Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I'm not sure I can truly be classified as a skeptic even now, since I still have quite a few pesky little irrational beliefs that aren't going anywhere, but I have to admit that I was far from it as a little kid. This provided great entertainment for those around me.

I was always the first to believe that Girl A was dating Boy B, even if they were the most unlikely pair on the face of the earth -- it wasn't faith in the power of love, just being utterly willing to believe anything.

My father had me convinced for years that the Mima Mounds (an odd geological feature in the south Puget Sound area) were Indian burial grounds. I didn't find out until many years later that nobody actually knows where they came from, but since the explanation seemed to get longer and scarier every time, it perhaps should have clued me in to the fact that this was an elaborate story.

I seem to have blocked out the worst incidents of people telling me long and complicated stories just to see how long I'd believe them, but I have many vivid memories of a burning face, tears coming to my eyes even as I shamefacedly laughed, "Well, I didn't know."

I guess it's not too surprising for a woman to turn to at least low-level skepticism in simple self-defense, if you're talking about a woman who did not stop to think until her twenties that they didn't really have to go out looking to find a real Wookiee to play Chewbacca.

(And yes, "gullible" IS in the dictionary. I looked.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

God, Peace, and the Placebo Effect

I read a highly entertaining online discussion recently in which a large group of intelligent, rational adults were asked, "Is there anything you know is complete bunk, but you still do it/use it/buy it and love it anyway?" The answers were varied, and equal parts thought-provoking and hilarious. Professional wrestling. Cold-Eze. Chiropractic. Aliens, telekinesis, and Bigfoot (sometimes all at once). American politics. Multivitamins. God. Recycling. Ghosts, UFOs, and Zen. The lottery. Expensive moisturizer. The Los Angeles traffic gods. Acupuncture. Fortune cookies. Feng shui, lucky dice, and free will.

One of the consistent themes in the discussion was the efficacy (or lack thereof) of various pseudo-medical treatments. Large quantities of vitamin C may or may not shorten the life of your cold, but a lot of people think it does. Same with Cold-Eze, Airborne, multivitamins, and all manner of natural remedies and homeopathic approaches to illness. For those who believe, the placebo effect can work wonders.

Since the discussion ranged from the absurd to the divine and hit most points in between, it was impossible not to start thinking about the similarities between this group's admitted beliefs in all sorts of silly things. Professional wrestling isn't real, but if you can tease your brain into the required suspension of disbelief, it is apparently very entertaining. If you think the orange juice is helping your cold go away, maybe it does. If you think God is giving you peace ... I think you can see why this line of thought started to bother me.

When I started questioning the value of prayer years ago, it immediately became harder to pray. I had spent my life praying for anything and everything, and one of my most common prayers as I grew older was for peace. Peace about decisions, peace in times of stress, peace about the questions and doubts that increasingly plagued me. Often, I would pray and feel a sweet wave of peace wash over me, and I would be so thankful. But just as often, I did not. I prayed, nothing happened, and I hitched up my boots and kept walking.

In retrospect, I wonder how much of the "peace" was simply a largely unconscious self-calming method, learned early and practiced often. I think back to those moments of peace, and realize that they happened more often when I was in full sunlight -- I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it makes sense that this soul-warming sensation might be found more often on sunny days. The act of stilling one's body, breathing deeply, closing one's eyes, and focusing the mind on a peaceful sensation is a time-tested relaxation technique even if you leave God out of it entirely. The times when "the peace that passes understanding" didn't come, it is likely that I was simply too busy and preoccupied, or maybe just that it was cloudy and dark, or perhaps I had some valid reasons to be upset that day.

The problem now is the increasingly elusive nature of the inner calm I sought so desperately. A participant in a research study who discovers that they were part of the placebo group cannot be expected to continue taking their sugar pills and hoping for improvement, and I find myself in much the same place. If I recognize my former answers to prayer as subconscious biofeedback and clear skies, it is difficult to send those same requests winging up into the sky. So much is so wrong, and deep breathing seems a poor substitute for real peace.

