Closet Skeptic

Brace yourselves. This is going to be a rant.

I am a skeptic, always have been, always will be. Blind faith is just not in my makeup. I was raised this way by a science-trained father who was a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination--the branch of Christianity that originated with theologians calling bullshit on Catholic dogma--and a New England Yankee mother who believed no gift came without strings attached. I did have a few gullible years in my teens, as most people do, but I quickly outgrew that phase, returning to my default mode of never taking anything at face value or valuing the authority of any source over the content of its argument. At times, this made me a troublesome candidate for ordination, an often disturbing presence in the pulpit, and a frequent burr in the saddle of employers.

I say "at times" because, for the most part, I have kept my skeptical opinions to myself. I learned in college that challenging an idea that is believed on faith, rather than from evidence, is a recipe for endless argumentation that will ultimately boil down to a "because I say so" reaction. There's no getting around blind faith, no matter how logical and/or eloquent a skeptic's points may be. So I've kept mostly mum about the jaundiced eye I cast toward claims made about fad diets, snake oil products, quack theology, and conspiracy theories. (And by "mostly mum," I must admit I rant more than I should in the presence of Amy, who has been mostly tolerant. Mostly.)

But not on this. There's a new "gotcha" zooming around the internet that claims the Centers for Disease Control suppressed a study that proves vaccinations cause autism. Slate magazine's Phil Plait dissects and counters the whole thing far better than I can, so I'll let you click on this hypertext to see what he has to say about it. This is a conspiracy theory that hits home for me because there are people I care about who've bought into it. My political and theological leanings have led me to associate, over the years, with people who are to the left of the mainstream; and while I usually find much to agree with them about, and share their skepticism toward Big Pharma (and, really, anything that bears the imprimatur of corporate America), this idea is just plain wrong. That's not all: clinging to the belief that vaccines cause autism, and acting on it by withholding those vaccines from one's children, puts them both at risk of contracting diseases that had been nearly eliminated prior to the promulgation of the theory, and of turning them into carriers who may infect others.

It's tempting to go on here about other health fads that cause me to roll my eyes in despair at the stuff people will swallow: diets, cleanses, supplements, minimalist shoes (I actually fell for that one, to the near ruin of my feet). It's not hard for me to understand why they swallow (literally, in some cases) such things: we want simple answers to our concerns about our own and our loved ones' well-being. We want our children to be intelligent and gregarious, want our stomachs to be trim, want our elimination cycle to be regular. We want to feel alert and energetic when we're up, and to sleep well when we're down. We want to be happy, contented, productive.

As much as we want all these things, having them all, all the time, is rare. The world we live in is a chaotic place. We do encounter pathogens and toxins, both natural and artificial, and they have impacts on our health. Environmental factors can lead us to be depressed, anxious, tense. Our children's development is influenced by many things beyond our control, and those that we could control we don't always know about until it's too late. Wanting the best for our loved ones and ourselves, we go on quests to identify risk factors. Sometimes this has merit--clean air and water really do matter to our health--but sometimes it leads us down blind alleys. No one wants all the effort put into a theory to go to waste, so while debunking may help some make the transition back to common sense, there will always be those who refuse to believe the better research, and will jump at any new study that appears to contradict it.

Remember this?

This, of course, is the poster that hung in Fox Mulder's office for most of the nine seasons of The X-Files. Mulder was steadfast in his belief that extraterrestrials were not just visiting, but invading Earth, and that there was an international conspiracy to cover up the invasion. The mythology of the show went to great lengths spelling out all the twists and turns of the conspiracy, and ultimately imploded under the weight of its own silliness, but there were some wonderfully paranoid episodes along the way.

What Mulder discovered about himself, with the help of his skeptical partner, Dana Scully, was that wanting to believe something, however passionate that want may be, does not make it true. Because the show was a fantasy in which UFOs actually existed, his blind faith could be set aside in favor of hard evidence. The words of the poster, in fact, demonstrate that Mulder, himself, was skeptical to the core. Believing in alien invasion would explain much that had happened to his family in ways that were actually less disturbing than what ultimately proved to be the case: his own father using them as part of an experiment.

For fifteen years, I wanted to believe that what I was being told about United Methodism was true: that it was a safe haven for rational Christians, that Christian conferencing (what the rest of the world calls "having a meeting") could serve a sacramental function, that Bishops and Superintendents made all decisions about pastoral appointments prayerfully and with the best interests of all concerned in the forefront. I wanted to believe it, but everything I experienced told me otherwise, told me that, like any other human institution, Methodism was fundamentally flawed, corrupt, and too much in love with its own dogma.

Those who believe in conspiracies are holding to dogma. Confronting them with reality, whether it is a Barack Obama's birth certificate or a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed research demonstrating no link between vaccines and autism, may lead them to set aside that which they've so assiduously clung to; but I'm skeptical of the efficacy of such a tactic. In my experience, it's more likely to drive them deeper into denial, to make them even more desperate to find a smoking gun they can point to. They believe, and they want to go on believing, just as long as it is humanly possible for them to do.

As for me, there are times when I think it would be lovely to believe in something, but I know better. So I will go on questioning rather than believing--though for all the reasons I've outlined, I'll keep doing it, mostly, in the closet.


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