Skeptic: A person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.
A Little History
I have been accused of having a closed mind, because I mentioned that I think astrology is bunk. A closed mind, really? I’m the ultimate skeptic, which is the opposite of being closed-minded. I was raised to be Roman Catholic. At sixteen I left the Church and essentially became an atheist. I did that because I was finally able to think clearly enough to see the contradictions in what I was taught, not because I shut down my thinking. If I had quit thinking about it so much, I might have stayed in the Church.
Since I no longer had a predetermined set of beliefs, I investigated many things over the following years. I learned a little about Druids and witchcraft, Tarot cards, astrology, and several more or less legitimate religious sects. At the age of 36, I was compelled by circumstances to understand that I had been biased in the way I interpreted the Bible, in reaction to my upbringing; and not long after that I had a born-again experience, and joined an evangelical church. That worked pretty well for me for some time, even though I never agreed with all the doctrine I was expected to believe.
Over the past several years, I have been seriously reexamining my beliefs, eventually arriving at my present position as a natural humanist. I now disregard anything supernatural, not because I refuse to consider it, but because, in considering everything, I have seen no indication that the supernatural is real.
I think my friends may get confused by the negative quality of the definition of “skeptic.” I tend to disbelieve things that most others accept. Considering that alone, you might assume that I don’t even look into things I disagree with, or that I ignore what I don’t like or don’t understand. That is the opposite of the truth. When something seems wrong to me, I can’t leave it alone—I have to poke at it and figure it out. I have to compare it to my experience, and to whatever expertise I can find about anything that relates to it.
I have in fact said that I don’t believe in anything. I mean that in the religious sense, that I don’t have a religious faith in anything. There is a difference between believing something is true, and believing in something. I believe that Muhammad was probably a real person and a charismatic leader. I don’t trust in Muhammad as my ultimate spiritual guide—I don’t believe in him. If I became aware of something that definitively showed Muhammad to be the prophet of Allah, I would believe accordingly. Since I only believe things on the basis of evidence, if better evidence comes along, I am free to change my mind.
All the Way
According to the “true believers” I have known, you don’t really believe unless you buy in completely. You have to accept the whole package, then you will be given (divinely, I guess) whatever it is that goes along with that faith. You will receive feelings of universal unity, belonging and forgiveness, or psychic gifts, like healing or precognition. You may not see any objective evidence of those gifts, but that’s not too important. The emphasis is always on subjective reality. Other believers relate their personal experiences, and listen patiently to your history. Yes, they say, that’s what I went through, that’s what I thought when I was being deceived by the evil spirits.
Though I was a skeptic by nature, I bought into several of these worldviews. It is tempting, emotionally, especially if your childhood wasn’t perfect (and whose was?), and you are looking for meaning in life. The believers are happy and devoted to a cause, and they are friendly and open about their beliefs and feelings. And you can tell that they are sincere. They really believe.
I was never able to fully achieve that complete, unquestioning faith. Never. Not because I didn’t want to, oh, I wanted to in the worst way. No, I think there is some structure in the brain of the true believer that enables him or her to believe something without any good evidence. Whatever that is, I lack it. I have to have a reason to believe something, a reason that makes sense. “My world would be empty and meaningless if I didn’t believe” is not good enough.
Does that make me closed-minded? Not at all. I have tried and discarded many beliefs, and then returned to some of them after I rethought things. The more experience I gain, the more ideas there are that I have examined from all angles, and understand well enough to determine their value, or lack of value.
Feel free to use whatever system works for you to make sense of the world. If astrology helps you organize your thoughts and deal with people, use it. If the Greek pantheon helps you better understand the mysteries of the universe, use that. Just don’t assume that your personal attachment to those things makes them real in the outside world.