Friday, December 25, 2009

Scepticism Is Immoral? I Highly Doubt It.

In a recent conversation with a good friend, I admitted that I'm sceptical about some of the claims of Christianity. My friend was not offended, but did respond that scepticism is "immoral" because scepticism is doubt in the face of Truth (i.e., God). I want to examine this line of reasoning momentarily.

Dictionary.com provides the following definition of scepticism:

"skep⋅ti⋅cism  /ˈskɛptəˌsɪzəm/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [skep-tuh-siz-uhm] Show IPA
–noun

1. skeptical attitude or temper; doubt.
2. doubt or unbelief with regard to a religion, esp. Christianity.
3. (initial capital letter) the doctrines or opinions of philosophical Skeptics; universal doubt.

Also, scepticism."


The first definition seems apt to my intention behind the word. I hold an attitude of doubt concerning some of the claims of the Christian faith. This is a non-committed position that is left open for the purpose of critically examining issues and claims. A sceptic working along this trajectory has simply reserved judgment until s/he has had sufficient time and research to come to a reasonable conclusion. We might also call this kind of scepticism "critical thinking".

The second definition may also apply to my position. That is, by inference from the first definition, I doubt, even disbelieve some of the claims of the Christian religion. For example, I disbelieve the creation mythology in Genesis. And, as Karen Armstrong has pointed out in her book The Bible: A Biography, most Christians have disbelieved the Genesis claims on creation until roughly 150 - 200 years ago with the rise of fundamentalist biblical literalism. Disbelief though, is a little less nuanced than doubt, however: it is a conclusive position, whereas 'doubt' is being undecided, or not willing to commit without further evidence.

The third definition does not fit my outlook. Universal doubt calls itself into question. Doubt as a principle, it would seem, becomes the object of its own examination. It is therefore a self-defeating position, much like going solo on a teeter-totter, trying to pick yourself up unaided, or sawing off the branch you're sitting on. (And to all those teeter-totter fans out there, yes, I know you can straddle the fulcrum, but that's called 'balancing', not teeter-tottering.)

So the next question in keeping with the thrust of this article would be, 'Why would holding claims in doubt be considered immoral?' Well, as my friend suggested, human beings are
imago dei, created in the image of God. We therefore have an intrinsic understanding of his existence. Combined with the Christian concept of revelation, and God's incarnation, we have no right, room, or reason to hold any doubts about divine reality, or, in my friend's case, the claims of the historic (read, 'Catholic') church.

I object.

Dictionary.com defines '
immoral' thusly:

"im⋅mor⋅al  /ɪˈmɔrəl, ɪˈmɒr-/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [i-mawr-uhl, i-mor-] Show IPA
–adjective


1. violating moral principles; not conforming to the patterns of conduct usually accepted or established as consistent with principles of personal and social ethics.
2. licentious or lascivious.

Origin:
1650–60; im- 2 + moral

Related forms:

im⋅mor⋅al⋅ly, adverb

Synonyms:
bad, wicked, dissolute, dissipated, profligate. Immoral, abandoned, depraved describe one who makes no attempt to curb self-indulgence. Immoral, referring to conduct, applies to one who acts contrary to or does not obey or conform to standards of morality; it may also mean licentious and perhaps dissipated. Abandoned, referring to condition, applies to one hopelessly, and usually passively, sunk in wickedness and unrestrained appetites. Depraved, referring to character, applies to one who voluntarily seeks evil and viciousness. Immoral, amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral are sometimes confused with one another. Immoral means not moral and connotes evil or licentious behavior. Amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral, virtually synonymous although the first is by far the most common form, mean utterly lacking in morals (either good or bad), neither moral nor immoral. However, since, in some contexts, there is a stigma implicit in a complete lack of morals, being amoral, nonmoral, or unmoral is sometimes considered just as reprehensible as being immoral."


