The following is the text of a talk I gave at the 2009 Dragon*Con convention (Skeptrack), held in Atlanta over Labor Day. It is a minority view response to recent discussions about where the “skeptic movement” ought to go from here. It was intended exclusively for a skeptic audience. An audio version can be downloaded at http://www.truthdriventhinking.com/audioblog.com, or heard here at iTunes).

Greetings!! What an honor it is to represent flyover country today. I’ve titled my comments Feeding the Skeptic’s Soul: Do More of This, and Less of This. You’ve probably heard this common device for improving communication—“do more of this, and less of this”—and as I was grappling with recent discussions of the future of the skeptic movement, and the scope of our inquiry going forward, it seemed like a workable framework to explore a nagging little feeling I have as a skeptic.

First, a quick warning about something that has bothered me: I’ve come from Kalamazoo, Michigan, a humble skeptic who has chronicled and shared his journey to this skeptical worldview through a couple of books; a three-year old skeptical podcast called Truth-Driven Thinking; and most recently a skeptical novel exploring religious dogma in some depth. So, here I am talking to a group of people equally committed to science, reason, and truth-driven thinking over emotion-driven thinking—many of whom are far brighter than I, and many of whom are people who love data, numbers, logic, technology, charts, graphs, and research papers as much or more than I do—and I’m mostly going to talk to you about … feelings. And emotion. WTF, eh? But this nagging feeling I’ve had is intimately tied to this question of where skeptic movement ought to focus, so here goes my two cents worth on both topics.

A Personal Paradox

My nagging feeling related to the future of the skeptic movement—and in ways I hate to admit this, is one of being isolated. Okay, I’ll take it a step farther and call it loneliness. As uncomfortable as it is for me to say, and probably for you to hear, Spock we are not; we do have feelings and emotions. I’ve determined it IS logically consistent for me to recognize two seemingly in-conflict consequences of my skeptical worldview: a great sense of completeness, peace, order the universe, and satisfaction—and also this sense of isolation because of the questions I’ve asked honestly and thoughtfully of myself and the world.

Now before go further, I need to be clear that there are many religious skeptics, or at least deist skeptics. I get that, and agree that a great skeptic can be a believer in a personal deity. Some even believe in Heaven and Hell, and for them I like to quote Mark Twain, who said, “[A] Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to—both have their advantages, ‘heaven for climate, hell for company!’”

Seriously I want to recognize our believer skeptics fully, but for my comments to make sense you need to know that for me and for many skeptics, our open inquiry into testable and untestable claims about the history of religions has led us away from traditional faith, and increased our skepticism about claims of supernatural agency in our world. Because this is my experience, and that of many, it is relevant to my discussion of this apparent paradox between a more fulfilling narrative of how the world works (skepticism), and a social deficit of sorts.

This satisfaction I mentioned is worth explaining just a bit. In a nutshell, I feel better equipped to handle life’s inevitable losses, lotteries, pains and joys, and tragedies and triumphs under a skeptical/naturalistic worldview. Life is even more rare and precious than when I could abdicate caring for others because everything would be made right and be part of a plan for another world or life. I feel empathy and other emotions on a deeper and more meaningful level than I ever did when I believed in contra-causal free will—essentially that there could be effects and reactions that had no natural or earthly cause.

Literalized mythology worked for me in some regards: a driving force, a loving overseer—but not others. He killed little babies in tsunamis, or allowed thousands to die in landslides and earthquakes. He healed some people internally where we couldn’t see or understand how he had allegedly moved or changed something in the physical person—a cell or molecule or whatever—in a way that was uncaused by any natural chain of events; but he couldn’t grow back limbs on amputees, where we could see what had to happen. That, or he hates all the amputees, because he never heals them.

Free Will

Or maybe that would be too obvious? Remove “free will,” right? There’s a concept! That’s always the excuse given for the existence of Hilter and all the horrific HUMAN evil in the world—we must have “free will.” Of course free will still doesn’t explain perpetual human suffering like the mass slaughter of humans in the Indonesian tsunamis. Why would an all-loving, all-powerful, all-seeing god allow that?

