Misplaced Certainty: Vehement Skeptics

GraspingFistI visited my first Skeptic meeting the other night. The varieties of the non-believers around the table were fascinating. But the ones that stood out the most, were the outspoken few who knew what Christianity was, who knew what Religion was, and were convinced both of them were wrong. These folks had a certain type of personality, a recognizable temperament, a vehement certainty.

It is a mistake to think about Religion as a whole, or Christianity as a whole, or even Freedom as a whole. These are abstractions, they are not real. There is no homogeneity in the things these abstractions are trying to capture. And the craving for certainty on such images is pathological, if not sadly displaced.

Question to Readers: I repeat this point over and over on my blog. Does what I write ring true to your experience?


Pic credit: Ironically, the best picture I could find of a desperately grasping fist to spice up this post was on this Christian web post entitled “Grasping God’s Purpose“.  How perfect, showing the shared mentality between two folks who feel each other to be on opposite teams.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

29 responses to “Misplaced Certainty: Vehement Skeptics

  1. rautakyy

    I sometimes run into former believers, who still think of the reality by the terms and methods of a religious believer. Some of them are more “vehement” than others, but it is not the conviction of their beliefs, rather how they get to them that makes me wonder.

    I can not help it, that I have the outsider perspective to religious thinking having been born into an atheist family and in a rather secular society. I certainly do not claim, that from outside one has any clearer picture of the thing than from an inside experience. However, it seems to me that sometimes the need for certainty is an expression of a form of faith. A previously learned behaviourial model, so to speak.

    I do strongly agree whith you, that the terms you refer to are indeed abstracts. Yet, to me, a particular level of certainty is only an expression of the greatest likelyhood of any matter, in light of what is known to me at the moment.

  2. These folks had a certain type of personality, a recognizable temperament, a vehement certainty.

    For several years, I subscribed to “Skeptical Inquirer”. I stopped because I saw that same kind of temperament in many of the article.

    I have no inclination to attend skeptic meetings, because I expect the same sort of thing. But then, come to think of it, isn’t that what we should expect from people obsessed enough about their skepticism to organize meetings, publications, etc?

    Skepticism should be a stance, not a set of beliefs. And one does not obsess over stances.

  3. mikespeir

    “It is a mistake to think about Religion as a whole, or Christianity as a whole, or even Freedom as a whole. These are abstractions, they are not real.”

    You seem pretty sure of yourself. What are the implications of the reality that that Christianity is not a single “whole”? Aren’t you in effect dismissing that whole, rendering an opinion that none of it is likely true? Or do you know a way to sift the wheat from the chaff?

  4. Yes I do agree such reactions seem odd from supposedly skeptical people.

    Mikespeir, I think the author is giving an opinion. Just because he doesn’t sprinkles “maybes” and “I think” all over his writing doesn’t mean he is uninterested in other views.

  5. ccmclaugh

    I think you know what people mean when they say “Christianity is wrong” or “religion is wrong”. I think that you are being uncharitable in your interpretation.

  6. No, this doesn’t ring true with me. I think it’s a mistake to think of skeptics as a whole and to judge vehemence as a negative. I suppose it’s hard for people who were not indoctrinated to understand our vehemence. Neil calls it obsession, to attend a monthly meeting?! Better we should sit back, feel no passion and let religious fundamentalists rule the world?

  7. Johannes

    It’s a fair criticism. “Christianity is wrong” and “religion is wrong” are truisms, like “people are wrong”. The statement is too vague to say anything useful. Even if we all ‘know what it means’, the problem is that that ‘knowledge’ is misleading, because it simultaneously refers to any number of undefined properties of Christianity or religion… Properties that even believers or Christians themselves might agree are ‘wrong’.

  8. mikespeir


    Are you making my point? He seems to be suggesting that taking a hard line isn’t justifiable on the basis of the fact that we can’t be quite sure. I don’t think you’ll find many of us who’ll claim to be 100% sure of anything. Not even of the proposition, “Christianity is wrong.” Even when we say things like, “I know Christianity is wrong,” we’re not claiming we’re infallibly sure. All we’re saying is, “It seems so overwhelming evident that Christianity is wrong that there’s not much sense waffling about it.”

    And in protesting that stance (apparently) he points to the multitidinous varieties of the religion. I think the fact that Christians themselves can’t settle on The Truth is one piece of strong evidence against the whole of the thing. But he seems to be hinting that maybe, just maybe, one of those varieties could in fact be The Truth, and for that reason we shouldn’t be so adamant. Well, then, I’ll repeat the question: How do you separate the wheat from the chaff to determine what that one True Christianity might be? And if there’s no reliable way to do that, how are we erring in assuming the religion is probably wrong?

