Skepticism and insecurity

The title of the blog is Atheist, Polyamorous Skeptics.  That is, we are atheists and we are polyamorous, but those are qualifying terms of our (at least my) primary identification; skeptic.

I identified as an atheist before either of the others, temporally.  It was somewhere in the late 1990’s that I started thinking of myself that way, and the winter of 2002, upon meeting Margaret Downey and joining the Freethought Society, that I came out of the closet, as it was.  I never believed in any gods (I toyed with pantheism for a little while, but pantheism is ontologically indistinct from atheism), but I didn’t always see the point in talking about this much or thinking of it in larger cultural and historical terms.

Over the next few years, I was introduced to people such as Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, James Randi, and others who usually identify as skeptics.  I had already taken critical thinking, logic, and philosophy courses (By 2003, I had a MA in philosophy), but the term skepticism was pretty much academic to me until a couple of years later, even though I was actively writing about and advocating for atheism as a cultural force during both college and graduate school.

I had discovered polyamory as an idea, and practiced it to some degree, in the late 1990’s as well.  But it was not until around 2006 or so that I started to re-think about the idea beyond the fact that I liked the idea of being able to pursue other girls while I was with my girlfriend at the time.  And I believe that the way I started taking polyamory more serious was related to my growing interest in skepticism as a means to living, rather than merely an intellectual exercise.

I had not come to articulate it thus yet, but I was beginning to apply skepticism to all of my life; my beliefs, suspicions, and to other people’s idea which I heard.  It did not always make me popular at parties, and it certainly did not make my native insecurity any better (as I wrote about last night, I still have anxieties about talking to people from this point of view).  But while it didn’t make me popular, it made me feel better about myself and gave me epistemic foundations for my worldview, even while that worldview was shifting.

Most importantly, it gave me a process by which I could counter-act my natural human tendency to allow my biases and fears to skew my worldview, and thus I grew the strengthened ability to challenge myself and learn about other people and ideas better.

Skepticism became, for me, a way of living, thinking, and perceiving.  But I had to train myself to be this way, which my philosophical training helped with.  And it often fails me anyway because skepticism is not easy and it is not natural to our brains.  I’m still prone to things such as selection bias, rejection of ideas which don’t mesh with my worldview, etc.  It takes a constant vigilance to notice and attempt to counter-act such tendencies, and it creates a cognitive uncertainty around my thoughts, quite often.

So, not only do I have to deal with a quite visceral and powerful insecurity at an emotional level, the nature of intellectual processes require me to be unsure about myself and my ideas.  A double dose of uncertainty, which I would rather do without, envelopes me.   And thus I understand people being turned off by skepticism; it feels better to be sure.  Questioning our values and beliefs is difficult, and people really don’t like their values and beliefs to be questioned, even liberal and “open-minded” people.

And yes, I am intellectually very certain about many things, but nuances and stupid semantic distinctions mean I cannot merely insist upon my superiority (although that is something I am prone to, as well).  I resist the urge to be arrogant, insistent, and authoritative because these desires are a defense mechanism against feeling insecure, and not necessarily the result of feeling overwhelmingly right or warranted in my opinion.  That is, there is an air of confidence which is only air.*

This is not to say I’m not occasionally arrogant, insistent, or think I’m intellectually superior.  I have weak moments, after all, and ironically my weakest moments often look, to others, as my strongest moments.  This is why I have trouble trusting people who appear boastful or arrogant; I suspect that underneath this appearance lies insecurity, like it does in me.  And sometimes I genuinely feel confident; the distinction is that when I’m actually confident, I’m calmer, less insistent, and I will probably be governing a wry smile.

And then, of course, I think that maybe some people don’t ever have that feeling of insecurity and that not only do they not feel insecure underneath their apparent certainty, but may have no reason to feel such insecurity because they are smarter and better than I am.

And then I really feel insecure, all because I think it’s important to be skeptical.

But that’s a lie; I just feel insecure fundamentally, and it just happens that skepticism is benefited by a reservation of opinion, which emotional insecurity provides.

But rationalizing is fun.


*There is a wonderful episode of Star Trek TNG, entitled “Attached“, which deals with this very phenomenon. summarizes the scene thus:

Capt. Picard & Dr. Crusher are being held captive by an alien race that implants telepathic devices on both of them, enabling each to hear the other’s thoughts.

While trying to escape, Capt. Picard & Crusher come upon an area which has two possible paths to take. Crusher is unsure which path to follow. Capt. Picard points in one direction and assertively indicates that it is the correct path.

As they start down the path, Crusher hears Capt. Picard’s thoughts and realizes that Capt. Picard had no better idea than her as to which path they should be taking and that he was only guessing earlier when he chose which path to take.

When Crusher tells Capt. Picard about her telepathic observation of him and asks if he does that often when giving orders, Capt. Picard answers, that there are times when it is necessary for the Captain to give the appearance of confidence.

And when I see people confidently proclaiming a decision, I think of this and wonder how universal it is that leaders just appear confident.


One thought on “Skepticism and insecurity

  1. This is nice. It takes guts to admit our vulnerabilities. No matter how much I improve, I am still insecure about many things. In fact it has appeared to grow the more I step away from thoughts and ideas I once held. Perhaps insecurity and skepticism are meant to walk hand in hand. It is a path that has no clear markers and on which you cannot take anything for granted.

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