Clickbait title is clickbait. This is part of the Blaugust Promptapalooza, and today’s prompt is “A Person or Thing That Has Greatly Influenced You.” Today’s host is Chestnut, of Gamer Girl Confessions. This one is… long. It is the story of how I discovered science and critical thinking. Nearly everything in the last decade of my life is somehow connected to this. Or am I just retconning my memory?
So many choices among influences past and present. I have spoken more than once about the my work-related escapades, this time I think I’ll reach a bit further back in history and poke a topic I rarely speak about, religion.
I do feel obligated to point out that this is a notoriously dangerous topic. It is not my intention to attack anyone’s beliefs. If you feel that I have done so, I apologize, and feel free to leave me nasty comments about it.
Literally a decade ago, I considered myself to be neo-pagan. I frequented a “pagan store” 40 minutes or so away from home and ultimately became involved in a group that would be generally identified as some brand of Wicca. I was certainly the sort of person who respected someone that could pull out an acoustic guitar and belt out Weird Al’s The Saga Begins relatively effortlessly.
The group had a very formal educational tone to it, especially during the first year. We had weekly classes, took notes, and maybe had assignments? Not sure about the last one, it seems like another lifetime now.
The beginning of the end for me was in fact in this first year. I cannot remember the exact details of the lesson. It was something about being a better person, or success, or something, and involved building a pyramid where the sides were… specific traits or something? See, this is why you take notes.
Anyway, I remember there being a discussion about using spells to assist in this process. One of my own thoughts was that this didn’t really make sense. If the effect of something is proportional to the energy put into it, and the energy I can put into something is necessarily limited, then those aspects that were assisted would end up weaker than the ones that were 100% personal effort.
As a result, I began to eschew the idea of magic or spells. I figured if they had the ability to assist me, then that ability was with me from the beginning and would be greater if I invested that time and effort into the ability rather than the magic.
After a year or so passed, I began to question the efficacy of the magic to begin with. We were taught that effort must be put into any real change, that the magic by itself was insufficient. Maybe, I reasoned, it was insufficient because it did nothing. Still, I had seen the results of ritual magic for myself and “seeing is believing,” apparently.
I couldn’t shake the idea, though. I began to ask myself if it was possible to answer this question. How does one determine what’s real and what isn’t. Is it testable? What does that test look like? Has somebody already done this?
Somehow I eventually came to the idea that this is what science does. It answers questions like this, to a point. I didn’t really know a lot about science, though, as school focused mostly on earth sciences and I lacked the high school or even college level science education to understand. Considering I had an associate’s degree, I find that mildly sad, but I digress.
That search would eventually lead me to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, which I still listen to now. While not the first podcast I ever listened to, it is the oldest and longest-running one in my rotation by a longshot. Think I discovered it when one of the hosts did a guest appearance on a different podcast.
As I listened I slowly learned about the process of scientific study. Where it works, where it doesn’t, and how it can go wrong. I learned why science reporting in the media is horrible. Spoiler, it’s usually reporting a single study, not an entire body of literature. On top of that, it usually overstates the effect or implies causation where only correlation exists.
I learned the difference between correlation and causation. How two variables can be related and yet not cause each other because there are other factors at work. I learned that seemingly real correlations can simply be due to chance. Sometimes it be like it is, sometimes it don’t.
I learned about critical thinking and the cognitive biases that skew my view of reality, and ultimately even manage to catch myself doing it from time to time. How anecdotes make great stories but poor evidence and how generally garbage human memory tends to be.
Early on, I resented these things. I felt that, as Green Day once sang, “my mind breaks the spirit of my soul.” The world suddenly seemed very… mundane. At this point, I could no longer identify myself as neo-pagan. I could not find a way to reconcile one set of beliefs with the other in a way that wouldn’t lead to conflict. Is it fair to an entire religious group for me to remain an active participant? Their own belief system would hold that might doubt would undermine what they were doing.
When other conflicts between myself and the leader began to appear, I chose to leave. While a decision I’m not necessarily proud of, I just ghosted the group. I experimented with other things for a few years after that, but I ultimately ended up labeling myself as agnostic. A word I learned from EverQuest, ironically. Atheist implies a disbelief in a God, god(s), and/or goddess(s), and I simply find that I don’t care that much and consider the answer largely irrelevant.
It is not possible to prove that a God does not exist. Science cannot do that. We do have evidence, however, that systematic divine intervention of any sort doesn’t seem to have a predictable or detectable effect. From this, I have drawn the conclusion that He, they, it, whatever, could possibly exist, but don’t seem interested in helping or hurting us in any predictable way. Therefore, it is up to us, the humans, to do the best for each other. A position that believe is generally considered humanism.
Anyway, that’s a rather long story about how neo-paganism made me an “atheist.” By no means is it meant to demean any religious group. I believe that there are valuable lessons and stories to be had in all religions, but just like your diet, any one thing taken to the extreme is rarely good.
Y’all take care, and be kind to each other.