Saturday, September 26

Thoughtful Thursday: A Skeptic’s Christmas


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

Christmas is supposed to be a very bad time for non-believers.  At least, for non-believers in a Christian culture.  (Non-Christian religious believers always have the option of standing with Christians in a spirit of ecumenical solidarity.) To the Christian population, or so the stereotype goes, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Ethical Culture-ists -- and people like me:  skeptics -- must celebrate only by becoming perhaps mildly intoxicated on eggnog, singing something innocuously secular like “Jingle Bells”, and lamenting – secretly, most often – that, for the Season, we are “all dressed up with no place to go”, as the funeral director is supposed to have once said of his dead atheist client. By no means is the stereotype altogether false. For a number of years after leaving Christianity, I reacted pretty much according to the stereotype:  avoiding encounters with Christmas when I could, distracting myself with work when I couldn’t, and even going to church on occasion without, for all that, actually singing the hymns.  But somehow, gradually over the years, the reality of Christmas – Christmas for skeptics – dawned on me.  The process by which this happened takes some telling.

Infographic: Steven Barnes at Glogster

What better place to begin the telling than with the Bubonic Plague?

Geraldine Brooks has written a harrowing novel, Year of Wonders, about the small village of Eyam (pronounced “eem”) in rural England during the Plague years of 1666 and 1667 that reveals a lot about skepticism, what it is and isn’t, and how to practice it even when you think you aren’t doing so. The novel never mentions Christmas, but it allows us to infer a lot about how skeptics can celebrate it.  The novel opens with the first Plague victim, a young itinerant tailor, who has rented a room in the croft of a young widow, Anna Frith, whose husband was killed in a mining accyearofwondersident.  When the tailor becomes the first in the village to succumb to the Plague – we may infer from a shipment of contaminated cloth – the village, led by the Anglican rector, Michael Mompellion, and his wife, Elinor, decides to quarantine itself in order to confine the Plague.  At first, the villagers’ reaction to the quarantine and to additional Plague deaths tracks unerringly with Christian orthodoxy:  “God is testing us”; “God is punishing us for our sins”’; “God is sending the trial of the Plague to strengthen us”; “it’s all very mysterious and we just have to trust God”, etc., etc.  But as time drags on and the body count mounts up, the reactions of the villagers become increasingly desperate, increasingly heterodox, increasingly bizarre, including incidents of flagellism and other forms of hyper-masochistic penitence.

But along with such instances of florid spirituality, there are isolated flashes of rationality and intellectual audacity.  One such occurs to Anna Frith herself along toward the end of the novel.  Anna has been helping a friend sanitize her kitchen when, upon leaving the friend’s house, she stumbles and scrapes her hand on a paving stone.  Then in the first-person narrative there occurs the following passage that is all the more remarkable for originating in the mind of a woman in mid-17th-century England:

As I walked away from the croft, I caught my toe on a loose stone and stumbled, grazing the hand that I flung out to break my fall.  My anger magnified this small hurt and I cursed. As I sucked at the injured place, a question began to press upon me.  Why, I wondered, did we, all of us, both the rector in his pulpit and simple Lottie in her croft, seek to put the Plague in unseen hands?  Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world?  One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition.  But perhaps each was false, equally.  Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe.

Design by Chris Murphy

So, although she does not realize it, Anna Frith has learned one of the first lessons of what it means to be a skeptic:  apply Occam’s Razor with remorseless and thoroughgoing ruthlessness.  Of course, complying with this principle requires that one have a working knowledge of the simpler and “cleaner” alternatives.  One cannot reject the ornate geocentric model of the solar system if one is not aware of the much simpler heliocentric model. Likewise, Anna does not know what the alternatives to theological and “magical” explanations for the Plague are.  She does not know – in the middle 1600s, no one knew – that disease could be explained and accounted for – and ultimately treated – much more effectively by renouncing religious and “magical” thinking in favor of much more incisive and simpler principles involving the germ theory of disease, biochemistry, immunology, genetics, etc., etc.  But at least Anna is on the right track:  indeed, “the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature”.  The problem at that juncture is that Anna does not know any more than anyone else at that point in history what specifically that tertium quid, that third alternative, was:  if not God, if not the Devil, then … then … then what?

