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.
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.
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.
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.