Religious People Are Wrong About Skeptics

And cynics are wrong about religious people.

In U.S. supermarkets, at least, the word natural has lost its meaning. There are no restrictions on ingredients or process, so companies print natural on their packages to persuade the average consumer to buy more. (Because nature!)

There are restrictions on using the word organic, but the rules are complex, and exceptions aren’t disclosed, and American shoppers can’t be bothered with that kind of thing, anyway. Companies have learned that organic and natural say more about the mind of the consumer than they say about the product, and they sell more potato chips when they use words that make us feel good about ourselves without thinking too hard.

Conservative religions don’t sell potato chips, but they’re familiar with the technique. They use ambiguous labels like faith and belief to make us feel good about what they’re selling, and words like skeptic and cynical to foster self-righteous pity for those who buy another brand.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, one of the world’s highest ranking Mormons, offered a perfect example during a worldwide conference this fall:

“There is nothing noble or impressive about being cynical. Skepticism is easy — anyone can do it. It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage.”

Uchtdorf isn’t the first religious speaker to conflate the meaning of cynicism and skepticism, and he certainly won’t be the last. But when a congregation accepts these labels without understanding what they really mean, important relationships begin to suffer. It’s time to bring skepticism and faith onto the same page so we can all see each other more clearly. Let’s start by thinking about what these ambiguous religious-marketing buzzwords really mean.

Belief is Not Faith

Religious culture treats faith as a means to a greater end: start with faith, and eventually (if you’re faithful enough) you’ll arrive at belief. But they have things backwards. It’s human nature to believe long before we learn to question. What we typically call faith is really just wanting to believe.

With apologies to Steve Perry

Belief feels like a destination. A person who builds her spiritual world on belief — if she becomes a believer — will be open to ideas that confirm her beliefs and stay closed to ideas that don’t. She will confuse who she is with what she believes. Belief is a closed mind, already made up. When it bumps into conflicting information, belief reinforces itself instead of risking change.

Faith is far away from belief. In the 13th century, the word that would eventually become faith meant to trust: Faith is letting go of belief as we grow, understanding that our beliefs don’t define who we are, and trusting that life will always have something more for us to learn. Faith feels like a journey. Faith is a mind open to truth, no matter where it leads.

Cynicism is Not Skepticism

As often as we mix up faith and belief, we confuse a cynic for a skeptic. A cynic is a person who believes everybody is motivated by self interest. Accordingly, he feels suspicious about change and assumes the worst about new people and unfamiliar ideas. The cynic’s mind is already made up; disagreements become personal because he needs to prove other people wrong in order to feel right.

A skeptic, on the other hand, is a person who questions everything, including her own conclusions, all the time. She craves knowledge and understanding, so she loves bumping into people and ideas that challenge her assumptions. A skeptic views disagreements as opportunities to refine her knowledge and understand more today than she did last night.

The Faithful Skeptic

Belief and cynicism are closely related, and they’re both easy. Faith and skepticism are practically twins, and they’re both hard. I don’t mean juggling-four-bowling-pins hard. I don’t mean mastering-Mandarin-Chinese hard. Living a life of faith and skepticism, together, is the-single-biggest-challenge-of-your-life hard. It affects everything else we do.

Let’s sketch this out. This chart is our life. It’s easy at the bottom, where we don’t have to think too much, and it gets more challenging (and more fulfilling) as we move up the curve toward meaning.

Faith belongs at the top of the curve, right where religious people like to put it. Faith is trusting that it’s okay not to know something we don’t know, which isn’t easy. We don’t need to be religious to exercise faith — we just need the courage to show up in our lives even though nothing is guaranteed.

What religious thinkers miss is that skepticism also belongs at the top of the curve, right next to faith. Our personalities tend to make one of the two easier — you might be naturally more skeptical or more faithful — but they are twin aspects of living your life on purpose, and neither one happens by accident. If faith is the courage to show up, skepticism is the courage to ask why — to question patterns and assumptions even when the questions challenge our identity.

Uchtdorf was right about cynicism. It is easy. In fact, the hardest part of being a cynic is defending our cynicism, because life will never stop challenging us to open our minds.

If we change a few words, Uchtdorf had the right idea: A life worth living requires “moral strength, dedication, and courage,” and defending cynicism isn’t the way to live that kind of life. But neither is clinging to belief. Belief is no more complicated than cynicism — what feels like hard work is really just our ego reinforcing what we think we already know.

Faith and skepticism are not opposed to each other. Faith requires “moral strength, dedication, and courage,” but so does skepticism. In fact, if we let them, faith and skepticism work together to fill our lives with meaning and purpose, regardless of what we believe about God or religion or spirituality. The only thing harder than living a life of faith, or a life of skepticism, is living a life that leans into both faith and skepticism at the same time.

Think About the Labels

Let’s stop perpetuating buzzwords and assuming that belief is like faith and the skeptic is like the cynic. In reality, the faithful and the skeptic are more alike than they are different, and the cynic and the believer are motivated by the opposite ends of the same need to feel right.

When you hear religious leaders using words like skeptic and cynic to label outsiders, and belief and faith to describe their congregation, think about those natural potato chips at your local market. There’s nothing wrong with buying the natural label, even if it just serves to make us feel good about ourselves without having to think too hard. But recognize that labels say more about the person buying them than about what’s really inside the package, and that is what really matters.


Don’t worry, we fixed it for you.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may enjoy The Naked People In Your iPod, a glimpse into the conversation with my son about pornography. You can also find me on Twitter.

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