I highly recommend a book on theodicy and the so-called “problem of evil” and suffering by eminent NT scholar Bart Ehrman. It’s called “God’s Problem.” Still even on the question of human evil, Ehrman asks, “Is there no free will in heaven?” Great question. It sounds like a wonderful place, but if there’s no free will—in the words of Tina Fey—“Do I really want to go to there?” (Now there’s a good skeptical question).

So for me, here on earth we really don’t need to leap to supernaturalism to fill the gaps, especially since so far all gaps in knowledge have been temporarily filled by the simple “God did it” explanation when we didn’t understand, but then filled by real, useful, natural explanations, by science and intellectual curiosity. And every time we gain more knowledge, it turns out that a natural explanation about the interaction of “stuff”—like biochemistry, genetics, atoms and molecules—best accounts for everything. Chance, predators, psychology … the sun and rotation of the earth create weather; we don’t need God to understand crop failures (weather/climate); why some planes to crash others do not (metal fatigue); what caused that tsunami (converging tectonic plates), or why Michigan football teams can’t seem to win (Satan).

Now: it’s important to note that as skeptics when we don’t know an answer, it’s okay to simply say “I don’t know,” and leave it at that. And for me, that is less stifling of creativity and more honest and satisfying than saying, “God (magic) did it. That’s the answer. We don’t need to investigate any further.” In fact, we can embrace and celebrate mysteries and stand in awe and wonder just as much as the next person. I’ve literally been moved to tears on a mountain top while skiing. (Then again I’m the sappy skeptic.)

Okay, enough. You get the picture: the myths of a personal god just don’t work for me, and they don’t work for many skeptics.

Loneliness

This leads me back to loneliness. Part of my loneliness comes from a simple observation from everyday life: many people where I live—want to fix me—on a daily basis. They don’t honor my right to my own beliefs or inquiry, and when they learn of them they always say the same things: “Have you read CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity?” Or they cite something from William Lane Craig or Josh McDowell. Some more “enlightened” evangelists cite Gregg Boyd, or perhaps even Francis Collins or some new-age woo from Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra. But the bottom line is where I come from, in Western-Michigan-Dutch Christian-Reformed-land, what seems like a majority of people want to fix me. Whether that is for their own ego, or because they truly care about me and my soul—I don’t know.

It’s worth noting that I’ve done my homework. I’ve read and studied Christian apologetics … so the “have you read Mere Christianity?” line is getting tired. It is also a subtle form of bias—a constant admonishment that somehow I’m ill-informed, or not okay (as the minority). Never mind that I’ve come to my always-provisional estimates of reality only after great study and effort, and availing myself to high-level scholarship from more than one side—far more, I could argue, than most of those who claim certainty; my novel contains over 100 real-world citations—but it is I who am not okay, or so I am reminded almost daily. Silly example, but I just went for an eye appointment and my Doctor asked if I was having any trouble reading the fine print of my Bible. I let it slide, by the way. Should have said, “No, but have you read Mere Christianity?” (For the record: dreadfully inane book!)

This kind of inadvertent or casual “witnessing” often happens at a cocktail party, in a business setting, or in a public venue when we’re engaged in conversations. While in no way am I uncomfortable with it, nor do I believe people should refrain from speaking in terms of their myths, I am constantly amazed by how many times in an average day people tell me God was involved with this, or they’re thanking God for that, or something was divinely “meant to be.”

Of course the ability to see the hits and ignore the misses baffles me. “Fifteen wonderful children were mutilated in that bus accident, but praise God he saved little Sarah. It’s a miracle!” Or better yet, “I just lost my speech, my eyesight, and two limbs, but praise God I know he has a plan for me and will bring me through. What a gift.” Whatever gets you through, I suppose. Where the hell was he when you got into this! We might want to make a call to the loss avoidance department rather than just rush in and fix claims quickly, eh?

Now I’m partly making fun, it is true, because that worldview SO doesn’t work for me. But that said I truly don’t often make fun—and hope and believe this is an audience that can follow my message without offense. My heart is genuine that if they find strength there, and don’t impose it on me or deny their child medical care, good for them; but what I’m telling you is that it is lonely and isolating for me where I live, in everyday life. Sometimes I DO need to laugh with you, my fellow fans of unbridled, intellectually honest inquiry, and blow off some steam.

