The Hole


February 26, 2013 by kittynh

Skepticism is not finite.  You don’t become a skeptic and then are a perfect critical thinker able to guide others to the same perfection you have reached.

It’s actually a learning process.  One of the lessons we learn from skepticism is that life itself is enriched by educating yourself everyday.  We never know it all, and being open to learning new things, makes us better people and better teachers.

A hole, will leave a person unbalanced.

A hole, will leave a person unbalanced.

I’ve been lucky to meet people that have been a good influence on my life.  They have influenced not only my skepticism and critical thinking skills, but also influenced the way I live my day to day personal life.  These are people that made me not just a better skeptic, but a better person.

One of the most memorable was Mark Henderson.  I first met Mark when he drove with his son Asher to Vermont to meet his skeptic hero James Randi, who was giving a talk.  I remember introducing him not only to Randi, but also to someone he was thrilled to meet, Rebecca Watson.  His enthusiasm, and his obviously close relationship with his son, made him instantly likable.  He asked me take photographs of him with Rebecca and Randi, and I promised to forward them to him.

I later learned more about Mark.  He was a person that found his calling serving others.  Mark was a pastor, and this was reflected in his openness when speaking to people.  He clearly liked people, and when he spoke to you, you felt he was intensely interested in what you were saying.  He made you feel what you were saying was a gift to him.

Mark worked as Methodist and Humanist minister.  He not only led congregations, and his sermons are the stuff of legend, he was  a hands on pastor.  He didn’t just talk a sermon, he got out from behind the pulpit to practice what he preached.

He did pastoral care at hospitals and with hospice.  We often talk about “preaching to the choir” but sometimes forget those that are in pain, emotional and mental, that need to hear from us.  These people are often very difficult to deal with as they remind us of our own mortality.  Many people feel they get nothing back from these people, and in fact feel emotionally drained from dealing with them. Sadly those that need us the most, often get the least.

Skeptics are most happy engaging people that agree with them.  The ability to be with people that agree with us, and protect our views without challenging us, is a comfortable place to be.  To seek out those that make us uncomfortable, and comfort them while remaining strong in our humanist beliefs, takes a strong person.  Mark was a strong man, though I imagine my first impression of him as a truly happy man, is  what his friends and family will remember most.

Mark sadly was diagnosed with the disease that would eventually result in his far too young death shortly after we met in Vermont.  I was able to meet Mark several times over the next few years.  It was heartbreaking to see the physical changes, until Mark opened his mouth and you were immediately reassured.  He was doing fine.  It didn’t matter what was going on physically, he was enjoying life.

Mark gave everyone he met the respect of being truly interested in what they were doing. During a meeting at Granite State Skeptics, he asked me about my work with people that felt they had been abducted by aliens.  He listened intensely, and took a moment to think about what I had said. He then looked at me and said “I hope you find something to fill the hole you left by taking away their belief they had been abducted.  When you take something away you leave a hole.  You need to fill that hole.”

I always learned something when I talked with Mark.  His care with words meant that when he spoke, you needed to listen.  This time I learned the answer to a problem I’d been dealing with.  Many of the people I worked with were left depressed after giving up their paranormal beliefs, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I had missed something very important.

I was taken aback.  Like most skeptics, I like to brag a bit.  “I’m being asked to give a talk here. I’m having an article published there.  My blog is really taking off.  Did I mention I know James Randi, he got me a cake for my birthday!”  I am used to people saying “Wow, that’s great, you are doing such wonderful work!  I really enjoyed that post in SWIFT, and your blog post last week on Bigfoot was great!”

I am not used to feeling I have messed up.  I realized I had taken away from many people something very dear to them.  They believed they had been abducted by aliens.  Most of the people I’ve worked with have come to my group because they are very unhappy about this belief.  However, this belief had also been a defining aspect of their life.

I had, over the years, worked out some good skills to help these people.  Time, support, listening, and getting them involved in finding the answer rather than just telling them the answer, had proven to work well. The therapists I directed those needing therapy to were excellent.  They were also honing their skills and getting good results.  We weren’t 100%, and often all we could do was reassure people. Still, I was proud of how well we were doing. The only problem, I found that depression and loneliness was often what a believer that lost their false belief was left with.

I had created holes that I had not even tried to fill.

The price of giving up a false belief should not be loneliness.  We owe those we educate more.

The price of giving up a false belief should not be loneliness. We owe those we educate more.

I thought about friends that were atheists, and said what they missed most was the feeling of community and friendship they had with church.  I thought of atheists that had lost families, and not felt comforted until they had  found skeptic friends that helped fill that hole.  I knew one reason so many UFO and Bigfoot believers held onto their beliefs was that there would be a huge hole to be filled.  They were not only giving up a false belief, they were giving up all their friends and family that had been supportive of that false belief.

This is a problem with believers of any sort.  I know my daughters PhD thesis challenged a strongly held belief of another more experienced scientist.  She was quite nervous about her findings, having them checked and double checked by other experienced scientists.  She then felt strong enough for the criticism that resulted.  It took real bravery for her to publish the truth, in the face of the anger of a scientist that would be left with a hole.

