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Skepticism And Religion

The historical scholarship of Isaac la Peyrère (1596–1676), Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), and Richard Simon (1638–1712) contributed to skepticism about the Bible. In response, it has been common to accuse skeptics of atheism, libertinism, and immorality. But skeptics were not necessarily atheists. One of the most common uses of skepticism was by the self-described orthodox against pagan claims to truth; by the Lutherans and Calvinists against Catholic claims to infallibility; and by Catholics against Protestant claims to truth. Many religionists believed that if all claims to truth can be demolished, one should accept traditional religion on faith. This position is known as fideism.

Various versions of fideism were widespread. Thinkers from Montaigne to Huet and Bayle wrote that skepticism cleared the way to faith by removing rationalist objections. Kant famously wrote that he had had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith. Whether some of these figures were insincere atheists, using fideism as a defense against charges of heresy, has been the subject of debate ever since.

But there is little doubt about the sincerity of many fideists. The sixteenth-century translators of Sextus, Hervet and Stephanus, were both Christians who believed that skepticism could help them in apologetics. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) in France Christianized skepticism by showing that, properly understood, it set the scene for Christianity. Philosophers at the Prussian Academy who translated the Greek, Latin, and British skeptics into French and German, such as Jean-Henri-Samuel Formey (1711–1797), Jean-Bernard Mérian (1723–1807), and Jean de Castillon (1709–1791), tried to draw the teeth of skepticism by adding notes that made it consistent with Christianity. The Germans Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788) and Friedrich Jacobi (1743–1819) adopted skepticism as a propaedeutic to Christian faith. Kierkegaard claimed that skepticism was the key to proper Christianity, which required a "leap of faith" after dogmatism had been destroyed by skepticism. The Russian theologian Lev Shestov (1866–1938) even rejected mathematics in order to achieve faith. Twentieth-century theologians were also compelled to either use skepticism or refute it.

In the twenty-first century it is safe to say that the challenges of the skeptical tradition to any claims to human truth and knowledge are alive and well. Many and perhaps most modern and postmodern thinkers have internalized much of skepticism, often without full awareness of the genealogy of their ideas. The chief elements of skepticism must be adopted, adapted, or refuted by any thinker. Since no one has succeeded fully at the last of these, variations on the former prevail.



Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De natura deorum; Academica. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Oakeshott, Michael. The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism. Edited by Timothy Fuller. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Sextus Empiricus. Against the Ethicists. Translated by Richard Bett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

——. The Skeptic Way: Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Translated by Benson Mates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


Bailey, Alan. Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonean Scepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bett, Richard. Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Floridi, Luciano. Sextus Empiricus: The Transmission and Recovery of Pyrrhonism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hankinson, R. J. The Sceptics. London: Routledge, 1995.

Laursen, John Christian. The Politics of Skepticism in the Ancients, Montaigne, Hume, and Kant. New York: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Paganini, Gianni, ed. The Return of Scepticism: From Hobbes and Descartes to Bayle. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Popkin, Richard H., and José R. Maia Neto, eds. Scepticism in Renaissance and Post-Renaissance Thought. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity, 2003.

Van der Zande, Johan, and Richard H. Popkin, eds. The Skeptical Tradition around 1800. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1998.

John Christian Laursen

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSkepticism - Academic Skepticism, Pyrrhonism, Early Reception, Reception In And Since The Enlightenment, Skepticism In Medicine And Science