Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Skepticism and the church

Skepticism is a powerful tool; it is one of the essential tools of science, in fact Carl Sagan called science a marriage of skepticism and wonder.

The hard thing about skepticism is that in order to be a true skeptic, one must question the validity of all ideas even those which are cherished. Every assertion must be supported by a degree of evidence whether this evidence is forensic, experimental, or observational. accepting an idea or claim at face value without investigating its reliability can cost you money or even a person's life (as in the case of quack medical cures). Now this isn't an essay on why one needs to be skeptical; there are several books which encourage skepticism, or the compatibility between religion and a skeptical worldview. The purpose of this post is to discuss the need for skepticism in one particular social institution: the church.

I consider myself an evangelical Christian, however this does not keep me from saying that credulity runs deep in many Evangelical christian circles. Now this gullibility isn't universal, many Evangelical churches encourage their members to read the bible to compare what the bible says with what the pastor says. Churches like these encourage their congregations to think for themselves deciding what the bible actually says; not what the past claims the bible says. This kind of skepticism is great concerning doctrinal issues which have an affect on a churchgoers daily life such as tithing or prophecy. If a pastor says the the world is going to end next Tuesday, the congregation has no obligation to believe him since Jesus said you will know neither the day nor the hour of my coming (Matthew 24:36) which renders any attempt to make an end times cult foiled. People are also encouraged to ask questions concerning the bible, in many but not all churches, a person in a strongly dispensationalist (believing in the the rapture followed by a seven year tribulation and Christs second coming) church can be an open preterist (the belief that Christ already came somewhere around 70 A.D. and that we are not living in the millennial reign of Christ); they simply cannot be ushers, assistant pastors, deacons etc.

But the problem is that while the church is very skeptical, even intolerant of things which are not considered biblical (channeling crystals, astrology, alien abductions etc.) many evangelicals are very gullible when it comes to things the bible doesn't rule out. This would include instance involving faith-healings, sightings of angels, demonic possession, encounters with Jesus, and witchcraft. Many stories with such elements are rarely checked, and the reason is quite obvious; they are biased towards these events so they tend to be less doubtful of them. I am not denying that I think any of these events happen. I would be more likely to believe a story about a missionary being saved from headhunters by an angel, and would be more inclined to attribute a New Age gurus contact with an ascended master to hallucinations, sleep paralysis, or fabrication. Since I think such events occur and I want them to occur; I wouldn't mind God sending angels to protect me, or Jesus meeting me on the road and since I believe God exists for reasons which are beyond the scope of this article I find an encounter with an angel more plausible then a power Juju. We all have biases and other religious people would react the same way, but we must put our biases aside and question the truth of these tails whether or not they align with our religious beliefs.

Now what am I asking? I am asking Christians to be just a little more skeptical about certain topics, such as things the bible does not rule out. Christians and religious believers in general are known for gullibility, however Christians shouldn't be, the bible tells us to be skeptical (2 Thessalonians 5:21) and to test all things, using reason to attain truth. One area where skepticism would be a great advantage is faith-healing. Being a Christian I do believe in faith-healing and that one day there might be a true faith healer, but most current faith-healers appear to be charlatans taking advantage of the gullible. Most diseases they supposedly cure are psychogenic illnesses or even outright fabrications. Faith healers have gained a reputation for dishonesty in our modern age.

A little skepticism might be as simple as asking the faith healer to heal someone of Down's syndrome or another largely incurable disease; or document how the faith healer's prayers affected the person's illness, noting also how illness was affected by the prayers. Also compare what the faith healer says concerning theology with biblical theology, if he is really sent by God then his words should agree with what the bible teaches. Another important thing is to scrutinize his behavior; assuming Christianity is true, those who are endowed with the holy spirit should act accordingly (showing love, kindness, generosity, self-control, altruism, humility etc.).

Such methods can apply to other topics such as self-proclaimed prophets or those who claim to be the second coming of Christ.

Stories involving encounters with supernatural beings should be treated with the same type of skepticism, here are some guidelines;
--Ask if there were any other witnesses, and if possible try to interview them to hear their side of the story.
--consider alternatives (were they hallucinating, were they mistaken, were they lying)
--make sure all the elements of the story are not contradictory and that all the witnesses give relatively the same story.

Now you may ask why go through all the trouble of investigating such stories? The reason is quite sober; many people live out their lives on the assumption that those stories are true. If they are not true, then the believers in these tails are living a lie; if you are living based off a false premise, you will have a distorted view of reality which could lead you to make bad decisions and even put your life or the lives of others in danger. From both a biblical and from a secular perspective skepticism can save a man's soul.

1 comment:

Phil Wala said...

I just discovered your blog, and applaud your call for more skepticism within the church. I addressed a similar topic in my own blog at faithforthinkers.blogspot.com (If you find my blog of interest, I invite you to subscribe, and contribute your own comments.)

I especially share your skepticism about "faith healers", which some may consider strange considering that my own wife was instantly and completely healed of crippling multiple sclerosis after being prayed for by a "faith healer" six and a half years ago (story at walamn.com).

Being skeptics ourselves, we exercised just the kind of skeptical rigor you discuss -- waiting for the absence of each symptom to be verified by medical professionals and the test of time -- before we were willing to call it a "healing". But I'm always disappointed that no one else seems inclined to ask all the hard questions we asked during that verification process. We get reactions of gullible acceptance, or cynical dismissal -- but very seldom the honest skeptical inquiry that we'd like to see.

Thanks for contributing to the dialog. I look forward to reading more.