|Map of the Bermuda Triangle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
When I look around the online atheist community today, I see many atheists who are skeptics and many who are not. In fact, I think it is possible that "the great rift" may be, at least in part, a clash between those of us for whom skepticism is a central aspect of our worldviews and those for whom it is not. In any case, I am reminded that skepticism is far from being universal among atheists.
I have written previously about my journey to atheism and how I began to question the mainline Protestant form of Christianity in which I was raised around 14 and realized I no longer bought it by around 16. But I had been on a path to skepticism long before that.
Two of the earliest experiences I had that would pave the way for my eventual embrace of skepticism involved a family member who was a science teacher and very early lessons from my parents about the importance of researching large purchases. I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. The role of the science teacher was obvious in that he modeled scientific skepticism by encouraging me to ask questions and then seek answers through experimentation. I was always naturally curious, but he was the one who first exposed me to a means of scientific examination.
What I learned from my parents about product research probably has a less obvious connection to skepticism. Since my family never had much money, I learned the value of making every dollar count. One of the ways of doing this was to take the time to read unbiased product reviews before buying something. In those days, this would mean going to the public library with my dad so he could dig through back issues of Consumer Reports. Part of what I learned here was that one cannot trust advertisers. But I also learned what a rudimentary form of library research looked like.
Finding Treasures at the Library
Public school science classes would build on these early lessons, but I have to admit that they were not terribly helpful at promoting skepticism until much later. What was far more helpful was the reading I did on my own, typically during the summer months when I had extra time. For a few years of my childhood, I was obsessed with what one might call unexplained or paranormal phenomena. When I was between the ages of about 9 and 12, I read everything I could find at the public library on subjects like Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness monster, E.S.P., UFOs, ghosts, and near death experiences. I was obsessed with anything paranormal or unexplained, and I read countless books on these subjects.
Fortunate enough to be reading above my grade level, the books I read came from the adult section of the library and had not been watered down for children. After a while, I found that many of these books followed a familiar template. The case for a phenomenon being real was usually presented first and almost always took the form of personal experience and eyewitness testimony. This would be followed with a description of the case against the phenomenon being real, typically drawing on a combination of rational problems with some of the implications (e.g., what does Bigfoot eat?) and scientific investigations. Even in the books that sought to create an artificial sense of balance, it became clear to me that these phenomena were unlikely real and that the addition of supernatural elements raised far more questions than it answered.
I quickly moved through most of the monster and generic phenomenon stuff, slowing down when I discovered parapsychology research. I learned about how scientists studied so-called psychic powers in laboratory settings. Even though it became clear to me that there was not much to these phenomena, I became even more interested in the question of why people believe this kind of thing. I gradually realized that the human mind was even more interesting than all these unexplained phenomena.
My early experiences with skepticism did not immediately translate into atheism. There was a time when I distinctly remember compartmentalizing one from the other. However, the early experiences I have described here certainly planted a seed of doubt that would soon grow. Once I realized that there was insufficient evidence to support the existence of ghosts or that the experiences described by those who were "clinically dead" and then revived sounded an awful lot like what we would predict based on the effects of oxygen deprivation on the brain, questions about other supernatural entities were not far behind.
With skepticism, I had learned the value of asking questions and challenging my own assumptions. This would soon include my assumptions about gods. I learned that not all evidence was equally valuable and that some types of evidence were far better than others. I would come to recognize that personal revelation was terribly unreliable. Atheism was inevitable.