  9. Question:Does what I write ring true to your experience?

    Answer : It is totally wrong; God Exists, this is my sincere opinion; and it is reasonable.
    Sorry to differ. Now don’t be angry; you asked for it.

    Thanks and regards

  10. I’m totally with you on feeling uncertain about these kinds of topics, but I get the feeling that isn’t what you meant in this post.

    I suppose someone can still call themselves a Christian (or Muslim, or whatever) but not believe in anything supernatural (including a god). Pehaps by Christian they simply mean they appreciate the wisdom and heritage that the Christian religion has handed down to them. This is just one of many examples one could give of different viewpoints under the umbrella of Christianity or religion. Is this what you are getting at?

    But it is likely these skeptics you met have a certain subset of the entire range in mind when they talk about it being wrong.

    Also pathological seems a bit too overstated. I’ve always thought that the craving of certainty or at least the appearance of certainty when people express opinions is a very natural human thing.

  11. Wow — lots of fun comments. Sorry, I was at work all day.

    @ rautakky,
    I have no problem with vehemence — no problem at all. It is WHAT the vehemence is anchored on.
    I am not sure I understand your last sentence — so I am guessing that I disagree with it.

    @ Neil Rickert,
    There were lots of great folks there too — only a minority (as I wrote) had that other quality. Those meetings can be fun, I am sure. I will visit more.

    @ Mike :
    Yes, you are right, I am pretty sure of myself on what I wrote. And I am pretty sure you have misunderstood me.

    Have you read any of my stuff on this before? Simply put, there are so many different forms of Christianity and Religion, that to speak of them in one general way says more about the speaker than the subject.

    I hope that is a little more clear.

    But ah, I can see that by reading your last comment that you don’t understand my position on this. I’d have to link you to other posts to explain if you are interested. But you may not be.

    @ trueandreasonable:
    Thanx — you get it!

    @ ccmclaugh:
    Actually, I don’t think those people really know what they are saying — the expression is not only wrong, it is a dangerous way of bad thinking. It would be odd for me to be labeled as “uncharitable” to views which are even more broadly uncharitable. But perhaps you don’t understand what I was getting at either.

    @ Susan B Raven:
    You misread me. Please read again a bit more carefully. I spoke of a very small number of Skeptics. I also did not bad mouth vehemence at all — I am often vehement. I was discussing a wrong belief. I probably agree with a lot of your passion. But I think it blinded you from reading my post accurately. Skeptics, like theists, have lots of blind spots, eh?

    @ Johannes:
    Right — lots of flavors of Christianities and lots of different types of believers holding them in very different ways.

    @ paarsurrey:
    It is clear, as often, that you have no clue what I wrote.

    @ Howie:
    Right. “Christian” can mean a whole lot of different things to the common believer. As I’ve written, most Christians don’t believe the vast majority of what they confess — certainly not what the theologians would want them to believe. 🙂
    Yeah, “pathological” may be a bit overstated, but indeed I meet very intense folks with a bit of a neurotic style of idea-attachment. One guy, when he went to his family reunion was on a mission to find someone he could turn away from religion — that was his mission. Weird, eh?

  12. Earnest

    Perhaps in the jovial company of like-minded peers, the usual trappings of scientific enquiry are dropped, and are replaced by short-hand banter. But Sabio, this christian fan of yours appreciates your steadfast attempts at objectivity even when surrounded by a very friendly audience.

  13. mikespeir

    “But ah, I can see that by reading your last comment that you don’t understand my position on this. I’d have to link you to other posts to explain if you are interested. But you may not be.”

    I understand what you wrote above. I’ve gleaned the inevitable inferences from what you wrote. I’ve addressed that. If there are extenuations that would turn the thing on its head, they aren’t evident in your post.

  14. @mikespeir,
    Good, perhaps after reading my other replies my what I intended to say is clearer. If not, please ask. And if you disagree with something in the comments, let me know.

  15. God hates religion. “Your incense stinks in my nose.”

    What ‘we do’ to try and ascend to or placate God or justify ourselves in His eyes. He hates that.

    He has already ended the war. In Christ Jesus. Now, all He wants is for us to trust that.

    Faith (in what God has done for us ) vs. religion. Two very different things.


  16. @ theoldadam,
    You demonstrate well the ugly mix of vehemence and confusion. Come back after you learn to read.

