Is Thomas Talbott a "True Skeptic"?

On pages 11-15 of his critique of the OTF Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott discusses “The Presumption of Skepticism.” According to him there are three “different kinds of skepticism.” There is “the skepticism of disbelief,” which sometimes requires “a kind of dogmatic certainty.” This is my kind of skepticism he opines, and he implicitly suggests I come across as a “closed-minded dogmatist.” The second kind of skepticism is that of “suspended belief,” which is his kind of skepticism that is “incompatible with dogmatic certainty and sometimes arises when one has the humility to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge.” Since this is so he says of himself, “I am a true skeptic.” *cough* The third kind of skepticism is “merely the opposite of being overly gullible,” which is a “healthy skepticism” that everyone should have.

It’s true that I am almost certain Christianity is false, especially of the evangelical kind. I have to be. Think about it. If not then I risk being cast into hell for debunking God’s one true faith. This is one reason why it’s so damn hard to leave the Christian faith in the first place. It means that we must be nearly certain our faith is false before we will leave it. It is the church’s cradle to grave threat for entertaining doubts. That’s the main reason why skeptics are required to show the Christian faith is impossible before believers will consider it improbable, which is a nearly impossible burden of proof and why so few believers leave the faith when compared to the total number of converts each year. I wasn’t always this way though. I went through stages where I doubted something, then something else, then something else and so forth. What Talbott sees now is the conclusion of years of study, reflection and personal experience.

There are just too many ways to be wrong. There are too many people claiming they know the answers. I have studied the Christian answer and I have concluded it is almost certainly wrong. It would be akin to someone claiming he knew exactly what happened at Custer’s Last Stand. There are a million ways to be wrong about what happened. What if Custer had a heart attack? What if one of his own soldiers killed him and the rest of his regiment attacked each other in the midst of their battle? What if they made a treaty with the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples who slaughtered them when they let their guard down? I can be almost certain that one of these answers is false even without knowing what actually took place.

Talbott is not opposed to the dogmatic certainty of disbelief, since he’s opposed to the Flat Earth Society. Whew, that was a good call Tom! And he accepts the third kind of healthy skepticism of course. But in the context of our religious disputes Talbott wants to claim a true skepticism of suspended belief. For him this means being open-minded. As an example, with regard to reincarnation he says “I have no settled belief one way or the other on the matter.” And in a like fashion he’s says he’s equally open to the possibility that Jesus rose from the dead as he is to the possibility that he didn’t. He would claim Jesus arose from the grave I think, it’s just that he’s “equally” open to the possibility that he didn’t.

I take the suspension of belief to mean just that, a suspended belief. Let’s say he is equally open to the possibility that an airplane he is about to board will crash as he is to the possibility that it won’t. Would he get on that plane? Likewise, what can it mean to believe Jesus arose, sing worship songs to him in church, pray with faith, argue against skeptics, live one’s life for Jesus and yet at the same time have a suspended belief about it all? This makes no sense to me. How open to the possibility is he that Jesus didn’t arise from the grave? Is his God pleased with his suspended belief? For all I can tell if he is truly “equally” open to both possibilities he is an agnostic in Bertrand Russell's sense of the word.

This is actually the kind of skepticism I have argued for as the default position of the OTF. I have said this all along in all of my discussions of the OTF, which I take it he has read and yet has ignored. I claim that anyone who moves off the default position of this kind of agnosticism has the burden of proof.

So I put it to him, either is he being disingenuous or is he an agnostic. I can’t tell from what he wrote. I can tell that he is not as open as he thinks, for he is clearly not open to atheism, nor Scientology, Mormonism, Militant Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and the many other different religious entities and faiths around the globe, including all of the dead religions and gods and goddesses. So let me remind him what it means to be open-minded.

When it comes to the third kind of skepticism he rants on against the “literal nonsense” of statements to the effect that “we are all atheists with respect to the religions of others,” or that, “when you understand why you dismiss other religions you will understand why we dismiss yours.” These statements are nonsense to Talbott because he does not dismiss other religions, or so he says. He certainly doesn’t understand atheism, something described in a video in the link above on Bertrand Russell.

My problem with Talbott is that he doesn’t understand that he is indeed rejecting other religions. All we need to do is ask the people of different religions to comment on whether he and they agree, ya see, and they don’t. This is obvious. He is not a Muslim. Most of them would kill him as a heretic.

There are mutually exclusive historical and theological claims being made by various religions. So a universalist like Talbott must have some standard for determining the truth in order to determine what is mythical in a religion from what is not. This standard should be the same one I share, reason and science. And this standard, if applied consistently across the board, eschews faith in favor of evidence. If he could only understand that what he’s rejecting are faith-based claims then he would see why he dismisses or rejects these other religions. It is not therefore “literal nonsense” to say “when you understand why you dismiss other religions you will understand why we dismiss yours.” He just doesn't get it.

The other alternative is that the god of the universalist is a deceiver, not a god of universal love, since the various religions have perpetrated horrendous evils upon one another because they were led to believe by this god that their claims were literally true, coming from the one and only true god.