Can you be a Christian and a skeptic?

by Per Johan Råsmark

It is hard to know where to start to tell the story about how one became a skeptic especially if one cannot pin point an exact life changing moment. It is even more difficult if one wants to explain how one can be a skeptic and at the same time a Christian.

Actually it should not be necessary to explain how it is possible to believe in a God and still be a skeptic, my point of view is that the two things do not overlap; but I have met so many who do not share this point of view, skeptics as well as believers, that I feel it is necessary.

In a way I am thankful that I have met so many interesting people who have a different view than I have in these matters. If ones ideas are never challenged one never has to think about them and try to find out why one have certain ideas.

The truly scientific reader would now say that it is wrong to try to find reason for ones beliefs instead one should build the theory on the evidence at hand. But that is not the way things work. A vast majority of people, if not all, have ideas about how the world is, which they acquired at some point without giving it much thought. Probably they are not prepared to give their lives for these ideas but they still have them until convinced that they are wrong. If the idea is never challenged they will never give it much thought.

In the beginning of my life journey, as a child, I did not give much thought to my skeptical ideas. Or perhaps they were quasi-skeptical ideas. When I was afraid of the dark I was told that there were no ghosts, and I believed it some of the time. When I read about UFOs or the Bermuda triangle it was clear that the stories were dubious, though still interesting. I was told that astrology did not work by a green tortoise in my favourite cartoon and I regarded him as an authority.

The reason I call these ideas quasi-skeptical is because I had the belief that there are no ghost, no Bermuda triangle, no UFO abductions, no results in astrology simply because I was told so. Today I realise that I am most fortunate having learned these things so early in life and I pity those children who grow up with adults teaching them the existence of ghost and other unproven ideas.

The fact is that the existence of ghost, the Bermuda triangle, UFO abductions, and astrology are unproven ideas. From a truly skeptical point of view it is wrong to say that they are false ideas, they are unproven. It is up to the claimant to prove if something is true and since it is almost impossible to prove a negative (that something does not exist) few would if they were careful say that there are no ghosts. Instead a careful skeptic would say that there is nothing that proves the existence of ghosts.

Still in reality away from careful philosophical debate the skeptical point of view is that there are no ghosts. By the same reasoning many skeptics come to the conclusion that what is not proven does not exist. But for me that is where they transcend the line and cease being skeptics.

String theory is not proven but it would be stupid to say that there cannot exist any superstrings because the theory is unproven. If there are any superstrings is determined by if they exist not by if the theory is proven or not. At least this is true if the physical world is as it is regardless of our ideas of the world.

There is not just a thin line between the ideas a skeptic would label ‘unproven’ and the ones with the label ‘false’ the line is drawn differently for every skeptic. Therefore it is important to distinguish between the skeptical beliefs one can have and the skeptical position regarding phenomenon. The former being ideas like ‘there are no ghosts’ and the later being the more philosophical standpoint ‘the existence of ghosts is not proven’. Of this important distinction I was happily unaware as I grew up.

Although I probably asked my parents many questions about religion I do not remember being very puzzled by the mysteries of the Christian faith. As with my other beliefs I regarded it as true for a certain value of truth without giving it much thought. Or perhaps more correctly I accepted the stories without giving much thought to if they were true or not.

Far from all Christians are fundamentalists who believe every written word in the Bible and the congregation I grew up in probably less than most. Great miracles like the parting of the Red Sea were presented more or less as mythology. At home I learned about Greek and Nordic mythology as well, which also were good stories and perfect for comparison. The New Testament was taken a bit more serious but the curing of the sick and walking on water was not called upon as evidence of the truth in the Christian faith. Prayer was important but never specific; not the “cure this person in three days” but the “help and support this sick person”. The wine and bread never turned into something different during communion and any creationist would certainly not feel at home.

Even more important than the non-fundamentalist view on Christian mythology was the non-fundamentalist view on truth. There were no set of beliefs except the most basic one (the belief in Jesus Christ) that everyone had to hold, and even the belief in Christ could be very different. Since what was “true” was not written in stone it was easy to be very open to other peoples beliefs both Christian and other religions. It is not possible to agree with all religions but that is not necessary in order to respect different religious beliefs. If one is free from the prejudgment that ones own beliefs are true one will not be offended by others having different beliefs.

All this together led to quite a complicated view of the world. I do not think it is possible to have a simple view of the world without missing important parts but the question why I held some beliefs as true and others as false kept coming up. Why was it that I thought that people who believed in astrology or ghosts were wrong and why did I think equally strange ideas like believing in a God was not? Why did I believe that the virgin birth was true and the different conceptions caused by Zeus were not?

The last question was easy to answer since the Immaculate Conception was one of those mythological things in Christianity I did not care much about. So I simple did not believe any more in the story about the conception of Christ than in the story about the conception of Hercules. The difference being that I still believed that God and Jesus exist and that Zeus and Hercules do not exist.

But why did I think that believing in astrology was wrong while believing in a God was not? If it was a question about different gods I had already come to the conclusion that it was a matter of faith (and taste) which one chose to believe in or if to believe that there are no gods at all. The difference could not be that the ideas were unproven because both the existence of gods and the concept of astrology were unproven. Instead the difference is the possibility to test the claims of astrology and religion.

In the concept of astrology lies that it should be able to tell us something about the future and that must mean that it is possible to test if it works. So astrology is unproven and possible to test. Different religions also make statements about the future, but many religions are more and more careful with their promised miracles. Stories like Jesus rising from the dead is not testable because it happened 2000-years ago. It would be impressive if it could be proven but as things are it is impossible to test the claim. Religions, at least my religious beliefs, were thus unproven and impossible to test.

I thought I had it all figured out rather well. It did limit my possibilities to preach the Christian faith since it would be strange to say that people should believe one thing instead of another on no grounds what so ever; but I was mostly pleased with my view of things. Then I was confronted with the ethical arguments and Occam’s razor. Some argue that religion is something dangerous and bad because of historical events like the crusades and other religious wars. Indeed many monstrosities have been done in the name of religion. What many forget is that also good things have been done. If religion has been mostly good or mostly bad for humanity is probably not possible to find out in any definite way. I was content with my view that it was not religion that was the problem but people and I gladly accepted full responsibility of all the things I did during the second crusade. So the ethical argument was not much of a problem.

If something is not testable and not really needed for the understanding of a problem what is the use of it? The full significance of Occam’s razor hit me not much more than a year ago. As a scientist I could never use an entity as God to explain any of my results and I do not want to. To part my religious beliefs from the false beliefs in astrology or ghosts I had disconnected my beliefs from the physical world where things could be measured and tested. I have always seen myself as a rational person but suddenly I understood that I could not be rational and believe in something I could not test. I decided to believe in God and to be irrational in this aspect.

Fortunately it is not such a bad thing to be irrational, it all depends on what one is irrational about. The difference between believing in God or that there is life somewhere in space is that perhaps we may someday prove the later. The difference between believing in God or in astrology is that the latter should have been proven a long time ago if it worked. As things are at the moment I am quite happy being irrational in my belief in God and being skeptical about what is testable but who knows if that will change, I just have to wait and see.