Exuberent Skepticism: A Quality Worth Developing for a REAL Wellness Lifestyle

A question put to Robert Green Ingersoll by a reporter for the San Franciscan during “Royal Bob’s” visit on October 4, 1884 was this: Is not a pleasant illusion preferable to dreary truth – a future life being in question? Ingersoll’s response: I think it is. I think that a pleasant illusion is better than a dreary truth, so are as its immediate results are concerned. I would rather think the one I love living, than to think her dead. I would rather think that I had a large balance in the bank than that my account was overdrawn. I would rather think that I was healthy than to know that I had cancer. But if we have an illusion, let us have it pleasing. The orthodox illusion is the worst that can be conceived. Take hell out of that illusion; take eternal pain away from that dream, and say that the whole world is to be happy forever – then you might have an excuse for calling it a pleasant illusion; but it is, in fact, a nightmare – a perpetual horror – a cross, on which the happiness of man has been crucified.

In the latest issue of Free Inquiry Magazine (February/ March 2010, Volume 30 Number 2), Paul Kurtz states that the promise of eternal salvation is the single most important hope religion affords believers. Yet, evidence for immortality (of a soul) is totally insufficient, based entirely on wishful thinking. This carries a bright side – it also means no rational basis for maintaining an the illusion or fear of a perpetual horror. Kurtz favors a stance by skeptics and other non-theists that challenges (in a nice way, of course) the foundation belief in immortality. He believes it would be healthy for society to expose the supernatural promise of eternal life as a false hope. Far better would be a message that death is the end for everyone – the believer and nonbeliever, the commander of armies and the lowly soldier, the dedicated teacher and the beginning student, the moral idealist and the profligate hedonist.

A change of this nature in the American populace would be a big shift, given the famous (infamous?) religiosity of Americans. Is this kind of dramatic change possible. It seems the answer might be Yes, given the fact that a majority of Americans profess a great respect for science. (Source: The Pew Forum report.) An appreciation of the prospects for changing attitudes about eternal salvation must begin with an understanding of the basics dynamics of the process of change itself.

According to Webster, change is to become different, to pass from one phase to another, to undergo transformation and transition. This is what happens in life, we change as do all organisms-the economy changes, society changes, our needs, preferences and desires change-almost everything changes and very little stays the same.

Yet, despite the fact that it happens all the time, change entails much stress. This is as true today as in the past-there is no reason to expect this fact to change any time soon. Futurists and others who write about these things believe the rate of change in years to come will be at a faster rate than before. We live in a global information age; many workers are running faster to stay in the same place, like Alice in her fictional Wonderland. Only now the nature of the change for many is not so wonderful, because too few have learned to welcome, manage, and turn this change phenomenon to their advantage. Consider this: The amount of information generated from 1960 to 1985 equaled what had previously taken five thousand years; further, this doubling occurred again in the last fifteen years! The current estimate is that the next doubling will occur in five years – hold on to your hat!

Fortunately, we are not powerless in the face of rapid change. We can all take more control of change. Leland Kaiser, one of my former professors when I was studying for a doctorate in the late seventies, said, Don’t wait for the future, invent it now.

That is what Kurtz wants us to do – and I’m all for it. In Exuberant Skepticism (Prometheus Books, 2010), the issue of false hopes versus science and realistic possibilities for quality of life are explored.

Exuberant Skepticism is synonymous with REAL (reason, exuberance and liberty) wellness. While Dr. Kurtz does not write about fitness and nutrition, he is a powerful advocate for a wellness lifestyle and a model practitioner of such disciplined choices. Exuberant Skepticism is a guidebook for mental health, a positive philosophy and an explicit call by a New Enlightenment, one that begins with an appreciation of the nature and heroes of the original Enlightenment. We need such a movement today at least as much as it was needed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when it came to fruition. We need what Kurtz terms emancipation from enslavement by prejudices, idols and avoidable errors, countless examples of which he describes in the 230 pages of this fine book.

In Exuberant Skepticism, editor John R. Shook offers seventeen of Kurtz’s writings on the two interrelated themes, all tied to reason, science, doubt, common sense and respect for the natural world and opposition to claims based on revelation, holy books and other forms of fraud, quackery and superstition. Themes of moral responsibility, the nature of reliable knowledge, myths, widespread ignorance, paranormal claims and religious worldviews are assessed. These and other critiques are linked to contemporary politics, ethics and paths to meaning, purpose and the pursuit of the good life.

