111. Benign Skepticism

            This may surprise you, but I’ve always been one to question things.  I recall correcting my first grade teacher, Mrs. Arrid, on her spelling of “giraffe”. I wasn’t “hooked on phonics” (the product wasn’t invented yet), but I knew that the first sound in giraffe is a “j” sound, not a “g” (grrrafffe sounds like a growl). While the other kids were out at recess, perhaps to her credit, my teacher let me change the spelling on the board to “jiraffe” (though I’m sure she changed it back later). She was encouraging me to think.

            Although I fall in the conservative Christian camp, I have a certain sympathy for skeptics. We’re not a bunch of sheep to simply buy whatever is being sold. We’re human beings with brilliantly designed minds intended to be diligently used to ferret out what’s true from what’s false or unknown. Not to work our minds in this way is to waste them.

            Nevertheless, there are different sorts of skeptics.  Some people are skeptical, not because they are careful thinkers, but for other reasons. Perhaps they’re just bull-headed.. Others are skeptics because they love playing devil’s advocate; if only to push others’ buttons. And some are skeptical because they don’t want to believe differently since this would force them to change their lifestyle, to re-evaluate how they’ve lived. Ideas have consequences and they don’t want to face them.  

            I have little patience with the above sorts of skepticism, though I myself have probably resorted to each of them at one time or another. These motivations for skepticism are not tools to uncover the truth, but weapons to obscure or manipulate it. Incidentally, skeptics often appear smarter than they are, since it’s far easier ask questions than it is to answer them.

 On the other hand, I believe in, and try to practice what I call a “benign skepticism”. This is the practice of carefully testing each new “truth”, but doing so with an open, even hopeful mind. In other words, without being gullible, I try to have a teachable spirit. This was the spirit of the “noble Bereans” in Acts 17:10, who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:20,21, Paul echoes a similar attitude, where he says: “20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil.” I hope that you are a “benign skeptic”, always open to learn, but also wise enough to ask good questions and prudently filter out falsehood.

How can I become a benign skeptic?

1.     I become a benign skeptic by learning the rules of logic

Do you know how that discern solid logic from faulty logic? Can you recognize when a particular fact does not necessarily lead to a certain conclusion?  While logic can become quite complicated, there are resources – books, lectures and classes which teach the basic laws of logic. These allow you to thoughtfully sort through the arguments and conclusions others present. You need not buy the argument, for example, that Christianity is violent because some so-called Christians have used it that way. What does the Bible actually teach?  How did Christ live? What percentage of believers actually advocate religious violence or practice it? Not many that I know of.

2.    I become a benign skeptic by having a teachable spirit

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.  Anyone with me? I’m not suggesting that we can’t have firm convictions, simply that we are like minnows splashing on the edge of a vast ocean of all available knowledge. We do have the basic answers in Christ, but there’s still so much left to discover. Do you believe that? Are you eager to grow in your understanding? Can you learn something even from people you don’t entirely agree with?  Then you have a teachable spirit. This means that you’re open to new truth.

3.    I become a benign skeptic by listening more than I talk

        Let the other person have the stage long enough to adequately explain where they’re coming from.  Ask a lot of questions. Really listen. Be slow to presume what you haven’t verified. Take time to mull over what you’ve heard. This shows respect, eliminates a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings, and makes it more likely that you’ll be heard when you do reply.

4.    I become a benign skeptic by acknowledging areas of agreement

Even if I don’t buy the ultimate conclusions of another person, there’s a good chance that at least some of what they’re saying makes sense. Be quick to acknowledge these agreements; these areas of common ground. This is not only more honest, it shows that you’re trying to be impartial and fair. And it often makes the relationship more open and friendly.

5.    I become a benign skeptic by operating, wherever possible, as “loyal opposition”

It’s not all or nothing. I don’t have to agree with everything another person says to still be basically on the same side as them. I can support my church without agreeing with every decision it makes. I can endorse authors who have much good to say without having to buy into everything in the book. We each have to decide when too much is too much and when “loyal opposition” turns into overall opposition. There are limits, but often we draw them too rigidly. Every difference is not “heresy” or “apostasy”.

6.    I become a benign skeptic by maintaining a spirit of love

So often, the problem is not that we have different views, but the attitude which we bring to those differences.  We can lovingly disagree, even over important matters. Or we can make it a personal thing.  We can choose unnecessarily harsh labels or adjectives to describe the other person or their view. These back them into a corner and often arouse personal animus. What was a potentially useful discussion now evolves into an argument which involves winner and losers instead of mutual learners.

7.    I become a benign skeptic by doing my homework

Have you noticed that the most dogmatic people are often the most ignorant?  They haven’t done the hard work for themselves, but are riding on the coat-tails of others. Years ago I received a book from a church member which denounced a certain upcoming tendency in some churches. After I read more widely, I discovered that the original book was flawed; it had over-generalized the movement. When I told this to the parishioner, it didn’t seem to faze him. His mind was already made up.  When we read widely, we uncover nuances or unmentioned facts which one view might have avoided or downplayed.  While I’m speaking here of general thinking, it’s especially important that a Christian know the Bible well for themselves, and don’t depend on the preacher or someone else’s book.

8.    I become a benign skeptic when I have courage to take a stand

I hope this article hasn’t given you the impression that there’s nothing worth taking a stand against. The benign skeptic is no coward, they’re just more prudent about over-reacting. They’re still rigorous thinkers, more willing to give someone a patient, fair hearing, but also more than willing to disagree if, in the end, that makes sense.