Doing It Right by Doing it Wrong
A few days ago, fellow Labber Brian George wrote a touching AI about the childhood antics of his father and how it fostered his own sense of discovery and exploration. I started writing a reply via the comment board, but it quickly took off on itself, going from “how did my parents shape my skepticism” to pretty much the full journey of how I got to where I am. I decided to set aside a whole post to it, and transcribed it here:
This subject is very near and dear to me. I credit my atheist, skeptical viewpoint directly to my parents, my multicultural background, and my father’s love of science and technology. Now, don’t think I grew up a skeptic, I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through high school and my family went to church every sunday until only a few years ago. But if my parents were trying to raise me to be a good catholic boy, they were doing it wrong.
As soon as I could walk, I was running around, finding bugs under rocks and on trees. My parents were quick to foster this curiosity with books about the subjects, which only served to further drive my curiosity. With these tools, I quite readily accepted the natural world around me as the most interesting thing ever. My mother is Japanese, so spending some summers in Japan fed this love of little critters as I would chase after insects that didn’t live in the States.
Alongside these naturalist adventures, I was always exposed to the religious and spiritual practices of shinto. My grandparents lived within walking distance of a large temple, and I’ll never forget the late night, jet-lag induced walks my father and I would take through the temple grounds. Mostly I remember the ghost stories he would tell me about the 500 monk statues in the courtyard: He told me that if I came late at night and felt each one’s head until I got to a warm one, then returned the next morning, that one would look like me. Scared the hell out of me, but it was exciting too. My father was a Navy computer programmer, and he continued it after the service, so we always had a technology in the house, I remember the fascination as he would bring home games like Doom and huge books about this thing called “the internet.” We always had science books and a bookcase full of national geographic magazines.
At home I went to Catholic schools, where I was taught by real-live nuns with chainsaw rulers and bible study classes. I never made much of this growing up, and the differing ideologies and mythologies of christianity and shintoism coexisted in my mind, where I took what I liked from both and never really saw the conflicts between the two. Before bed, my father and I would watch Nova and he would read me Japanese and Norse myths as well as chapters from the Oddyssey, and I remember myself being enthralled by the heroic antics of Odysseus, Thor, and Momotaro.
As such I grew up surrounded by mythology. I “knew” the bible stories were the real deal, that’s what the nuns said, after all. But I think I took it a lot less seriously than other kids in my class. Religion seemed more like a process to me—a thing you’d do on Sundays—rather than a way of life. At this point, I have to credit some particularly liberal clergymen in my high school who began bible study courses every year with the disclaimer that the bible is a book of myths and lessons, not facts or history. Looking back I realize we went to a pretty liberal church, and until college, I thought Catholicism was the least conservative of all the denominations.
After high school, away from home, I found myself free from having to go to church. The lessons and ideas roiled around in my head—still coexisting—and not really solidifying into anything. I was still pretty much a beliver, as I kind of went through life with this mish-mash of fantasy/spiritualism until after I had graduated. It was then that my partner-in-comic-crime, Nadir, introduced me to Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, though I admit, I still didn’t identify as atheist until much later.
By 2007, my family had stopped going to church, reluctant to support an institution that shelters child molesters, and I had discovered the world of podcasts shortly after moving to New York City. My first was This American Life and then Radiolab. It was easy—my girlfriend Audrey suggested them both, though she would be the first to complain when I would talk on and on about what I had learned from all the podcasts I was listening to (♥). From there I used iTune’s “You might like…” feature with impunity, eventually reconnecting with Nova, which I hadn’t seen since childhood. When the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe popped up on the recommended list of podcasts—I was initially, well, skeptical. Before that first listen, I figured skeptics were UFO and Bigfoot nuts. But once that first episode had played through, it was over. I had found my people.
I realized that my view of life had a name and my love of science was shared amongst a community, a community I would grow to respect and love. Not only that, but over the years I began to realize how many others shared my “eureka” moment of skeptical realization—that others too, had floated around a bit before finding the anchor in reality we all share today.
Though I’ve never told them, I still thank my parents for setting up the edifice on which I looked out and saw the real world through science.
Addendum: I can only surmise that if artistic traits are genetic, I got those genes from my mother. The American half of my family is full of accountants and engineers. There’s a whole section I’m leaving out about my mother and the rare glimpses I’d see of her artistic skills. But I’d like to save it for another article.