Since what is 'moral' is generally decided upon through religious constructs, social systems, and special interest groups, thrusting the term 'immoral' on a person who doubts, or is sceptical about certain claims, teachings, propositions, philosophies, etc. is simply enforcing expectations external to the sceptic, or doubter. We have an ethical dilemma at this point: who is acting immorally? The one who cannot reasonably believe something without further convincing? Or the one who happily defines the parameters for belief and then charges others with immorality when someone doesn't ante up to those parameters? To put it differently, it would seem to me that the immoral person in this kind of situation is the one who blindly cascades dogmatic assertions over the doubter's head. Similarly, we would not call the person who is smacked in the head 'immoral', but we would call the person who did the hitting 'immoral'.

Given that I remain sceptical about some of the claims of Christianity, even religion in general, I have now been put in the position by my friend of being 'immoral'. Metaphorically speaking, he has smacked me in the head, and told me I'm immoral because he hit me.

With all due respect to my friend, I find his claim that scepticism is immoral dubious, at best. And that is not simply a clever turn of phrase. I sincerely think that calling doubt 'immoral' is constructing a pyrrhic victory that only gives the sceptic more reason to doubt. And by that measure, how much more immoral is it to cause more of the 'immorality' you're trying to stamp out by claiming doubt 'immoral'? It would seem to me that such an accusation achieves the opposite of its intention, and must therefore be dropped in favour of more intelligent dialogue.

9 comments:

Skeptigirl said...

I don't think I would want to be a part of a religion that considered doubt and skepticism immoral. Still I consider myself a Christian skeptic. I beleave asking questions and seeking answers and admitting when I am wrong, if neccesary, is a way for me to honor the diety I happen to beleave in.

My big problem if that Christians dismiss me as immoral and atheists and skeptics and some agnostics dismiss me as an idiot. I just can't win can I? I can not stop beleaving in something I do just because someone thinks it is stupid and I can't just stop asking questions about all the world, including my faith just because someone thinks I am immoral.

I just can't win, but all I really want is just a little respect.

Christopher said...

Skeptigirl,

Thanks for visiting. It's nice to see a new name around here. I'll be sure to visit your site.

To be sure, doubt is by its very nature not a moral subject. It is simply a non-decision on incomplete information. For Christians, doubt seems to be 'bad' because it isn't faithful. Well, duh! If it was faithful, it wouldn't be doubt. But at the same time, our good friend, Sir Doubting Thomas, was not ridiculed, persecuted, or threatened with hellfire because he reserved judgment on Jesus. In fact, Jesus blessed him, had compassion on him, and guided him just as thoroughly as the rest of the apostles. If Christians think a healthy dose of doubt is wrong, they need only look to Christ's loving example toward Thomas.

What is more, is that the doubt Christ condemned was not the kind of doubt that arises from recognizing the frayed ends of reality, or the seeming disparities in people's understandings. Christ condemned the kind of doubt that denied his salvific nature and work; he condemned the kind of doubt that boldly states, "even though I see you, I disbelieve in you." I think we'd all find the person who disbelieves our existence while chatting it up with us to be two shades from idiocy, yes? In the same sense, I don't think Jesus suffered fools lightly.

As to atheists and skeptics, there are so many different degrees of philosophical tenure even within their own ranks, that you'll find some are respectful of your choice to be skeptical about Christianity's truth-claims. You'll also find that some, as you've already described, are going to regard you as an idiot. Those are the ones you really don't need to waste your time with. Find companions that will regard your searchings and questions as equally valid as their own. Anything less is mocking your honesty, sincerity, and self-respect.

Skeptigirl said...

Thanks, for the kind words and the promise to vist, doubt you will find anything very interesting. I have been blogging here for only a very short time.

Edward said...

Suppose I don't know enough about A or B, and so I refuse to decide. Notice this itself is a kind of meta-decision: I decide to not decide.

Why did I decide to not decide? Well, by supposition, I had no decisive reason to choose one over the other. Incomplete information, I suppose. (Though perhaps even perfect info would still leave me indifferent? It gets even more complicated if I'm already in unstoppable motion heading towards B and so a decision is unavoidable!)

In any case, my meta-decision to not decide better itself be based on good meta-info about my info. Is my data set clouded with misinformation? Disinformation?

Self-deception haunts us all here. Doubt can be cheap, especially in the broader culture. Unfortunately, in the various Christian subcultures, belief tends to come pretty cheap, right? Still, in the broader culture, "the good guys" have been the doubters.

