In Praise of Skeptics

A. EDWARD NEWTON has said that his bump of credulity is a depression. He never said anything more to his credit. Would that more men could advance a phrenological boast as praiseworthy! I say this in the full knowledge that a skeptic is usually regarded with suspicion and disapproval. The skeptic passes for a sour fellow, whose character is wizened and mean, and whose blood is largely bile. He is a misanthrope, a hater of his kind. At best, he possesses a fastidious mind, always pursuing delicate distinctions, withholding himself from the generous ardor of belief, and insisting upon barren and unattainable proofs for assumptions employed without thought by ordinary men in happily unconscious practice. The world distrusts and dislikes a skeptic, or at least that atrabilious and discouraging portrait which it accepts as the true visage of the doubter.

I venture to oppose this general opinion, and to incur whatever danger it may be

To differ from the kindly race of men.

I wish to represent the skeptic as the lover and benefactor of his fellows, not as a misanthrope, but as a philanthropist, as Socrates defines a philanthropist in Santayana’s exquisite Dialogues in Limbo. The philanthropist there pictured does not go about erecting colleges and hospitals, establishing foundations and endowments with funds that read like the calculations of astronomers or geologists. He is not photographed on his birthdays for the Sunday supplements of the newspapers, nor does he issue authoritative pronouncements on the aberrations of the stock market. Not what he does, but what he is, makes him of value. He is a lover of the ideal good of mankind, that good which, if it were rightly discerned, would be known for the true good.

From a thousand pulpits and rostrums goes forth the call for greater faith. It would be more moral and more salutary to ask for more widespread doubt. Tennyson wrote: —

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

The words are pleasantly liberal, but faith in doubt remains a paradox that could only be explained by other and further words. Perhaps the true emphasis falls on the word ‘honest,’ and the poet should have told us that there is more honesty in conscientious doubt than in most fervent adherence to creeds. A judge in North Carolina recently allowed testimony regarding the religious beliefs of a witness on the ground that she might be considered less likely to tell the truth if she did not believe in future reward and punishment. The integrity of the race certainly faces a gloomy prospect if it must depend upon this or upon any metaphysical doctrine. Integrity has its station in the immediate sphere of human character and action. It is at home there, or nowhere in the universe. One cannot doubt with any pains or penetration without a degree of intellectual responsibility of which most believers seem to feel themselves relieved. Forgiveness and salvation are always the promised rewards of the believer; there is balm in Gilead for a lie. A man who takes the trouble to doubt is inherently at least as apt to tell the truth upon his oath as a man who accepts the usual affirmations about the universe.

The world needs skeptics, not believers. Of the latter it has always had plenty, yet civilization has moved grandly from one wreck to another. Perhaps a great part of man’s inhumanity to man has been caused by doubt; but I am sure that a much greater part has been caused by faith. What we believe in we impose upon our neighbors; usually to their annoyance, and often to their serious hurt. What we doubt has a much better chance of remaining our own concern. A feeling that sometimes besets a conscientious teacher is the fear, not that his words may have been of no effect, but that he may actually have influenced some shy and susceptible pupil without knowing it. How can he be sure that his faith is adequate to the situations his charges will meet? Perhaps they will take him at his word, and find that the belief he innocently held up to them as enlightened and wise leads actually to disaster. We believe in a theology, and at once suspicion and hostility are visited upon men of a different persuasion. We believe in nationalism, and the world must pay the price in war. We believe in a moral code, and those who have amiably sinned or who are born to different virtues are sacrificed on the altar of our conviction.

Too many people believe in art, in stocks and bonds, in the newspapers, in education, in patent medicines, in free thought, in science, in astrology, in advertising, in the host of faiths that daily keep the world grinding on without regard for humane feeling, common sense, or the fellowship of minds set free from the heavy onus of solemn and thoughtless faith. I am not saying that no one should believe in these things, or that such beliefs are without foundation. I am saying that too many people believe, and too easily. It is a certain proportion for which I contend. It takes all kinds of people to make a world, and society would be poor indeed without examples of ardent and high-minded belief. It is always poor in this respect, as in all things excellent. Very few beliefs are ardent and highminded; fewer still are well thought out or honestly and candidly adopted. The great need of the present is for more examples of conscientious and courageous skepticism, lest the vulgar, selfish, pragmatic, and cowardly credulity of the greater part of the world produce more instances of oppression, cruelty, and ignorance triumphing over knowledge and wisdom.

If a list were drawn up of all the objects of men’s faith, it would include everything which can possibly invite belief, and a good many things that positively repel it. The standard of general belief is deplorably low and undiscriminating. If faith is such a privilege as the church represents it to be, one might expect the clergy to attempt to purge it of some of its grosser adulterations, and raise it to a more refined level. A want of candor and decent self-respect in the beliefs to which people even of high responsible station are continually inviting adherence would be evident to the most myopic eye that stopped to look for once without the distorting influence of preconception and stupid training. It would be evident to a child, and indeed usually is. But a child, having no experience to advance against his elders, and (more subtle danger) being endowed with a keen imitative sense of social values and distinctions, is reduced to the miserable lot of accepting adult misrepresentations as truth, so that experience, when it does come, is colored and determined in advance, and seems anything but what it actually is. It is much easier to learn from books or tribal tradition than from experience. Indeed these forces determine largely what experience is to be. The corruption of faith begins very early in life. The imaginative fables and pretenses to which a child naturally and innocently turns are discouraged as false in favor of the anything but disinterested metaphysics of the adult. Most adult beliefs could not possibly be taken seriously by anyone if the child’s elders did not soon begin enforcing the duty, supported by all the persuasions of reward and punishment, of being blind when it would be just as easy to see.

Perhaps now it will begin to be evident how the skeptic can be a philanthropist, a lover of the true good of mankind. In him the imposed machinery of belief, the system of enforced convictions received from society and education, have broken down. He has divinely escaped the tragic inoculation. Having the patience to doubt, he can also have the insight to see what mankind might have been if they had set out untrammeled to build themselves tentative beliefs, guided by imagination and tolerance. The beliefs that we hold loosely are generally preferable to those which we surround with the insulation of sacredness, or which we hold with unthinking vehemence. It is fanaticism, writes Santayana, to redouble your efforts when you have forgotten your aim. The skeptic does not so easily forget his aim. He spends his energy, not in laying about him with a flail on some behalf the reason for which he has lost in the heat of the fray, but in working wisely and patiently toward a goal which he strives ever more clearly to define. He holds himself, also, subject at all times to conviction of error. Forming his aims in this temper, he is more likely to select them wisely, to judge their adaptability to human change and development with better understanding, and to abandon them if they prove to have been misconceived, or if the mutations of the human lot leave them, like the saltencrusted ribs of wrecked vessels, on the waste sands beyond the edge of the living tide.

If we had more skeptics and fewer believers, it is fair to think that we should have peace for war, urbanity for intolerance, kindness for cruelty, — is not some belief or pretended belief usually the pretext for a cruel act? — and humor for fanaticism. Let us hope that many more bumps of credulity will be transformed into depressions. What a deal of pious frauds, cheatings, deceptions, angry inflammations, ignorant persistence in bad causes, all that may truly be called inhumane, will be done away with if that happy consummation comes to pass!