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Based on a recent discussion, the assertion was made that a skeptical viewpoint allows one to be more objective, even in matters of theology. Is this demonstrably true?

When evaluating Christian claims, one must use a certain epistemological framework. The question is, does a presumption of belief in the Scripture somehow negate one's ability to be "objective" and "dispassionate" about the claims it makes? In other words, does the presumption of truth so fatally bias the questioner as to make philosophical reasoning invalid.

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This sounds more like a question of philosophy or logic, than one of Christianity. –  Flimzy Feb 12 '12 at 5:40
    
## The question is too subjective ## I believe that there is no definitive answer to your question. This is very subjective. On the one hand: skeptics consider Christians to be blinded by faith and therefore unable to objectively view evidence. On the other hand: a strong argument could be made that skeptics are equally blinded by a predisposition against belief. I'm sure others could add to this, but it really just depends on your frame of reference. –  geoffmpm Feb 12 '12 at 5:53
    
The skeptic in me says "no", but the believer in me says all things are possible. –  David Stratton Feb 12 '12 at 6:43
    
I'm looking for an analysis of Christian epistemology, which can only be expressed as a contrast. –  Affable Geek Feb 12 '12 at 13:23
    
I think the current wording of this question actually would be a better fit on Skeptics, however I can understand your wanting to address the question at a Christian audience. In order for it to survive here however, you are going to have to edit it to specifically address a Christian audience, and maybe a particular doctrinal position. Keep in mind the several kinds of appologietics used by professing Christians and perhaps addrss your question at one of those, asking for their reasoning in this matter. –  Caleb Feb 13 '12 at 1:05
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closed as off topic by Mark Trapp, hammar, warren, David Laberge, Bruce Alderman Feb 13 '12 at 21:28

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5 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Definitions

Lets start with some definitions:

"Skepticism or Scepticism has many definitions, but generally refers to any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere."

Objectivity is a central philosophical concept which has been variously defined by sources. A proposition is generally considered to be objectively true when its truth conditions are met and are "mind-independent"—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.

Bias is an inclination to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of (possibly equally valid) alternatives.

Also worth noting is the difference between objectivity and bias:

Biased means a personal preference is expressed.

Objective means both or numerous sides are expressed without a preference being expressed.

And for "Christian viewpoint", one could refer to one of two positions (one more moderate and one more devoted):

Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Christian apologetics is a field of Christian theology that aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith, defend the faith against objections, and expose the perceived flaws of other world views.

So what is the main difference between a skeptic, and a Christian theist? A theist believes that God of the Bible and Jesus exist (therefore, it is a "fact" to them, nor a mere "possibility"), whereas a skeptic takes no assumption (is neither agnostic, saying that one can't know if God exists, nor atheist stating that there is no God, but is open to the possibility that God might or might not exist).

What is a difference between a Christian theist and a Christian apologetic? An apologetic defends the faith against objections, and exposes the perceived flaws of other views. An apologetic is therefore biased towards his or her system of belief.

Good or bad at answering questions

What makes an apologetic better for answering theological questions? Quite often they know a lot on the subject of the given religion they support, and can present numerous claims supporting their viewpoints. They are devoted to proving their point right, so they will not try to omit any evidence supporting their claim, no matter how insignificant. So in general, they can present all there is about a given subject from the point of view of what they are supporting.

What makes an apologetic worse for answering theological questions? As per definition, they defend their faith against objection, which can be accomplished by not presenting alternatives to their views, or by misrepresenting some facts in their favour (for example, Kitzmiller v. Dover and claiming ID is not a religious belief). Moreover, sometimes apologetics resort to using faulty logic to prove their point (for example, even if one can prove that evolution is wrong, that would not prove intelligent design, despite some people implying that).

What makes a theist better for answering theological questions? By definition they believe in something, so they have to know at least a bit about the subject. They can be devoted to giving answers about their faith and could enjoy talking about the subject. Depending on their world view they can be more open to alternatives than apologetics and admit that some believes are not based on facts.