One of my dear friends is dead and buried, and two more are losing the long and painful fight as I write. Children suffer unspeakable things every hour of every day. Friendships are broken, love is lost, words are shouted in anger that leave permanent scars. Some days, a little sun doesn't make much of a dent.

I still want to find peace. "Pax", the Latin word for peace, is tattooed in a sunny shade of sky blue on my wrist, and it is only my lingering concerns about public opinion that keeps me from adding a few more tattoos of the same idea in other languages. It is something I take deeply seriously, and something I want for myself and for the world at large. It seems, though, that the more I know, the farther it slips away.

I took my sugar pills for thirty years, but somewhere in there it seems that I took Neo's red pill isntead, and found myself dumped unceremoniously out of the comforting matrix of my Christian beliefs. If there is peace here, outside the grid, I have not yet found it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

When Does It End?

The questioning, I mean. When do you stop asking questions and figure enough is enough?

I was thinking about this today when I was folding an 8-yard-long piece of flowered material that I plan to use for nightgowns for my daughter and myself. I had laundered it earlier this morning, and the easiest way to fold such a long piece of material is to stand at the top of the staircase and hang it over the 15-foot drop to the entryway below. I shook it out and started to fold it end over end, and noticed how surprisingly heavy eight yards of fabric is. After a week of diving into Bill Bryson's marvelous overview of the sciences, A Short History of Nearly Everything, my first thought was not so much the weight of the cloth as the amazing force of the earth's gravity. (If I turn into a science nerd, it's all his fault.)

It occurred to me that I don't question gravity. This is a good thing. If I questioned gravity on any kind of practical basis, I would be attempting to fly, an experiment which would be exciting, short, and squashily definitive in its results. Since I prefer to enjoy the view off my back deck rather than becoming one with it, I trust in gravity.

Why? I can't see it. I can see its effects though, when I get out of bed in the morning, when I throw a ball for the dog, when I drop an ill-fated egg on the kitchen floor. And that is sufficient for me to believe in it.

But again, why? There are plenty of things I've never seen. Some I believe in, some I don't. I hav never seen gravity. I have never seen wind. I have never seen the Crab Nebula, Connecticut, or the bottom of the Black Sea. I have never seen ghosts. I have never seen God. I have never seen aliens, or grace, or the healing power of acupuncture.

My friend Scott believes in gravity. He believes in anything that can be scientifically proven.

My friend Greg believes in wind. His house would still be standing if the wind hadn't carried the wildfire's flames.

My friend Michael believes in the Crab Nebula. It's documented by lots of astronmers.

My friend Lisa believes in Connecticut. She went there on vacation.

My friend Jon believes in the bottom of the Black Sea. My friend Jon believes in a lot of stuff.

My friend Michelle believes in ghosts. She says she saw one once.

My friend Kristina believes in God. She says he gave her hope after three of her babies died.

My other friend Scott doesn't exactly believe in aliens, but he doesn't not believe in them either. He believes in superpowers and chi and government conspiracies too.

My friend Susan believes in grace. She says that is how she forgave her ex-husband after he ruined her life.

My friend Rebecca believes in the healing power of acupuncture. She says it cured her allergies and straightened out her internal electromagnetic flows.

So maybe my friends are not the best indication of what should and should not be believed in. Between them all (and I love them all), they believe in almost everything. And after a while, I have learned how to pick my battles with them, and most of the time that means I don't pick any fights at all. Beck will never be talked out of the efficacy of acupuncture. Lisa will never be convinced that there is no such place as Connecticut. Granted, there are varying levels of proof for these two hypotheses, but where do you draw the line?

In my gradual and wobbly drifting away from faith, I find not that I have less faith, but that I have more than I thought I did, in all kinds of things. I don't have the faith that I once had in religion, or in the nonsense that has built up around it over the centuries. But the more I look around inside my brain, the more I discover odd pockets of faith in all sorts of things, from political viewpoints to questions of health to social theories to gravity. It's not that I don't want to challenge irrational beliefs, but some days my head gets tired of the questions.

