How To Talk To Non-Skeptics

skeptic etiquette

In the face of my very scientifically brilliant co-bloggers, this post might seem ridonkulously dumb, but this problem has been weighing heavy on my mind, and I'm trying to work it out.

My neighbors and I once shared a community garden in Los Feliz. It was a small space in the back of our building that had once been filled with trash, broken furniture, and decades of rotting cigarette filters.

We decided to pool our resources and plant a garden. We salvaged some drawers from a broken bureau and grabbed some wine boxes from the local liquor store to repurpose as makeshift planters. Over time, we refinished a picnic table, purchased a barbecue grill, and ran electricity out to the patio and hung Christmas lights along the ivy on the back wall so we could actually see each other after sunset.

Normally, my friends are the product of a shared common ground in ideals, beliefs, and hair care products. Neighbor-friends are solely the product of shared geography, and they are therefore more likely to shock the shit out of me with firmly held ideas and beliefs that I find bizarre, and sometimes physically harmful.

For example, there was the time I woke to find a dirty hippie standing in the hall outside my apartment door with a cooler full of raw bison liver, promising to cure my neighbor’s Lyme Disease, naturally. Enraged, I glared at the crunchy bastard as he took her last $70 as she melted against the wall in exhaustion, having given up her antibiotics due to a weird distrust of “western medicine.” Eventually, she tried exorcism (to which my only reply was, “Uh, don’t you have to be Catholic for that?” because seriously, what else can you say?), but that didn’t work any better than the mystical healing meat.

She’s okay, now. Back on the antibiotics, and thriving. But if I see the hippie and his cooler of magic meat ever again, I’m going to punch him in the throat and drown him in disinfectant. Jerk. But aside from the rare-meat life-threatening stuff, most of my magic/god/meat-cure social problems are etiquette-based.

What exactly is the polite response when someone at a dinner party asks, “What’s your sign? I bet you’re a Taurus!”

The last time this question came up was at birthday celebration with my neighbors, at the bottom of the third bottle of wine at a tapas bar.

After listening thoughtfully to my dinner companions each explain how they were like their signs, it was my turn to answer.

I said, “You do realize that Jupiter and some random stars have no effect at all on you, right? I mean, why is it that you’re protected from the magical personality rays of the constellations when you’re buried a few inches deep in flesh and fat, but the second you come screaming out of your mom, the magical personality rays pierce through the brick, mortar, insulation, tile, and electrical wiring of to the third floor maternity ward of the hospital in which you have emerged to touch you with the magical essence of “Taurus,” you stubborn little baby bull!”

I am a bummer at parties.

No one was any more skeptical of astrology, and I ended up looking like the big jerk I actually am. So I’m trying to develop a personal etiquette code for situations such as this.

I consulted Jillian Venters of Gothic Charm School to help me with a skeptic’s etiquette plan, and presented her with my current options:

Question: What’s your sign? I bet you’re a Taurus!

Response Options:

1. AWKWARD AND POLITE: “Aries, I guess. I don’t believe in astrology, so, um, how ‘bout those Mets?”
2. SNARKY AND SATISFYING: “What’s your religion? I bet you’re an Episcopalian!”
3. ITCHING FOR AN UGLY END TO DINNER: “You know that astrology is horseshit, right? What are you, a moron?”
4. OMG U R SO WEIRD: (I make up my own “sign,” stringing together random celestial objects) “I’m a Boötesian, with Pleiades rising. I am so totally fucked this week because Haumea is in retrograde. Stupid Kuiper Belt. I wish they had never discovered it.”

“Personally, I'd got with a combination of 1, 2, and 4, because I'm wacky that way,” says Jilli. “I have friends who believe LOTS of things I don't, and ... I guess I try to honor other people's crazy and quirks the way I'd like them to honor mine. So I'd probably say, ‘I don't believe in astrology’, and if they pushed the subject I'd counter with, ‘Look, I really don't believe in it, and nothing you say is going to change my mind. Let's not talk about it.’”

“Of course, knowing me, I'd probably go on to talk about it, and try and get them to explain to me WHY they believe. Because, y'know, people are freaky and interesting, even if I privately think some of their beliefs are whackaloon.” Jillian’s point here is a good one. People really ARE freaky and interesting, and I’d hate to pass up an opportunity to do my own personal sociological study on freakiness. Perhaps I can apply for some sort of research grant.

Both the Lady of the Manners and I ended up agreeing that option #4 was the best, not for any particular etiquette reason, but because it’s weirdly zany and charming. Sometimes it’s best to answer Crazy Talk with more Crazy Talk. The key is to sound sincere. There’s a thin line between cleverly ironic and smarmy assholishness.

But it isn’t just astrology where I find myself on the edge of turning an otherwise pleasant conversation into prison riot. A friend I genuinely care about once spent $700 on astral-projection classes.

