Healthy Skepticism

An individual's personal outlook on life can be approached from anywhere along the continuum between pursuing truth and avoiding new information. These alternatives correspond to the choice of embracing change or being afraid of change.

I do think that there is a potential problem with being excessively open-minded, and a corresponding advantage for being somewhat more persistent in one's beliefs. Daniel Taylor, in the first chapter of his book, The Myth of Certainty (InterVarsity Press 1986, pp. 14-26), states that reflective people may change their minds so easily that they can have difficulty staying on track towards completion of goals. They can become "wishy-washy". They may have such difficulty making decisions and sticking with them that they have difficulty achieving real accomplishments. In this negative mode, they are labeled "analyticals" who are trapped in "analysis paralysis". So taking open-mindedness to the extreme is inappropriate, and balance is warranted in real life. With proper balance however, I believe that it is possible to be open minded and yet single minded toward key missions in life. Regarding faith, a truly firm foundation results from a solid basis in truth, not from stubbornly refusing to consider anything other than one's current beliefs. I think that the lukewarm position that Jesus condemned in Revelation 3:16 is more likely to result from a habitual position that is not grounded in honest thinking. On the other hand, whenever someone has searched for something and found it, that person is more likely to be passionate about it. (Matt. 13:45-46)

It is common in religious communities for skepticism and cynicism to be considered as negative personal characteristics, whereas being faithful is considered as a positive personal characteristic. Of course the Bible teaches that personal salvation is based on faith. However, the negative attitude towards skepticism sometimes reflects a different use of the word faith from the Bible.

Skepticism can be defined as refusing to believe anything to be true unless it can be proven to be true. Pure skepticism is an impossible position because no one has the time or the breadth of education to understand the proofs of all knowledge. So, it is actually impossible to be a pure skeptic. Everyone is forced to believe the testimonies of other people regarding logical proofs of commonly accepted "facts", whether they are scientific, historical, or in other disciplines.

As an alternative, allow me to loosely define healthy skepticism for the purpose of this essay as being willing to logically test anything that one considers as "true" and being inclined to test new information before one accepts it as "true". Correspondingly, healthy skepticism also includes refusing to condemn something as false unless it can be shown to be false. Someone with healthy skepticism may doubt something if it has not been proven to be true, but he would not condemn it as false unless he obtained verifiable evidence that it is false.

Cynicism is refusing to believe anything is true that one does not already believe, regardless of evidence. A cynic assumes that everyone outside of a trusted circle of sources is a liar. Since cynics must begin with some basis of truth, they are simply unchangeable: unwilling to accept new truths or to shed old convictions. Thus, a cynic is someone who is locked into his belief set and is unwilling to believe anything else. On the other hand, a person with blind faith believes everything from his trusted set of leaders and ignores all other sources of truth and logic. So cynicism is essentially the same thing as blind faith. And, when a religious community commends blind faith and condemns cynicism (which are actually the same thing), they are really saying you're good if you agree with them and you're bad if you don't. People who assume that all faith is blind faith are incapable of understanding how a person can have firm faith and yet be open to considering new information that may appear at first to contradict that faith.

Referring back to the two alternatives at the beginning of this essay, both blind faith and cynicism are variations on closed-mindedness at one end of the continuum. Open-mindedness, towards the other end of the continuum, is actually another way of saying "healthy skepticism". It may surprise some people that the Bible prescribes healthy skepticism, and condemns the identical twins, blind faith and cynicism. I suspect that it is unique compared to the various religious scriptures of the world in directing its readers to test the truthfulness of claimed truths, as well as encouraging its readers to be open to new information. Consider this example from Jesus Christ:

He said to the crowd: "When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, `It's going to rain,' and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, `It's going to be hot,' and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time? Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:54-57)

He also said, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (Matt 10:16)

Moses taught the children of Israel not to use blind faith in following prophets, but to use discernment in testing prophets before following them. (Deut. 13:1-3 & 18:22)

King David states the value of discernment in receiving the true word of God, "Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands." (Psalm 119:66)

The prophet Jeremiah wrote that we cannot trust our own feelings alone because we can deceive ourselves, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)

The apostle Paul admonishes us to use knowledge, insight, and discernment in making decisions about how we can conform our lives to the will of the Lord:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,
(Phil 1:9-10)

The writer of Hebrews rebukes his readers because they should by now be capable of consuming sold food, metaphorically speaking, but he is distressed to observe that they are still not beyond milk for spiritual babies.  He explains "But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:14 ESV)

Paul advises us not accept doctrines simply because we seem to receive confirming feelings. He said, "Test everything." (1 Thes. 5:21)

The apostle John also advises us to "test the spirits":

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

Luke, traveling with the apostle Paul in his teaching journeys, praised the people in Berea for using discernment before believing what Paul was teaching:

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)

Paul used rational reasoning in order to present the gospel to both Jews and gentiles:

Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:4)

Apollos, traveling with the apostle Paul, used rational debate to present the gospel:

For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 18:28)

According the Bible, God wants us to learn and progress through our experiences on earth. Jesus promised that God would not give us a rock when we ask for a loaf of bread. (Matt. 7:9-11) So it is fair to assume that He expects us to use the intelligence that He has given to us as we search for the truth. Our perception of reality and our faith in his plan for us should be mutually consistent "For God is not a God of disorder." (1 Cor. 14:33)

One of my favorite vintage holiday movies is "Miracle on 34th Street". However, in that movie the proclamation is made that "faith is believing in something even though common sense tells you not to." Unfortunately that is precisely the definition of superstition. The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines superstition as "a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam Webster Inc., 2001, page 1180) Consequently the message of the movie is "Santa Clause is real and faith is nothing more than superstition." The Bible makes no such proclamation about faith. It states, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb 11:1 NASB, See note on Hebrews 11:1 below.) But it doesn't state that this should be contrary to common sense. I'm not suggesting that matters of faith can be proved as fact. That contradicts the very essence of faith. However, belief in something that can be shown to be false is not faith, it's superstition.

