How Skeptical is Too Skeptical?

A conversation in the comment section of last Thursday’s post brought this question up in a round-about way:

At what point does skepticism go too far?

I’ve wondered about this before in passing but have been brainstorming about it more intently over the weekend. Any set of beliefs (ethical, moral, religious, political) can be taken to the extreme, of course. I’ve read many well-written critiques of various religions and philosophies but can’t think of any similar works about skepticism that have been worth reading.

Maybe skepticism is taken too far when:

You can no longer see the good in an idea. Most of the belief systems I’ve come across are a mixture of beneficial and harmful advice. A handful of ideas don’t seem have any redeeming qualities but for everything else spit out the stem and seeds and digest the good stuff.

The most important thing is being right. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with vigorous debating or correcting untrue statements. It just isn’t necessary for every conversation to end with footnotes. πŸ™‚

It leaks into areas where it doesn’t belong. Unless someone else’s beliefs are negatively affecting the rest of us I don’t have any interest in critiquing their claims from my agnostic and fairly skeptical point of view. Belief is an intensely personal experience and I’m not interested in proselytizing. Whether you believe in faeries, healing crystals, mediums, ghosts, demonic possessions, or miracles I may think there’s some merit to it, I may diagree vehemently, but I will not belittle whatever it is that keeps you going.


What has been your experience with skepticism? What are its greatest weaknesses?


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24 Responses to How Skeptical is Too Skeptical?

  1. myturn

    My experience with skepticism: It’s not the same as disrespect, but for many of us, it is hard to keep separate.

    Greatest weaknesses of skeptisism: The temptation to confuse skeptism with correctness, as noted in your post. And if you’re not careful, being too skeptical isolates you in the cage of your own belief system. Too often people take a great concept (Christianity, Feng Shui, Science) and narrow its scope to such a point that the viewpoint strips their framework of the ability to enjoy the wide, wide world and its mysteries.

    • Do you think it’s harder to separate skepticism from disrespect for skeptics or the people whose beliefs are being questions?

      I’d imagine it would be the former because belief is such an intimate part of who we are as human beings. Having that criticized is like having a close family member raked over the coals (at least for some.)

      • Flat Stanley

        Do you think it’s harder to separate skepticism from disrespect for skeptics or the people whose beliefs are being questions?

        Mullling it over for about 15 seconds, I think the ability to separate skepticism from disrespect depends upon the person. It is tempting to assume that it would be more difficult for skeptics, but that then assumes that the act of being skeptical is a blanket approach to live (and yes, for some people it is). In reality, most of us are still just human, so most of us hang on to a way of viewing the world in ways that makes us feel mighty and powerful, like the Wizard of Oz.

        But I like to think it is possible to be skeptical of a new idea, yet respectful toward the idea itself as well as the persons presenting it. Of course, my own ability to remain open and respectful remains heavily dependent upon how respected I feel by the new idea and its promoters. cuz i’m just not there yet, yuh know?

  2. Flat Stanley

    Crap. I don’t know how that name got up there, but it’s moi, FS.

  3. Maybe skepticism is taken too far when:
    – when you become a social pariah who just tears down everybody else.
    – when your mind immediately works to counter what is being said instead of fully listening

    Good and difficult topic, Lydia. I think it’s just one of those gray areas where you have to strike the right balance based on the situation.

    I am inclined to say that we are of the same mind in the live and let live philosophy for whatever a person may believe, but lately I have been more of the mind that gentle proselytizing may be a better approach. Why? For me, it’s because of my nieces and nephews. They are being indoctrinated into the beliefs before they fully develop the skills of skepticism. And it’s not just my family, but all families. The legacy will continue largely based on the beliefs of the parents. The more widespread the belief, the more likely it is to have effects which are less benign, where the uglier parts of holy doctrine will surface, or people in seats of power will believe that God specifically told them to do something, like invade another country, for example.

    So, to some extent, I think it is our duty to future generations to promote skeptical thought. We just don’t have to be jerks about it. πŸ˜‰

    • That is a valid point.

      I guess I’m just so used to being on the opposite side of proselytizing (not all of which is friendly) that I’m gun-shy about “pushing” my beliefs on others.

      Although I absolutely agree that there are many ways to share what you think without beating anyone over the head with your beliefs.

      How do you go about talking about these things with your nieces and nephews? My nephew just turned four. He isn’t quite old enough for these chats yet…but soon he will be!

  4. I don’t much like skepticism…as a worldview, it feels like cynicism, and I think that’s toxic. But maybe it’s different. I like your post.

  5. atimetorend

    My experience with skepticism, with regard to the Christian community I was part of, is that any element of skepticism is seen as dangerous and even as hating God. I think my list is very similar to yours though.

    “You can no longer see the good in an idea” — I really struggle with this, because I feel as soon as I admit good in my former beliefs, there are people in my life who will essentially say, “See, you admit it, you are wrong to be skeptical!” Of course part of thinking that is paranoia on my part, but there is some truth there too I think.

    …I will not belittle whatever it is that keeps you going
    I agree, but what do you do when whatever keeps one going is also causing harm, to them and/or to others? If someone’s evangelicalism gives them hopes, helps them fullfil acts of service and charity, but also has them condemning certain other people, how can you point out the harm without inherently criticizing what is keeping them going? I mean critiquing, not belittling of course.

    • I know where you’re coming from. I have similar people in my circle of influence. It definitely isn’t easy to deal with!

      “what do you do when whatever keeps one going is also causing harm, to them and/or to others?”

      This is such a hard question. So much depends on how close we are, how long I’ve known them and whether they’re open to listening to what I see. In some cases this sort of thing is the death of a relationship. With family and very close friends it’s trickier (especially when there are many other good things coming out of that bond.)

      I think I’ll blog about this in depth in the near future. Maybe next week at some point? πŸ™‚

    • I’ve been wrestling with this all week, trying to come up with good advice for dealing with people like this.

      It’s such a delicate thing – they don’t see the disconnect. It would be easier if they did (or at least if they were willing to look at it from other points of view.)

      I don’t know how well this would work in your situation, but sometimes it helps to consistently point out when they say something that crosses the line. Drew and I gradually taught a few relatives to stop saying a few highly offensive things when we’re around. Thoughts can’t be stopped but there is something to be said for not being smacked in the face with it every time you get together.

      Other than that, no advice. πŸ™

  6. Personally, I think skepticism in and of itself is a very good thing. The only time when it can become a bad thing is IF it devolves into nihilism.

  7. Tswayd

    I don’t think skepticism in and of itself is a good thing. It is good but also in balance with trust, open-mindedness, compatibility, and politeness.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tswayd.

      I don’t see skepticism as something that’s naturally opposed to any of the other traits you mentioned. You seem to. Why is that?

      • John Meyers

        I’m not the person to whom you responded but let me venture a glimpse into their thought process:

        Skepticism has a generally negative connotation in our society so I think it’s natural that people might see it as being the opposite of open mindednes, politieness, etc

  8. Jonah

    Being skeptical to find answers to things is ok. Β Being skeptical just for the sake of being skeptical is rude…

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