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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fanaticism Disguised as Skepticism

If you've got a question about religion, ask an atheist. That's the short version of the findings of a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll. Pew polled 3,400 Americans and asked questions about broad religious knowledge. Of 32 factual questions, the average atheist was able to answer 20.9. Meanwhile, the talk-about-God-all-the-damned-time people -- white evangelical protestants -- managed to get only 17.6 correct. If you want to know about religion, don't ask the religious -- they don't know crap.

This is one of those "man bites dog" stories that isn't as surprising as you'd think. Most atheists become atheist after being born into some faith tradition. Atheism isn't really a religious belief (disbelief can't logically be belief), so much as it's a conclusion. And it's a conclusion reached after investigation.

I'm not posting this to blow my own atheist horn. Rather, I'm making a point about skepticism. Atheists come to their disbelief for a reason. And we do it in spite of a culture that makes faith a virtue. It's the end of a process; we look at all the facts and come to a conclusion. You can't say that an atheist wants to believe in atheism, because most religions promise a lot better things than atheism does. "You get to be worm food!" isn't the best sales pitch in the world. Atheism is what you're left with after you've eliminated all the other possibilities.

But when we look at other so-called skeptics, we see a lot less due diligence. People who believe what they want to believe, who back off from uncomfortable truths, call themselves "skeptics" as well. Unfortunately there is no polling to back me up, but personal experience tells me that the average evolution or global warming denier doesn't know jack. They come to their conclusions not because they've weighed the facts and found the arguments wanting, but because they've looked at the issue itself and found it too terrifying to confront. Take, for example, current senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell on evolution:

O'Donnell is an "evolution skeptic" not because she knows what the hell she's talking about, but because it conflicts with preexisting beliefs. She doesn't know anything about evolution, other than BS she's read about why evolution is wrong. In fact, it's clear she doesn't even know what evolution is. Yet here she is, stating her opposition to the whole idea based on the argument that magic doesn't work. She's not a skeptic, she's an adherent to an orthodoxy. She disbelieves in evolution because the belief system she's already accepted demands its rejection. If the creation myth isn't true, maybe other things aren't true -- maybe she doesn't get to live forever. The whole thing must be flawless or uncomfortable questions come up. And uncomfortable questions must not be allowed to arise.

This is the basis of know-nothing skepticism. If the conclusion to an argument is happy-clappy party time, there is no emotional resistance to it. But if the conclusion is disaster -- as with global warming -- or that we're just mortal animals on a planet populated with other mortal animals -- as with evolution -- or anything else that leads down a dark road of uncomfortable realities, maybe we aren't so receptive to that. And maybe we find reasons not to believe it. Worse, we find reasons to dismiss all the evidence. We misapply our reason and intelligence in favor of an safe, happy place of our own creation. If people really needed to believe that one and one did not equal two, there would be a denial movement complete with dissident creationist mathematicians. I can guarantee it.

It gets down to this: if you want to believe in talking snakes and magic apples, then yay for you. I don't really care. If you want to believe we can literally pump tons of chemicals into the Earth's atmosphere without any consequence at all, you go have fun with that. I'm sure it's comforting.

But don't come to me and pretend that you have any idea what the hell you're talking about and don't start trying to write your witchdoctor beliefs into law. You want to be ignorant? Fine, it's a free country. You want to make me ignorant? No freakin' way.

And don't call yourself a skeptic when you're really just a true believer. Honesty really is the best policy.


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