One of the fundamental tenets of skepticism has become one of my greatest causes of frustration. Skeptics, at least the version whose current incarnation is as debunkers of popular myth (crop circles and homeopathic medicine and psychics and the like), place great value in the scientific method. They reiterate -- and correctly so -- that so many things which appear to be magical can be explained in concrete terms by scientifically proven fact. And as a result, those things which cannot be proven are dismissed (and I think often correctly so) as nonsense. Homeopathy = placebo effect. Psychic cold readings = good guesses by highly observant people. Crop circles = clever engineering students with access to heavy-duty farm equipment. Much of the time, the scientific method clears up questions of nonsense quickly and often with delightfully educational results.

However, my reading of Bryson's book was enlightening in an unexpected and squirm-inducing way. The scientific community, from the Greek philosophers up to today, has proclaimed many contradictory things over the centuries. New information overturns old theories, and sometimes the new discoveries verify what appeared to be the ravings of a madman. How many great minds, decades ahead of their time, said of some scientific theory, "I cannot prove this, but I know it to be true", were mocked in their lifetime and then found to be embarrassingly prescient decades (or millennia) later?

If even the scientific method is only as good as our brains and the number of years we've been working on a particular problem, is it really worth putting so much faith in? Will my grandchildren laugh at our generation's stubborn insistence that there is no such thing as ESP, if advances in technology enable them to precisely and accurately quantify what appears now to be unsupported claims of magic?

What is enough evidence for belief, in anything? How do we stop asking, "Well, how do they know, and how do their teachers know, and how did their professors know before that?" How do we accept that so many of our questions end, uncomfortably and inevitably, in faith?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Small Skeptics

You've heard it, the stereotypical image of a 4-year-old child: "But WHY, Mommy?"

It's a fun question when you're four. You get to find out all kinds of interesting things, like why leaves fall off of trees but branches stay on, and why Kool-Aid makes a stain but water doesn't, and (if you ask it enough times and your mom remembers what she learned in grade school about light and wavelengths and color) why the sky is blue. Plus, it keeps her talking with very little expenditure of energy on your part.

The simple brilliance of it is that it is its own follow-up question. "Mama, why is that ant carrying my sandwich crumb?" To take it back to the nest. "Why?" To share it with the rest of the ants. "Why?" Because ants all share their food. "Why?" Because they are social insects, and instead of eating what they find, they bring it back so that the ant queen and the other ants can eat it too. "Why?" And by the time your mom loses patience, you've learned quite a lot about ants, and maybe a little bit about people too.

You have to be kind of careful with this one-note line of inquiry though, or things get metaphysical. Ask it too many times, and you'll get a snappish little "Because God WANTS the ant to be that way, that's why." (Asking why God wants it to be that way will probably end up with you being sent out to play or inside to clean your room.)

Somewhere along the line, we lose that. We stop asking some of the questions because we always get the same insufficient answers. We stop asking some questions because we are perpetually redirected to encyclopedias, which may or may not tell us what we really wanted to know. We stop asking some of them because we learn to trust our books and our teachers and our friends, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but dangerous if it becomes the answer to too many questions. Some questions, we stop asking because nobody knows the answer yet. And sometimes the reason is less complicated ... we stop asking simply because we move out of that childish phase of wonder and into a world with more immediate questions: "Can I call Madison, can I get my ears pierced, can I spend the night if her mom says yes?"

I think, though, that we need that questioning spirit more as adults than at any point since age four. We need it desperately, and sometimes half the battle is discovering that we need it at all.

We need it for the questions whose premises are so entrenched that people forget that there are more questions to ask. "Is global warming really our fault? How do you know? What studies were done? And if so, can we fix it? And if not, should we fix it?"

We need it for the questions that the media blithely answers for all too many people, without the prerequisite of even a moment's actual thought. "But WHY does Oprah recommend that? Did Barack Obama do his research? Has People magazine looked at the science behind that claim? Can John McCain back that up?"

