Reasons to be Sceptical

Updated by Alok Prateek 5 min read

This note starts with a contention - that unquestioning belief is a pervading global culture. The only way by which we can avoid it is by being a sceptic. One who is open-minded and steadily questions the notions around and makes effort to investigate one’s doubt. If we are not able to develop this scepticism, our democratic lifestyle is under severe threat from the narrow-minded purveyors of dogma.

In today’s world, we are confronted by an array of what can be called ‘brand’ of belief. These brands – are dominant organisations or groups led by a few people in positions of power that exercise dominion over ordinary people. They are investing an immense amount of time and effort in trying to dictate how we should think, consume, and behave. Similar to the brands run by kings in ancient times, they have expansionist ambitions and we are all their targets. They include, not just the true believers who have already bought the message in question and can be relied on to do what they are told by their leaders without having second thoughts, and being too eager to uphold the cause. The dramatic resurgence of religious fundamentalism on an international scale indicates that there is a significant number of people receptive to the unquestioning belief. The kind that brands traditionally foster, as does the rise of various other kinds of fundamentalism – market, nationalistic, political, ecological, to name some of the most prominent. One of the ironies connected with such brands that everyone outside one’s brand is to be treated as a non-believer. As if there was not enough, rather than a surfeit of, belief in the world for those outside one’s brand.

Political, economic, and scientific theories can command the same unquestioning support from the general public as do their religious counterparts. Sometimes this support is in a way imposed, by clever manipulation, but in most cases, people have indeed, bought the message – by their own free will, because of the illusion of emotional security it can bring to individuals (but still quite potent).

Systems of belief depend on such complicity. Organised religions, chauvinistic politicians, the multinationals companies hate the opposition. In fact, they do their very best to quash it and force conformity and obedience on the rest of us by whatever means wherever possible. A good illustration of this point is how globalisation has declared war on other cultures and there are few brands of belief which do not aspire to such a condition.

I’ll enumerate a few prime reasons to be sceptical.

Religion has always been riddled with an endless source of examples to the sceptic. Throughout human history, it has flexed its muscles worldwide. And looking at how we have seen the phenomenal rise of Modi and several babas in India, you can observe how far it can go in dictating the socio-political agenda of today’s culture. It is not beneficial for general populace to live in a theocracy, or even a semblance of one, where religion establishes the basis of all social existence. Any move to oppose this theocratic fascism has to be seen as unacceptable, a betrayal of our humanist heritage. If religion played no part in politics at all, we the Sceptics would fancy it. That was the thrust of the more radical thought, to exile religion from the political process and drive it into the private domain. This is a formula I am more than happy to subscribe to myself, where it would be tolerated but not encouraged. Instead, we now have faith-based politics entrenching itself in both the Western world and to a large extent India as well. Which as a result brings faith-based science in its wake. It is possible to imagine a context where religion and scepticism engage in political debate, one that religion would be entirely happy with since it assumes both the obligation and the persistent presence of an anti-religious bloc in politics. What is worrying at present is how political systems are so open to manipulation from fundamentalist religious groups that have no real interest in democratic debate or wider participation in political life. Their goal instead is to remove all trace of opposition to their own ideas – this is what sceptics are up against.

Politics would certainly benefit from an injection of scepticism. Indeed, I intend to argue that scepticism should be right at the heart of the political process. And feel that this is the only way to ensure we can keep democratic traditions of pluralism alive. As we examine the prospects for a new kind of adversarial politics that, while rejecting consensus and compromise, still guarantees a basis for principled opposition. While it may not provide all the answers as to how to banish authoritarianism from our lives. These agonistic politics does have some very interesting suggestions to make on how a change of emphasis could reinvigorate our somewhat moribund, compromise ridden political system. This induces apathy in so much of the populace. There are arguments made for compromise and consensus, but these activities can so easily become a means of protecting authority from the challenge, of defusing dissent. That is where sceptics have to step in and make their presence felt.

Science, too, provides reasons to develop a strong sense of mistrust of those in positions of power, especially when it is translated into the kind of advanced technology we are familiar with today. ‘Techno-science’, has the capacity to dominate our lives to an unhealthy degree. Artificial intelligence (AI), artificial life (AL), GM (genetically modified) crops, stem-cell research, and cloning, for example, all raise complex ethical issues. Such questions cannot be left to scientists and politicians alone. At the very least a sceptical eye is a must for them to track their progress. Faith-based science can be an even more sinister opponent since its founding premises lie outside the field of science. Thus rendering them oblivious to counter-evidence reached through empirical scientific enquiry. Creationists are not disposed to debate; they feel they have no need to when the Bible has the answer to all possible queries. The fact that such ideas are creeping back onto the syllabus of schools has to be a matter of considerable concern to the sceptic since they encourage unquestioning belief within the heart of the scientific enterprise – which at its best is one of the great monuments to the sceptical temperament.

The case for developing scepticism into more of a force in our public life is plain. Sceptics are confronted by determined opposition from the many adherents to the brands of belief. However, those will not give up their power base lightly. Such adherents have extensive resources at their command, both financial and psychological. They will use these to curb the spread of a sceptical outlook that is inimical to their interests. I am speaking here not just of those in control of the brands, the officials at the top, but the ranks of believers whose commitment ensures that brands become monolithic in character. The power-holders of these brands traditionally display a pathological hatred of opposition as an expression of their zeal, and our twenty-first-century adherents are no exception. It is up to sceptics collectively to make life as difficult as they can for these exponents of the brand. To worry away at their authority, to question their ideas, to call attention to their totalitarian leanings, and to refuse to give up when they strike back with all their considerable power and support.

One historian of scepticism has commented that “once upon a time scepticism was a serious challenge and no-one thought to insulate it from affecting or being affected by, the judgments of ordinary life.” I want to return us to that position, where scepticism can have a moral value for all of us.

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