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Why I Identify as a Skeptic

My friend Sarah Moglia has written an essay, titled Why I Don’t Call Myself a Skeptic, that’s been making waves in the atheist blogosphere. She’s got a thought-provoking argument with which I agree in part and disagree in part, and I thought I’d share my reaction to it.

But first, let me echo her disclaimer: I’m not promoting what follows as a normative view that everyone should hold. I’m talking about why I choose to identify in a specific way. Actually, I tend to use “atheist” as my descriptive term of choice in most situations, but there are times when I think identifying myself as a skeptic is appropriate – usually, when I’m debating pseudoscience in general rather than religion specifically – and I want to talk about why I find this to be the case.

Here’s the crucial passage from Sarah’s post:

Being a skeptic is not a hard and fast definition– no one is ever 100% skeptical all the time. I know lots of people who identify as skeptics who don’t behave in a skeptical manner most of the time. And I know lots of people who don’t identify as skeptics who question and critically think about things. It isn’t like the term ‘atheist,’ which is something you either are or are not. You can’t be both a theist and an atheist at the same time– but you can act skeptically in one situation and not in another.

Now, the point is well-taken that no one can be perfectly skeptical all the time. As Sarah says, atheism is a binary condition, but skepticism isn’t. Human behavior is driven by emotion, subconscious bias, and other deep-seated and not necessarily truth-seeking instincts. Unless you’re a mythical being who’s achieved the ideal of flawless rationality, we all have blind spots about some things, and we all act irrationally at certain times.

But that’s precisely the point: if you genuinely desire “skepticism” to be part of your identity, you can’t dismiss these lapses as unimportant. Nor, when someone poses an evidence-based challenge to a view you hold, can you just ignore it and assert your dogmatic allegiance to a ideology that’s immune from reconsideration. (By contrast, this is something that religious believers can and do engage in.) In short, the most valuable thing about calling yourself a skeptic is that it’s a public commitment, one that encourages people to hold you to a higher standard.

The same is true of “rationalist”. If I call myself that, it doesn’t mean that I’m perfectly rational about everything all the time, but rather that I take reason as my aspiration, as my ideal. And when I do act irrationally, when I use faulty reasoning or make a decision on bad or insufficient evidence, I hope and expect that people will call me out on it.

That doesn’t mean that these terms can never be misapplied. There are many people who are just bad skeptics: people who persist in disbelief long after enough evidence is in to convince any reasonable observer, or people who treat their personal views as sacrosanct dogma, or who simply view “skepticism” as a marker of tribal identity rather than a substantive statement about their worldview. Like this guy, for example:

When it comes to people like this (yes, I know that account is a parody), I think we face a similar problem as we do with the term “democracy”. There are many countries in the world that claim to be democracies, but in reality, have only blatantly rigged or inconsequential elections. We could demand that these countries be consistent and stop calling themselves democracies, but I think a better tactic is to shame them, to point out that their rulers are betraying their own stated ideal. In just the same way, even in the worst case when people misrepresent the term “skepticism” or use it badly, it can still provide a potential toehold for new evidence and new ideas to get into their belief system.

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