When I was in grade school, I had a friend who convinced me that she could see and talk to ghosts, and also switch bodies with animals and let their spirits talk to me through her body. I believed this for months, if not more than a year. I guess I was a pretty gullible kid, but I thought it was pretty exciting to be able to talk on the phone to my dog or her cat or the ghost of the girl who lived in my house. Eventually, though, I noticed inconsistencies in her stories and decided to subtly test whether she was truly doing what she claimed. When she put me on the phone with my dog, I would start a conversation about something that had happened in my home that day that I had not discussed with my friend. My friend, of course, was not able to play along convincingly. I never told her that I knew she was lying to me – I had no other friends and didn’t want to lose her. That friend grew up to be a pathological liar and I don’t talk to her anymore. But this embarrassing-in-retrospect experience taught me that it was a good idea to test things before believing them, and that everything worth believing was testable.
I wasn’t raised religious by my parents, and in fact I was basically ignorant of how widespread religion was until I loudly proclaimed my disbelief in God in my sixth-grade language arts class to the horror of my thirty fundamentalist Christian classmates. Until then, I thought that religion and church was something people on TV did, a fantasy along the lines of mom making everyone a big hot breakfast before school while dad read the newspaper. But I still had lingering spiritual curiosity – I would read about people who talked to spirits, or try to find pictures of the Loch Ness monster, or let my wacky “medicine-man” neighbor try to manipulate my aura to set my spirit free of the chains of sadness and self-doubt. Like my childhood friend’s little fantasy, the idea that something supernatural and unexplainable was out there was attractive. But I kept noticing that for every amazing story, there was a skeptical viewpoint that got harder and harder to ignore. And as I had long suspected, the stories that people tell themselves to justify their beliefs God and religion just didn’t add up. I recognized that I’ve never seen or experienced anything that couldn’t be completely explained by science, and that this was not a coincidence.
In the past few years I have realized that I’m not just agnostic, I’m an atheist and a skeptic. Web sites like Pharyngula, whatstheharm.net, sciencebasedmedicine.org, and even XKCD have helped me crystallize my views. Now I’m that annoying person that points out to friends that their homeopathic remedy contains no active ingredients, that acupuncture doesn’t do anything, and that for every Bible verse that offers a rule on life, there are many more that don’t make any sense. I’m not an expert on everything, but I try my best to be well-informed and present evidence rather than opinions and anecdotes. I’ve found that the more I understand about our physical world, the more comfortable I am, and I have promised myself – the embarrassed, misled child, the curious college student, and my present self – that I will learn as much about it as possible.