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Skeptical guilt

“Emotion, n. A prostrating disease caused by a determination of the heart to the head. It is sometimes accompanied by a copious discharge of hydrated chloride of sodium from the eyes.” Ambrose Bierce

Yesterday I was plodding about in Oxford when ‘Sigh no more’ by Mumford and Sons comes up on my ipod. I was singing along, enjoying the tune before I realised exactly what the lyrics were:

‘Love, it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design,
An alignment to cry,
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be’

I suddenly felt worried partly because
1) a homeless man was staring at me
but mostly because
2) It sounded like I had turned into an intelligent design advocate…

This also happens in museums. Despite my atheism, I can get all tingly when I see depictions of the Madonna and child.

When even Christopher Hitchens admits to glancing at a his horoscope to see ‘a member of the opposite sex is interested and will show it’ and getting excited – isn’t time that all good skeptics admit to a little emotional woo?

Feelings and emotion rarely seem to be logical. You can aim to be as rational and reasonable as possible but at any given time can find yourself with a mad crush on Alan Rickman, arguing with your microwave or having a good old weep after reading Winnie the Pooh. Certainly when we fall in love, the overriding emotion is that this was meant to be. We know logically that there isn’t just one person out there for us. Love is not predestined by the universe for us to discover like an enchanted orchid to take home in a pot and watch slowly die. But it can damn well feel like it is.

‘It is a myth, not a mandate, a fable not a logic, and symbol rather than reason by which men are moved.’ Irwin Edman

I think it is a limit to art if, as skeptics, we deny ourselves metaphor. Whether it be writing a cracking ghost story or saying the lord’s name in the bedroom, perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried about appearing as true believers. I know of few skeptics who don’t get all gusset gushingly excited by Buffy, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc etc.

The beauty of skepticism is we know the difference between reality and woo. Rather than point and laugh at true believers it seems more interesting to explore our own beliefs and limitations.


Iszi Lawrence is an English comedian and paid doodler. Iszi helps run skeptics in the pub Oxford and performs throughout Europe. Listen to her free weekly podcast She has up to ten toes at any one time.

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  1. I hate it when, after coming to really enjoy a song, I finally listen to the words and interpret them. More often than not I find out the song is about infidelity. Sort of ruins the song.

  2. why thank you (btw sent you my pic with my bio – can you put it up on my profile so it is displayed at the top?)

  3. I find myself doing the same things. Yes, even having mad crushes on Alan Rickman. Who can resist?

    But luckily for us, there’s a huge difference between appreciating a work of art or shouting at an inanimate object and believing that a young semitic woman gave birth to a demigod or that the microwave is going to feel bad and try harder next time. 🙂

  4. I once had a similar experience when listening to an Incubus track. Their new-ageyness hadn’t really bothered me before, but one day I noticed an awed reference to Uri Geller, and I just couldn’t get past the woo after that.

    I’ll admit that embracing skepticism has dampened my enjoyment of some things — it’s difficult for me to turn it off. Relearning how to suspend disbelief is something I’ve had to work at.

    But for other things, it’s vastly increased my appreciation (Feynman’s ‘mystery and awe of a flower’ and all that). And I’ve found that with the really good art, books, movies, what have you, I don’t need to consciously turn off that critical part — my logical side just lets me enjoy it.

  5. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that mad crushes on Alan Rickman are SCIENCE.

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