I grew up believing a lot of things – that my parents loved me; that Catholicism was mandatory and there was an all-powerful and loving “Super-Daddy” somewhere out in space that would protect me. But as I began more to observe the natural world, I encountered things I couldn’t explain. I believed in ghosts, telekinesis, UFOs and my mother’s reliance on Astrology. I believed that certain special people had unique and unexplained powers.
Aside from my parent's love, I don’t believe any of those other things today. But those changes didn’t happen overnight, it required decades of effort and study; work which I continue to do. It was only recently that I fully accepted my status as an Atheist, advancing from Agnostic. What I have discovered is that it is simple to believe; but Knowing requires effort.
As a child I was fascinated by Science. The country was all about advancing in science and technology; in school I learned about the natural world. Things began to make sense; it could be quantified and measured and therefore explained. We had entered the “Space Race”; new discoveries were advancing the body of science on an almost daily basis. And some of what I discovered was sometimes uncomfortably contrary to some of my previously held beliefs.
As a young man following college I began to wonder about consciousness on the fringes of science. I recall subscribing to a magazine called “The New Age Journal”; a periodical for spiritual seekers, I guess one could say. Although it contained some thoughtful articles regarding developing habits to deal with life stresses (such as meditation), it also offered horoscopes and suggested that crystals (pretty rocks) had remarkable healing properties. But by this point in my maturity I had also developed a latent personality trait – Doubt.
The “New Age Journal” subscription expired, replaced now with “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by the Center for Inquiry (formerly Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Each month there were articles about lake monsters, UFOs, ghosts and myriads of other paranormal phenomena. The underlying premise of the organization was to ask (and often answer) the question: is there another alternative, and most importantly, “rational” explanation?
SI led to other books which reinforced my trust (not faith) in science and allowed me to hold my own beliefs up to the light. Then in 1980 I watched Carl Sagan’s 13 episode series, “Cosmos” on public television. I was riveted. I was then working in the business world, but to indulge my yearning for science, I volunteered as an “Explainer” at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I felt like a kid in a candy store.
Eventually, I became weary of the repetitive analysis of lake monsters and alien abductions. By now, I felt they all had been thoroughly discredited – my interest turned instead to trying to comprehend why so many WANTED to believe in these things. I discovered “Skeptic” magazine published by Michael Shermer of “The Skeptics Society”. Shermer had written books such as “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “How We Believe” and other titles on scientific skepticism. I needed to understand the thinking processes and influences going on within the human mind which caused people to justify holding onto strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of diametrically opposing factual information.
As luck would have it, I was fortunate to become friends with skeptic, inventor, poet and magician, Jerry Andrus. Jerry was the creator of some truly remarkable optical illusions. He was also well known among the world of professional magicians for his unique sleight of hand and magic. Though most magicians learn their trade from other magicians, Jerry did not want to be influenced by others; all of his illusions are ones he developed on his own. Jerry was one of the few men who could actually fool other magicians!
But Jerry had a purpose in his magic; he dedicated his life to teaching people that the conclusions we conclude from the patterns we arrange in our minds, even if they are WRONG, is a completely normal, natural and remarkable result from the evolution of our magnificent brains. Jerry recognized that for humans, “belief is the default option” – but or brains also have the capacity to question our perceptions in order to fully appreciate the wonders of this universe in we live.
Next: Why do we hold on to certain beliefs and why don’t we believe science?
Trailer from my documentary, “Andrus; the Man, the Mind & the Magic.”