Recently, I was fortunate to be able to attend Skepticon 8, held in Springfield, Missouri, in the heart of Bible country. (Proof: When I used a restroom at a restaurant near the venue, I found a Campus Crusade for Christ tract wedged behind the toilet paper dispenser.) I’d attended Skepticon a few years back, so I largely knew what to expect: speakers talking about topics related to atheism, humanism, skepticism, science, and other topics relevant to an atheist/skeptical audience.
I mostly didn’t find anything surprising about this year’s lineup, aside from the fact that the organizers wiped the slate clean and brought all new faces in. I knew many of these names already: author and Black Skeptics founder Sikivu Hutchinson, former pastor (and fellow blogger) Justin Vollmar, Ex-Muslims of North America president Muhammad Syed, writer Hiba Krisht, and many others.
But one name stood out to me in particular: Destin Sandlin. I knew Sandlin from his wildly popular science YouTube channel Smarter Every Day (I had even used one of his videos in my days as a teacher), and one of the things I knew about him set him apart from the rest of the lineup: Sandlin is a Christian.
In fact, this incongruity was so striking to me that I actually wondered if I had misremembered Sandlin’s religious affiliation. It didn’t take long for me to realize that yes, Skepticon had in fact invited a Christian to give a talk to a bunch of heathens at a fairly prominent spot on the Saturday night of the conference.
It’s worth noting here how risky a move this was – for both Skepticon and Sandlin. Letting a theist use the Skepticon platform could be easily seen as another opportunity for a religious person to spread their beliefs, and since many people attend Skepticon in order to have a safe space to enjoy talks and interaction without religion, that could be seen as an encroachment of religion, done with the knowledge and endorsement of the organizers.
As for Sandlin – he risked walking into the lion’s den, so to speak. You could tell from watching him, too, that he understood that full well. (He even made a point to bring up the “strange E-mail” he got from conference organizer Lauren Lane asking him if he would like to come and speak.)
I was personally worried once I saw that his talk was going to address faith. Skepticon attendees are generally pretty well-behaved, from my experience, but I also knew that it wouldn’t necessarily take much positive discussion of religion or faith for someone to speak up from the crowd. Happily, this never happened, which is both to the credit of the audience and of Sandlin, who was amiable and self-deprecating (he often described himself as a “redneck from Alabama”) and sometimes inched toward the threshold of danger but always backed off quickly before he started to sound too preachy.
So what would a Christian YouTuber have to say to a bunch of nonbelievers?
Well, it’s difficult to distill Sandlin’s talk down to a simple thesis, but perhaps the most significant part centered around a demonstration which is featured in one of his most famous videos:
In case you aren’t familiar, a welder friend of Sandlin’s engineered a bicycle that inverted the controls of the handlebars: that is, turning the handlebars left would turn the front wheel right, and vice versa. If you haven’t seen this in action, it’s practically impossible to do for anyone who knows how to ride a conventional bicycle (and a few audience members demonstrated this), but Sandlin did the insane experiment of spending eight months learning how to ride this backwards bicycle.
And he did it. The problem is that now he can only ride a backwards bike, as we all saw during the talk when he tried to ride a bicycle normally time and time and time again, always unsuccessfully. As he tells it, he rewired his brain so that he could ride this altered invention, and this intentional mental retraining changed his way of processing this otherwise simple activity.
I think the point he was trying to convey was that maybe the difference between him – a Christian – and the typically non-theist attendees of Skepticon is a matter of how our brains work to process the same information, not as a matter of function and dysfunction but perhaps of a different functioning. It was sort of a “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” except with brains.
I have a lot of sympathy for Sandlin in this kind of situation. His religious beliefs are relatively well-known, and his videos often end with a Scripture reference – Psalm 111:2, a verse which (he reminded the Skepticon crowd) was inscribed on the door of Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. So not mentioning them would be tantamount to ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.
Instead, what he did was something that I think is very useful for building bridges: He essentially argued, “You know, we might seem to be in two different worlds, but we’re not as different as we might seem.”
As far as religious beliefs go, Sandlin was obviously way out of the mainstream of Skepticon. At one point, he mentioned the mnemonic “God, grave, and grace,” which he almost impulsively started to explain before backing off somewhat defensively and noting that he wasn’t there to preach his beliefs. But it’s pretty clear that otherwise, Sandlin’s work – which isn’t religious in nature, although Sandlin would certainly argue that his personal impulse for it is – is right in the wheelhouse of the science-loving crowd of a skeptic conference. After all, he is literally a rocket scientist, and he was able to talk with great technical knowledge even while he was discussing chickens. If you ignored the religion part and the obvious tribal separation, I think most of the crowd had a great deal of common ground with Sandlin in terms of scientific inquiry.
To their credit, the Saturday night crowd at Skepticon did respond favorably: Lauren had promised “a mountain of high-fives” in her E-mail (as a free conference, Skepticon doesn’t pay honoraria or speaker fees), and they – or should I say, we (because I joined in, too) – delivered after Sandlin’s talk.
So in a way, the talk did what it was supposed to do: At least some of the crowd left thinking, “You know, for a Christian, he’s not that unreasonable a guy.” I doubt anyone walked out convinced that theism or Christianity are rational belief systems, but that wasn’t even really the point: Sandlin just wanted to hammer home the point that one ought not to make too much of an assumption about the people “on the other side” that they argue with on the Internet.
And in this way, the talk was certainly notable: It’s not likely that you would find many talks at an atheist or skeptic conference that would argue, “You know, religious people are wrong, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all completely irrational people.” There was no choir preaching happening here.
Not that the talk was perfect, of course. Sandlin mentioned both compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, as if to acknowledge that these are the likely explanations that we would throw at him for why he can be so rational about science but not about the Jesus stuff, but he practically waved them away out of hand. “Am I just compartmentalizing my beliefs?” he would say. “I don’t know.” But of course, as even he seemed to concede, we would disagree on this point. Moreover, many of us know about this firsthand, having insulated certain beliefs from rigorous skeptical scrutiny as religious people until we let those barriers down. So in a way, some of those in the crowd did in fact have the kind of insight into Sandlin’s mindset as a Christian that he lacked into our thoughts as non-theists.
Still, as Sandlin would say several times over the course of his talk, he just wanted to understand where we were coming from. And even if he didn’t succeed at that, just as he never succeeded at riding his backwards bicycle in the traditional mode, just the mere fact that he made such an effort on that stage earns him a lot of respect in my book. If only there were more religious people who made half as much effort to be rational and skeptical as Destin Sandlin seems to, I have to think that we’d all be a lot better off.
Image via YouTube
GALEN BROADDUS is a web developer currently living in the flatlands of central Illinois. He is also the president of Springfield Area Freethinkers (IL) and a certified Secular Celebrant with the Center for Inquiry. He is formerly a contributor to the Ex-Communications blog on the Patheos network, and you can find him writing occasionally on his celebrant blog and tweeting slightly more occasionally @ILSecCelebrant. You can email Galen here.