Selective Skepticism

I think probably one of the biggest obstacles when discussing a topic with someone whose position is very different from your own is “selective skepticism.” I’ve noticed that this shows up a lot when discussing evidence for Christianity, evolution, and climate change.

For example, it’s pretty normal to hear someone say, “well, the Bible is just a translation of a copy of a translation of another copy…. It’s all open to interpretation. People disagree. Who knows?” The goal of a person who says that isn’t to really find out about textual criticism and how experts in the field decide which texts are reliable; rather, their goal is to dismiss the the entire question. The person is selectively skeptical in that they are happy to accept other experts, such as medical professionals who recommend vaccines, but they are skeptical of this area of inquiry about the Bible’s reliability before they even look.

But this informal fallacy also shows up within the Church’s own walls. Many of us are quite happy to accept expert testimony that is “on our side,” such as the general reliability of the New Testament, or the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, but we are selectively skeptical about things like climate change or evolution. It’s not that we’ve engaged with these things in a careful way; it’s that we tend to dismiss the question in advance: “It’s hard to say; there’s a lot of opinions going in each direction. There’s no real evidence.”

We Christians are sometimes selectively skeptical, and the easiest way to see that, I think, is to imagine how we would feel if someone said that about the Bible or the Resurrection: “There’s no real evidence. You can find intelligent people on both sides.”

What do we want to say to such folks? Something like, “Hold on! Why don’t you look into this for yourself? Read about the evidence that there is; come spend time with Christians and see; come hear about lives being transformed; why don’t you try approaching God in prayer? Have you read the Gospels?” That kind of thing.

In short: we think that being selectively skeptical toward Christianity is premature. We want others to engage with the thing itself before dismissing it. But that’s just the thing: we ourselves dismiss other areas without engaging in them.

Proposal: let’s we Christians at least be as honest toward these other areas as we are asking skeptics to be toward Christianity. Let’s know what the evidence is (or isn’t) regarding evolution, climate change, etc. before we speak. Let’s take Proverbs 18:13,17 seriously. It will help our witness.

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