Kurtz is at his entertaining and educational best when describing and dissecting the preposterous but unyielding claims for dogmas and traditions of blind faith. The skeptical strategies provided for contending with irrationalities through science and reason are invaluable elements of REAL wellness and deserve careful study and wise application. This book will most appeal to those who already embrace REAL wellness and the elements of exuberant skepticism that Kurtz describes. However, the main beneficiaries of the work would be the believers in one or more of the following topics, addressed with reference to the evidence – or lack thereof, that undermines each:

* Life after death.
* Miracles.
* Creationism.
* Communications with the dead.
* UFO visitations and the like.
* Parapsychology.
* Astrology.
* Sacred literature.
* The science of religion.
* All things transcendental.

Alas, these are the least likely readers. A pity. Kurtz offers much insight into the thinking of a wonderful man. It is well edited and in many ways a comprehensive call not to arms but to thoughtful reeducation of an entire population. I recommend Exuberant Skepticism as a primer on the intellectual component of a positive lifestyle oriented to the highest possible quality of life.

Plato taught the idea that philosophy begins with wonder. REAL wellness is a philosophy, a positive way of viewing life choices. An introduction to REAL wellness should create a climate of wonder, a time of awe, astonishment, surprise, admiration, marvel – in short, wonder.

Contrast this, the expectation for REAL wellness, with the agenda for the worksite norm of traditional, disease management program offerings (e.g., risk assessments, testings, appraisals oriented to cost savings, absenteeism). Where is the wonder to be found in that?

Any topic, skill area, concept or idea associated with living well, with a disciplined mindset and behavioral pattern consciously shaped to promote good mental and physical health and high quality of life values, fits logically in the four elements of REAL wellness. The letters R-E-A-L in REAL wellness represent four elements for this philosophy: reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. These four elements encompass all that quality of life education should address. The phrase worksite wellness has been employed for decades for programs that manage risk and reduce costs; REAL wellness can and should define the next generation of programming. The goals?

* To engage and inspire employees to glimpse possibilities, shape and manage effective and satisfying choices.
* To guide employees into a diverse range of explorations that will lead to new and satisfying ways to increase life quality.
* To stimulate people to think about how we choose to live our lives, what sort of people we are and wish to become, what kinds of work we can do and how we might explore our potentials and spend leisure hours experiencing the most joy and happiness.

A REAL wellness agenda of wonder and joy includes guided explorations of topics like meaning and purpose, happiness, environment consciousness, global responsibilities, effective decision making, individual freedoms and social responsibilities, human rights, ethical explorations and much more. REAL wellness is about great ideas, not eliminating health risks or lowering blood pressure. Medical management has far too long been the focus of company wellness, which of course was never wellness in the first place. Medical management by some name remains a worthy mission for organizations and should be continued by medical managers. However, it seems wise not to confuse medical management of risks with REAL wellness – multiple life topics, skills acquisition and familiarity with and consideration of mankind’s great ideas. The latter will engage more employees and prepare people to artfully manage life problems and possibilities. There is, of course, no established, proven protocol for such endeavors, at least not yet. This is a strength of the idea, not a barrier. With no established precedents, there are no limits or expectations – let the educational sessions begin with explorations of justice, temperance, wisdom, truth and beauty. For starters. Plato called these topics or questions about them license questions – because they gave those who asked and pondered such matters license to stick your nose into everything. Worksite REAL wellness can stick its nose into theoretical and practical subjects in order that employees can work through issues themselves on the road to charting and fine-tuning quality of life pathways.

In traditional company wellness, employees might, on a good day, be stimulated to better understanding consequences of a high fat diet and an aversion to strenuous exercise; in REAL worksite wellness, the agenda might guide them to what A.C. Grayling termed a better understanding of the world and how to live in it more sensibly. In REAL wellness, bottom-line questions are always on the agenda, such as, What gives life meaning? The answers are infinite and must be individually chosen, if only in the sense that one says, I’ll go along with what they’re having. (This is what religious leaders count on – and why there are religious schools.) That won’t do for a proper philosopher – Mr. Grayling’s own choice is that our response to beauty, attachment and friendship is what gives our life meaning. (The quotes attributed to A.C. Grayling in this essay can be found in an interview published in the Australian Age newspaper written by Barney Zwartz in an article entitled “The God Botherer,” 3/13/2010.)

Voltaire would, if he were around today, advise that REAL wellness must to the extent possible be evidence – based and open to the search for truth, knowing how difficult it is to confirm a claim to truth. However, in the spirit of exuberant skepticism, a REAL wellness outlook about the true path to quality of life might be sensed in Voltaire’s remark on the subject: “I love the man who seeks the truth and hate the man who claims to have it.”

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