The God of Skeptics

Heretics, nonbelievers, and doubters worship the Amazing Randi. So what will free thinkers do when he's gone?

Says Geller: "Most people are believers. Most people are religious. Most people want to believe there's a creator. Most people want to believe in spirituality. Most people want to believe there is something out there. Seven billion people can't be wrong. Whether you call it a god or Buddha or religion, there is some kind of spirituality out there. The skeptics are a tiny, tiny minority. They're insignificant. They are molecular nothings."

To illustrate how easily spiritual leaders can garner followers, Randi and Alvarez, a visual artist, perpetuated a hoax on Australian national television in 1988. Alvarez pretended his body was inhabited by "Carlos," a 1,500-year-old fortuneteller. Within days, Alvarez had thousands of followers. "It was just so easy," Alvarez says. "It's sad and remarkable."

During most of the Amazing Meeting in July, Alvarez pushes Randi's wheelchair around the expansive Las Vegas resort. Some days, Randi feels great. Some days, he can't lift the phone to his ear. Doctors have put his five-year prognosis at 50-50. Medical science, though, is the one thing this old skeptic actually has faith in. Two weeks after the conference, Randi will begin a regular routine of chemotherapy. He will lose the soft white hair around his head; his bushy, expressive eyebrows; and the beard he hasn't shaved in more than 25 years. "That's fine," he says. "Growing hair is something I'm good at."

James Randi
C. Stiles
James Randi
Randi (left), Penn, and Teller pose in thought during a panel discussion on magic and skepticism.
Bill Hughes
Randi (left), Penn, and Teller pose in thought during a panel discussion on magic and skepticism.

Still, the cancer hasn't changed his views on death: "One day, I'm gonna die. That's all there is to it," he says matter-of-factly. "Hey, it's too bad, but I've got to make room. I'm using a lot of oxygen and such — I think it's good use of oxygen myself, but of course I'm a little prejudiced on the matter."

Up in his hotel room at the conference, he's asked about whether nearing death will make him recant his lifelong atheism. "I've been wrong about things in the past," he says, "but not anything this big."

It's the skeptics' willingness to say "I don't know" that makes them a mostly libertarian bunch. "We don't trust anything or anyone," a science teacher from Texas explains, "least of all the government."

Dr. Yaron Brook, president of the think tank Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California, says Randi has been a prominent promoter of reason and scientific method. "Part of his legacy will be the resurgence in atheism and all the debunking he's done, but one of his greatest achievements has been the reassertion of one objective truth," Brook says. "So many of those influenced by him just want to debunk for the sake of debunking, but Randi is better. He is a defender of the truth."

When Randi does go over to the great big nothing, it's unclear what will become of his foundation or the million-dollar challenge. The foundation's board of directors recently installed astronomer Plait as president of the foundation. But Randi is the face of the organization, and he knows that fundraising and organizing conferences could suffer if he's not there to put his name on the place.

Things are still bright, though. The second morning of the conference, two skeptics get married onstage. The bride, Rebecca Watson of Boston, and the groom, Sid Rodriguez of London, met in Las Vegas at the Amazing Meeting three years ago. MythBusters' Adam Savage is the ring bearer. After the wedding cake is cut, in front of about 1,000 of the most dedicated atheists on Earth, the lucky couple takes to the floor for the first dance — to a cover of the Beach Boys' hit "God Only Knows." Everyone in the room giggles at the ironic refrain. For the last two lines, the lyrics are changed to "Randi only knows what I'd be without you..."

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Back in the dark banquet hall, everyone is ready for the results of Connie Sonne's dowsing test.

"This has to be a three," Banachek reminds the room. He flexes the envelope and pours out the playing card.

Sonne takes a deep breath.

"Connie, that is a two. You've failed."

To be thorough, Banachek asks Sonne to cut open the other two envelopes she chose. Both are wrong. Then she cuts open the remaining envelopes to prove all the cards are present. By the time she's finished, the patient audience has grown restless.

Although she failed today, she asserts she has psychic powers. "I just know," she repeats. Then she says the voices she hears have simply chosen another time to unveil her skills to the world. "They haven't allowed it today. But you wait. You remember me. You will see."

Outside the banquet room, Randi feigns relief, giving his brow an exaggerated, sarcastic wipe. "Thank God the money is safe!"

He says that when people lose the challenge, they all react the same way: "Without fail, they always have an excuse for why they couldn't do what they claimed they could."

Sure enough, once Sonne returns to Denmark, she claims Banachek used sleight of hand to move the cards and protect the money.

After the test, most conferees head to the airport or begin long road trips home. A handful of skeptics lingers at the bar. "The TAM parties are something of a legend," a tall, pale, bearded conferee from Seattle confesses after his third vodka, amid a string of Simpsons quotes. (Asked for his name, he spits out two that end up not being his.) "Skeptics understand the chemistry of inebriation. And we're good people to have deep, meaningful conversations with. All the people here are based in reality. That's really refreshing." To punctuate his sentiments, he stands up: "Who wants another round?"

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