What makes a theist worse for answering theological questions? Some might not consider alternatives to their beliefs, some might choose not to mention it, or would be uncomfortable talking about it (taboo)

What makes a skeptic better for answering theological questions? They hold nothing as fact until it is proven, so they can consider and present more alternatives to a given problem. This can provide an insight that could be omitted by a theist (for example, Polish Catholics idolize pope John Paul II, but would seldom acknowledge him being conservative on doctrine, sexuality and ordination of women). Generally, they are comfortable exploring both sides of an argument and reaching their conclusion from it.

What makes a skeptic worse for answering theological questions? Generally, being a skeptic says nothing about one's interest or knowledge, so the person in question might not have any knowledge on a given subject. Sometimes skepticism can be close to pyrrhonism ("nothing can be known"), or contemporary cynicism (lack of faith and hope in human race), therefore rendering the "answer" into an open-ended "debate" with oneself. Skeptics disparage in regards to values hold sacred by theists can be viewed by some as trolling, or attempts at personally attacking them.

Which view is biased?

By definition, apologetics are strongly biased. Theists can be biased, but have an easier time being objective. Skeptics by definition are not biased in favour of the thing they are skeptic about, but they can be biased against that thing.

Which views are useful?

All of them. If one is looking for answer to a theological question based on a specific doctrine ("What does the Bible say about..."), an apologetic and a theist can present an exhaustive answer on the subject, as they are interested in learning a lot about their faith and scripture. If one is looking for an answer to a question that bridge between religious and non-religious world view ("Is there scientific evidence for creationism?"), a theist and a skeptic can remain objective on the matter and present a balanced opinion. Each view should be applied where it is relevant.

TL;DR

Apologetics are strongly biased, theists can be biased in favour of religion, skeptics can be biased against something. All can give good answers, but most in their area of expertise.

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This type of apologetic reasoning "... even if one can prove that evolution is wrong, that would not prove intelligent design ..." has been addressed over and over again by Richard Dawkins. In his discussion with Bill O'Reilly, most of Dawkin's criticism can be brought down to the objection: "It is a remarkable piece of illogic to say because science can't fill a particular gap, therefore we have to turn to Christianity" –  Harmen Feb 12 '12 at 17:06
    
I'm actually giving this a +1. It is a well thought out answer. I'd like to keep this open to solicit more opinions, but it is well reasoned and sourced. –  Affable Geek Feb 13 '12 at 0:28
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This approach answers your question in a different way than ThePiachu's does. Your question was whether it is demonstrably true that a skeptical viewpoint allows one to be more objective. What I'm trying to do is to list examples in which this is the case.

  1. Until Darwin only religions provided an answer to the mystery of life, all in this form: the world is so incomprehensibly complex, it must have been created by God. Only a few skeptics, David Hume for instance, saw the fallacy of this argumentation: something which is exceptionally complex, does not necessarily has to have a designer*. However, until Darwin people couldn't imagine an alternative.

    Now take a look at what happened when Darwin finally published his book On the Origin of Species. Look what this alternate explanation triggered; I imagine it even boosted secularization. But why? While people who were so sacredly convinced of their old explanation got scared or even angry, skeptics stayed calm and tried to ask taboo question that had to be answered in the situation: "Does Genesis 1 give an explanation for the origin of life, like we used to think? Why are we so convinced that Genesis 1 explains everything? ..."

  2. [I might add another example later, or the community might try to help me]


*This is closely related to the is-ought problem of David Hume

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"Skeptical" can be seen as such a negative word (although, actually I think it is a healthy position to take in all things). However, what skepticism really means is that when presented with anything, all the possibilities/evidence should be considered, and the "which is most likely the truth" judged from there. No evidence should be given "special" merit; it should be judged by itself. This pretty much means that yes: the skeptic is trying to apply objectivity. There are, of course, some biased people who call themselves skeptics - taking an extreme example, conspiracy theorists.

Most religious people are pretty familiar with accepting doctrine/dogma, and the authority of the church. Giving special consideration to, say, the Bible is not an objective thing. There are, however, some fairly objective theists. Actually, the people interested enough in their religion to participate here on christianity.SE are above the norm here; I have spoken to an awful lot of different religious people over the years, and frankly a lot think about their religion an awful lot less than you do. I do not think it is unreasonable to say that a large part of the congregation simply does not put as much thought to it as some of the folks here do, so many are not applying objective thinking.