It’s not just astrology conversations where I feel awkward and left out.

One of my neighbors joined me for a drink one night and launched into an excited explanation of astral-projection. She had spent close to a grand on classes and had her first out-of-body experience. I have no poker face. None. It’s not that she didn’t have the money for such things, she makes plenty of dough and could just have easily spent it on new shoes without hurting her savings account. But she wanted to talk about this revelation, and my response was, “Sweetie, you had a hallucination. You paid a ridiculous sum of money to have a hallucination. You can get a bag of ‘shrooms for a tenth of what you just spent, and had enough cash left over to buy new shoes, too!”

This devolved into an argument on the “science” of astral-projection, and she swore that she has read many studies on how it is a fact, A FACT, that one’s mind can ski on out of one’s body and, I dunno, look up ladies’ skirts on the escalator at the mall.

The end result was that I promised to eat the full contents of my cat’s litter box if any of these “studies” could be repeated in an independent laboratory. Gah. I hope that never happens. I’m really lazy about cleaning the litter box.

Once again, I turned to Jilli for an appropriate response to, “I just spent a grand on an astral projection class and had my first out-of-body experience!”

“Yeah, I guess congratulations would be in order,” says Jilli. “And then probably an attempt to change the subject, because if you don't, the person will probably gush enthusiastically at you all about the astral projection class, and then you're stuck with nodding a lot and biting your tongue.”

Jilli’s advice is different if the friend in question is actually going into debt on such things:
“Sit down with them privately and say ‘Look, I understand you're seeking something, but I am worried about you being duped out of money and self-esteem that you shouldn't lose’. Try to explain why you're concerned, and maybe give them suggestions of other ways they can seek out answers without dropping huge amounts of cash? Most public libraries have a pretty good metaphysical/occult/New Age/spooky-pants section, and I would *strongly* encourage someone to investigate all of that before spending huge amounts of money for someone to hand enlightenment to them.”

Disclaimer: I’m not talking about when someone you love has just spent their retirement savings on a handful of magic beans. That sort of thing isn’t about etiquette, it’s about intervention. People who drain their bank accounts trying to attain access to magic have a problem akin to gambling, and I’m not equating random frivolous trips to a palm reader with taking out a second mortgage to gain “clarity” at the Scientology center on Sunset.

My neighbor Michelle is one of my most favorite people. She brings me soup when I am sick, feeds my cat when I am out of town, and is otherwise a wonderful friend.

She’s also ridiculously superstitious and quickly falls prey to any scam that promises to cleanse her body of toxins or clarify her soul. I steer her away from things like Kinoki Foot Pads and The Secret, and she cuts my hair for free.

Michelle is convinced a ghost is turning the lights on and off in her kitchen. Michelle sees ghosts and troubled spirits in every electrical problem and broken radio.

I once told her that the sun will eventually go all red giant and scorch all evidence of humanity off the planet, and what will the ghosts do then? Haunt the ashes? Won’t that be really lame for the ghosts?

She laughs at me, and I laugh at her, and then we start making supper out in the community garden, tossing fresh asparagus in lemon juice and garlic.

“But dude! An OLD LADY DIED in that apartment!” she exclaims.

“DUDE! Something like SEVENTY BILLION PEOPLE died since the dawn of humanity. An OLD LADY DIED EVERYWHERE!” I holler.

Then we laugh again. I’m never going to convince her that her ghost is crappy wiring, and she’s never going to convince me that the dead return to life just to fuck with the ambient lighting schemes of aging hipsters like us.

These differences in beliefs don’t matter to me, really. Not in the grand scheme of a friendship with someone who comforts me when I’m going bananas, and genuinely cares for me.

Michelle is my only wacky-belief friend who has ever asked why I don’t believe in god, astral-projection, ghosts, or kinoki foot pads, and it is one of the many reasons why I love her.

Sometimes I think Michelle needs to believe in the supernatural, because she doesn’t really know how much there actually IS of the natural world to be dazzled by. No faith is required, just your own two eyes to see and hands to feel.

I told her that the universe is wonderful enough on its own. Space, stars, planets, black holes, galaxies, suns. The fact that out of all the elemental soup, people like us have evolved to walk and talk and create art, music, white wine, patent leather stacked mary jane shoes, Cocoa Puffs cereal, truck nutz, chocolate chip cookies, surf boards, and the Neiman Marcus cosmetics department is AMAZING. All by itself. Saying, “god did it” is heartbreaking. It pisses on the sheer wonderousness of it all, you know? I don’t need more.

The universe doesn’t need to be imbued with the mystical to make it “more” special. It’s like salting a pot of soup in someone else’s kitchen without permission. It’s awfully presumptuous, and, well, more than a little rude.
h/t Bad Astronomy

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