This line of reasoning leads us to the second principle of skeptical practice:  always question, always seek to cultivate an indomitable and omnivorous curiosity.  If anyone in government, the Church, in academia, etc., tells you that something -- anything -- must not be questioned, they only succeed in giving you conclusive proof that they have, or someone has, something to hide.  Discovering that third alternative – thinking “outside the box” – is impossible apart from being curious.  In the novel, Anna Frith and Elinor Mompellion – the latter is the wife of the village’s Anglican rector – take over the care and cultivation of the herb garden previously tended by Anys Gowdie. In pre-Plague days, Anys was the revered village herbalist who concocted surprisingly effective remedies from the plants she cultivated and tended – which activity ultimately resulted in Anys being accused of, and executed for, witchcraft when the village’s fear of the Plague degenerated into literal witch-hunting.  But, like Anys and her mother, Anna and Elinor brave the depredations of superstition and maintain their curiosity about which herbs in the Gowdies’ garden might possibly be effective, at least as palliatives, against the Plague. Anys and her mother learned, and Anna and Elinor come perilously close to learning, a lesson universal to all skeptics:  curiosity can get you persecuted, punished, and in extreme cases even killed, and is more likely to do so, the more persistent your curiosity is.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Giordano Bruno.  For any skeptic, asking questions can be worth your job, your reputation, your credit rating, your security clearance -- sometimes even your life.

Much to her credit, however, Anna continues to question.  She does not shy away from where her logic leads her.  Having begun a certain line of reasoning by asking if the Plague could be accounted for and dealt with, not as a visitation from God or the Devil, but as a natural phenomenon, Anna continues to follow the implications of this train of thought:

I walked on, nursing my injured hand and probing my heart on these matters. Did I really believe that God put the rock in my path to trip me?  Some would say certainly:  the finger of God places every speck of dust.  I did not see it so.  Yet I would have inclined to believe God’s hand at work if, as a result of the rock, I’d struck my head and lay now fatally injured. So where, exactly, in the design of the world, did I believe that matters tilted the scale suf ficient to garner God’s notice?  If I did not think He cared for the lie of a rock, why should I believe that He cared for a small life such as mine?

Even the greatest intellects can sometimes shy away from the implications of their own reasoning.  Albert Einstein’s equations of general relativity implied that the universe must be expanding, and did so in purely analytical terms with no reference to empirical data.  In the original version of Einstein's field equations, the expansion of the universe simply "falls out" of the math. One does not even have to look outside one's window, much less through a telescope.  Einstein found this implication of an expanding universe aesthetically repugnant, preferring instead a “steady state” universe that neither expanded nor contracted, and so inserted into his equations, as a purely ad hoc modification, a term, a “cosmological constant”, that balanced out and perfectly compensated for the universal expansion. But roughly ten years after general relativity was published, Edwin P. Hubble observed that light from distant galaxies was shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, that that degree of "redshift" was proportional to the distance to the observed galaxy as measured by independent means, and thus inferred the very conclusion that Einstein rejected:  the universe is expanding.  Had Einstein followed his own equations to their inevitable conclusion, he could have predicted the expansion, inferred the Big Bang – and in all likelihood won a second Nobel Prize to add to the one he was awarded for his work on the photoelectric effect.  To the end of his life, Einstein lamented what he called “the greatest blunder of my life”.TheFieldEquation

(Einstein's realization must have been all the more bitter when Einstein recalled his encounter with the Belgian physicist and Catholic priest Fr. Georges LeMaitre, who had published a cosmology that did follow Einstein's field equations to their logical conclusion and inferred an expanding universe.  At that meeting, Einstein told Fr. LeMaitre that, in his [Einstein's] opinion, "Your mathematics is correct, but your physics is absurd".)

keep-calm-and-have-the-courage-of-your-convictionsThough she was probably not aware of it – remember:  we are in Anna’s world of the middle 17th century -- Anna Frith’s questions about the limits of causality impinge on some of the deepest questions ranging all the way from theology to thermodynamics to quantum physics, especially the question in the middle about “where … in the design of the world … matters tilted the scale sufficient to garner God’s notice”.  Anna’s courage in following her reasoning, and Einstein’s reluctance to follow his, illustrate from opposite sides another aspect of principled skepticism:  skeptics are courageous enough to follow the train of their reasoning wherever it leads.  In terms that Anna’s world would have understood, she is asking at what point – if any – do we shy away from a strict, ironclad Calvinism, not only about theology but about “life, the universe, and everything”.

