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Why I am an atheist – Tim “Santiago” Converse

I suppose the easiest thing to say is “because there is no evidence for the existence of any super natural being.” Ultimately that’s what it comes down to.

Notice that “Santiago” in my name? That’s because I am a semi-professional magician and “Santiago” is my performing persona. This is relevant. You see it was my research in to magic that put the final nail in the coffin of religious and supernatural belief for me.

I grew up marginally Christian. I went to church with my grandmother on Sundays. I used to think it was simply an excuse to get my brother and I out of the house so my parents could sleep in. But I enjoyed spending the time with my grandmother and we always when to brunch after at a little greasy spoon sort of place which seemed like a treat to me.

During the school week I also attended a private Christian school which seemed much like any other school I went to with the simple addition of a Bible Studies grade and an assembly every Friday morning.

But it was under these conditions that my doubts began. There was a certain amount of history involved in our studies of the Bible. You can do a little if one doesn’t go too far but that history was starting to not work together with what I was learning in Church. I was always a curious kid so I began asking questions.

Of course no one had any really good answers.

I also began studying science in earnest. My interest was largely focused on astronomy, biology and psychology. These areas of interest only increased the number of questions that I had.

I can even remember one of my teachers saying that if I kept working at it hard I could become a scientist and maybe discover evidence for god! I was in sixth grade at the time.

The questions kept coming and they kept not being answered. For years that was the story. I kept reading and studying science and the more I read the more I doubted.

But I was so sure that there had to be something that instead of getting out of religion entirely I turned from one to another. I began looking into various pagan practices. This didn’t last that long because the ‘magic’ that they were supposed to be engaging in was already familiar to me as interesting artifacts of psychology, a study I had been engaged in for some time.

Eventually I left that private school and went to a public high school. And to give credit where credit is due the academic education I received while at the private school actually did serve me very well. I had been taken out of the public school system because I was falling behind and put in the private school by my parents who saw it as a way to help me catch up. My parents really weren’t very religious at all so they only saw the school in terms of its academic offerings which were actually very high. Upon emerging I found myself well ahead of the curve for entry back into the public school system as a high school freshman.

I was still, however, engaged in some of that magical thinking of religion and supernatural belief.

I truly began to extricate myself when I started to learn the art of the magician. You see I was interested in the history of magic as much as in the art and I began to do more research. Well, if you go far enough back in time you quickly find that magic, science and religion were all completely intertwined with each other and it didn’t take me long to bump into that.

That was the lynchpin.

In the process of unraveling the art of the entertainer, the psychology of magic and religion, the science of deception I began to put all the tools together that I had already had for so long into one complete bundle. I was looking at the world in a way that included the facts about how the world really is, the wonder in what the world really has to offer and the skills of someone who can, for a time, seem to bend reality to his will for good or ill.

Science, especially the science of psychology, was the tool I was putting to use to both entertain and enlighten people. I started with debunking ‘psychic’ claims and of course discovered a new hero in the person of James Randi and a seemingly endless host of villains led by the likes of John Edward, Sylvia Brown and James van Praagh. As a fan of magic I was already familiar with Penn & Teller as well as what was ultimately the tragic story of Doug Henning.

I dug into the realm of séance and spirit mediums after discovering that my great grandfather actually was a spiritualist minister. Of course Houdini was my friend and companion along that journey.

Then there was Reginald Scott. He had one of the coolest keys of all. Who is Reginald Scott? In 1584 he wrote a book called “The Discoveries of Witchcraft.” It was the first book written in English which specifically targeted the bunk and trickery people used to convince others that they had supernatural powers. It included a full section describing the tricks of the magician.

It was a book so controversial that King James the First (he of King James Bible fame) got as many copies together as he could and had them burned.

There is a lesson for you.

And why I am an atheist.

Tim “Santiago” Converse
United States

Comments

  1. kevinalexander says

    ‘The science of deception’

    So science and religion are related after all.