As a random example; you read in the paper someone talking about a memory from a wedding many years ago. Actually, not quite a memory: the author wasn't there - it was a friend of a friend of a friend at the wedding. Apparently, after the wine ran out, someone there "miraculously" turned water into wine. The objective thing is to consider various explanations that may reasonably account for this:

  • the story has grown in the re-telling
  • maybe it originally related to a confused drinks order (sent for water, came back with wine)
  • maybe they simply found some more wine under a table / in a cupboard
  • maybe the issue was the drinks budget had ran out, and they simply put a bit more money behind the bar
  • maybe there was a professional performer there, and the story got confused
  • maybe the story didn't even relate to that wedding/man, but was a re-telling of a far older story, with who-knows-what origins
  • maybe somebody in the chain simply wanted to show off, and invented the story
  • maybe somebody in the chain had problems that made either their memory or their lucidity unreliable - this is not uncommon
  • and did we mention they have a book to sell?
  • maybe the story was accidentally or deliberately misrepresented / invented by the newspaper
  • maybe it was intended as an April 1st story, or as a similar hoax (where people originally knew it was not real), but was subsequently picked up and reported by the paper / individual
  • the story could be deliberately invented simply to incite reaction from a particular audience
  • the story could be deliberately manipulated at some point to have parallels to other similar stories, to cast the target individual in a particular light
  • or maybe there was a miracle
  • and I should note: the character of the person at the head of this chain is not much help, since the author wasn't actually there

If reading this in the paper, most people would perform something like the above internally, without even thinking about it. But when applied to the marriage at Cana, the Christian is explicitly asked to take the view offered in the Bible as fact. This could be seen as any of "appeal to tradition", "appeal to majority" or "appeal to false authority".

Since it is unlikely that any new evidence on this story will ever come to light, all we have is John 2:1-11. It is not objective to simply accept this account by indirect testimony (IIRC Hume has a good view on testimony of miracles). The same applies to most of the Bible (or any other text); there is insufficient quality evidence to form a proper objective opinion, so yes: if, in the void of evidence, we accept the most unlikely position (miracle) in favor of any of the very possible mundane explanations, we are not being objective. Conversely, if we refuse to take that position, we are being skeptical.

But to repeat: there are Christians who try to be objective, as far as is possible without strong direct evidence, and I can respect that. And there are some lousy skeptics :p

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I think the answer comes down to what you're going to trust and what is objective truth? There are a few options:

  1. Skeptical Viewpoint: This would be where you trust yourself more than anyone else when you examine truth.
  2. Biblical viewpoint: This would be where you trust the Bible above yourself or others when you examine truth.
  3. Dogmatic viewpoint: This is when you trust other's interpretation of the Bible more than you trust your own, and you're unwilling to do more research to verify their viewpoint. (I'm not going to address this one much. It doesn't seem too applicable to the question.)

The question is: which truth is objective? Self-interpreted truth, Biblical truth, or dogmatic truth?

Ultimately, something is only objective insofar as it clearly understands actual truth, so if the Bible is the true inerrant word of God, and God created all things, then a Biblical viewpoint must be the objective one, because true reality is determined by what God says about it. If the Bible is not, then we have the option of either trusting our own truth, or trusting someone else's understanding of the world in order to gain true objectivity.

That being said, I do believe that some of our greatest theologians have come from skeptical backgrounds: CS Lewis and Francis Schaeffer come to mind immediately. I don't agree with all that they say, but I do think it's relatively clear that their approach to scripture did lead to a more well-thought out understanding of theology, especially as it met with the true objective truth of the Bible.

Either way you go, I think there's a bit of a balance. Skepticism can lead to doubt, and that doubt can either push you away or lead you to seek to understand more. Some people don't have that ache to understand and some people do, and I think God accepts both kinds on the basis of the Cross. I think God uses those people in different ways as well. Those who are more skeptical tend to be able to exposit the "meat" of scripture better, and tend to be able to explain their viewpoint better. There has to, at some point though, be a balance between skepticism and learning. If the skeptic is always skeptical but never learning, he will never understand anything, however, if a person is always believing information, but never questioning it, he will likely be led astray in one direction or another, and he'll be swayed by the belief-du-jour. So I think it comes to this: to gain objectivity, one must determine what the measuring stick is: if it is self, then the measuring stick is changeable and malleable, like a rubber ruler. If it's God and his Word, then it is unchanging and eternal, able to be used to measure and understand not only the world, but God himself.