Back to the awkward conversations in which I find myself pretty much daily. So say an acquaintance in the store tells me how they’ve been healed. I am then left with the decision of whether or not to share my views. Sometimes I do; sometimes I think my sense of authenticity and self-respect demand that I at least demonstrate I am not in agreement.  I also like the idea of avoiding the appearance of being complicit and in agreement—particularly if I think there is a shot at consciousness-raising, or a better understanding between us.

Most often, however, I do not entertain illusions that I can change peoples’ minds, nor do I wish to arrogantly assume that the myths that people hold, which are unsatisfying to me, should be equally as unsatisfying for them. I understand they may even be wired differently—in fact, I rile people up by saying I wonder if some brains are wired such that they are “better served” by a theistic worldview. I may be egocentric at times, but I find it unsettling territory to demand my worldview will fit everyone—even the most right brained among us—like a one-size-fits-all glove, or putting square pegs in a round hole.

So most often I say nothing as they tell me how their brain tumor was tweaked and manipulated physically through prayer—not biochemistry alone—some matter somewhere was moved in a way that was not naturally caused. Often there is absolutely no point to saying anything. So despite having written an entire novel on the dangers of dogmatic belief in anything (did I mention I hate when people talk about their books … like mine that is available through Amazon, our web site, or any major retailer? Unconscionable.) But alas, I let it slide.

Even if I wanted to be rude, which I don’t, I couldn’t get through a day if I didn’t let things go. I can’t debate everyone all day, everyday, nor do I want to do so.

It is worth noting that I am not just talking about religion, but plenty of divisive, tribal customs that mean very little to me add to this sense of isolation. Whether it is failing to adopt a political party, a company loyalty, a sports team loyalty—despite my earlier jokes, a favorite color, a theme song, or some other bias, prejudice, slogan, or in-group mantra, the upshot of all of it is a tendency to feel like I don’t belong ANYWHERE. To be honest, sometimes I’ve thought that if I were gay I’d be better off, because I could be alone together with someone else. As a skeptic, I do feel isolated. But I can’t be alone in feeling isolated, can I? It is my personal observation that I am not alone, but I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve heard other skeptics talk about this.

This is my first Dragon*Con, but I have attended several of The Amazing Meeting events sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation. At my first, Julia Sweeney opened with her poignant and moving one-woman play, “Letting Go of God.” What a masterpiece. I laughed awkwardly at parts; and being an admitted sap, I was tearing up at others. Hell, I still like Little House on thePrarie. (Hey, ever hear of the Little House drinking game? You drink every time you hear the phrase “Pa, come quick, he’s hurt bad”; little did I know how right the comedian who said that was.) In subsequent years, I watched Hal Bidlack give a marvelous and emotional speech about his unwillingness to leave behind a shred of hope for a non-falsifiable Deistic watchmaker-god. It garnered one of the largest and robust standing ovations I’ve seen at a skeptic gathering. I don’t agree, but I loved it. He expressed, honestly, his human needs and how his human experience interacted with his rational mind.

Conversely, I will note that in the years after that, where real-world applications of these big questions were slightly downplayed in favor of more traditional skeptic subjects, I was fascinated to notice that virtually all the table conversations were dominated by talk of religion. With no prompting on my part, lunches and breaks were filled with interpersonal connections and discussions about how critical thinking impacted interfaith homes, and marriages and families.

It can be a tough thing to deconvert and no longer share the same worldview as the people you hold dear.

Why We Gather

It was obvious to me, these were the WIFM issues attendees at skeptic conferences were discussing. These were the things that were impacting their LIVES. The science and topics were great, but many of these non-scientists were working to apply these reason-driven concepts to their 9:00 to 5:00 worlds, and be nurtured by the experience of being together. They had needs that were perhaps going unmet by the conference content proper. Honestly, for some I suggest those needs were as big a part of their attendance, as the content.

In business I have often asked owners and staff the purpose of collecting charts, graphs or for that matter measuring anything. Why do we measure systems? The answer is simple. We look back, to predict forward. We want to estimate the results of future changes. If we were going to leave things alone forever, measuring them would be relatively useless. I see a parallel to the skeptic movement, and the feelings of isolation from the general population that I sometimes feel.

