My journey into non-belief

I recently wrote on my social media accounts that I no longer identified with the skeptic movement and followed this up with a blog post explaining what I meant. A small group of people from the skeptic movement claimed I was merely seeking attention and I took the blog post down because I didn’t want to be forced into a dialogue defending why I do or do not identify with certain groups of people.

The attitude I encountered from those particular people wasn’t at all surprising and is in fact one of the reasons I have slowly come to realise that the skeptic movement isn’t my thing – that these people aren’t my people. Now that some time has passed since the bizarre backlash on Twitter I decided to write on this subject a little more to explain that my divorce from the skeptic movement.

I realised a while ago that the skeptic movement wasn’t my scene when I investigated whether Will Storr had really quote-mined James Randi regarding what Randi had said about Social Darwinism. When I saw the accusations about Storr I decided to see if the allegations were evidence based and discovered that they weren’t. The reaction from some regarding what I did was appalling, with one particular high profile Australian skeptic telling her fans that I was a trouble maker simply for questioning the claims that were being made.

As questioning things is at the heart of my approach to rational inquiry I found this quite confusing. It felt as though I was expected to know my place and that by investigating whether Storr was lying or not I had stepped out of line. Nobody is off limits when it comes to being scrutinised, even as famous a skeptic as James Randi. It made me quite angry to think that others felt they could dictate what I should or shouldn’t be questioning.

My journey into skepticism started around 2007 when I came to realise that my belief in ghosts, an afterlife, psychics etc. was irrational. I started to scrutinise the claims I had accepted as true and soon found others who were like-minded who referred to this process as skepticism. In 2009 I was invited to co-host a skeptical podcast called Righteous Indignation and it soon established us in the skeptic movement and gained a lot of followers, subscribers and listeners. In fact, it was because of the popularity of the podcast that I began to receive speaking invitations from skeptic organisations, and as a result of this I started attending skeptic conferences and events.

I still use scientific scepticism and rational inquiry in my research, I value evidence, and I still look up to a number of skeptics and their work of course, there are just a number of factors that have led me to deciding that organised skepticism just isn’t my scene.

I often speak about how my involvement with ghost hunting came about because I was looking for something comforting to replace my belief in god and heaven with after I rejected religion in my late teens. I realise now that the skeptic movement acted as a similar crutch for me as I moved away from a belief in ghosts, and I have come to realise that it isn’t a movement that I belong to any more.

Becoming involved with the skeptic movement was part of a cycle of non-belief where an newly discovered atheist replaced her belief in god and heaven with ghosts and an afterlife, which was then replaced with a sense of belonging in a movement that valued reason. As part of the skeptic movement I have made good friends with people from around the world, I improved my critical thinking skills and understanding of biased and illogical reasoning, but in the process I discovered that although some people want to engage irrational claims and nonsense throughout society in a proactive and empowering manner, more often than not people who champion the skeptic movement don’t want to do that at all.

They want to silence those they do not agree with, to ridicule them, to isolate them without a second thought. Many people I encounter in the skeptic movement don’t consider the world around them from any other perspective than their own, and that isn’t a movement I can play any part in.

I’ve come to learn that it isn’t what I know but what I accept I do not know that empowers me. By admitting that I am fallible and that I have biases I can continue to develop my own critical thinking skills and encourage that very same change in those around me (just as they do with me), but in the skeptic movement the only lesson on offer is knowing my place, and it’s a lesson that I have no choice but to decline.

About Hayley Stevens 420 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

11 Comments on My journey into non-belief

  1. Good post. There’s a drift toward a ‘church’ of skepticism with self-appointed leaders and rules that I don’t like. You can have to have belief or non-belief without conforming to somebody else’s idea of what’s right. I think that’s the point of skepticism that some people don’t grasp – there are no rules, everybody’s approach is different.

  2. Well put. I have had a similar regression from the “Movement”, particularly with the recent assault on feminism. It really brought home to me that there really wasn’t much I shared with a lot of others around me. I didn’t want to be part of a movement whose members put so much time and energy into harassing feminists on the internet. There are still some bastions of quality that I am involved in, but most of my interest now lies in other parts of the “rationality” Venn diagram (Freethoughtblogs, etc)

    • Not sure FTB is the greatest example of rationality in the skeptical ‘movement’, they seem to have a pretty similar mix of the reasonable and the absurd as most of the other atheist communities. Imo.

      But OP, yes, I’ve arrived at my own lack of belief via a very different path and have never been part of any social group through it, but I’m put off from joining thanks to the lack of sincerity and decency in all the various ‘sides’. It annoys me. But there it is.

