“We should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics.”*
I came across the quote above in Michael Shermer’s article remembering Paul Kurtz, one of the founders of the modern US skeptical movement (see “Paul Kurtz & the Virtue of Skepticism”). It struck a chord - I have been thinking about this for a while. It strikes me that self-declared sceptics can sometimes be far from sceptical in the own beliefs and declarations.
No, I am not adopting the position of some of the targets of scepticism. I am not saying “sceptics’ are biased or arrogant because they criticise superstition, pseudoscience and religion. Nor that their ridicule of religious and superstitious ideas is somehow unwarranted. Within reason, ridicule is sometimes the most effective form of criticism. No way am I defending superstition and religion.
No, the arrogance I refer to is the claim that we are on the side of reason, simply by declaring that we are on the side of reason. To a limited extent I agree with the religious critics of the Reason Rally held a few months back in Washington, DC. At the time I did raise my concern about how ideological groups co-opt words for their own purposes (see Co-opting “Truth”). Perhaps the atheist rally was slightly disingenuous to label itself the Reason Rally, as a contrast to faith. But how much more disingenuous was the religious response when it launched a small group called “True Reason.”
A sort of ideological poker game: “see your reason and up you with Truth (with a capital T).” Well, what did we expect?
Rational or rationalising?
I have a thing about this word “reason” because if modern psychology and cognitive science tells us anything it is that we are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. Often (very often) our reasoning is motivated. We are justifying actions or attitudes which may be more driven by emotion and feeling than by logic and reasoning.
n most days, when she arrives at the Planned Parenthood clinic she directs in Washington, D.C., Dr. Laura Meyers passes through a wall of Operation Rescue protesters. Because the District has no “access zone” protections in place, anti-abortion protesters on Washington’s 16th Street—sometimes as many as 60 people—can and do follow Dr. Meyers along the sidewalk and all the way to the clinic’s front door. Yet in the nine years that she has worked for Planned Parenthood, Meyers has come to understand this daily dose of the American abortion debate playing out at the clinic’s entrance as part of a healthy democracy. “As an American, I support their right to free speech,” she explains.
On religious grounds, however, Meyers has less patience for Operation Rescue’s activities. “As a Christian, it’s frustrating,” she tells me over the phone. Coming of age in a “very devout” Roman Catholic family amidst the Vatican II shifts of the late 1960s, she was deeply informed by the church’s social justice tradition and her “responsibility to live out Jesus’ mandate to care for others.” Yet she says she left the Catholic tradition as “divisive issues such as contraception and abortion and gay relationships took the front burner, rather than caring for others.” As an adult, she became involved in the United Methodist Church, teaching Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, singing in the choir, and serving as president of her church’s United Methodist Women chapter. Her focus, she says, has always been on social justice—looked at from a very broad lens.
To Meyers, the protesters’ Christian tirades against abortion aren’t very Christian at all. “Jesus never talked about abortion,” she says. “But he talked a lot about love. When I look outside my window and see people screaming at women, the lack of compassion is stunning … Sometimes I want to say to them: ‘Go work in a soup kitchen and do something actually useful!’”
On the other hand, Meyers does see the work of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) as very much in line with Jesus’ admonition for compassion, especially for poor children and poor families. “PPFA is 90 percent preventative and education,” she says. “If you care about families and children, your commitment has to be making sure that the men and women who are havin