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?