Skepticism and Doubt: Two REAL Wellness Skills to Practice and Promote


Polling suggests that nearly half the U.S. population and nearly all Republicans do not believe in evolution or climate change by human agency, both of which are considered settled science. Scientists and most educated secular Americans are concerned that a majority of our elected representatives in the U.S. House and Senate are science – deniers.

How did things come to this? What leads so many in a technologically advanced nation to resist scientific evidence in favor of other forms of knowing or believing? What is the basis of resistance to evidence – based ways of seeing the world?

Perhaps it’s the nature of religions.

Some knowledgeable authorities see little or no disconnect between science and religion, and maintain that the two do not necessarily conflict. Perhaps you have heard the phrase nonoverlapping magisteria, a construct introduced by the late Stephen Jay Gould, a self-described Jewish agnostic who was a scientist of the first rank.

In an effort to calm the waters between two contrasting forms of knowing, Gould wrote:

These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry. (Consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we (scientists) get (to explain) the age of rocks, and religion retains the (right to declaim about the) rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

(Source: Nonoverlapping Magisteria, The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archives.)

Few scientists at the time (1999) or now agree with Gould’s diplomacy of interpreting nice at the cost of denying factual reality. Among the earliest critics of nonoverlapping magisterial was Richard Dawkins, who wrote:

Religion transcends morals and values. Religion posits a universe with a supernatural presence in which divine interventions via prayers and miracles represent material claims. Any religion without a controlling deity would be far different from Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions.

Doubt and Skepticism

Doubt and skepticism naturally lead to a recognition that science and religion dramatically contradict each other. Some may want to pretend the reality is otherwise, but it’s not.

We have a Republican Party and a large segment of the population clinging to ignorance and magical thinking in good part because religion gets a pass – our customs and traditions largely exempt religion from doubt and skepticism. Religions always discourage their flocks of human sheep from applying doubt and skepticism to their dogmas and rituals.

I well remember twelve years of parochial school classes. One lesson I recall was that it was not a compliment to be called a doubting Thomas. This likely dates to the 5th century. A doubting Thomas was a skeptic, a doubter who hesitates or demurs to believe without credible evidence. The slur, which is actually a compliment from a rational perspective, has its roots in the legend of the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to ten other apostles, at least until such time that he could see and touch the wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross.

From a secular perspective, Thomas was a man well endowed with common sense. Who would believe such a preposterous claim today? Certainly nobody not institutionalized or dependent upon powerful meds.

The natural inclination of children is to ask questions, unless their curiosities are discouraged. A personal example from a fourth grade religion class illustrates the problem. I asked Sister Lucy how Noah and a few helpers gathered all those animals, and how they got them all on one boat and what kept them from eating each other and how did the crew deal with all that poop and … Sister cut me off at that point and repeated the doubting Thomas admonition, which served as a Catholic school version of what would later become the Miranda warning. She also said if I kept talking like that I’m probably be turned into salt and wouldn’t that be a lesson now?

Opposition to free inquiry was and continues to be the reality for children and adults under the spell of religions, everywhere. As a commentator at Addicting Info put it recently:

Fundamentalism works best when no one questions the authority and authenticity of scripture. ‘You will obey MY interpretation of God’s word or else!’

Science, by its very nature, questions and is, therefore, the enemy.

Conflicts Over Magisteria

Science and religion have conflicting perspectives on endless issues. A few examples:

  • Science holds that the age of the universe is 13.82 billion years dating from the start as a Big Bang; many Christians favor a somewhat younger time frame (6,000 years) initiated by a god’s six-day work week.
  • Science favors testing of truth claims; religions demand belief of revealed truths.
    Science teaches doubt and skepticism; religion condemns both.
  • Religion renders group identity more consequential than facts; direct correlations have been found between religious conviction and an unwillingness to accept results of empirical scientific investigation. This renders religious faith an obstacle to understanding the world.
  • If religions were personal and private and did not animate adherents to afflict public policies to conform with religious dogma, there would be no worries. We could enjoy a secular society, wherein church and state truly were separate. This is far from the case in America. Three recent egregious examples of this conflict of magisteria can be offered:
  • Judge Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He first gained notoriety for placing a Ten Commandments monument on public property – and ignoring a court order to remove it. His latest assault on separation of church/state tradition and law was to declare, as Chief Justice, that the First Amendment only applies to Christians.
  • Jody Hice, a Republican member of the new freshman class in the House of Representatives. Representative Hice stated on the House floor that blood moons are fulfilling Biblical prophecies.
  • Pope Francis. The Pope just recognized the International Association of Exorcists, declaring the body under Catholic canon law a form of charity.

The older generations, in which I am irretrievably stuck, will be gone soon enough. Perhaps our successors, freer from the stifling customs and traditions that affixed religious nonsense into the DNA and discouraged science, will find skepticism and doubt more appealing. As Lawrence Krauss hinted, it is naïve to imagine that we can overcome centuries of religious intransigence in a single generation through education. He also added this:

One thing is certain: If our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science – that nothing is sacred, then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

(Lawrence Krauss, Teaching Doubt, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015.)

Doubt and skepticism are foundations of science; faith that informs public policy in democracies is a barrier to freedom and REAL wellness. Consider Ingersoll’s words near the end of his epic speech The Gods:

We are not endeavoring to chain the future, but to free the present. We are not forging fetters for our children, but we are breaking those our fathers made for us. We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation and thought. This of itself, is an admission that we are not perfectly satisfied with all our conclusions. Philosophy has not the egotism of faith… We know that doing away with gods and supernatural persons and powers is not an end. It it a means to an end: the real end being the happiness of man.

Be well, be free and look on the bright side.

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