Skeptic Confessions

I have so many things I *have* to write, but I find it hard to just get started. So here’s something rather whimsical and personal and free-form to start… the journey of just one little skeptic.

I am skeptical because I am gullible. I have to work at skepticism for my own benefit. Elyse over at Skepchick shared this sentiment a little while ago, and I want to echo that here. Not all those who consider themselves part of this movement or community or whatever can honestly say, “you know, I’ve always been a skeptic…” because that’s not the way it works for everyone. I want to put this out there for those who feel like they are “not skeptical enough” every time they hear one of their skeptical heroes say that on a podcast interview. Okay, maybe that’s just MY insecurity.

Damn uniforms SUCKED.

I was not only raised Catholic… I wanted to be the best Catholic ever! I was, from a very early age, the one who cared most about religion in my family. I took to heart all the things the nuns at school told us, and made my family follow all the rules, too. I had to sit in the front row at church, just so I could be a part of everything. I even, at one point, told my mom I wanted to be a nun! (Forgive me. I had no idea what sex was, yet.) I have some little goody-two-shoes quality that made me want to be the best person I could be. They said that following God was the way to do it, so I did. And dammit, I did it well, because as those of you who know me know, I can’t do anything half-assed. I need to do it all the way, or just give up. I read the Bible much as I could (before I got bored of the “begots”), became an altar server as soon as girls were allowed in, joined the choir, and, once I graduated junior high, became a lector (person who does the readings at mass.) I was going to stick with it and become a Communion server at 18. I accepted the “mystery of the Trinity,” the mystery of transubstantiation, the authority of the Pope, the necessity of confession… you name it, I did it. I even felt the Holy Spirit hit me and go through me during a church retreat. As a young teenager, I was IN.

Boo

But wait, kids, there’s more. I didn’t stick completely to the doctrine, for I believed in ghosts, spirits, and contact with the “other side.” I won’t get too much into detail, since this was a saga that my friends and I were engaged in for many years through elementary school and at the start of middle school, but no one could convince me that these didn’t exist. You know why? I felt them. I saw them. I experienced them. The most vivid and terrifying one was when I opened up my bedroom door one night and saw… and FELT, a woman rush past me then disappear into the darkness. It was a real as sitting here, typing on this computer. As I got older, I saw, felt, experienced, less and less, and chalked that up to just growing up and not being as “in touch” as children could be. But no one could take away those earlier experiences.

Enter high school, where I continued my Catholic education. I was excited to go to this particular school because I would be part of the “Science Discovery Institute.” Through this program, I was able to develop my love for astronomy, and be assured that I could do that as a job when I grew up! I fell in love with physics, read On the Origin of Species cover to cover, and truly started my life as a science nerd. I also learned more and more about my own religion, but wasn’t always thrilled with what I came across. Some things just didn’t sit right with me, though years later I can’t remember exactly what. I became more distrustful of morality handed down from on high, and delved more into my individual understanding of god and spirituality. I eventually learned that I disagreed with the Pope on many issues, not the least of which was birth control, and eventually stopped calling myself a Catholic and going to mass, preferring instead to be a Christian, searching for her own answers. Later still, I dropped that label as well when I stopped believing in the divinity of Jesus, and by college I had pushed god into the role of creator and occasional overseer.

Before you think that this is the beginning of my skepticism, think again. Though I questioned by religion, I picked up other beliefs. With high school came a home PC with the internet. With teenage-hood came my own TV in my bedroom. Now I had access to all kinds of things I never knew of before. I started watching the X-Files because David Duchovny is hot. I kept watching it because it was interesting. Somewhere along the line however, I lost the distinction between fiction and fact. I knew the show itself was pure fiction, but there were all these websites talking about UFOs and abductions and conspiracies… I took it all in. I read everything I could, watched every damn episode of Sightings on the Sci-Fi channel that I could sneak in, even stayed up late listening to “Coast to Coast” with Art Bell from my tiny alarm clock radio. I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion like it was real. And it scared me, though I wished to see a UFO. I worried that maybe, just maybe, something bad would happen when we reached the year 2000. Why would these people lie? Why shouldn’t I trust eye-witness reports? I mean, they said they SAW this stuff. Oh, and there was totally a conspiracy over the assassination of JFK, I mean c’mon!