I don’t simply want to know the facts of the past: whether there are or are not UFOs and little green men. I don’t simply want to know the historical truth about that noise in the basement—whether it was the house settling or my dead father rattling chains. I want to know because answers to these questions are directly relevant to my future! I want to predict and extrapolate the data to the bigger questions, because those are where we ultimately gravitate in life. It’s about me, for me. And for you, it is about you and your life! Am I alone in that?

Big Foot’s existence is interesting, but the big public policy questions of a deity angry over stem cell research, or guiding economies, or appointing leaders by some Karmic force like Doug Coe and the powerful “Family” in Washington believe, or if Goerge Bush really told French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 that Iraq must be invaded to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible’s satanic agents of the Apocalypse; or if burning condoms in AIDS-ravaged African makes sense because of some twisted, Gnostic or Augustinian distain for all that is flesh—seem to me quite significant. As does whether or not my wife will be bound to me for the afterlife as well as this one—as the Mormon’s believe.

Yes, UFO investigations teach me about the world and about epistemology, as does Randi’s investigation of Uri Gellar—in profound ways!!!! I couldn’t be more grateful and respectful … Randi is a hero of mine. But combine them with investigations by the likes of Dr. Robert Price, or Bart Ehrman, or Robert Funk, or Sister Karen Armstrong, or Bishop Spong, and I might also calculate the odds of there being a heaven or hell!!! And knowing that changes everything!!!! about how I’ll live my life, and the narratives through which I’ll make sense of it!!! And make the world a better place!!!

All that said, I guess I’m saying that all roads lead to Rome. All of our questions are going somewhere, and building on one another, and that “somewhere” is WHAT THE ANSWERS MEAN TO ME and MY FUTURE, and HUMAN EXISTENCE as a whole. And I’ll bet your inquiry, and all the questions you ask about the world and the universe, you ask because the answers mean something to your existence. So with all due respect, I am saying that I DO want us to play with the big questions that matter to society: philosophy, economics, social psychology, theory of government, religious claims, definitions of morality, and fuzzy issues and other soft sciences that lie beyond hard science. The tools of science and reason are still the best for inquiry, are they not?

But my larger point: from Julia Sweeney, to Hal Bidlack, to my sense of detachment and isolation, what speaks to us as a movement is more than just the facts and the scientific papers. We could get the facts from science journals alone, and there would be no need to gather and drink beer.

But we do gather at skeptic conferences. We don’t hold hands and sway, or listen to inspirational music. But MAYBE WE SHOULD!! Human souls need to be fed. Granted, to varying degrees, but they do. Is there a way we could do more of that? Do more of the fun things that Dragon*Con and Amazing Meetings afford us.

Of course we humans tend to divide ourselves. Much of my work, and my novel in particular (Amazon or see www.asecretoftheuniverse.com), has been centered on how we hurt one another through our divisive tribalism and dogmatic differences.

So here is the pickle: I don’t want to be a tribal skeptic. I don’t want to go to skeptic church and never see the outside world. It isn’t healthy for me, and it isn’t healthy for the world. But that said, I do need to retreat there sometimes. I need to enjoy the fellowship of people who think the way I do. Maybe I need to even make a joke about Mormons or Christians. That doesn’t mean I’m not respectful; it means I need some affirmation that it’s okay to frickin’ think!!! And ask questions!!! I need to know that all the people who tell me I’m incomplete and wrong, on a daily basis, aren’t the only people in the world—even if it feels that way where I live.

So I think we should gather more, not for the purpose of continuing to brainwashing ourselves—of course we skeptics aren’t conformists anyway: a stink eye from Shermer doesn’t turn us into zombies too readily; but it can happen. It happens the same way all groups become egocentric and inwardly focused, and intolerant of the human rights of others to hold views different than our own.

Suggestions

So what can we skeptics do more of to help me feel less isolated? What can we do less of?