I'm pretty sure that big changes are on the horizon. Now "the good guys" are the believers: climate change, evolution, etc. And now "the bad guys" are the one's who doubt. Illegitimate doubt. Irresponsible doubt. Unjustified doubt. (So it goes.)

So we're relearning how important it is to doubt responsibly? I think it's becoming more and more obvious that cheap doubt and cheap belief are unfitting of us -- and dangerous. Both the heroism of belief and the heroism of doubt have both lost their luster?

I think there's a difference between inquiry-doubt and plain ol' doubt full-stop. I trust Greg would agree that, in order to understand natural theology or special revelation, you need to look into it. And by looking into it, or inquiring into it, you implicitly doubt it in some sense. Though not in any high-handed way, or cheap way. There might be a point along the way when inquiry leads me to knowledge, and so I had better believe what I know.

It would be immoral to continue to doubt "in the face of Truth", I suppose, but we need to inquire into whether we are in the face of Truth, right?

Nick said...

Skeptigirl,
Your first comment is ironic. It seems to me that it is only your doubt that is keeping you from "winning" in this case.
In my opinion, you have already won a battle many never begin. I can and do very much respect that. I hope this removes the doubt that is keeping you from feeling a win. But besides this, I would think that your own respect for self is more useful in spiritual, and matters of aquiring knowledge than the respect of others. I would guess that you already knew this before, but like me, you may forget this from time to time.

Gregory said...

If I recall our conversation with any degree of accuracy, I was specifically of the mind that Scepticism (the philosophical outlook as elaborated upon in the third given definition) was immoral. I would never espouse the immorality of the first two given definitions.

If by morality, we understand the rightly ordered human acts which tend to our happiness, then an immoral act is one that is not rightly ordered toward that end (which is how I was understanding the term when I used it in our conversation--to try to correct any misunderstanding). Since the human intellect is made for truth, philosophical scepticism--the claim that we are incapable of knowing truth--is directly opposed to the intellect's striving for truth. As such, it is immoral.

Simply not believing that certain claims are true is not immoral, unless the attitude behind the refusal to believe is one of contempt. We are designed to seek truth, and a critical, reasoned discerning of truth from falsehood is the very process by which we do this.

I hope that clarifies my position, as your post clarified yours. We seem to have talked past each other in our last dialogue.

Christopher said...

Gregory,

Because there were no definitions set out in our last dialogue, I had no other recourse but to guess that you just take scepticism on the whole as 'immoral'. That was a failing of mine to ask clarification from you.

So, it seems we have some understanding between us, then: we agree that universal scepticism is philosophically untenable. However, if we work with your definition of what is moral -- that which tends to "the rightly ordered human acts which tend to our happiness" -- then I still can't agree with you that even universal scepticism is immoral.

First because happiness may be incidental to rightly ordered human acts, but I don't see it as an end in itself. Being 'moral' may result in misery (e.g., drowning while trying to rescue a child). Rightly ordered act, yes, but the end was not happiness, but pain, anguish, and inestimable grief and loss.

Second, because the use of the words "rightly ordered" implies an assumed (but unknown) moral standard that you are using to frame your definition. Since I don't know what standard that is, I can't simply agree to it. That wouldn't be a "rightly ordered", or even reasonable act on my part. Nevertheless, I don't consider myself 'immoral' for remaining sceptical toward your definition.

This has always been the point of divergence between utilitarianism and deontology, and variant forms thereof.

I'm enjoying this new level of conversation, by the way, so I hope you return to comment again.

Cheers!

Edward said...

I suppose Greg means happiness in the Aristotelian/Thomist sense: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/#HumGooFunArg

I wonder what the fall out of the untenability of universal skepticism is?

Did we get out of universal skepticism by a kind of meta-skepticism: doubting our doubts?

And/or did we simply know too much to take it seriously?

In this way, maybe the adequacy of our epistemology is tied to its ability to account for what we know?

Any epistemology which can't account for my knowledge of the tree in my back yard can't be taken seriously?

What about an epistemology which can't account for my knowledge of God? Is the epistemology inadequate or is my putative knowledge of God?

Gregory said...

Ed, yeah, I definitely mean happiness in the Thomistic sense.