The Church of Skepticism
Seattle's One True Faith Gets Mobilized
This is my 15th year living in Seattle, and I can count on one hand the number of churchgoers I've met since moving here—and still have a finger left to hail a taxi to drive me the hell away from them. That's a joke, obviously, but it reflects an attitude I've encountered a lot in Seattle: Religious people are to be avoided.
It's not fair or true to suggest that all people who believe in a god and attend worship services are crazy or unreasonable. We all know that. It's also possible that I've met observant Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists in my time as a Seattleite (someone's going to all those churches). But if I have, they've kept a pretty tight lid on their Sabbath adventures.
Maybe that's because, as certain religious leaders like to claim, the "faithful" compose a persecuted majority, and the observers are scared of being ostracized, even persecuted, for admitting their beliefs. That's a reasonable enough concern in a town as judgmental as Seattle, I guess. But leaving aside the question of how weak a faith must be if it can be driven underground by a little ridicule, I don't think that's what's really going on. I think it's that the real religion of this city is skepticism, and the word is spreading.
Last week, 850 people packed Town Hall to hear a presentation by Christopher Hitchens, in town to promote his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which was number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Hitchens's stance in favor of war in Iraq has made him a polarizing figure among your standard-issue Seattle lefty crowd, but Town Hall was bursting with people ready to embrace the message that religion is a "Bronze Age myth."
"This stuff," Hitchens said, referring to religion, "is not to be believed." And the crowd roared.
Hitchens's argument—posed to a fully complicit choir, admittedly—was made all the more compelling because no one answered the call to debate the author about the existence of a god or the validity of religion. Seattle could not produce one radical Fundamentalist, sober moderate, or disinterested scholar to stand for the holy side. That's telling (we're the only city that has failed to meet Hitchens's challenge to debate all comers), but it's not what made the event resonate.
If skepticism is Seattle's religion, relativism is our cross. Though we may agree that faith is nonsense, we typically defer to someone with a strong conviction to the contrary—if only to avoid conflict. It's not that Seattle skeptics are easily swayed, it's that we don't want to tread on the rights of religious people to believe whatever fantasy they want to believe—and we for sure don't want to have to have an argument. But religion isn't an argument; it's a diatribe. An increasingly hateful, harmful one. So now it's time for skepticism to militarize.
Hitchens's event, like his book, and the growing body of popular literature it represents, was notable not only for its intelligence, but for its certitude. For that hour, in a space that was built to enshrine Christian Science—surely one of the most ludicrous spin-offs of the Protestant Reformation—Seattleites got the message that their skepticism is the rational position, and that the burden of proof lies with the party whose tenets are the least reasonable.
It may not have been the gospel, but it was very good news.