We need it for the questions that pick up where our mothers' answers left off. "Why does God want it to be that way? How do we know? Did he say that? If not, why do we think he does? If so, do we have any responsibilities to change our behavior? How do we know he said anything at all?"

More than anything, we need it for the questions that have not yet been answered. We need it for the tiny (the insects, the viruses, the insides of atoms) and we need it for the immense (the stars, the gods, the outsides of universes).

We need to teach it to our young, to live it ourselves, and to remember it when we are old. We need the neverending Why.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oh, thank ... somebody.

After six weeks of intermittent research, occasional stewing, encouragement from optimistic friends, and trying not to think about it, I went to my appointment with the neurologist last week. He informed me that while I do indeed have spots in my brain, they are very typical of people who suffer frequent migraines (which I do), and that they are not an indicator of a more serious condition. He saw no hint of degenerative disease in my brain, not from the CT scan, the MRI, or the questions he asked during my appointment.

This is, unquestionably, good news.

My Christian friends would say it was an answer to prayer.

My non-believing friends would say nothing of the sort.

Who's right?

This is, in a neatly wrapped package, one of my biggest frustrations with what Christianity has become. Believers say that good things are an answer to prayer, and they gleefully point to the study or two which indicates that patients who were prayed for (even in scientifically managed double-blind experiments) got well at a higher rate than patients who were not. But so many who believe do not get well, and so many who believe in nothing at all come through their trials with flying colors. It seems so random, and there is so much about our existence that is random that it's hard for me to keep trying to find patterns in that which is attributed to prayer.

We are a pattern-seeking species. If you don't believe me, lie on your back on a summer day and watch the clouds -- give it half an hour, and I bet you a dollar you'll see a squirrel, a ship, or maybe a guy with a funny-shaped head. You remember your best friend's phone number by the patterns in it, whether they are really there or not -- the little design it makes on the keypad, or maybe her prefix is the same as your house number when you were a kid. Stare at the "snow" on a television set and think "circle", and you'll see a circle. Did you know that? It's true. You can do it with a square or a triangle too, and it gets harder with more complex shapes, but if you think about it long enough, your eye will produce it.

So if we want something badly enough, our mind will give us hope. We hope for such absurd things, our frail human minds ... we hope for healing where there is death, reason where there is chaos, love where there is apathy. I'm not complaining about it, don't get me wrong. Hope accomplishes amazing things, and as a beneficiary of electricity, penicillin, and the United States of America, I am all for hope. Edison, Sir Alexander Fleming, and the Pilgrims hoped, and hope bore fruit. But their hope had actions attached -- ten thousand attempts at the light bulb, endless hours in the laboratory, and a mindbogglingly optimistic launching of an entire miniature society across the Atlantic Ocean.

What is it, this notion of prayer? Where do we get it? The Scriptures used to support it are nebulous at times and sometimes patently ridiculous. Is it because it works? Or do we just want it to work so badly that we decide that it does, regardless of its track record? My sister-in-law's body is decaying in the damp ground four miles away from my comfortable office, the passage of time reducing her to bone and dust and unanswered prayer. My sister, on the other hand, lives a content and productive life in Los Angeles, bearing the scars of multiple surgeries but still alive and vibrant and full of faith in the power of prayer. Their mothers both believe that God is in control. I am not sure I want to agree.

All I know is that six weeks ago, I got bad news. I did my research, and then I put it aside. I worried about it from time to time, my friends encouraged me, and I put it aside again. I got very stressed out the day before my appointment, and then I went and had my fears officially put to rest. I did not spend the intervening six weeks in an agony of prayer, hoping against hope that I was holy enough for the right answer. (I know, I know, it's not about how holy you are, but tell that to yourself when you've been praying for a month for something that's totally out of your control.) I did not lie awake begging God for health and wholeness. I did not plead for healing.

And my brain is fine. Should I have prayed, do you think?

