in promoting skepticism.
Whatever you believe, I hope you’ll join me in a serious search for truth.