Doubting Thomas, patron saint of the gullible

I don’t think there is such a thing as a patron saint of the gullible (as there’s one for the internet, it might be unnecessary duplication), but if there were, Thomas should be right at the head of the queue.

Strictly speaking, it would probably be more precise to call him the patron saint of easy marks, but however it’s phrased, it probably strikes you as unfair. After all, Thomas was the one disciple who’s named as being dubious of what the others told him about the resurrection. It was an outrageous claim, and he was justifiably cautious. If anything, shouldn’t he be associated with scepticism?

But consider what happens next. John’s gospel says that he met Jesus and instantly changed his mind, going from 0 to credulous in the blink of an eye. His previous justifiable disbelief was forgotten in a single moment of astonishment, and he became a true believer. He even seems from John’s account to have turned down an open invitation to verify that the person in front of him – who apparently materialised in a locked room – was real. Hardly a poster child for careful, cautious investigation.

There’s a sense in which this is possibly harsh on Thomas, as we have little idea how others reacted, but there’s a reason why I bring this up – his behaviour is typical of a certain sort of convert, the kind of person who seems to apply critical thinking consistently up to a certain point, but drops everything and changes their opinion completely as soon as they personally experience something they can’t instantly explain.

It’s so common that it’s become a cliché – I never used to believe in UFOs until I saw one myself, I used to be an atheist until I felt God’s love, and so on. These solipsistic sceptics had previously heard endless testimonies from people who believed in their latest flavour of woo, but rejected it all because they knew that our feelings and senses are unreliable. Then as soon as they themselves get a funny feeling or see something unusual, they become enthusiastic converts.

Contrary to appearances, this isn’t a sign of careful scepticism or critical thinking – you don’t get credit for an instant reaction of disbelief to everything you’re told, and in the end, Thomas did absolutely nothing to verify the facts. For all his talk, his instant, immediate reaction was to believe that his perception and interpretation were both entirely accurate. Even if they were, that wouldn’t make his behaviour sensible or rational, it would just mean he got lucky.

His previous doubt doesn’t make his sudden belief any more reliable, it just means he’s more confident in it. Despite his headlong rush to believe, it would seem to him that he thought about it rationally, and he would confidently claim not to have been fooled in some way. What’s the betting that Thomas’s own account would have been along the lines of all those other stories of former doubters, now converted to their particular cause? “I used to doubt, but then I saw the light.”

No, sorry. Previous doubts don’t mean anything if there’s no evidence of scepticism or critical thinking in your conversion. If anything, it makes you more likely to be fooled, out of a misplaced confidence in your own critical faculties. Frauds and charlatans love people like Thomas, because they have a misplaced confidence in their ability to question what they’re told, and will believe all sorts of things rather than admit that they could have been fooled.

Richard Feynman put it best: “The first rule is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Images by tableatny and Xurble, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “Doubting Thomas, patron saint of the gullible”

  1. Karin says :

    Isn’t the point with “Doubting” Thomas that he did insist on evidence and saw Jesus with his own eyes? If you thought someone was abroad, even saw them get on the aeroplane, and a bit later you met them in the street, or they came to your house, wouldn’t it be reasonable of you to think they were there in front of you? I know it’s not so common for people to come back from the dead, but seeing is usually a good reason for believing. Whether things happen exactly as John says is, of course, another matter.

    As to people who experience the presence God or Jesus, that can make it hard not to believe, as I well know. We can still question what the church teaches, though. If God exists, it doesn’t mean that every word written about God in the Bible or spoken about him in churches etc is true. Likewise, an encounter with the living Christ does not endorse every word of the New Testament and it certainly doesn’t give anyone the authority to control or abuse you in Jesus’ name.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      If seeing is usually a reason for believing, it’s not a good one. When the question’s relatively mundane, like seeing a colleague when you thought they were on holiday, there’s little point in investigating further. When the claim’s less plausible, it clearly warrants further investigation, because we are constantly deceived.

      If I see a magic trick I can’t explain, that doesn’t mean it’s real magic. If I see something odd in the sky, that doesn’t mean it’s the little green men. If a psychic appears to know something very detailed about someone, it doesn’t mean they’re getting supernatural information. The careful, rational course of action is to check that our perception is accurate.

      • Karin says :

        You don’t have to believe the event happened, but the point of John 20:24 – 29 is that Thomas was anything but gullible and there was enough evidence for even someone like Thomas to believe, someone who needed to check that his fellow disciples’ perception was accurate before he would believe.

        Today we may well apply different tests.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        That’s possibly the intended point, but I don’t see it.

        If I told you that I’d just seen one of your deceased relatives walking down the road, you wouldn’t believe me – rightly so. If you then saw (or thought you saw) that person yourself, what would your reaction be? Would you run up and hug them in absolute conviction that your long-dead relatives are coming back to life, or would you hesitate?

        Thomas knows that dead people don’t just get up and walk around, hence his doubt, which is why it’s so negligent of him to instantly conclude that this is exactly what he’s seeing. If I know there isn’t such a thing as dragons, why would my immediate reaction to a glimpse of something green and scaly be that it must be a dragon?

      • Karin says :

        Personally I think you are stretching your point a bit to far and in so doing missing the point of John 20:24-29. It’s not clear whether Thomas touched Jesus or not. If he did then your argument is unfounded.

        The rational approach is not always helpful, anyway, as our perceptions can be skewed for all sorts of reasons and there is still so much that even the best Scientists don’t fully understand.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Maybe I’m stretching a point, but I’m just reading the information I have, without any interpretation imposed on it. Even if he touched Jesus, I don’t think my argument’s unfounded, because a genuinely sceptic would investigate a whole lot more than that before reaching the extraordinary conclusion that a dead man had come back to life.

        The fact that our perceptions can be skewed is precisely why the rational approach (otherwise known as the scientific method) is not just helpful but essential. Otherwise, you must believe in UFOs, Nessie, Bigfoot, the Beast of Bodmin, mediums, psychics, reiki, homeopathy, and all sorts of things that some people are convinced really exist/work.

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