    Blessings. 😉

  17. @ Earnest,

    I think you are right that in-house talk can often be different than public-talk. For examples, Christians may say, “Only God can judge” or “I don’t know the fate of nonChristians” but behind closed doors many happy admit to each other and whisper to their children, “those atheists are going to hell, stay away from them and their kids.”

    Likewise, some Atheists may publicly admit that all of us are self-deceived in some ways, but in private, those atheists pat each other on the back and say, “Those theists are totally deluded.”

    Thank goodness, in my world, most theists and atheists I know do neither — but boy, when I meet either of these extreme, vehemently confident blind people, it drives me to write posts. 🙂

  18. @Sabio:
    The point to address is what exactly are atheists criticizing when criticizing a religion, say Christianity or Islam. Do they talk about the dogmas only or about the unavoidably complex social structure emerging (at least) from the mere fact that these religions are several centuries old? We can immediately dismiss dogmas and holy books (in fact, even religious folk themselves, even within the same religion, have different views depending on their space-time coordinates: a Christian in Finland in 2014 CE is as different from a Christian in the Holy Land in 92 CE, as an raccoon is different from a possum.). Unavoidably, any social system with large life-span, merely by virtue of the fact that it lasts over a long period of time, must result into some good things too, where “good” means something that enables its members to live cohesively and “prosper”. (Proof: if everything were “bad”, the social system would not survive too long.)

    So when an atheist attacks Christianity or Islam, what exactly does he/she attack? It is hard to condemn people who knew nothing throughout their lives except that there is some entity called Allah whom they should fear of, otherwise she would be very angry. (What should be done about it is an entirely different matter.) But, as an opposite, take a person who, say, claims to be a scientist and who, while practicing his science, is also trying hard to prove that Allah is the fundamental force of the universe. What is worse, this scientist is also trying to prove that Allah exists by using his “scientific methods”. Then I’m angry.

    At the same time, I have frequently maintained that I’d rather be together with nice people who are, unfortunately, religious, rather than assholes who are atheist. (This does not mean that I will keep my mouth shut.)

    Individuals like to be thought of as smart. Everybody likes to have their ego boosted. This is often been taken advantage of by various agents who draw supporters merely by devising trivial methods for boosting people’s confidence towards their intelligence. (Example 1: The other day I clicked on a page that claimed to give an intelligence test and that if you passed it then you would get congratulations and other ego-boosting rewards. Example 2: I organize and attend seminars in the mathematics department all the time; some people in the audience like to ask irrelevant questions because almost always [esp. because it is Sweden I live at] the speaker will reply politely and try to make sense of the question so that, in the end, the person who asked the question ends up having a big smile on their face *as if* they understood the lecture and *as if* their question was an important one. Many other examples exist.)
    I believe this is what is happening with the skepticism `movement’. Several people are drawn to skepticism because it makes them feel smart. They question a stupid religion, they quote science all the time, they feel they are in the company of great scientists (and so, by association, they inherit part of the greatness), and, unbeknownst to them, they have separated the world into two categories: the religious idiots and the atheist smart ones.

  19. @Takis Konstantopoulos :03/19/2014 at 7:46 am

    I appreciate your post, that does not mean I agree with all the points mentioned in it, and would like to re-blog (copy/past) it on my blog; of course with my comments at the end.

    Please allow me to do so.

    Thanks and regards

  20. @paarsurrey:
    Thanks for asking. In the past, you reblogged without asking, so I wonder what changed now. I don’t mind. The blogosphere is not regulated and you are not violating any law by doing it. Do as you wish for I do not have (and do not want to have) the authority to tell you no.

    Of course, I disagree with you very much because you have never been able to justify any of your claims. You always reach a point from which you cannot get unstuck and you repeat the same thing again and again, as IF that would prove your claims.

    To make things explicit, claiming that the Quran contains proof that there is such a thing as the one-true-only god because it says so itself is, from a logical point of view, absurd. Claiming that the Quran (and other such primitive texts) are “true” or “good” because they “were revealed” is again nonsense because you cannot prove (or even define!) what “revealed” means.

    In the past, I engaged in discussion with you, pretending to agree with you partially, because I was keen in extracting information from you. It’s the method I apply to students who cannot understand a concept and do not understand that they cannot understand. I probe them until they themselves understand their mistakes and, in doing so, I have to pretend to agree with them, temporarily, that is. (Incidentally, I apply this method to myself too.) I was rather sure you would never understand that you cannot explain the things you dearly hold true, but I was nevertheless interested in seeing what logical loops and contradictions you would reach. I have nothing else to say and will not engage in any deep discussion with you (it is impossible!) but I, too, will use you as yet another example of a religious person who goes around trying to explain by reaching endless logical loops.