I knew I had to do something else besides take away.  I had to offer something to fill the hole left.  I began to learn more about local astronomy clubs.  I put together a list of astronomy groups for those I worked with, because one thing most of them have in common is a fascination with space.  I tried to find out more about the people that contacted me personally. I tried to take an interest in them beyond their paranormal belief so I could show them the skeptic community was welcoming.  I found  sometimes just honestly telling a believer, “you will miss this belief when it is gone” is all you can do.  But you can’t just take something away, and expect that truth alone will be enough.

Just part of the family I gained when I became a skeptic.  Our local skeptics, but they didn't show up at my door when I dropped my non skeptic beliefs.

Just part of the family I gained when I became a skeptic. Our local skeptics, but they didn’t show up at my door when I dropped my non skeptic beliefs.

I like to tell how I found family and support in the skeptic community.  How I now have friends I can talk to without worrying about making a joke about astrology or tarot cards.  I enjoy all my friends, believers of woo and non believers, but there is something special about hanging with people that are like minded.  People ask me why I attend TAM (The Amazing Meeting) every year, and I reply “Because I can be myself!”

However, spending too much time with just skeptics can make spending time with believers difficult.   Critical thinkers have much in common with non critical thinkers, we are all just human.  We all know what it is like to lose something, a belief, a friend, a family member, and know that the hole left from that loss can be painful.

I thank Mark for teaching me I need to learn to help fill in the holes I help dig.

For Mark’s obituary click here.

10 thoughts on “The Hole

  1. Maybe the missing pieces are values. Skeptics and atheists do have values, but we’re so focused on the negative impacts of faith that we forget to celebrate the values that set us free from religion. Somebody asked me recently “what keeps you from putting your faith in Jesus Christ?” I answered honestly: my conscience. I love the truth too much to take it “on faith.”

    • Maybe the missing pieces are values. Skeptics and atheists do have values, but we’re so focused on the negative impacts of faith that we forget to celebrate the values that set us free from religion. Somebody asked me recently “what keeps you from putting your faith in Jesus Christ?” I answered honestly: my conscience. I love the truth too much to take it “on faith.”

      • kittynh says:

        That is so important. We need to talk about what we gained from giving up a belief. Those gains aren’t always instantly apparent.

  2. Sorry for the duplicate. I was logging back in to say that I’m sorry you’ve lost a good friend.

  3. Chew says:

    A very eye-opening article. “When you take something away you leave a hole. You need to fill that hole.” I shall work very hard to offer a substitute when I try to destroy someone’s beliefs.

  4. […] is a piece by Kitty Mervine, which was originally published in her blog, Yankee […]

  5. Mrs. A.S. says:

    I posted the following as a comment on a blogpost about the Dawkins vs. Rowan Williams debate which was about the need for religion in the 21st century:

    “People do bad things and it doesn’t take religion to make them bad. People do good things and it doesn’t take religion to make them good. But statistically we know that it is the more poorly educated that tend to be the most religious. They slog through life doing the menial tasks that most of us take for granted. We live off of their backs. Worse, we often make them feel insignificant. Is it no wonder that after spending their lives doing these jobs they hope for a better life after death. Church is a place they can go and not feel like a lesser human being and it provides them with hope for a better future. Is their hope misguided? Sure. But I’m not going to be the one who takes away their pleasure in this life and their hope for a better life without concerning myself about making their lives seem more worthwhile in the here and now.”

    I got an argument in return. People shouldn’t conflate the bad things that some religious people and some religious institutions do as a causal link that proves that religion is nothing but bad. And, I am not going to demand that people give up religious belief without concerning myself about “the hole” which results when their religious belief goes away.


    I am sorry that you have lost a good friend with great wisdom.

  6. Just wanna tell that this is very useful , Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  7. Mad says:

    Awesome blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused .. Any tips? Bless you!

    • kittynh says:

      I would say wordpress is great. Easy to use. Then get the word out via facebook, but also if you write about a place, say a museum, or perhaps an author you like, email the place or person the link to your blog! Also, at the bottom, link to other blogs with a similar topic.
      Blogs that are “topical”, say reflective of what is in the news, get a lot of hits. The best thing about a blog though is that it stays up, and you will find great pleasure in seeing via your stats page, that people are still reading a blog post you wrote months ago. It’s a timeless reference. So, don’t be upset if you don’t start out with big numbers. Keep writing about what you have a passion for. Share some insight you have had, or a touching interaction with another person. Perhaps some place that you love to eat, or that you love to visit. If it is meaningful to you, you will naturally write with that same feeling.
      Blogs develop an audience over time. Stick to it! Also remember, what you write can often touch someone deeply. It’s not always numbers that count. It’s who reads your blog, not how many, that is important.

      We all have something to share, good luck with sharing your experiences and insight! Please let me know when your blog is up, and I’ll be more than glad to “pimp it out” via my facebook and twitter! (You can reach me at

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