Friday, May 9, 2008


I have heard, as you have, the term "freedom of religion" turned into "freedom from religion", and used with equal passion on both sides of the argument. I understand what it means -- the idea that if we are free to worship in our nation, we must also be free not to worship.

But in conversations about the personal application of religion or unreligion, this idea of freedom drifts down from its lofty place in our rhetoric and bobs alongside us, a little balloon of ill-defined hope matching our steps through the humdrum of daily life. That giant freedom we wax eloquent about in religious and political discussions becomes something smaller and trickier when viewed up close and personal in the fretful silence of a doctor's office.

My Christian friends claim that religion sets them free, that they are "free indeed" through Christ. And I understand this. I understand the belief that we can be set free from worry and fear since God has it all under control and means it all for our good. The practical outworking of that always seemed to be beyond me, but the principle makes a certain amount of sense.

My non-religious friends claim that their lack of religion sets them free, too, free from the mythology and self-flagellation that seems to accompany organized religion in nearly every form. I understand this, too. The concept makes sense, although I admit that the practical application of this philosophy also seemed a little difficult to me, since it often felt like perhaps a little too much freedom -- too much, in the way that a wide open plain can be frightening for its sheer vastness.

This week, though, I understood the second viewpoint a little better. I had a migraine a couple of weeks ago that was frightening enough in its secondary symptoms that my doctor sent me to the emergency room, and later ordered an MRI, "just to be sure." When she got the results of the MRI, she left a message on my cell phone saying that she wasn't worried -- but to please call her right back before the end of the day. What she wasn't worried about turned out to be a few small spots on each side of my brain, hardened areas that would be typical of smokers, diabetics, the elderly, people with high blood pressure -- none of which applies to an otherwise healthy 34-year-old, and now I am scheduled for a complete neurological workup, "just to be sure." This time, though, she told me what it was we were making sure I didn't have, and I finally had to force myself to stop googling the diseases that are connected with this symptom.

Five years ago, my first reaction would have been to throw myself wholeheartedly into prayer. I would put this news on the church prayer bulletin, call my family and ask them to pray, post on my online forums and ask them to pray (or send good vibes, as the case may be), and launch into a personal prayer assault on the gates of Heaven. I would have prayed for healing, prayed for peace, prayed for wisdom, prayed for the neurologist, prayed for anything and everything I could think of that would be even slightly relevant.

But beneath this whitewater rapid of prayer would run a smooth undercurrent of doubt, cold and familiar and dark. I would wonder if I was praying enough. I would wonder if I was praying for the right things. I would wonder if I had enough faith to be healed. I would wonder if some unknown sin had caused it. I would wonder if God was "trying to get my attention," a root cause of disaster and sickness that Christians are all too prone to diagnose for each other. I would wonder if I was going to die, and if so, if it would sort of be my fault.

This time, I understood a little better how "freedom from religion" looks in the day to day. I got my news, and I will be the first to admit that a healthy shot of whiskey in one's cola isn't the most holy approach to bad news, but so it goes. The next day, my mind immediately went into the familiar track of prayer, and it occurred to me that I really didn't want to do this, not this time. I didn't want to pray and wonder if I would be heard, or if all of the prayers would drift into the atmosphere and I would end up in the same hospital bed at the same time as if I'd never prayed at all. I was surprised to find that there was a certain peace in not wondering if it was my fault, and in not trying to guess what God might want from me in order to make it go away (or not go away, according to His will, of course). There was a certain freedom in knowing that whatever was going on in my brain was going to continue to go on with or without my anguish and hope and soul-searching.

It is an uncomfortable freedom. It is also a welcome and unexpected freedom, and it is one I am not quite prepared to give up for the sake of tradition and habit.

Monday, April 21, 2008


"For Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul."

So many questions, so many doubts ... but there is a certain appeal to falling back into the warm depths, letting the waters of religion close over my head and sinking back into the quiet, happy oblivion. When my estate does indeed seem helpless, the idea of someone loving me more than life itself is undeniably attractive.