A Skeptic’s Carol

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t.” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I love this story. It’s one of my favorite Christmas traditions to watch various versions of this – A Muppet Christmas Carol, Bill Murray’s Scrooged, and the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern’s Dickensian narration of A Christmas Carol. I went to that last one this week and it was during the piece of dialog above that it dawned on me. Scrooge was a skeptic! I leaned over and whispered this  minor epiphany to my husband who responded “That’s what most people think of when they think of skeptics, I’ll bet.”

And that got me thinking some more. So Scrooge was a skeptic. He didn’t believe in ghosts, even when confronted with them, realizing that human senses could play tricks. But to say that all skeptics are, as Dickens describes old Ebenezer:

… a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

Oh no no no, my friends. Not so. You all probably know this already but I think it needs to be said. Calling all skeptics Scrooge is sort of an argument ad hominem. Or maybe a bad syllogism. Scrooge was a skeptic. Scrooge was mean and cold-hearted. Therefore, all skeptics are mean and cold-hearted. (Moreover, he stopped beinga big ol’ bastard when he stopped being a skeptic.)

I see very few Scrooges in the skeptical community. And it is a community. People debate whether it should be called a movement or a way of thinking or an activity, but you can’t deny we’re a community. It’s comprised of some of the kindest, funniest, smartest and noblest people I’ve ever known. But we’re all skeptics. We need evidence. 

Here are some of my favorite examples from the year gone by about what skeptics are and what we do:

We worry about our children and our future

When education is at risk around the country and around the world, skeptics are there to be the voice of reason. We worry when creationists are elected into state government, concerned that science programs everywhere will suffer.  And we continue to be vigilant as school boards question teaching evolution time and time again.

We work to help our fellow man (and woman)

Skeptical groups around the world spend time, money and energy debunking the myths and publicising the truth about pseudoscience that will hurt people. Others try to demonstrate the dangers of pseudoscience through research and reason. Overall, we worry about strangers and friends alike, who can fall prey to misinformation and fraud.

We fight for human freedoms

When, in the midst of a world-changing election, basic human freedom was stripped away from homosexuals in California, Florida and Arkansas, the skeptical community spoke out and continues to speak out. We demonstrated, we posted and we podcasted in support of gay rights and we will continue to do so. Because freedom for only some means freedom for none. We get that.

We take care of each other

When our dear friend and all around cool skeptic Robert Lancaster suffered a stroke this year, we all did our best to support him. Some donated money, others donated time, others sent well wishes and messages of support in the hopes of a speedy recovery. Some of the people who supported him had never even met Robert, but knew him through the JREF forums or the work he did against Sylvia Browne.

When we found out his site URL had been taken over by squatters, folks on the JREF forum fell over themselves to remedy the problem.

We love to laugh, to socialize and to meet new people

Ohhh the parties. 2008 was quite the year for parties. One and a half Amaz!ng Meetingsplus an Amaz!ng Adventure to the Galapagos! Dragon*Con! Skepchicks in New York and California! Oh the people we met and the parties we threw. Plus, Skeptics in the Pub and Drinking Skeptically events have popped up all over the place. People are realizing that being a skeptic isn’t about staying home and eating gruel. Oh no, not when there’s beer to be drunk and friends to be made.

We celebrate Christmas in our own, unique ways

Whether we’re believers or not, most of us find a way to appreciate the spirit of the Christmas season. We shop, we give gifts, we think about our families, our friends and the people closest to us. We celebrate the traditions we want to, we laugh at folks who take the season too seriously and we try to live our lives with generosity, peace and goodwill.

So, my skeptical friends, if you do get called a Skeptical Scrooge this Christmas, I’d say people must be referring to the Scrooge at the end of the story:

Scrooge was better than his word…He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

Merry Christmas ya’ll! Have some ‘nog and eat a cookie. You deserve it.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. Very, VERY well written. Happy holidays to all and here’s hoping that 2009 is a better one than 2008..

  2. Thank you, that was a very nice post. I think you’re right about the Scrooge stereotype enveloping skepticism, but I have actively avoided thinking about it. I love A Christmas Carol, too, and I like to watch a different version every year. One of my favorites is the George C. Scott version (’84). I liked the Patrick Stewart one (’99), too, and I also love the Muppets version… “Mr. God-like Narrator!” I even enjoy the Albert Finney musical version (’70!), “thank you very much.”

  3. I just had a great thought. There should be a Bill O’Reilly version of A Christmas Carol, only written by skeptics and with an impressionist playing the part. Oh, wait, it could be a Steve Colbert version!

  4. Very nice post! And true. We do the things we do because we want to world to be a better place, and feel that truth empowers us.

    Happy Days!

  5. The original “A Christmas Carol” is one of my favorites as well. Mainly because I can really empathize with Scrooge. We see how he was blamed for events beyond his control, like how his mother died giving birth to him.

    But your right Scrooge is skeptical offering more rational, and reasonable explainations for the visiting ghosts. the Occam’s razor principle.

    It got me thinking of the recent MOS trip, and the TOE exhibition. It’s not that some guy in a red vest tells you how to be safe in a lighting storm, Nor even that he demonstrates it. — But he offers a believable explaination of why. — consider the explaination: lightning is afraid of the color red. — would also be valid, but false.

    Now consider that skeptics are also critical if not warning of the silliness of quack cures, (TT, Tong Ren, faith healing ….) skeptics provide a valuable service in that, warning the public to beware of quick too good to be true solutions.

  6. The real trouble is, Scrooge is introduced as a skeptic solely so that he can be “redeemed” by an overwhelming (and supernatural) experience, provided by authorial fiat.

  7. Charles Dickens wrote about social injustices.

    Social injustice is what skeptics are mostly concerned about. Or not?

  8. I’m fairly new to the skeptic community and I have found that they are the most generous, caring, and concerned people I have ever known. I always felt that religious people help only because they expected some blessing or were afraid of getting struck down by God. My husband was nearly killed in a car accident 2 years ago and the only people, besides family, that were there for me long after the accident were my heathen friends. My dear friends Christian and Maria bought me an afternoon at a spa. Christian came to my house and sat with Rich (who had severe brain damage) and the kids
    so I could have a few hours to myself. Maria cooked some Indian food more than once for us. I heard very little from the people at the church I was attending at the time.

    My favorite is Scrooge with Albert Finney. It’s a musical with some catchy tunes.

  9. The only *true* version of A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) is the 1951 film with Alastair Sim and also featuring the film debut of Patrick McNee as the young Jacob Marley.

  10. @DNAmom:

    Aw, shucks. :)

    We weren’t entirely altruistic. When we make Indian food, we get to eat Indian food :)

    Plus, with all due respect, Endicot is clearly insane. George C Scott IS Scrooge. It adds something to the story when you expect him to slap a soldier and shoot that paper-hangin’ son of a bitch Cratchit.

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