I Could Have Had a V8?
From: Susan Kawa
To: James Randi and Michael Shermer
Dear James and Michael,
I've been reading, steadily, the small library of books you've produced, and felt it was time to register some of my comments.
I may represent the "average" convert from conventional thinking to skepticism and nontheism. I am a college graduate in my late 30's, married, two kids, a dog, cat, and nice little suburban brick house. While I understand that some people are "born skeptics", my migration toward skeptical thinking has occurred over a period of several years.
I notice that you both repeatedly express dismay that upon a particularly illuminating event or conversation, a person doesn't smack her forehead (V8!) and see the light. I think you should recognize and acknowledge that people who will change their life philosophy based on such a single conversation or event are NOT the sort of people you want championing the cause of critical thinking.
I think I understand why, when you present a compelling case to "believers" (of paranormal phenomena and/or theism), that they reject it outright or (later) weasel an alternate explanation that aligns with their original thinking.
(For the purposes of this explanation, I will lump paranormalists with theists. I realize this is a blatant simplification, but the psychological motivation is perhaps similar.)
You have to appreciate how invested people are in their belief system(s), even when they don't THINK they are. I was not raised in a particularly religious family. We did not go to church, but we celebrated Christmas and the other major Christian holidays. I never thought to question the existence of God as I was busy having hormones, spending hours on the phone, and doing homework. (Incidentally, I never thought to question what I read in the newspaper or in textbooks either.) As an adult, my mindset is a direct result of my experiences; my knowledge base built on what by study or by osmosis I "accepted". How much of that foundation was true, and how much false, I still cannot hazard a guess.
My transition (to skepticism/nontheism) has therefore been arduous. It is a heart-rending path, very similar to my other experiences of profound loss and grief. I'm not sure I would wish it upon others (though I believe the eventual payoff clearer thinking will be worth it for me.)
This incident provides a nice metaphor:
When my son was 7 or 8, he came to me asking about the real scoop on Santa Claus. He had it pretty much figured out, but felt it necessary to appeal to his ultimate authority (Mom) for the last word. I let him down easy (spirit of giving, spreading the joy, blah blah blah) and he was okay with it. Over the next week, he turned the concept over and over in his mind, and periodically approached me.
"Easter Bunny?" .Yes, Hon.
He went off to percolate some more.
"Tooth Fairy?" .Yup.
"April Fool Imp?". (long story) . Yes. All me. Even that thing with the water balloons.
And in the end, he sat in my lap and confessed miserably, "I wish you hadn't told me."
This is sometimes how I feel. I wish I could hold onto the belief that I will see my dead mother again, or that my spirit will live on for eternity, or that the really long life-line on my palm constitutes a guarantee. I don't LIKE knowing otherwise. And I frankly have not enjoyed the domino effect this skepticism has had on my entire belief structure (I'm still trying to replace religious references in my vernacular with very limited success.) The one exception to this is the realization that my thoughts are my own. It may seem a small distinction, but let me tell you, it was Earth-shattering for me.
To expect a single conversation or event to cause this profound transformation is unrealistic. The impact it has on a person's life can be devastating, and may require a grieving period. It is much easier to stop at "denial", when that is an option. (I certainly would have liked to stop at "denial" when I heard that my mother had died in an accident.)
Voluntarily slogging through a reconstruction of one's psychological, and philosophical foundation, I think you will agree, lacks appeal to all but the most personally motivated.
People gravitate toward the "skeptical movement" when they are strong enough or open-minded enough to accept the responsibility, effort, and personal sacrifice (socially, and spiritually) that it requires.
A change in cultural climate is the best hope scientists and skeptics have to propagate this way of thinking. In the mean time, there is a percentage of the population that will espouse skepticism on their own, and in their own time.
I'll end this with a sincere "Thanks!" for your continued and tireless efforts to provide people like me with books, articles, and commentaries to keep us thinking. I find them very helpful, even when I don't agree.
Very Truly Yours,
E-SKEPTIC FOR APRIL 15, 2003
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