On Jerk Skepticism

I just wanted to digress for a moment here, and talk about something that has been bothering me for a number of years now: “Jerk Skepticism”.

As most individuals are well aware, religion is something that occupies an enormous niche in contemporary culture.  It has exerted an immense influence on human history, and is the thing from which much of modern morality and social norms originate.  There have always been those who actively promote, as there have always been those who actively dissent.  Individuals on either side of this divide tend to hold rather traditional – and often outdated – stereotypes of their opposition.  It is a mistake to assume however, that either the religious or atheists are completely homogenous groups in and of themselves.

Being an active member of my secular community and attending lectures and seminars surrounding controversial topics (eg. intelligent design, young earth creationism), this notion is something that became immediately apparent.  In the past, I assumed that because skepticism by definition involves rocking the boat, it is a philosophy that is inevitably confrontational.  This assumption is one that I question.

A few months ago, I brought one of my Catholic roommates to a “skeptics” lecture.  The speaker was Dr. Jonathan Sarfati from Creation Ministries International (CMI).  A critique of Sarfati’s arguments for Young Earth Creationism is lengthy and well beyond the scope of this blog post, but needless to say it was not a very impressive – or indeed, accurate – representation of contemporary Christian apologetics.  The thing that struck me most about the lecture however, was not necessarily the content.  It was my roommate’s reaction to the audience and the intellectual environment as a whole.  Having limited experience with the skeptical community, the primary thing she remarked upon was the hostile arrogance exhibited on part of a few atheists.

This hostile flavor of skepticism is what I have come to term “Jerk Skepticism”.  It describes a particular subset of the atheist community which treats skepticism as a position rather than process; a conclusion of truth rather than an orientation toward truth.  Having attended her first skeptics event, my roommate commented on the blatant vocal intolerance toward religion at the lecture.  Throughout the presentation, she reported that she continually overheard whispered comments of a vicious and spiteful nature toward both religion and religious individuals.  The question and answer period following the lecture was also peppered with accusations, profanity, and ad hominem insults directed toward the lecturer rather than the lecture.

I attempted to offer some justification for the things that she observed, but I fell short.  This observation is something that I, quite frankly, felt ashamed of discussing.  What could I have possibly have said to defend the integrity of the skeptical community?  Individuals in skeptical communities are continually trying to discredit religion, but given the status quo orientation of many atheists today it is understandable why many religious people view skepticism as a negative presence in society.  Ultimately, despite the fact that religion is both empirically and logical flawed, it demands certain features of conduct which I find is missing among jerk skeptics.

In many ways, this skeptical hostility undermines exactly what it is trying to achieve – attempting to demonstrate the foolishness of religion to believers.  This negative, confrontational attitude adopted by far too many atheists, is in actuality fueling religious observance.  Intentional or not, skepticism is represented by skeptics.  A religious person who steps foot into the secular community will immediately note the people who practice it.  It was disheartening to realize that, had I been my roommate, I would have similarly come to regard skepticism as a force which resorts to personal insults and arrogant intolerance.

Many skeptics today have lost touch with the origins of skepticism: Humility.  I myself am often guilty of this.  Various practices of the skeptical community have now become similar to practices of religious communities.  In this sense, many skeptics are hypocritical in their intolerance to consider the possibility of error.  Religion is often criticized for failing to seriously contemplate alternative explanations.  However, this criticism is – in my experience – rapidly becoming also applicable to the skeptical community.  The bottom line is that religious individuals seem much more welcoming of atheists than atheists are welcoming of religious individuals.  Being non-judgmental, socially supportive, and welcoming are features of the religious community which many jerk skeptics do not share.  This observation worries me immensely, because it is a strong motivator for religious individuals to reject atheism without having actually considered skeptical arguments.  Jerk skepticism allows for religious individuals to take the moral high ground.  It is a relatively valid concern, one which unfortunately is based upon accurate descriptions of many atheists.

On the other hand, I consider myself an “Olive Branch Skeptic”.  I do believe that true skepticism should be incredibly humble.  Skepticism is a perspective which does not purport to know or prove anything – it only requires that any claim be supported by evidence.

I have observed that, for many skeptics, skepticism is equated with actively attacking another person’s point of view.  This is a dangerous practice because attacking religious individuals allows them to argue that skepticism is exactly what its practitioners demonstrate – spite, intolerance, and arrogance.  Too often, skepticism becomes a position to be defended rather than a tool to seek truth.  Any skeptic should bear in mind that by practicing jerk skepticism they are indirectly strengthening their opponent’s conviction.

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2 responses to “On Jerk Skepticism

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