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Posted by on Aug 19, 2012 in skepticism | 6 comments

Whence skeptics?

I was reading Maria’s recent post So, What is a Skeptic Anyway? where she mentions her own, shall we say, pre-skepticism skepticism.

[ ...]I’ve never believed in gods, psychics, conspiracy theories, dowsing, or homeopathy[...]

It made me wonder, as atheists sometimes wonder about atheists, how did we, the avowedly skeptical, get that way? Maria apparently did not need tutelage. As a young person, I was very different. I had become an atheist at age 13, that being around the first time I tackled the subject of my own volition. But as late as 16 years of age I believed in ghosts, bigfoot, ESP, and aliens- I had had an encounter with a UFO, in fact, that terrified me. Granted, I wasn’t especially invested in any of these ideas. I didn’t read books on them or seek out conventions.

I had rejected the notion of a god based on the internal inconsistencies of the idea- especially the intractable morality problems. This just ain’t the sort of universe that has a shepherd. Why did I fail so badly at applying the same critical view toward the paranormal? I was totally taken. Why?

One reason is that I grew up watching terrible television programs like Unsolved Mysteries. Unscrupulous producers to this day stage misleading, if not outright fabricated, nonsense for the paranormal viewership. I was predisposed to believe by at least two factors. One, I wanted to believe. Very often, paranormal claims are romantic, even touching, in their message. The exasperated UFOlogist wants everyone to know that we’re not alone in the universe and that beings sort-of like us have crossed a vast chasm just to see us. Wouldn’t that be amazing? The ghost fan (or ghost story-teller on /r/nosleep) never talks about mundane spirits who were insurance adjusters that died at 84 from congestive heart failure. It’s almost always a child tragically killed before their time; an innocent man brutally murdered by a remorseless psychopath; a heartsick lover who takes their own life in refusing to live without the object of their affections. These stories elicit deep emotions, sympathy and wonder. If only it were so!

So, I’m a romantic. I wanted to believe all of that. That isn’t all though, I’m also extremely naive about people. I idealize them, and without knowing much of anything about them, expect them to be honest and sincere. At 16 I really didn’t know, or suspect, that professional TV producers would be making a living lying to me. I also assumed the eye witnesses were being truthful, or at least that they weren’t all frauds. These personal foibles on mine could not save God because God is too big of an idea. He/she/it has to be everywhere and responsible for all things. Ghosts and bigfoot are small and elusive. They did not instantly set off the red flags in my rather ignorant teenage mind the way that God had.

I had to be taught. Luckily, I was. Somewhere in those years a fellow atheist (in fact, the only one I knew of at the time) handed me a copy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Here’s where I might write “Mind blown” but that seems so inadequate. It’s only because of professional skeptics that I changed not just how I thought about bigfoot and UFOs, but loads of claims from other topics, especially the ones from my own stupid brain. They helped me develop my skeptical immune system, the spidey sense that tells me something is amiss, even when I haven’t worked out why yet.

I never lost my vulnerability to romantic ideas, or my naïveté, though. I just put them somewhere else: in the hardworking skeptics (among others) who make it their business to be sentinels in a land of caustic fraud. People who want to help save us from ourselves, who hold Sagan’s candle against the forbidding darkness of  ignorance. A thankless, noble endeavor.

What say you? How did you come to be here?

  • Evan Gelist

    Your mileage may vary. I am one of those people who have always been naturally skeptical. But then I read about other folks, like Michael Shermer for example, who seems to have reached his skeptical views through systematic exhaustion of the alternatives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bluharmony bluharmony

    I was infatuated with Sherlock Holmes and Isaak Asimov as a child, so that may be part of it. Also, my mother’s answers to the big questions were always agnostic. Funny, though, I was still afraid of monsters under the bed as a little girl even though I knew they didn’t exist. And to this day, I still engage in some silly superstitious behaviors, even though I know that it’s all absolute nonsense. Also, I would say that I was an agnostic rather than an atheist as a child, but what has changed is not so much my world view as my understanding of the word “atheism.”

  • http://www.skepticblogs.com/azatheist Ken

    Hi Ed,

    I can relate. I also used to watch Unsolved Mysteries, believed in UFO’s, believed in the Men in Black, and Roswell. Did you ever see the documentary Alien Autopsy? I used to believe this was absolute proof for the existence of aliens. They even had Steven Spielberg commenting on the film explaining how this couldn’t have been faked. I wonder how much they paid him to say that?

    Like you, it took a few years of learning critical thinking skills and reading skeptic literature to turn me into the full blown skeptic I am today.

    Take care!

    • Edward Clint

      Thanks, Ken. Glad I am not alone. And it just goes to show, there’s a lot of good to be done by the skeptical movement.

  • http://www.reason-being.com ReasonBeing

    It is interesting to think how we each got to where we are. I have always been a somewhat skeptical person. I never really bought into the paranormal stuff. However, it was not until I had a great under-grad professor that I really started to challenge my Catholicism. I would say that is what at that time that I became what we call a “skeptic”.

  • http://skepticblogs.com Linda Cooper

    I like to use one of Carl Sagan’s aphorisms to explain the many occurrences in my life that are difficult to explain otherwise.

    As a skeptic, I take everything with a “grain of salt” so to speak, but there are many things that have happened in my life that I cannot explain rationally. Still–I look for logical answers, and so far, Carl Sagan’s aphorism is the closest I have come to finding an explanation for the events in my life that I cannot explain otherwise.

    That is, “we are all made of “star stuff”–and the universe is all connected. This to me, is best explanation so far to explain situations in my life at least–that I could not explain otherwise. The Taoists espouse a philosophy that is very similar, and if you ever have a chance, read “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”–which connects physics to “spirituality.” It’s quite fascinating.

    Carl Sagan was a genius, and I hope that whatever his energy has become–that it is lighting the way for others.

    Let the dance go on….:)