New Year’s Day 2000 came and went uneventfully. Hmmm, maybe these guys were just overreacting. I still never saw a UFO, nor could I find a hint of verifiable, legitimate, physical evidence. Maybe… just maybe… it’s not a big deal?

A lot happened to me personally in 2000 and 2001, and so I didn’t have time for such extracurricular activities. August 2001 I went to college. September 2001, my world was shaken at its foundations. I had to re-think everything.

Sometime after 9/11, I had my first run-in online with a “truther” as they are now called. He tried to convince me that there was no plane that hit the Pentagon, that it was a military missile. Had this exchange been in person, I would have probably ripped his head off. You see, my aunt had been on that plane, and I was not to happy to hear this nonsense. After the anger subsided, I started to think more carefully about conspiracy theories in general. Watching one spring up right in front of you is very educational. I finally began to see the holes in the “theories” and the misguided speculations. Maybe we don’t have hard evidence of alien spacecraft because there never were alien spacecraft. Maybe Lee Harvey Oswald did it all by himself. Those seemed simpler, more rational. It was like a veil finally lifted.

I prefer with cream. And joy!

It was a book by Ayn Rand that finally told me it was okay to be an atheist, to not believe in god at all. That felt good. That felt liberating. I could still focus on the wonders of life and be a good person. (I also picked up some other ideas from her books that I’ve also gradually lost with time, evidence, or lack of evidence. Everyone has that phase, right?) I went about calling myself an atheist, sticking to natural explanations, and trying to show the world that atheists could be good, happy, moral people, too. I did have a brief moment of panic when the knowledge set in that when you die, you are gone for good but even that passed within minutes, and I resolved to enjoy the life that I do have. Also, no god, no spirits, no ghosts… just an imaginative childhood. In 2005, I started grad school, and became a more vocal atheist and science advocate during Dover v. Kitsmiller, a ruling which recently had an anniversary. Hearing Richard Dawkins speak at UVa helped, and I quickly ate up The God Delusion and other such books. I had my period of fire-brand atheism before I settled down and stopped pissing off my theist friends. (Sorry, guys. I was a dick.)

I moved on with the business of obtaining my Ph.D in astronomy. I would occasionally watch one of my professor’s dogs when he was out of town. One of the perks was unlimited access to his huge home library. I happened upon Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World and was fascinated. I already knew of and loved Sagan, having been inspired to be an astronomer by the movie Contact. The application of the method of science to everything, his clear explanations of the UFO phenomenon, and the realization that the paranormal can be a fascinating topic without having to believe it’s all real… it was eye-opening. This was my formal introduction to skepticism as a way of thinking. Later still, I was looking up some astronomy myths on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy site and started reading his excellent blog, and checking out the links on the side, and listening to Skepticality

Well, the rest is probably similar to many stories out there. And here I am, part of this community or movement or whatever you want to call it, and it keeps me honest. It keeps me from being so gullible. It takes work, and I like it. And I love the people I’ve met through this.

So that’s my story.

So I cringe just a bit when I hear someone say, “How can people be so STUPID to believe that!” Though I am guilty of having said that at times as well, I know that I have to remember that I’ve believed in lot of things, and I was never a natural-born skeptic. That doesn’t, however, mean I will hold back on people that are outright fraudulent, or not step in when someone I love is in danger of real harm as a result of pseudoscientific thinking.

I still hold beliefs today that are irrational. I have trouble letting go of complete free will, though neurological evidence tells us that life is otherwise. Some tiny part of me really believes that my car WILL survive through grad school without costing me too much more money. Skepticism IS a process, whether you like it or not. It is also a community; it is also a movement. It is a body of research with a rich history, and it is a way to live life. And I think I’m holding my own so far.

15 comments for “Skeptic Confessions

  1. December 28, 2010 at 01:14

    Awesome post Nicole! And very thought provoking, thanks for sharing. I suddenly feel compelled to write something now. “The Confessions of a Confused and Conflicted Solar Physicist” coming right up! ;)

    Cheers!

