Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon. I know that many self-declared skeptics prefer to … ah … believe otherwise, or as they would perhaps say, they have deduced from pure principles using sound logic that Skepticism is rational behavior and there is nothing cultural about it. But they are wrong, and that is trivially easy to prove.
Sarah Moglia is the event specialist for the Secular Student Alliance1 and has written an interesting piece on “Why [she doesn't call her]self a Skeptic” in which she asserts that there are people who call themselves “Skeptic” who are not, at least sometimes, and there are those who are rather “skeptical” (as we like to define it) most of the time but don’t bother with the label. She does not name names; I’ve made the same observation and I’m not going to name names either either. But we both have had plenty of opportunity to observe, and even a practicing Skeptic would not toss aside our unattributed observations.
Unless, of course, said practicing Skeptic simply does not want to accept our shared conclusion and wishes to use the lack of naming names in favor of their argument. It’s a matter of choice, really: Believe Sarah and Greg, and maybe make a few of your own observations, or insist on clearly enumerated cases as evidence within the same blog post that makes the assertion. You can call it either way. Demand the highest level of proof or assume that well meaning observers who prefer not to name names but may have made valid observations. It’s your choice, as a skeptic, to pick one way or another.
And the fact that it is a choice is evidence that skepticism has a cultural aspect.
It, Skepticism, also has a political aspect. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I find myself in a state of mutual understanding about skeptical matters with people with whom I also mostly share a political point of view (though such things as political points of view are big and messy, so we can’t expect perfect alignment). Like Sarah. The main political feature of Skepticism is the division between those that a) believe that a purely skeptical life is the apolitical life; b) believe that one can be political and skeptical but while a person may partake in both the two must generally be practiced separately; and c) those who believe that skeptical thinking and a particular range of political views go hand in hand. Group “c” is of course correct, members of group “a” are deluded and usually think this sort of thing because it is convenient for them to do so. Members of group “b” are probably just trying to keep everyone happy but secretly agree with me (oh, I’m in group “c”) … as all people who on the surface disagree with me surely must, at some deep level or another.
But seriously, yes, Skepticism is never apolitical. And it is never acultural. Having said that, it is a mechanism for thinking about the world more clearly than you get with other methods, within the unavoidably cultural and political world in which we live.
Sarah hits on a point that is absolutely correct and if you don’t know this you need to. “Skepticism” is not a thing, but rather, it is a process. Once you understand the processual nature of Skepticism, you will be a better skeptic. Until then, you’re just a dood with a T-shirt. Sarah notes:
To me, skepticism isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. While yes, we do have words that classify people by things they do (for example, a vegetarian or a hockey player), I don’t think skepticism is the same. … I think people should be able to tell that I’m a skeptic by how I behave (do I ask questions? Do I make decisions based on sound evidence?), not by what I call myself.
Please read Sarah’s post!
1I’ve probably got that slightly wrong. I don’t know the structure of the SSA well enough to be sure. Feel free to correct in the comments.