But in a strange way, skeptics are also incorrigibly practical and even, in a sense, prosaic and "earth-bound".  I say "in a strange way", but when you reflect on their deference toward Occam's Razor, this practical streak in the skeptical habit of mind is much easier to understand.  Skeptics are not averse to intellectual flights of fancy, but skeptics exemplify Nietzsche's admonition to "remain loyal to the earth".  Skeptical habits of mind quite often do go "up", but always insist on coming "down".  The "horizontal" is never sacrificed on the altar of the "vertical".  So, nascent skeptic that she is, Anna Frith returns from her rarefied metaphysical / religious speculations to the prosaic, temporal, as-actually-lived-and-perceived, immanent reality.

It came to me then that we, all of us, spend a very great deal of time pondering questions that, in the end, we could not answer.  If we balanced the time we spent contemplating God, and why He afflicted us, with more thought as to how the Plague spread and poisoned our blood, then we might come nearer to saving our lives.  While these thoughts were vexing, they brought with them also a chink of light.  For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate.

Berndnaut Smilde Cumulus II 2012
Berndnaut Smilde: Nimbus II
Fleeting Experiences of God

Perhaps this is a good time to pause and dispel a misconception about skepticism:  that skeptics are not susceptible to any kind of religious impulse or any sensitivity toward the holy.  If one defines the terms "religious" and "holy" in exclusively "god-centric" terms, then that is often a sound conclusion.  But as Rudolf Otto said in his by-now-classic The Idea of the Holy, virtually everyone, irrespective of one's belief in a god or lack thereof, is susceptible to the sense of the mystery and ineffable depth of life -- what Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (literally, "the tremble-making and seductive mystery").  It is always dangerous to generalize about others' spirituality.  But I am acquainted with a pretty sizable community of skeptics -- many agnostics, some outright atheists, some adherents of non-god-centered faith traditions (my entire in-law family are Buddhist), etc. -- and I find that skeptics are no less open to this experience of mysterium than others.  They are just much less likely than followers of "god-centric" traditions to attribute this experience of mystery to anything that might reasonably be called a "personal god".

Consequently, skepticism tends to refer the experience of the holy to "horizontal" circumstances, and to locate transcendence within immanence -- not "beyond", not "above", not even in "addition to", but simply within. Albert Einstein was an atheist.  (Conservative evangelical Christians have often tried to dragoon Einstein into being a "closet Christian" by taking literally his purely metaphorical references to God. What Einstein actually meant when he used the word "God" might be paraphrased as something like "the elegant and sublime architecture of natural law".)  But Einstein was familiar with this experience of the Transcendent within the Immanent.  Consider this often-celebrated quote from his essay "The World as I See It":

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of all true art and science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder,no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery - even if mixed with fear - that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity;  in this sense, and, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

In fact, faithful to the principle of Occam's Razor, one of the things skepticism is most skeptical about is that very distinction between immanence and transcendence. Consequently, while skeptics are no less susceptible -- one might even say "vulnerable" -- than other people to Otto's experience of the holy, in general they are impatient with anything that claims to take precedence over or to supersede human reality.  Quite arguably, Anna Frith is in the process of gestating this belief when she says with some asperity "If we balanced the time we spent contemplating God, and why He afflicted us, with more thought as to how the Plague spread and poisoned our blood, then we might come nearer to saving our lives."

Family on the Pune train platform Eric Parker Creative Commons License 2.0
Family on the Pune train platform
Eric Parker
Creative Commons License 2.0

So, while skeptics may, quite properly, be respectful of others' reverence for the Holy Family at Christmas, they also insist that all families are holy; that the mystery of the poor Christ being born in a manger is equaled, on a human level, by poor children everywhere being born in circumstances sometimes even more deprived; that the wonder the Shepherds felt in the presence of the Baby Jesus should be the rule, not the exception, when we contemplate the birth of anyone's baby. Whatever their religious beliefs otherwise, principled skepticism, skepticism lived with integrity, insists that the Manger is wherever any child sleeps, that the Holy Family is anyone's family, and that Christmas is always now.

Holy Family by "Waiting for the Word" Creative Commons License 2.0
Holy Family
by "Waiting for the Word"
Creative Commons License 2.0

All in all, this is leading up to the point of pondering, what can we do in 2014 to make Christmas a reality in our everyday life? What one word would you offer that let's you focus on holy mystery in your daily experience? Take a moment and complete this sentence:

My word for thoughtfulness in 2014 is ____________________.

We will be asking for a word every day focused on spiritual disciplines or practices. Then on January 1, 2014, we will ask for an overall theme word! You can share as you feel appropriate as we travel towards making 2014 a year of disciplined spiritual practices that transform the everyday in holy days.

If you feel so moved, leave your word for thoughtfulness in the comments.


(c) 2013, James Cowles

Skeptic Collection graphic from

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