  2. robinjohnson says

    I can even remember one of my teachers saying that if I kept working at it hard I could become a scientist and maybe discover evidence for god!

    Surely not the words of a true Christian? Word to your undercover atheist science teacher.

  3. says

    King James burned “The Discoveries of Witchcraft” and didn’t worry about Shakespeare? Despite a few ghosts, Shakespeare seems to have no belief in the powers of religion at all, save those identified by Machiavelli.

    Glen Davidson

  4. Michael says

    As a fellow magician I can relate to your story, although I was an atheist long before I got into magic.

    I’ve often felt the only difference between magicians and con men/criminals of the psychic/medium/evangelist/shoplifting/pickpocket variety is that we have a conscience. Much as I enjoy doing magic, I’m sure I could make a lot more money swindling people playing a psychic/medium/evangelist, and I could see other magicians getting a rush from using our methods and techniques to steal from stores and other people. In both cases the risks of actually getting caught are relatively low (more so for the psychic/medium, but a well-trained professional magician could steal a lot of small but expensive items almost undetectably). Both would be an ego stroke of “how much smarter I am than my stupid victims”.

    Damn conscience…

  5. patrick jlandis says

    As magicians, I’ve always wondered if stuff like Jame’s Randi’s take-down of faith healers doesn’t give you just a brief pause considering how easy the money could be. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, people still believe in that nonsense. And compared to a decent performance as a magician, the basic faith healer’s tricks are pretty simple.

    The documentary Marjoe is an interesting view into a preacher who doesn’t believe anything he’s saying. He comes off as a nice guy, but as you watch the hypocrisy becomes almost unbearable.

  6. stonyground says

    Magic tricks are helpful for raising sceptical children. When my daughter was small I taught her some simple magic tricks that I found on the internet, ones that needed very little actual skill. First I amused her by doing the tricks for her, then I taught her how to do them and she went on to perform them for her grandparents. Great fun and educational too.

  7. says

    Another magician here. My immediate family was never very religious so I never actually believed in a sky monster. My biggest brush with religion was with older relatives. My great-grandfather was a baptist minister (oh how I’ve fallen!) and when older relatives were around I couldn’t have a deck of cards anywhere in sight. Tool of the devil/devil’s picture book and all that. Do you have any idea how painful it is for a budding teenage magician not to be allowed to play with a deck of cards? Tragic. Tragic I tell you!!eleventy1!

    Seriously though, knowing a thing or two about how (relatively) easy it is to deceive people has helped keep me away from all sorts or woo. And, on occasion, helped me get other people at least questioning their assumptions:

    some guy: I saw this dude on tv who can bend metal with his mind!
    me: no he can’t
    sg: yes he can! I saw it! He’s psychic or something!
    me: do you think I’m “psychic or something”?
    sg: no
    me: give me a quarter
    (seconds later)
    sg: (holding a bent quarter) damn…

    Anyway, great post Tim, thanks!

    Only because it seems relevant to the topic of magic and skepticism, this is a project I’ve been working on which is an attempt to make some easy magic tricks available (creative commons) for use in teaching kids about how science works. The basic idea being, “here’s a magic trick, now figure out how it works.”

    Apologies for the self-link, I don’t post often and don’t want to seem spammy, but it seemed to fit here.

  8. says

    I had never heard before of “The Discoveries of Witchcraft” – very interesting.

    The full title, according to Wikipedia, is:

    The Discoverie of Witchcraft, wherein the Lewde dealing of Witches and Witchmongers is notablie detected, in sixteen books … whereunto is added a Treatise upon the Nature and Substance of Spirits and Devils

    Scott was himself religious and superstitious. For example, he believed in the medicinal properties of unicorn horns. But it sounds like his heart was in the right place:

    He set himself to prove that the belief in witchcraft and magic was rejected by reason and by religion, and that spiritualistic manifestations were wilful impostures or illusions due to mental disturbance in the observers.