Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Don't Call Myself a Skeptic

Oh my goodness, blogger has changed since I last time I posted, and I'm totally freaked out by it, so I hope this blog looks okay format-wise.

Anyway, I was just having a discussion with Greg Laden on Facebook (of Greg Laden's blog fame), and we were talking about skepticism and how people are skeptics. I was finally able to articulate why I don't self-identify as a skeptic.

To me, 'skeptic' is not a noun (okay, well, it is, but I don't like it as a noun). Being a skeptic is not a hard and fast definition-- no one is ever 100% skeptical all the time. I know lots of people who identify as skeptics who don't behave in a skeptical manner most of the time. And I know lots of people who don't identify as skeptics who question and critically think about things. It isn't like the term 'atheist,' which is something you either are or are not. You can't be both a theist and an atheist at the same time-- but you can act skeptically in one situation and not in another.

To me, skepticism isn't something you are. It's something you do. While yes, we do have words that classify people by things they do (for example, a vegetarian or a hockey player), I don't think skepticism is the same. Well, maybe it is, I guess I just don't like using that as a term of self-identification. I think people should be able to tell that I'm a skeptic by how I behave (do I ask questions? Do I make decisions based on sound evidence?), not by what I call myself.

I'm not at all saying that people can't or shouldn't identify as skeptics. By all means, do so. Self-identification is a big thing, and if that's the term you want to call yourself, do it. Just like some people prefer 'humanist' versus 'atheist.' Being able to select your identifying terms is a really important and empowering thing. When I'm asked to describe myself, atheist is usually one of the first terms I go to, because so much of my life has been shaped by the things that have happened to me since becoming an atheist, and it also is a huge part of my life right now (it's kind of my job). Maybe in a few years I won't feel that way, and I'll choose another term to be my go-to identification. Who knows?

Anyway, the point of that last paragraph was just to say that how you identify is completely up to you. This is just why I don't identify a certain way. :)

And to close, here's an excellent quote by Carl Sagan!

"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas...If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones." -Carl Sagan, The Burden of Skepticism


  1. Some food for thought:

    The idea of flawed skeptics doesn't necessarily ruin the idea of a skeptic. There are some atheists, for example, who may hold on to some superstitious/supernatural thinking, or perhaps find themselves praying during times of stress. There are Christians who waiver in faith or make missteps in their beliefs.

    You cannot hold people to an impossible standard of perfection without making the label itself impossible to attain. Where the line is between skeptic and non-skeptic is nebulous, but part of skepticism as a movement is learning about cognitive flaws, recognizing mental/intellectual traps, and trying to steer ourselves both away from and out of it. Skepticism is a verb as much as a noun, and as with any verb, you get better at it with practice.

    1. Those are very good points. I think the label just leaves a bad taste in my mouth because I know a lot of people who use it improperly-- saying things like "I can't be wrong, I'm a skeptic!" Or just claim that their stupid, uncritical ideas are due to skeptical thought processes rather than their own blind spits (see: sexist skeptics).

      While I think that I behave skeptically (or I'd like to think so), I just don't like claiming the title on my own. Just like how lots of people don't believe in god but revile the term atheist because, let's face it, there are some really nasty atheists out there.

      If people call me a skeptic, that's cool. I just don't feel it necessary to call myself that. But you raise some really good points, and so maybe my mind will change in the future.

    2. I totally agree with you. It took me a long time before I could start calling myself a skeptic because it seemed that the people I knew who claimed the label tended to be the type who cared about winning an argument above all else. I call myself a skeptic now on occasion because it takes fewer words, but it really depends on the context of the situation. If I suspect or know that the party I am conversing with views skeptics with the same disdain I used to, I generally find another term to identify as.

      I don't blame you for being less than thrilled at having the "skeptic" label applied to you. It has a lot of baggage attached to it that often isn't worth dealing with.

  2. In the GDR, apparently, the idea was promoted for a while that Nazism and pollution are products of capitalism. Since the GDR was a socialist state (so the idea went) it had already solved those problems. This, it's been argued, contributed to East Germany having greater problems with pollution and Neo-Nazi groups than West Germany. People who label themselves skeptics run a similar risk of assuming they've done all the critical thinking they need to do about their own attitudes.

    On a slightly different note, I feel as a linguist that I should comment on nouns and verbs: Skepticism really is not a verb as much as a noun. That's like saying a platypus is as much a bird as a mammal. Rhetorically it may sound good, but it's really just an unhelpful use of technical terms.

  3. I guess I call myself a skeptic because I want to make it clear that I'm not singling out religion in my disbelief. I don't belief in any god or deity. I also do not believe in Santa Claus, alien abductions, or the tooth fairy.

  4. You make some good points; I am a scientist and so are most of my friends. Very few of us however would use the label 'sceptic' - rather scepticism is a vital component of analysis that we call use.

    What annoys me is that sometimes those professing loudest to be sceptics behave a a manner more akin to group think than critical thought - I wrote about this on my blog during the elevator gate fiasco, I'll link it here as it kinda ties into your point;
    ( http://3menmakeatiger.blogspot.com/2011/07/your-dogma-is-chasing-my-karma.html )

    That said, I think scepticism is something that should be encouraged and I am heartened to see people choosing it and delighted to speak / help out at sceptic events. It can tie in nicely with science; my writing was kindly nominated for an Occam award, though I'd more describe it as a science / medicine one. I guess the essential process is the same, but you are utterly correct that it is a verb.

    I just choose to use scientist, it's in the job description ;)

  5. I am relatively new to the skeptical community - I first attended NECSS 2010 after finding and listening to SGU for less than a year, and in the last two years I have also come to realize that for many, many years I was in denial about being an atheist. I only stopped going to church last fall.

    At this point while I am proud to call myself a capital-S Skeptic, I think I have similar feelings about calling my self an Atheist as you do about calling yourself a Skeptic.

    My experience so far is that those being loudest about proclaiming that they are Skeptics are often (but not always) the ones who make the conflation of Atheism and Skepticism and make statements about non-atheist skeptics being unworthy skeptics. I cannot help but wonder if they became instant atheists and perfect skeptics the moment they heard of critical thinking. Perhaps it is just confirmation bias on my part, but that type of person is what makes me ambivalent about self-identifying as an Atheist.

  6. I think identification is really important for some people. They want, or even need, to feel like there is a group out their that they belong to and are accepted by. I personally identify with atheists, agnostics, rationalist, skeptics, realists, etc... but at the same time I can also identify with Republicans and Christians to some extent. I think the major difference is that there isn't anything I disagree with with certain groups, while with others there is a lot I can't get behind; Secular Humanism, is a great example of this. I don't consider, or call, myself a Secular Humanist, but I do agree with all it's ideals and values, and try to live my life that way. But it's not that I try to live my life to fit the description of a Humanist, but that the description of a Humanist fits the life I lead.

  7. I think skepticism is more of phase in dealing with a particular proposition or premise. Like you say now one is a skeptic 100% of the time.

    Skepticism is more a particular stance on a questionable issue, saying this is logically flawed I question and am skeptical of the grounding of this particular issues. It's not a personal stance on a broad based issue.