Wrestling With Skepticism After Fundamentalism

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Kate Ter Haar.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Lana Hope’s blog Wide Open Ground. It was originally published on December 31, 2015.

I grew up in a fundamentalist, homeschool environment, which means that from a young age I learned to defend my faith and be skeptical of all people who disagree with what we believed. And I mean all.

I spent my childhood on guard. I analyzed the neighbors, so that their “public school” mentality or behavior did not taint me. In homeschool, I learned about how all the scientists were wrong about everything. I learned that academic people in general had trouble getting to heaven because their minds were steered in the wrong direction. I was taught that Catholics were deadbeats with incorrect doctrine, and to beware of any liberal theology, lest it corrupt me. As I got older, I became the family watchdog.

I studied theology in highschool, and could tell you which theologians were okay and which were not.

I was not just trained to be a skeptic of intellectual ideas; lifestyle choices, too, were also something from which I needed to keep pure. I was skeptical of those who ate pork and junk food; those who did not know how to grow their own vegetables; those who went to public school; those who listened to secular music; those who dressed in a “worldly” manner; those who used bad language.

I always hated the fact that I judged people and was so territorial and guarded against outside ideas and outsiders. My best friend in the neighborhood was born from a teen mom (raised by her grandmother), and I called shit on the way in which some of the other girls at my church treated her, as if she had done something wrong. And yet, while I saw the downsides of how we judged people as the result of how we tried to defend the gospel and keep the church pure, I never could break free, shut my mind off, and pretend that ideas do not matter or have consequences.

As I continued to get older, I lived with a tension: on the one hand, I wanted to accept my liberal friends and liberal ideas, and on the other hand, I could not just turn off my mind. In college, I had lesbian friends, who were pretty much awesome. Yet I was not instantly convinced that my lesbian friends should marry and have children because I could not see how two children could be raised by two same-sex parents and not miss out on something. I could not just tell my friends, “I love you, so I’m turning my mind OFF.”

I had to work through my preconceived ideas and do my own research; I needed my own “proof.”

I’ve realized lately, that I’m still the same passionate skeptic that I was when I was 13 years old and that I was in college. I am, today, generally accepting of people different than me, but that’s not because I’m not skeptical. I’ve already worked out in my mind that there is no single “right” way to raise children, so I have no further comment about who live outside the box. But when it comes to ideas, philosophical, social, or theological, I am still the same skeptic I once was.

Whenever I encounter a new idea, I am instantly on guard, unable to assent, refusing to assent, demanding proof (not necessarily proof in a scientific way, but in a way that makes sense to me). You might say, “normal people struggle with skepticism.” I think that is true to a degree.

But my skepticism is far more intense than your typical person.

As an example, I took an entire course on Kant this last fall term. Most graduate students treated the class like a chess game: “isn’t it interesting,” kind of thing. For me, life and death was at stake.

After reading the first section of Kant’s first Critique, I felt like I was going to vomit.

Then I felt like crying. Kant’s basic thesis that we only conceive “appearances” and not reality as it is “in itself” was trouble for me – life and death trouble. I experienced a dual tension: If Kant is right, then my whole ability to trust reality was going to fall down the tubes. Yet, the strong Christian side in me was also certain that Kant was wrong; I just needed to figure out what it was. I spent every afternoon in September out on the driving reading Kant, trying to figure it out. When I mentioned how I was troubled to the rest of my classmates, they nearly laughed at me and said, “even science is starting to believe that Kant is right.”  It was not until December and 600 pages of reading Kant later (DECEMBER) that I finally had peace. I had an epiphany one day, independent of what everyone else in class was saying (because people’s opinions never do much for me), where I realized, “you know, Kant is just observing experience” and in that moment, I found peace. I still heavily disagree with Kant in many places, but I’m at peace at the same time, no longer guarded, no longer think his philosophy is the death of western culture.

I can’t just make my mind assent to an idea just because it’s popular by really smart people. 3 years back, when I first started really, really questioning the doctrine of fundamentalism, I couldn’t make myself believe the earth is old just because most people believe it’s old. I had to research it myself.  As old earth became more comfortable to me, evolution did not suddenly feel comfortable. It’s taken time for me to just to accept that we might have evolved from lower life forms.

My skepticism always makes me an outsider. Just yesterday, a friend posted on facebook a meme about an idea that is endorsed by mainstream research and liberal politics. I instantly reacted to the fact that the premises on the meme were not well argued. The first thing that a skeptic needs to be convinced is well-argued point. But besides this, I’m just not convinced that this particular liberal idea is true. I’ve yet to see the evidence for myself, and I can’t make myself believe it, just because conservative ideas are usually wrong.  (I actually think the truth is usually somewhere between the liberal and the conservative, but that’s another story.)

I’ve only recently learned to quit fighting the fact that I’m a passionate skeptic.

It’s overall a blessing, except when it turns into bigotry against others, and yet I’ve also seen my skepticism help me fight bigotry. For example, I’ve seen facebook friends post memes that argue for scientism, the belief that science is the ultimate authority, but the language of the memes celebrate science to the point that other “unscientific” cultures would be conceived inferior if the meme were really true.  My skepticism of anything mainstream – a skepticism that ultimately derives from my childhood – made me able to see this general problem of scientism.

My skepticism is also what makes me a good philosophy scholar. My skepticism is what makes me a refreshing and needed voice in the academy. I presented work this semester, just as an example, of what characterizes the modern subject and how that has influenced how we conceive of history, and from there, I made a bold move to try to critique this. The night before I presented this paper I was really unsure what would happen – after all, I was presenting a paper critiquing modernity, when most of the academy is very modern. But you know what? it was well-received. It got people thinking. And this paper would not have been possible without spending the last 2+ years of grad school unsatisfied and skeptical.

I’ll never feel settled in this world; I’ll never truly “become worldly” or find a home. I often tell people I have left fundamentalism only to become a wanderer, without a home. Even the place that feels closest to home, the philosophy department, I am the most skeptic of them all. But that’s okay. I must learn to accept this.

One thing has changed since I was 13: I am keenly aware that I might not be right, that I could be wrong. I am aware today that I don’t have the final voice; I’m just a voice in the sea of voices. I know that when I present a paper, others get to present their papers too. Sometimes I feel like tearing my work up because I’m aware that I really, REALLY could be wrong.

The 13 year old me did not know I was wrong. But the 30 year old me knows that I could be wrong.

And yet, I am no longer afraid of my skepticism, because underneath my skepticism is my passion. I am passionate about ideas and philosophy because truth matters to me. When I encounter new ideas, I can’t promise anyone that I will agree or be open-minded. The truth is, I will probably be extremely close-minded and hard-hearted about it. But I can promise that I will read; I can assure you that I will assume that the research or author is intelligent, even if I disagree; and I can guarantee that if I read and find out otherwise, I will change my mind.

Lesson of the post: if you are an ex-fundamentalist, learn to celebrate your skepticism, although do yourself the favor of reading. If you know an ex-fundamentalist, or anyone skeptical in general, don’t call skeptics stupid just because they won’t believe in something everyone else believes in.

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