Toxic Versus Healthy Skepticism

Earlier today, I shared an article written by David French on my Facebook page titled Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment. He offered us a lot of food for thought regarding political theology, conspiratorial thinking, and the connection with the ninth commandment, which tells us not to spread falsehood about others. The article stirred some great conversation and questions amidst my friends. My friend Tim offered some great push back and I suggested that it is good for us as believers to differentiate between healthy and toxic skepticism. He wrote, “I ask for you to help me differentiate healthy skepticism and toxic skepticism within myself.” I thought, “yeah…how do we differentiate?” So let me offer a few incomplete thoughts about how to recognize toxic skepticism within ourselves.

First, I think it is always good to start with ourselves, though so much of our culture invites us to look externally when things go wrong. I frequently encourage people to ask the question “Is it possible I am wrong?“, though I suspect that for many of us, our initial motivation is to question the truthfulness of others when there is disagreement. It is easy to assume that our assumptions and influences come from a pure heart while consciously or subconsciously assuming that others are motivated by evil, emotion, or ignorance.

The second suggestion relates to the first. We need to get in the habit of asking “What are the costs and benefits of accepting a viewpoint?” For example, 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There have been substantial costs to those of us in the 19%, especially when we have continued to express our dissent. For me, the most notable cost has been relational. Yet, there has also been benefit including finding a community of like-minded people who have a vision for what can be.

Third, I think it is good to ask how outlandish a perspective is? For example, known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones once said that the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 26 people dead was completely fake and was staged to promote stricter gun control policies. Jones was not merely offering an alternative viewpoint, he was spouting evil falsehood yet some people believed him. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible?”, “Is it plausible?”, and, based on the preponderance of the evidence, “Is it likely?”

Fourth, if we are considering rejecting the majority, or consensus, opinion, it is good to ask ourselves why we would do so. If the majority of epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and medical organizations suggest that wearing a mask represents current best practice in regard to COVID-19, it is good to ask ourselves, “Why am I willing to reject the majority in favor of minority opinion?” Some people are skeptical of scientists because they seem to change their recommendations, which fails to acknowledge that best practice in science allows for adaptation as new information comes to light. They were not lying to us; they were offering the best evidence at the time. Scientists are not only willing to ask, “Is it possible I am wrong,” it is crucial to the scientific method. I agree that it is frustrating when recommendations change, but it should not lead to the logical conclusion that we should then ignore them altogether.

Fifth, I think we need to be careful about confusing anecdotes with evidence. All of us hear counter-examples that stir skepticism. In my mind, that can be a healthy skepticism, but if we ignore mountains of data because someone we know said something different, it can be toxic. For example, if I know someone who developed COVID-19, had mild flu like symptoms, and recovered, it does not follow that I should then assume that that this coronavirus is not a big deal and ignore the recommendations from the scientific community. I must also consider the world-wide reporting about its seriousness.

Sixth, for those of us who are Christians, there are a whole host of questions that humility and prudence demand we ask of ourselves.

  • How do my theological presuppositions affect my understanding of the issue at hand?
  • Is it possible my theological presuppositions are wrong? How did I come to believe the things that I accept as true? Does my viewpoint line up with the Jesus’ moral teachings, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7)? Is my understanding of politics (or whatever issue is currently at hand) informed by the Bible, or is my understanding of the Bible informed by my politics?
  • Does the way I communicate my skepticism reflect the manner of Jesus? Let me suggest that smugness, pride, vitriol, and name calling do not reflect the manner of Jesus. I anticipate that some of you will bring up Jesus turning over the tables in the temple or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but remember that in those cases it was religious people he was confronting. As believers, we are called to gentleness, patience, respect, love, and truth.
  • Am I more likely to believe religious leaders or news personalities than experts? If so, how did I come to those conclusions? Is it possible that I am susceptible to propaganda? Too often, I am afraid, well meaning Christians accept as true information they hear from people who claim to be Christian. It seems to me that the apostle Paul’s greatest concern regarding falsehood and deception was inside the church.

Seventh, it is good to ask whether we are adopting an adversarial mindset versus a cooperative mindset. I have elsewhere written about the difference between an “against mindset” and a “with mindset.” When we approach others from an “against mindset,” we view them as our enemy, which shapes our presuppositions about their motives. When we approach them from a “with mindset,” we recognize that we are interconnected and we become less likely to assume that they are out to deceive, manipulate, or control us.

Skepticism in and of itself is not evil; indeed, I think a measure of skepticism is good and healthy for believers who are encouraged to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:6). However, let’s not reserve our skepticism only for those outside of our camp. Instead, let’s be willing to ask:

  • Am I presenting this story or idea as incontrovertible fact and, if so, is there sufficient support for doing so?
  • Is my skepticism grounded in an honest wrestling with all of the facts or because “my people” told me what is true?
  • Have I done due diligence in confirming whether something is true?
  • Am I honoring others as people of value even if I disagree with them?

This world is not as it should be. Let us live as Christ’s ambassadors, committed to the truth and love he revealed to us.

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