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A Viewpoint is a binary thing - one must have a certain epistemological construct in order to make sense of anything. Without a framework, one is no better than a beast, unable to comprehend or make meaning out of information. The question is thus not, "Are you biased?" but "How?"

Because there is no transcendent place from which to compare viewpoints, the question of "objectivity" is actually fairly moot. There is no transcendent place from which to compare viewpoints - one must always have a viewpoint, and thus cannot step outside. It is like using light to describe color - every visible wavelength of light has a color. If one's eye is optimized for red, one cannot comprehend blue. If as many wish to claim "all truth is equally valid" then the one who believes that is trapped.

Neither the Christian nor the skeptic fall into that trap however. Each takes a stand - both suggest there is a transcendent truth. The only question is, how do they evaluate the evidence they have at hand.

My understanding of a "skeptical" viewpoint is that the presumption is all claims made by Scripture are false until proven true. A Christian viewpoint presumes Scripture is true until proven false.

The skeptic then goes on to apply traditional "scientific method" to evaluate the claim - make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze the result.

The "Christian" viewpoint, however, does not believe that God is a machine - but rather a person. People are not necessarily reproducible.

If we were talking history, for example, the skeptical viewpoint is basically absurd, because one does not attempt to reproduce a George Washington or Atilla the Hun in order to evaluate a claim. Instead, one gathers evidence about their deeds and then merely seeks to interpret.

One of the single most important claims of Scripture about itself is that it is revelation from God - i.e. outside the realm of reproduciblity. The "Skeptical" viewpoint on the French Revolution is no more useful than that of an "Economic" or "Historical" or even Deterministic viewpoint. In like manner, a "Skeptical" viewpoint has no more insight to whether or not Revelation occurred than a theological one.

The Skeptic, however, then stops at this first question. Unable to resolve whether or not God said this, he is unable to work with what God said, as if God had said it.

It is a postulate that God saying a thing is profoundly different than man saying it. A "Christian" viewpoint can use this postulate, a skeptical one cannot.

An "objective" Christian viewpoint, less concerned with reproducability, is thus able to concentrate more on applicability. In other words, it operates at a higher level. Like any programmer will tell you, a higher level language isn't necessarily better - they just hide abstractions and allow the focus to be on different tasks.

A "skeptical" viewpoint is thus, in my estimation, so focused on first questions that it loses its ability to solve more practical questions. As such, its "objectivity" is thus bogged down in matters of less importance, and hence less capable of dealing with the implications of the matter.

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Sorry, why the downvotes? –  Affable Geek Feb 13 '12 at 14:48
    
Great to see you tried to answer the question yourself. Let me, as both a christian and skeptic, motivate my down vote. Firstly, I agree with your claim that "both [skeptics and christian non-skeptics] suggest there is a transcendent truth". Of course they do, otherwise they could not communicate. But you don't say what this means; and what it means, is by example: both sides agree there is an answer to the question 'Does God exists?' yet the skeptic way of reasoning leaves you saying "I'm curious, but I don't know", yet the christian non-skeptic answer is positively: "Of course there is!" –  Harmen Feb 13 '12 at 14:55
    
I ran out of space, but I'm not done yet –  Harmen Feb 13 '12 at 14:55
    
Secondly, 'The skeptic then goes on to apply traditional "scientific method" to evaluate the claim - make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze the result.' would be an absurd way of reasoning, as there is not the slightest possibility to test the existence of a meta-physical entity. This is absolutely not (!) the skeptical way of tackling a problem. The skeptic, however, can postulate the existence of such and entity, and see if it leads to paradoxes, or what so ever. Assuming that something exists may lead to very insightful perspectives –  Harmen Feb 13 '12 at 15:01
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So, to conclude, a skeptic admits he doesn't know the answer to the first questions, but that doesn't hold him back to participate in discussions about christian morality, for instance. –  Harmen Feb 13 '12 at 15:16
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