  3. I think you’ve had a particularly rough ride, but I’m not sure why (I’m not good at keeping up with the skeptical movement, and I’m never quite sure what it is anyway),

    So much of what you say is bang on the button, especially (and I am using my language here, not yours) when you remind us not to be dicks and to remember that people who believe in the paranormal or alt. med. or whatever, are usually sincere and are rarely stupid.

    You need to do what it right for you, but we’ll be the poorer without your demands that we hold ourselves to a high standard of humanity.

    Wishing you well.


  4. Another excellent post, probably putting into writing what many skeptics think themselves, in private.
    I am very uncomfortable about the formation of the ‘Church of Skepticism’ or as the new skeptics may be called, ‘The Church of Latter Day Skeptics’. The huge advantage the skeptic movement has is its unique diversity throughout every aspect of the human condition (party politics, feminism, location, economic, race etc.). It can and should be totally inclusive, that is what makes it unique and gives the movement its exceptional strength. As soon as it is put into a simple labelled box, especially by the media, it becomes ‘just another’ group of radicals that can be ignored.
    It’s good to have people who are very media savy, educators and organisers etc but they should never become ‘leaders’ or put up on pedestals shielded from criticism or sceptical enquiry. It should always be the person best suited for the task who should, if they so wish, undertake that task.
    It is the strength of our argument and the logic and science that backs it up that will carry the day and not a personality or face.

  5. I still think that there is a great deal of good done by the ‘skeptic movement’ in exposing pseudo-scientific belief and championing rational thought, but I agree that some individuals are in it for their own ends. It’s a shame that a few individuals can sour what should be an opportunity for like minded people to do some good.

  6. Anything that devolves into mere partisanship is not something I want to be part of. So, alhough I consider myself to be highly skeptical, I tend not to like skeptical sites. It’s not the bloggers, who I often find to be well-informed (if not always modest about their state of knowledge). No, it’s usually the fandom I can’t take, especially the bellicose commentors. Rather than practise skepticism, they demand certainty (quite the opposite of skepticism), and too often think science can provide this, thus showing their sorry lack of understanding. This need for certainty makes them act exactly like their counterparts in the fringe community: simple-minded dogmatism, red-hot intolerance, and an all-consuming fear of admitting error (that would give aid and comfort to the enemy!).

    Besides, hanging out at fringe blogs, reading fringe literature, that’s where the action is! Why learn about fringers from second-hand sources? Most especially, why get your info from ideologically “sound” sources that you already agree with? (Isn’t that how Fox News viewers made themselves so pathetically misinformed?)

    Sure, it can be maddening to read the never-challenged set of fringe facts over and over, it can be so boring to process carefully the typical forms of fringe illogic and hyperbole, but fringers know the history and literature of their subject much better than you do, and you can learn what they know much quicker by listening to them rather than showing up the first time and immediately lecturing them.

    And, most astonishing, you will find that not every fringe proponent is a ridiculous polemicist like Ken Hamm or Dean Radin or Stan Friedman. No, a very small but real portion of fringe buffs tend to respect facts and often struggle with interpreting them, much to the dismay of their fellows, who only want to hear the usual talking points from “outraged” zealots.

    You’d be surprised!

  7. Although I may be more liberal minded in my views towards the afterlife et al. I find the more involved you get in this para field the more it actually drives you to skepticism. What’s hard is maintaining the Status Quo. Like religion, Skeptics and non-skeptics alike have there extremists. Does this indicate religious structures in both fields, I don’t know. But it certainly seems that way.

    As for the far right skeptics, some call pseudo skeptic or cynics as they should be called. I feel this is fear based. Fear of peer ridicule, fear of not conforming or just fear they are loosing there sanity when faced with something outside of there own 3D existence.

    Once upon a time everyone was adamant the earth was flat. Now we all know differently. But some still believe this to be the case. What gives you the right to point the finger and say ‘I am of a superior intellect than you, and what I say is right’. Knowledge of the world is only relevant in that moment in time, until someone else proves otherwise.

    Then again this is only my opinion.

  8. I love the post, Hayley. I am of the same mind you are, which I find interesting since I began my journey of un-belief about the same time you did yours. You were an early influence on me, and still are. I don’t know if you remember, but I interviewed you for a podcast, which I consider a highlight of my “career” in rational thinking.

    I want to thank you for all of your hard work and please keep it up.

  9. ‘When I saw the accusations about Storr I decided to see if the allegations were evidence based and
    (1)discovered that they weren’t.
    (2)The reaction from some regarding what I did was appalling…’

    Can you provide evidence for (1), and explain what you mean in (2)?

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