It seems to me that a few words about Skepticism* are in order. I have talked about coming out as an atheist**; but I think it’s time to come out as a Skeptic too.
Skepticism seems a little harder for people to understand. It’s more all-encompassing than atheism. Deciding that you don’t believe in God is pretty straightforward in most peoples’ understanding. While they may be shocked or disgusted, they at least get it. It’s a simple rejection of something familiar – an every day sort of thing. They understand it’s kind of adopting a ‘non-religious’ perspective. While some people give up, say, Catholicism to become Protestant or Jewish, atheism rejects all theism.
But some atheists adopt an alternative set of beliefs that don’t include a god. They might become Buddhists, Wiccans, or (rarely) even believe in aliens. And then there are a variety of belief systems which supposedly explain various aspects of living – ‘paradigms’ in a sense. These would include beliefs like “quantum spirituality” and “New World Order”, etc. None of these people would I call a ‘skeptic’. Beliefs are beliefs, and by definition need no evidence or scientific proof. Skeptics like myself, on the other hand, will often respond to an expressed theory, with anything from a mere ‘That’s interesting” to “Show me the science.”
I suspect I may represent the typical skeptic in the sense that I came to it relatively late in life, after temporarily adopting various ‘alternative’ theories or paradigms in different stages. It was very gradual, and not a package of beliefs that I was sold on. So what does skepticism mean to me in my everyday life?
It means tentativeness; keeping an open mind; accepting that we just don’t know everything, and that’s okay. And it means change: adjusting my perspective as I learn and grow.
It means that when I hear a news announcement, for example, of a scientific study that suggests we “may” have found “signs of life” on another planet, I don’t take it seriously. In the context of science reporting, the word “may” is a very vague hypothesis, which only suggests a possibility for further future study. Same with the word “signs” – and “life” – very open to interpretation. I don’t get excited and I don’t join a movement or cult that believes this is proof of something. The details of vocabulary are important and meaningful.
Some theories are quite complicated, and take a lot of patience, focus, time and thought, as well as trying to absorb equally complicated critiques. Most people aren’t motivated to spend that kind of time or energy. So many choose (not necessarily consciously) based on who’s doing the telling. Or alternatively, it “feels right”.
Skepticism can be uncomfortable for people who need “answers” or certainty in their lives – or just plain old-fashioned “something to believe in”; it requires being able to live life without answers much of the time, yet hopefully not have to live with anxiety as a result. Being comfortable with ‘not knowing’ helps. It also helps to assume there’s no point in worrying as it has no benefit, and the corollary: taking action can reduce anxiety.
My only remaining “belief” these days is more of an underlying assumption: that there is an interdependent web of all existence. And this belief is tentative.