Kurt Andersen

CSICon 2019 versus the Fantasy-Industrial Complex

October 18, 2019

In Post-Truth America, at a time when “modern secular government is in greater jeopardy than ever before,” as CFI board chair Eddie Tabash put it at the CSICon 2019 opening reception, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The kickoff of this year’s CSICon was a kind of diagnosis of the problem, and an acknowledgement that perhaps the only solution is, well, us. But a lot more of us. 

Robyn Blumner

CFI CEO Robyn Blumner pointed to the Affirmations of Humanism published in every issue of Free Inquiry magazine, a symbolic gesture that illustrated the common cause shared by skeptics and humanists. The Affirmations look to science and reason to solve humanity’s greatest problems, offering a sense of optimism we are sorely lacking these days. 

In that spirit, Eddie also pointed out how naturalism addresses the extraordinary claims of both religion and pseudoscience, and looked to a time when “humanity grows into a more thoughtful maturity,” and Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier said that our movement welcomes all those who want to resist the “plunge” into pseudoscience and fantasy.

Kendrick Frazier

Finally, we got to hear from the conference’s M.C., the delightful comedian Leighann Lord, who offered a kind of day-to-day example of the plunge Kendrick is talking about. When someone tells her, “We don’t really know who built the pyramids!” she replies, “Dude, I don’t even know who put the shingles on my roof. It doesn’t mean the Klingons did it.”

Leighann Lord

Can we achieve this more thoughtful maturity when it seems like we’ve taken such huge strides backward? Our species’ ambling into absurdity was the theme of Kurt Andersen’s prime time presentation after the reception. The author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, Andersen opened his arms and told the audience, “These are my people! This is my base!”

What was eye-opening about Andersen’s talk was how he drew a pretty direct line from the pre-colonial Protestants who came to the New World, not only in search of the freedom to practice their particularly severe strain of Christianity, but also to seek out fortunes from the gold that actually wasn’t there. But they kept coming anyway. These believers also brought with them an adamant sense of righteous indignation and feeling of constant persecution. All of this should sound very familiar to us moderns.

Fast forward to today, and the internet has allowed conspiracy theorizing and magical thinking to go into overdrive. The “democratic” nature of Google searches, wherein each click is a kind of vote for one’s preferred version of reality, leads to a world in which we can exist as “fictionalized versions of ourselves” online, and the “Fantasy-Industrial Complex” has allowed for the weaponization of delusion. (Think “weaponized” is too strong? Consider climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, faith healing enforced on children, or even the refusal to confront the facts about gun violence.)

Leave it to Leonard Tramiel, CFI board member and computing pioneer, to ask the reality hard question at the end of the night: “How do we fix it?” You won’t be surprised to know that Andersen wasn’t too sure what to say about that. But there was one idea.

“We can only hope that extraordinary groups like yours continue fighting the good fight.” We will. I promise.