Wednesday, January 12, 2005

extraordinary claims . . .

For all my talk about people getting offended at their beliefs being questioned, I have to be honest and admit that I get rather offended when people tell me I shouldn't be so skeptical (I was told that once, though very indirectly.) It is like they are affronting my entire way of thinking, as skepticism is a thought process and not a belief. It is, as Carl Sagan put it, the means of separating deep insights from deep nonsense.

(In case you haven't been following the blog, I'm referring to the post entitled "talking to people who believe weird things.")

That being said, I think I've come a long way regarding religious language and such since I started considering myself an atheist. For a while, any religous language bothered me. I was paranoid about going to church functions because I was worried about people asking where I'd been or how my relationship with god was or something like that. I didn't want to be an atheist surrounded by Christians just like I don't like being a skeptic surrounded by believers. I like fitting in. Who doesn't? I think I have matured a bit as I no longer cringe when people talk about "what god has done for them" or whatever, because I'm able to understand that they are just framing what happened to them in terms of their religion. Whether they actually literally believe god did it or not is nothing to me. And I've also found that I don't have any problem listing to the views of religions that are unfamiliar to me, like Hinduism or Islam or whatever. I had to come to a point where I had to totally reject all religion as bad first--I think in order to get the old Christian dogma out of my head. Now I don't mind what people believe or how they talk as long as their ethics are compatable with basic humanistic values.

I'm having a bit more trouble taking New Age type believers seriously. That comes both from my former evangelical upbringing and my current rationalistic idealism, and I seem to be having a bit harder time getting over it.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not considering that astrology, past lives, or whatever else could be true--or that all claims have equal claim to truth. If they make extraordinary claims, they need to be able to come up with extraordinary evidence (at least if they want people to take them seriously). I could go into a list of problems I have with new age beliefs--starting with the bunk advice people get from horoscopes. But we should have respect for people, even if they believe in weird things.


coffee goddess said...

Good for you! I get a bit of a chuckle here Mikel, recognizing a bird of a feather so-to-speak.

But I also chuckle, Mikel at the recollection of the time I found out that my father (an Anglican priest if you recall from previous posts) frequently uses my skepticism as the basis for course lectures (recall too, he is a philosophy professor) and sermons. I have been told by complete strangers that he speaks quite positively and proudly of this. He has no respect for persons blindly following the shepherd as sheep. Much stronger is the person for questioning where they are going and how; even better when they stop to find an answer or two along the way.

I like the analogy of the long-distance road trip. Yes, I can fill the car up with gas, leave before dawn to beat the traffic, pack a lunch, and drive non-stop to reach my destination. But, I will still reach that same destination if I take my time by enjoying the scenery and the trip itself. Perhaps a stop at a roadside point-of-interest, taking a lesser used secondary route, or even going off the route itself to find a small town greasy-spoon, antique shop, or museum. Not only has the experience of the drive been more interesting, but I will have been enriched with experiences and knowledge I might otherwise never have known.

[Regarding skepticism, it is something I have brandished quite proudly. Unfortunately, I find that it has more recently turned into cynicism. I attribute that to my having moved from an open-minded left leaning region of Canada to one of the opposite - and to the extreme.]

Ruthie said...

This post made me chuckle - I could have written it myself!!!

My journey on from evangelical Christianity went via an interfaith group. One of the biggest issues I had was with Christian exclusivity. So my act of great rebellion was to start attending an interfaith group where people who were strongly committed to their respective faiths would come together to dialogue, form friendships, develop understanding, take stands on issues of mutual concern and eat good food. I quickly learned to respect the teachings of other faiths and to adore Vedic cooking!

I was reading Karen Armstrong's latest autobiography ("The Spiral Staircase"). One of the points she makes is that most religions do not focus as much on belief as having value in itself, but rather on the practical outworking of that belief - orthopraxy over orthodoxy as it were. It helps me to view religions as a framework for developing a compassionate mindset, rather than being 'literally true' as fundamentalists elements may believe them to be.

However, this was all well and good until recently I came across an interfaith church in New York and curiosity made me go along to a meeting! It was a kind of new agey type of group. I just couldn't dig the meditation and then everyone sitting around to discuss how they practised spirituality. It was all a bit cooky and airy fairy for me. I always think...'So what...'

So I took myself back to the Quakers and will see if I can find some justice issues to get myself involved with ;) Yes, open minded as I may be, I still can't stifle the odd giggle and a degree of skepticism about the uber-spiritual :D


PS. BTW, if you've not come across Karen Armstrong you might enjoy her. She started out a Catholic nun in an unbelievably stict convent and then left, loosing faith, only to rediscover a new form of faith and she now calls herself a freelance monotheist. She's written quite a lot of books on comparative religion, most notably, 'A History of God' - you might enjoy her.