Humbly I suggest, do more of this:

  • Feed my soul (I don’t really believe in a soul, but there is the value in symbols). With humor, with fun gatherings, soul-stirring musical performances, with holding hands and swaying if you’re into that, with support, with friendship, with … Tiamat willing … hugs. (I better get one f-in hug out this effort whether you liked it or not).
  • Gather
  • Be kind and inclusive like churches can be. Step up the kindness a notch or two—for everyone, regardless of their belief. Be inviting. We can joke about the Christians in private, as a catharsis, but if we actually mean it, or worse yet say it maliciously in public, that potentially displays an unhealthy chip on our shoulder, and does not favor breaking down the walls of persecution and tribalism.
  • Somehow, give me the space and forum to move beyond UFOs.
  • Give me a community. Call me crazy, but weekly gatherings for fellowship could be done in a non-religious setting, couldn’t they? Some are doing it. Reed Essau; CFI; Drinking skeptically, Russ Schussler and the Atlanta skeptics. Do more of it. (I need to do more of it.) After all, institutions where people are tolerant of one another, make meals after someone dies, celebrate life’s milestones, and revere the mysteries of the universe together isn’t a bad idea, in and of itself, is it?
  • Do this, read and comment on my BLOG. Seriously, it’s called Perspectives: Food for the Skeptic’s Soul—and that’s how I learn and grow—through kind/honest dialogue. And that blog is where I throw around real-world issues about the softer side of skepticism and what it means to our lives. I’ve written about everything from monogamy, to how the memories of our loved ones really do transcend death (without appeal to supernaturalism). I grow through exchanges and dialogue—so come join me there.

Perhaps I’m calling, for lack of a better term, for more skeptic churches. In fact in one post I’ve advocated more of you join me as ordained reverends to perform secular support functions and help people celebrate and mourn life’s big milestones. All of this exists, but frankly, not in so much in my neighborhood. We need to do more of this.

Needs for affirmation

Lastly, fellow skeptics, I’d suggest we do more of this: understand that we really are humans and we all have needs, whether we admit it or not. Even those of us with the pockets most diligently protected from ink, even some of us who can spend hours hacking code, or discussing the nuanced arguments of Nietzsche—we still have needs.

Much of my fascination has centered on the dark side of our needs for affirmation, and how we all have a malignant tendency to seek information that affirms what we already think we know, rather than a desire to find out we are wrong.

This is true; but the fact that we have this strong desire to be told we are smart, or right, or beautiful, or worthwhile, should tell us something else. It is human!!!! It’s okay to be human. Frankly, it’s all we’ve got! Push come to shove, in the end, it’s our only option!

These needs should also tell us that regardless of where we are on the spectrum of emotional neediness—and I suspect we are somewhere on the less needy side of the general population distribution—skeptics, being human, still need their souls fed. I still need to once in a while lick my wounds and relax around people who think the way I do, who tell me that I’m brilliant—even when I’m not. And this, this is the piece that we often overlook in our rationality. The acceptance. The loving, if you’ll forgive me, the warmth, that is taught in other worldviews. We need that here, and we need it in action.

SUMMARY

For the record, I completely respect the views of Daniel Loxton and others from last year’s panel: the skeptic community probably does need to mind its image and avoid being mired in an endless loop of metaphysical blather that can very likely distract it from its mission of education and debunking more pressing quackery.

But from my humble perspective as someone who doesn’t have university thinkers to hang out with; from the perspective of everyday laborers who don’t have too much time or too much patience to socialize in forums or on the web; from my perspective as a person who lives in a dominantly religious culture; from my perspective as a social human who does want to belong and be at least occasionally loved and respected; from my perspective as someone who is regularly told, implicitly or explicitly, that my journey through life isn’t quite right, that if I just read CS Lewis one more time I would GET it—I need not only factual information from the skeptic community, I need to sooth my loneliness through a sense of community. I need the freedom to explore big questions together. I need insights and reminders about how to live a better, more fulfilling life without appealing to woo-woo magic or the supernatural; I need to have fun, laugh together, support one another, or Isis-forbid help one another through tough times—perhaps mourn a death with someone who gets me, or cook food for someone when they are sick.

But to do that will require not being afraid to move into that realm we skeptics seem to fear, perhaps more so than most people: intimacy, awe, wonder, emotion, humor, Horus-damn-it, maybe even holding hands and swaying (Nahhh—okay, not that).

The skeptic community can, and probably should in many ways stick to its knitting, ghost-busting, and quack hunting. But my simple request today—with hats off to Julie Sweeney, Randy Olsen, and Hal Bidlack for leading the way—is let’s not forget to feed the skeptic’s soul, as well as his intellect; and let’s continue to give ourselves a sense of community, and the freedom and the forum to extend intellectually honest inquiry to the big questions about our world—because they matter.

I will close with the words of Albert Einstein, who said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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