"A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some form of the scientific method." -- Wikipedia, Skepticism
I am a skeptic and science enthusiast. My world view has evolved over my lifetime, but adopting the term
skeptic as a short-hand to describe my personal philosophy has been tremendously helpful both as a reminder to myself to in turn be skeptical, and to explain to people I encounter why I don't necessarily believe whatever it is they're telling me about.
Like most people I know who thus self-identify, skepticism is something I learned. One can be taught how to evaluate the world. I don't accept many things on faith - yet I have faith in the tools of skepticism to help me figure out what is real and what should be doubted.
Coming from a fundamentalist protestant background, it is thus ironic to find myself in a position where I have to remind people in my community that many of the values which are core to "being American" are better served by logic and reason than by the traditional delivered wisdom of religion.
Or at least that's how I see it. Perhaps you'll disagree? Read on.
I was involved in high-school debate back in the 80's and got the opportunity to attend a debate-camp at Emory University one summer. I remember one of the volunteer college students who got up and spoke to us - the majority of "us" being bespectacled nerds. She was cute, wearing denim cut-offs and she spoke passionately about how debating issues, even issues you don't agree with, from both sides can have a profound effect on your own positions regarding such topics. For example, she continued, she had debated both sides of gay rights issues, and when the debate season was over she found herself compelled to political activism in support of gays. She even went to gay marches, she said. We might too, she added.
Everybody laughed. Including me.
Like many people, I have some gay friends. I probably have some gay relatives. But I didn't really consider the implications of what it meant to be gay in America until two things converged in my life: First, I spent about a year in deep introspection and study regarding my belief system. Second, Bush-era politicians decided that "gay marriage" was some kind of important thing that must be stopped!
I had already found myself questioning a remarkable number of assumptions about my life, the world, etc... through my skepticism tool-set. I could have, and perhaps had at some point, considered that I'm not gay and therefore gay-marriage is not an important issue to me. But instead of stopping there, I decided to do research. Questions like, "What makes people gay?" and "What is marriage?" seem like rhetorical questions, but there are real answers to those questions beyond the cultural homilies that pass for facts for most people.
It turned out that while science doesn't have a definitive explanation for what causes people to be homosexual, that there are clear indications that it is a natural process and not - as is the general wisdom in most fundamentalist households and churches - an abomination. I learned that not only do people not choose their orientation, but that it tends to be on a spectrum. People are not just "straight" or "gay" but throughout their life may have longings and urges of varying degrees directed at both sexes. Oh! And that there are more than two sexes! Yes, it turns out that while you may have been taught that there are "male" and "female" in reality there are thousands of "in-between" folks born every year. These are real people who - like you - didn't pick their gender, didn't pick their orientation, but who have to figure out where they belong in this world despite not meeting everyone's expectations of gender and sexual orientation. And I also learned that homosexuality occurs in many species - it isn't something humans invented.
So that gave me a lot to think about. And then I looked at marriage and discovered that despite the frothy-mouthed insistence of some that marriage is only between a man and a woman, the bible tells a different story. There are arranged marriages in the bible. There are polygamous marriages in the bible. There are, according to some interpretations, weird sexless marriages in the bible. And in our own American history there are marriages based on property. There are common-law marriages. There are marriages with multiple divorces and step-parents and step-brothers and step-sisters. And of course there are marriages based on pregnancy.
But when you get down to the core of it there are basically two kinds of marriages. There is the "love-based" marriage where two people tell the church, community, etc... that they love each other and want to start a family. Then there is the LEGAL CONTRACT called marriage and the vast number of benefits conferred by that contract. I learned that when you get married you get inheritance rights. You get benefits from insurance. You get to go see your spouse when they're in the hospital. You get a claim at custody on your kids if there is a divorce. You get immigration benefits, the right to see your spouse in jail, the right to Medicare and Social Security benefits from your spouse, and on and on. In short, the church can give you a blessing but the legal contract gives you hundreds if not thousands of tangible rights and privileges which most married people just take for granted. Also, try getting the church marriage without the state's marriage license and see what happens!
So then I took all that research and concluded that the heterosexual majority of Americans are denying our gay and lesbian citizens vital civil rights. It became clear to me that this was not a religious issue, but an ethical one. Like many who bother to go this far, I began to imagine other civil rights issues and frame them next to gay marriage and found the results unsettling.
Politicians routinely say that gay marriage threatens the American way of life, but I say that being an obstacle to gay marriage is itself inherently un-American. Who are we, the privileged heterosexuals, to stand in the way of our fellow citizen's pursuit of happiness? Are we so shallow as a nation that we can't enjoy our own happiness if others who are different than us are also happy?
America's tradition of slave-trade was wrong. America's tradition of segregation was wrong. America's tradition of anti-miscegenation laws were wrong. There is a litany of injustices which have been perpetrated under the banner of tradition and from beneath the almost unbreachable armor of the status-quo - and the suppression of gay rights is the current refrain in a country which continues to raise flags and say, "Liberty and Justice for all," without a hint of irony.
And I find myself hearkening back to that nameless student volunteer at Emory. She was right. Because I took the time to question my assumptions, to use the tools of skepticism against a set of values which were culturally sacrosanct, I find that I've done what she said I'd do. I've marched with the gays and lesbians to protest their oppression and to agitate for their civil rights.
And I did it because skepticism told me that my preconceptions were wrong.
But let me add this. After my first pro-gay activism, a local protest against California's Proposition 8, I was riding the train back to my truck and met a nice lesbian couple who commented on my sign. (My sign said that I am straight but support gay rights.) They asked me if I had family members who were gay? I said no. Did I have friends who were gay? Yes, but that wasn't why I was there. In fact, I finally decided to try and explain all the things I've said here.
When I finished, one of them said, "Yeah, all that may be true. But we're also just people who are in love and want to get married."
That too, of course. That too.