Unlike superstition, Biblical faith does not require that believers abandon objectivity and accept something as true that can be proved to be false. To the contrary, there is an enormous amount of evidence, a small portion of which is described in this web site, that Biblical truth is indeed true. Thus Biblical faith is not superstition. It is not even limited to "subjective mysticism", which is belief in something that has neither evidence for it nor against it. Instead, Biblical faith is rational and objective, supported (though not absolutely proved) by overwhelming evidence. It is the kind of faith that is harmonious with healthy skepticism. It is important to clarify, however, that although compliant with evidence, Biblical faith is not the result of evidence. God is the source of faith in each believer. (See Personal Revelation.)

Not only are we instructed to use discernment in accepting information as truth, but the Lord also expects us to open our minds and to be willing to consider new information in the first place. The apostle Paul described people who refused to consider additional truth and thus remained ignorant of the truth because of their own stubbornness, that is the hardening of their hearts, "They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts." (Eph 4:18) Since "hardening" is a process, it is reasonable to assume that it can advance to the point that a person makes himself incapable of accepting the will of God. But, anyone who loves the truth is not afraid of new information and is willing to take the time to determine whether that new information is true or false. The prophet Ezekiel was told by the Lord that he would encounter rebellious people who would refuse to listen to the truth: "Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people." (Ezek 12:2) Moses rebuked the children of Isreal for being so stubborn and closed-minded: "For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are." (Deut 31:27)

Our time on this earth is limited and therefore precious. It would be a shame to allow time to pass without seriously considering information of potential importance to eternal destiny, particularly if that information is verifiable yet different from what we currently believe.

When someone presents to another person information that is in contradiction with the recipient's most closely held personal beliefs, there is a range of possible reactions. Please note that by "information" I don't mean an expression of contempt or negative opinion, which would be rude and which would elicit ill feelings in the most logical recipient, even if he were Spock from Star Trek. By "information" I mean a statement that appears to be based on sound logic and reliable references. In such a situation the recipient may react with emotions of anger, fear, or resentment towards the deliverer of the information. Or, he may seek ways to avoid the issue altogether perhaps by assuming without justification that the bearer of the information is somehow mistaken. Or, he may be willing to consider the information, perhaps with the intent of logically proving it to be incorrect. I can't imagine that anyone would consider it dispassionately if it indeed conflicts with closely held values. Approaching the information with the intent of disproving it in this scenario is undoubtedly a normal characteristic of a healthy skeptic. However, I do suggest that only those who are willing to honestly consider this new information could be truly considered to be healthy skeptics as opposed to those who feel hurt or angered or who emotionally reject it out of hand.

I have stated that an individual's personal outlook on life can be approached from anywhere along the continuum between pursuing truth and avoiding new information. I think that many people avoid new information, and thus truth, because of fear. They are afraid of questioning things that they have been taught to believe as far back as they can remember, perhaps by their parents, or perhaps by their church. They are afraid of how some people might react to their questioning organizationally sanctioned beliefs. They seek the comfort of the known, and thus fear the unknown. Therefore, they forego truth in order to seek comfort. C. S. Lewis wrote, "If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth." (Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952, page 39.)

In John 14:6 Jesus defined himself as the truth. In his book, The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor wrote, "The pursuit of truth and the love of God are one and the same." (The Myth of Certainty, InterVarsity Press, 1986, p. 127)

John Ortberg has written, "even more than we need to be committed to Jesus, we need to be committed to the truth.  For it is impossible to trust Jesus if way down deep inside, you don't think he was right.  Sometimes believers are afraid that pursuing truth wherever it leads might make us uncomfortable." "Another way of saying this is, if you have to choose between Jesus and truth, choose truth.  But according to Jesus, if you search for truth, you will find him.  There is no other way to trust Jesus than to think and question and wrestle and struggle until you come to see that he really is true." (Faith & Doubt by John Ortberg, Zondervan, 2008, p. 148.)

People sometimes find their own version of "truth" in blind submission to the claimed authority of their church, but Einstein wrote, "Blind respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth." (Einstein, His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2007, page 67) "Skepticism and a resistance to received wisdom became a hallmark of [Einstein's] life." (ibid, page 22)

The message of the song Imagine by John Lennon is that religion is a source of injustice. That message is true, but it is imprecise. I believe it is more precise to say that blind faith, which includes cynicism, is a source of injustice.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "Every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own skepticism ... that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which transcends it." (Introduction to Pensées, 1958)

In discerning falsehood, one must be careful not to reject truth for emotional reasons. Truth is sometimes different from what we would like, and we need to be careful that we do not disguise our emotions as logic in order to find grounds for rejecting truth.  Truth does not contradict itself, but sometimes people confuse paradox, mystery, or even an adverse emotional reaction as contradiction.  Please see Discerning Falsehood for more details on distinguishing between actual and artificial contradiction.

Note on Hebrews 11:1

The KJV reads, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." In the original Greek the verse contains the word hupóstasis where the KJV uses "substance". In today's English assurance, guarantee, or confidence are better word choices than "substance" as used by the English translators 400 years ago. In the original Greek the verse contains the word élegchos where the KJV uses "evidence". In today's English the word "evidence" is inappropriate, because the Greek word actually means conviction. I have quoted the NASB (New American Standard Bible) in the text because it is the most precise word-for-word translation of the Bible into English today.

© 2014 William C. Hamer