  21. @Takis,
    Suggestion: don’t go to his blog to have the conversation — he always wants to drag people to his blog. Well, but I guess it is better than dead-end conversations here with him.

  22. @Sabio:
    Thanks, I will not. I have been tempted to reply to him here, but I refrained from doing so as it is pointless. I found it strange that he asked me whether he can re-blog my comments. He’s been doing that, for several people, without permission anyway! (Not that he needs one…)

  23. @Takis Konstantopoulos :03/19/2014 at 10:42 am

    I also won’t argue with you here; Sabio Lantz won’t like it; unless you open a topic as previously requested by me at your blog.

    In-spite of all these things I take you and Sabio as friends.

    Thanks and regards

  24. @ paarsurrey,
    You never understood this post or responded to it properly. Then you came here asking people to visit your blog.
    Your blogging etiquette has several problems. I suggest consider improving your methods.

  25. @ Takis:
    Now, concerning your comment:

    (1) Over generalizing

    As you know, there are several problems there:

    (a) There are many sorts of Christianity, Islam, etc — all with different beliefs

    (b) Not all believers, hold their faith for similar reasons at all. Most believers aren’t doctrinal. Most believers don’t believe most of what they confess. Religion is far bigger than doctrine.

    (c) Even within many faiths there are aspect which are wholesome and good though there are major doctrines which are obviously wrong.

    But Takis, I think you agree with all the above and with my post but you just wanted to add more to this post, right?

    Or maybe, since you mentioned “Allah” so often in your comment, you just wanted to talk to Paarsurrey. 🙂
    Lookin’ for attention Takis? 😉

  26. @Sabio:
    (1) (a) Yes. But I partly addressed that…
    (b) Well, isn’t that related to the observation that religion is often unavoidable because of social circumstances? If someone is “born” in Saudi Arabia, he/she has virtually no choice. It doesn’t mean that they will believe what they say they believe, but they must act in this way. But if someone decided to become a Muslim (like the fine British gentleman of your previous posting) then this person does adopt all the silly dogmas that come along with the religion he chose.
    (c) I never said there isn’t anything good. And I tried to explain it. If *everything* was bad, then the religion wouldn’t have survived for centuries.

    Yes, I did want to add more to the posting. And, to be frank, I find blogging rather frustrating sometimes because I have to guess what you mean and you have to guess what I am trying to address. It’s not a real-time conversation where we can interrupt one another and clarify points as they appear. It’s not an exchange of formal letters or articles, because we don’t spend much time scrutinizing everything we write. It takes me a few minutes, and, within those few minutes I may say things I would have otherwise said in different form, I make grammatical and syntactical mistakes (not least because I move the cursor back and forth and–by the way–I don’t know how to type; I type with two fingers, the two index fingers, quite fast though).

    No, I didn’t try to provoke paarsurrey. I used `Allah’ as an example. Moreover, I recently had an exchange with a Muslim scientist who was of the kind I described above. Besides, I have the Quran on my mobile phone and was looking at it. (I used to have a hard copy, given to me gratis in a Mosque in Scotland, but threw it out at some point.)

    I’m not looking for attention, but I confess I enjoy paarsurrey’s comments (Schadenfreude). The same way I would enjoy those Jehova’s Witnesses come knock at my door and talk to me. I would invite them in for tea. (But, despite the fact that many people in my neighborhood get visited by them, they don’t come to me. They used to come when I lived in Edinburgh and I did enjoy it.)

    I’m writing too much today. I’ll stop. (Explanation: I work from home today because of the snowstorm.)

  27. @ Takis,
    Now there is a difference — I use to enjoy the JW coming to my door about 25 years ago!
    Now I avoid conversations I know will be a trite waste of time — if I remember.

    Snow! Oh yeah, you’re not in England or the USA this week. 🙂

  28. @Takis Konstantopoulos : 03/19/2014 at 3:56 pm
    “I don’t know how to type; I type with two fingers, the two index fingers, quite fast though.”


    I give you a link to learn correct typing. I think it is a good typing tutor.



  29. @paarsurrey:
    Thank you. I’m actually not interested in learning. I’ve been using computers since 1983 but never learned (and never wanted to learn) how to type. It’s better this way because I enjoy writing too. I use pens and fountain pens (with ink) to write. I write a lot. Dozens of pages per day. It helps me think. Typing in a “normal way” on the computer is not for me. I enjoy being a luddite. (Until someone, someday, finds a good way of inputting information in the computer I refuse to do what most people do. I find the current method extremely primitive.)

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