    Ian

    • December 28, 2010 at 14:44

      Yay! Can’t wait to see it :-)

  2. December 28, 2010 at 01:39

    I cringe at “How can they be so stupid to believe that?” statements also…
    There are just some things we cannot (yet)fully understand or predict. We like to feel certain, but there are still some mysteries in life.
    I hope your car defies the odds. =)

  3. December 28, 2010 at 02:24

    Nicole, this post was simply amazing, thank you so much. There were parts where I couldn’t believe the similarities with my own path to skepticism: my years in a Jesuit High school, my good intentions to be a good catholic, believing in spirits, UFOS … I even met people that regularly received telepathic messages from our “big brothers”.

    Just last year I watched the whole Cosmos series for the first time, and this event reconnected me with my first memories as a child behind a telescope with my father. Only then I reconsidered the things he wanted me to understand about the universe.
    Once again I started painting, this time fueled by the love of those first memories and the thirst to learn more about the stars.

    The funny thing is, I always thought of my self as a critical thinker, a bit of a skeptic. But in reality, there were plenty of things I still believed in, even though I doubted them. On 2009, as I learned more about astronomy and science, I was able to re evaluate my believes under a new perspective. It was after watching the episode of Cosmos about Keppler, where Carl’s words deeply resonated in me:

    “When Keppler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions, that is the heart of science.”

    Once again, thank you for sharing.

    -Dacio

  4. December 28, 2010 at 04:56

    Wonderful, thought provoking post, rings very familiar in places.
    Thanks for sharing, I may do one of these myself as an exercise in self discovery :)

  5. DataJack
    December 28, 2010 at 08:32

    Well said, very thoughtful.

  6. meanderwithme
    December 28, 2010 at 10:25

    This post is so validating. I’m older than you, and became a skeptic and atheist later (around 35), but much of the background and path is so familiar otherwise. We were Southern evangelicals, so my “feel the spirit” moment involved speaking jibberish. :)

    Demon-Haunted World got me started, but a first-quarter grad class sealed the deal years later. What will it take to expose kids to critical thought sooner?

    (Came over via @badastronomer, because I’m married to one of those “how could anyone be so stupid” skeptic from birth types.)

  7. December 28, 2010 at 11:22

    Great post, found via @badastronomer. I like the progression of illustrative pics; very clever. My own experience is rather similar, and it was enjoyable reading your story.

  8. December 28, 2010 at 15:24

    It fills my heart with joy to see the skeptical.

  9. timur
    December 29, 2010 at 16:42

    I love skeptics!

  10. December 29, 2010 at 17:54

    Your story obviously resonates with others quite deeply, myself included. When Phil Plait asked the audience during his “Don’t be a dick” speech, how many of them once beleived in something they no longer believe, nearly everyone in that room put up their hand.

    I think most skeptics had a path to skepticism, and only a small few were truly always that way, perhaps due to some skeptical authority figure who was par of their childhood, who taught them to seek evidence and think for themselves.

    I don’t fit into that category though, as I too once believed in all sorts of mystical, extra-terrestrial rubbish, and I also wrote about my story on my blog.

    Thanks for sharing :D

  11. John Violette
    December 29, 2010 at 19:16

    An interesting personal journey. My guess is that there are people that are *almost* like you but never really manage to let go of belief systems even though they develop some level of doubt. The road of life has a huge number of forks, and some of them have taken people to very weird places.

  12. idoubtit
    December 31, 2010 at 10:04

    I love reading skeptics’ personal stories of transformation. I see A LOT of similarities between you and I. These conversions seem to be a combination of fortuitous happenings, little “a-ha” moments of revelation, and an innate process we sciencey types have inside. Complicated, messy, exhilarating and sometimes painful – that’s life. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Merijn
    December 31, 2010 at 14:22

    Touching story and one that must occur more often indeed. I’m lucky to be raised in a skeptic family (yes, the occur), and only now realising that that is rare, even in my country.
    I’m very lucky indeed, because likely I’d be too lazy to become skeptical hadn’t my mother taught me to be so, by expaining why we “believe” in the scientific method as the correct way of thinking, arising from the enlightenment.

    I say “believe”, because it is a logical thinking framework. We’d defend scientific findings today even if they, convincingly and by observation, contradict yesterdays findings. And we love not knowing yet and learning every day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *