What do you mean, Christian Skeptic?

Occasionally people have argued with me, sometimes quite vehemently or even aggressively, that labels are a bad thing. They are so obsessed with being seen as an individual that they refuse to recognise that, as individuals, we have things in common with other individuals. Those things in common can be important. Rarely do I meet anybody who refuses to wear the label of “human”, because it concisely expresses everything we have in common with the rest of humanity: our basic needs, our general appearance, our origins, our claim to possess fundamental rights, and so on.

If we refuse to wear additional labels, then we are choosing a life of continually explaining from first principles everything about us that isn't common to all of humanity. That's a lot of explaining. Although it possibly shouldn't be so, many doors are closed to us in life if we can't convince the gatekeepers to let us through. Labels tend to be a persuasive part of that. Try to prepare a résumé without allowing yourself any labels and you'll understand what I mean.

There is, however, another side to the story. Having the wrong label can be a problem too. Just as having no label leads to avoidable, protracted discussions, the wrong label means you have to unexplain all the incorrect assumptions that other parties make on the basis of those labels. This can occur when one has inadvertently adopted a label which is too broad; in other words, one which is partially correct but then adds stuff that's not true about you. I suspect this is what the “no labels” brigade misunderstand; their issues are not due to labelling per se, but due to inappropriate labelling.

I was brought up with a label that I have always been proud to wear: “Christian”. Proud because, from the point in childhood that I made a decision to adopt the label as my own, I have felt that it embodies so many attributes that are a part of who I am, or at least who I want to be. I have always been happiest when I have lived up to what I understand the word to mean. Anything else feels fake.

But the problem should now be obvious to anybody who has paid attention to how I phrased the previous paragraph. I have always been happiest when I have lived up to what I understand the word to mean. This is where labels can go wrong: when the wearer interprets it one way, but the world interprets it another. In the case of the word “Christian” the meaning is sadly ambiguous. Earlier in my life I naïvely only thought about the literal meaning: of or pertaining to Christ. In other words, I proudly wear a label which is intended to mean “I try hard to lead my life in a manner which is consistent with Christ's teachings and with the examples he set”.

I know that many people share that definition. I also know that many, often subconsciously, do not. Many Christians, especially (but by no means exclusively) those of a conservative leaning, associate specific beliefs, traditions, rules, rituals, power structures and more with the word. Many non-Christians, observant of this, associate it with bigotry, hatred, prejudice, intolerance and hypocrisy. When I describe myself as Christian, I am taking a gamble of long odds that the listener will understand it in the simple sense that I mean it, as opposed to one of the myriad other interpretations.

It's actually worse than that, because beliefs have a tendency to evolve, albeit slowly. What a person believes changes over time, and I am no exception to that. Over the years I have studied, philosophised, experimented, reinterpreted and [shock!] talked to people. I have gradually moved from being mildly conservative to fairly liberal to something else. Throughout all of this, I've nevertheless still been proudly “Christian”. Clearly the word is useful to me, as a guide and a benchmark, but it is somewhat inadequate as an external descriptor. For many years my search for a secondary label was largely fruitless; every subtype of Christianity seems to imply something to somebody that isn't entirely accurate when applied to me.

The solution came to me when I realised that the answer lies not in how I am like (or unlike) other Christians, but in another part of who I am. I am a philosopher; more specifically, a scientist; even more specifically a computer scientist, although I have never confined myself to that box either. I thrive on rational thought, logic, deduction and correctness. I believe in reason and responsibility. I know the limits of logic, what can and cannot be proven. When all the evidence points to a belief being incorrect, I don't pervert the evidence, I change the belief. I will admit when I am proved wrong.

There is a label which closely matches this way of thinking: Skeptic (in this sense usually spelled with a ‘k’, reflecting the Greek σκεπτικος even though in British English “sceptic” is more commonly employed). Skepticism has existed for a very long time, in one form or another. It certainly predates Christianity. Many skeptics happen to be atheist or agnostic, but that is not a requirement. This is because, by any form of reasoning currently known to man, there is no way to either prove or disprove the existence of God (at least, not if transcendence is part of the definition). Likewise many modern skeptics are Humanists, but not all. (Personally I strongly dislike the term. Perhaps I'll discuss that some time).

So, I realised that I can choose to identify myself as a Christian Skeptic. Either label could be taken to mean more than intended. But, juxtaposed, much of that ambiguity disappears. If you think of something particularly irrational then, as a skeptic, I'm unlikely to believe it, or at least I'll be open to logical persuasion if I've made a mistake. At the same time, as a Christian I don't share some of the (equally irrational, in my opinion) beliefs of certain prominent voices within the modern Skeptics movement. If it doesn't fall within the intersection of the two ideologies, then it's not for me.

I'm pretty certain there are others out there who have a similar world view to mine. It's not for me to tell you who you are. Maybe you call yourself something else. Maybe you just don't want the controversy of being two things. But, as the Oracle would remind you: temet nosce (or, as we're in a Greek mood, γνωθι σεαυτον). If you feel that the label “Christian Skeptic” is one you could wear, then I invite you to do so. And wear it with pride.