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Skeptical about Skeptical Faith?

Somewhere in my formal education, I learned the importance of critical thinking. I believe it was in high school, taught by priests, but I know I already had an idea about it in elementary school, taught by nuns.

I never felt coerced to believe anything, and I recall challenging the nuns and priests throughout my years in school – including the priests who taught me in the seminary. Many of them weren’t happy about it, but there were never any dire consequences.

Am I saying that I wasn’t influenced by my teachers and the faith that I inherited from my parents? Of course I was. But everybody has to try to make objective judgments about what they’ve been taught, heard and seen. Usually, that’s done incrementally during one’s life. 

“Critical thinking” is usually thought of as a quality of science and scientists, not religious people. But I don’t quite see it that way. Scientists are also products of their backgrounds and upbringing and the influences of their teachers. They see reality through their eyes as I see it through mine. No one is excused from critical thinking.

Objective Analysis

I like the simple definition offered by Wikipedia: “Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment.” It’s related to skepticism, which Wikipedia describes as any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief.” “Putative,” by the way, means what is generally accepted to be the truth.

Many people believe that religion is the “putative knowledge” and skepticism is doubting religious views. And that has some validity, I believe. Religion, too, should be met with skepticism. Isn’t that why God made us intelligent beings? I think God likes the bumper sticker, “Question Everything.”

Obviously, I don’t accept the common notion that skepticism is a negative thing. That’s why I call this blog “Skeptical Faith.” Some would quarrel with this title because they may see the blog as promoting religion. And I acknowledge that the point of the blog is to get people to look at religion more objectively, trying to minimize the biases and cultural baggage of today’s society.

But others would quarrel with it because they believe skepticism, which they view as a negative thing, has no place alongside belief. To me, they reject the notion of faith, which requires trust in God and the renunciation of the false promise of certainty.

In a recent commentary on the National Public Radio web site, Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, who writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, takes on the subject of skepticism.

Too often, she writes, skepticism “expresses approval when the target of skepticism is a claim we reject, and disapproval when the target is a claim we hold dear.” If we’re Republican, we may be skeptical only of positions held by Democrats. If Democrat, skeptical only of Republican positions.

“Sometimes, though, skepticism is taken to be a healthy attitude towards belief — a characteristic that we might praise regardless of its target,” writes Lombrozo. “Skepticism is supposed to reflect a willingness to question and doubt — a key characteristic of scientific thinking. It encourages us to look at the evidence critically; it allows for the possibility that we are wrong.”

Indeed, science cannot function properly without skepticism, but neither can religion, because without it, it’s hard to internalize what you believe.

“…Taken too far,” however, “skepticism misses its mark,” she continues. “It’s important to avoid the error of believing something we ought not to believe, but it’s also important to avoid the error of failing to believe that which we should.”


Lombrozo believes skepticism should be accompanied by humility, and always implies a search for truth.

Regarding humility, one of the hazards of belief is smugness – the attitude that my faith has bestowed the truth on me but not on unbelievers. And smugness poses the danger of being judgmental.

As for the search for truth, I believe the greater danger today is not the blind acceptance of religion but the lack of skepticism about the modern substitutes for religion. Skepticism requires the willingness to accept truth where we see it – including the most obvious places like the Church.

People seriously searching for God can’t leave God out of the equation, of course. We need to pray for faith and be God-like. But religious belief is rational. There are good reasons for it, and it’s our job to find them. While doing so, we can be skeptics and believers. There is such a thing as “skeptical faith.”

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