I’ve seen this idea bandied around before, but I’m not sure I accept it. My reasoning is rather pathetic, at least from a scientific standpoint, as I have a sample-size of one… me.
I always read or hear things from atheists who say they figured out God was bullshit around the same time their parents let it slip that Santa wasn’t real, or something like that. They then go on to question everything, somehow without looking or sounding like assholes. They only accept a claim once it is proven to a scientifically reasonable standard. This fascinates me, and perhaps makes me a bit envious, because it seems to come so easily to a lot of skeptics.
For me, skepticism does not come naturally/easily. If you met me… knew who I was… you would probably not peg me as an atheist or skeptic. In fact, you’d probably peg me as, if not a fanatic theist, then someone on their way to fanatic theism. And for a small portion of my life, about seven or eight years ago, you’d have been right, as I was becoming more and more wrapped up in Judaism.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that my introduction to skepticism did not come from a scientist or famous atheist or famous skeptic. My introduction to skepticism and questioning came from a comedian, social critic, and conspiracy theorist named Bill Hicks. I never started questioning anything, really, until I was first introduced to Bill Hicks back when I was 16. Bill spoke to me, really. I was the very definition of a depressed cynic and Nice Guy™. Hicks was perfect for me. I ate his act up like it was manna from Heaven. Everything he said resonated deep within me.
Not only did he believe that marijuana should be legalized… he felt it should be mandatory. Tried to make him quit smoking cigarettes? He would take that cigarette and shove it in your eye, because if he wasn’t smoking, there’d be secondary bullets coming your way, because he was that fucking tense (for the record, I was a non-smoker at the time, but I actually still do relate to this… I smoke now [although not cigarettes… I prefer my hookah, cigarillos, cigars, and pipes… and marijuana :D], and it’s because I’m naturally at least as stressed out as Bill claimed to be, if not more; it seems to be my natural state).
He loved porn.
He spoke truth to power: CHICKS DIG JERKS! And it isn’t fair to the rest of us Nice Guys™ that they do… why don’t us sweet, innocent, Nice Guys™ ever get the girl? Why do they always go for Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy? Just because I haven’t killed someone doesn’t mean I’m boring! It just means I’m safe! I won’t beat you to a pulp on a Saturday night, oh babe!
He believed that you have the right to do whatever you want, as long as you don’t take that same right away from another person (I still believe this… I may be an economic Socialist, but socially, I’m a Libertarian).
He believed that modern top-40 music (read: early 90’s pop and the like) was balless, soulless, corporate shit (although, to be honest, I think it’s still true today, at least for the mainstream top-40 shit you hear over-and-over again on the fucking radio), and that Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine and so on had balls.
He believed, and so did I, that humans weren’t keen or neat… we were a virus in shoes.
Hicks also didn’t trust the government, and I started mistrusting the government, too. And not just in the way normal people question authority, but in the “JFK was assassinated by the government” and “there’s a New World order out to enslave us all” way. Hell… if Bill were still alive today, he’d definitely be a 9/11 Truther… and if I hadn’t gone on to discover skeptics like James Randi and Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and so on, I’d absolutely be a Truther, too. I know this… for a fact.
Bill Hicks was my idol. My god. Except that he did believe in a god. Despite all his bashing of Christian dogma and Young-Earth Creationism, Bill did believe in a higher power. So I believed in that same higher power, whose name was Love and who could talk directly fucking to you… if only you had the right tools (read: psychedelic drugs). And Hicks was the Messiah sent by that higher power.
I took everything he said and never questioned it. I questioned everything but what Bill said… going against everything he tried to stand for.
And this, unfortunately, was my introduction to skepticism.
See, the thing about me you have to understand is, I’m gullible. Like… extremely gullible. I’m the person who will seriously look if you told him that the word “gullible” was written on the ceiling. I may be self-conscious enough to attempt to hide it now, but the fact is, I still do it, even when I try to stop myself. There’s like this little voice that says “what if they’re telling the truth?”
After a while, the boy who cried wolf had done it so much that, when he was actually being attacked by a wolf, no one came to help him. Even though I know the kid kinda asked for their skepticism, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be that person. There’s a part of me that still wants to show up, just on the remote chance that boy might be telling the truth. Because you never know.
This led, of course, to me being an insanely easy target for teasing. And not just simple, light teasing. I was the favorite punching bag of the bullies back in middle school and high school. When you grow up with that, you tend to start hating humanity and become a Nice Guy™. You tend to become a cynical little shit, and, sometimes, that can lead to conspiracy theories, first surrounding you, then surrounding everyone. And you question, while being gullible all at the same time.
So being a skeptic does not come easy for me. I have to work at it, and sometimes it fucking sucks. Sometimes I just want to give up and go back to that 16-year-old, but the 25-year-old atheist-feminist inside me simply won’t let it happen. It would be beyond easy for me to just accept claims willy-nilly. Why question when they could be telling the truth? What if they are telling the truth, and by being skeptical they write me off as an asshole, and it’s to my detriment?
There are ideas I simply don’t want to question, too… like the Multiverse idea. I love the idea of universes existing on unimaginably huge membranes that sometimes clash, sometimes creating universes, so much that, when explaining it to people, I often forget to point out that this is just one hypothesis; because I forget that, no matter how beautiful a scientific idea is, a good scientist always questions it. I have to remind myself that we still don’t know what actually caused the Big Bang… or if it even had a cause at all. So to just talk about the membrane idea as if its fact, something I catch myself doing a lot, is wrong… and yet it is so easy for me.
I strive to be a good skeptic, to question things unproven… but I find it to be a chore, even when I want to question it; part of me is very quick to accept the claim without really looking into it. I fell for Darwinius masillae as “the missing link”, I fell for the arsenic-based lifeforms… and I felt bad about it when realizing where I went wrong with them, and yet I do it all the time.
So I get very envious of other skeptics, for whom skepticism seems to come so easily…
I wish to ask… does it come easy for you?
Is it second-nature, or did you practice it until you got good at it?
What makes a person a good skeptic?
It is genetic?
Or is it learned?