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Skeptics as Model Train Lovers (Part I)

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 17 2010
Photo by Becky Wetherington/BLW Photography. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Photo by Becky Wetherington

A couple of days ago rock musician George Hrab (host of the Geologic podcast) wrote to me to share a post written by an old friend of his — a kind review of a recent Hrab show, which I'm happy to share here.

The most interesting aspect of the post (and the reason George passed it along) is the blogger's reaction to the people he met at the show: an unfamiliar community of people called “skeptics.” As a person of faith, “Myklor” finds these skeptics alien and fascinating — and ultimately (I'm happy to say) endearing. (He does not, incidentally, distinguish between skepticism and atheism — a fine point in a social setting, to be sure, given that many skeptics are both.)

It was all a bit surreal. By now, I was well aware of George's involvement in this universe, but it was trippy to have unknowingly stumbled into one of their “to-do's.” The traveling skeptic girl was awfully sweet and very cool, much like George; as were the other skeptical folks who were now beginning to drift in. Lots of smiles and mutual experience and excitement, and in-jokes and “Oh my God! So you're JesusBlows9437? I love your posts on the message boards!”

Here, Myklor puts his finger on something interesting: the “skeptical community” as a subculture.

I remember, when I carried mud-spattered copies of Skeptic and Demon-Haunted World in my backpack as a young shepherd, wanting to talk to people about the weird stuff I loved. What a wonderful feeling it was, later in my life, to find so many people excited to wrestle with the same ideas. Skeptics often describe such a feeling of “I found my tribe” elation. In itself, this is a beautiful thing — as any kind-hearted outsider can see.

[T]heir ties were palpable. I could feel the energy created when a roomful of them gathered. … And I loved them for it. I love the passion. I love the bonds. I love that when one of their own arrives in town they come out of the woodwork to experience the miracle of the “we.”

Finding commonality with other human beings is a good in itself — an end in itself. Indeed, in respect to this particular end, the “skeptical” part of the skeptical community is largely beside the point. Myklor touches on something important (and quite funny) when he compares the skeptical community to model train enthusiasts.

And it is kind of the same thing as the skeptics. On one hand, I'm perplexed. Like, who are these people? And what is it that rocks their world about finding a three inch clock tower to go in the middle of the teeny fake town which their trains endlessly circle? On the other hand, who cares? Who cares why they love the little tower? They just do. It isn't hurting them or anyone else. And it stirs them. And that is cool.

Through this lens, celebration of commonality is itself the value of skepticism. I'm reminded here of Vonnegut's novel Slapstick and its science-fictional scheme to assign us all to huge artificial families: “Lonely no more.” And yet, social connections based on common hobbies or labels (model train lovers, Star Trek fans, Canadians, readers of skeptical media) could also be viewed more cynically as  “granfalloons” (to borrow again from Vonnegut): empty associations based on superficial or artificial commonality. In the context of skepticism, there's probably some truth to this. I'm sometimes angrily told that “There is no 'skeptical community!' I reject the idea that we have common goals!”

To this, I point out the obvious: a “community” exists as soon as the first few folks say they belong to it. Granted, from there things get much, much more complicated (I'll come back to that complexity in my next post) but it's something, right there.

It's vague, it's messy, and it's home.

[Continued in Part II.]

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20 Responses to “Skeptics as Model Train Lovers (Part I)”

  1. Rich says:

    As a devoted member of a similar subculture (swing dancing), I’ve experienced this kind of community for a long time. We take it to quite a higher level. Check out Dancers converge on a different city almost every weekend. Dancers who live in that city open up their homes to complete strangers from across the country and around the world, just so they can experience the dance together.

    When I tell my dancer friends about skepticism, and I’m explaining who James Randi is, I say, “he’s skepticism’s version of Frankie Manning”

  2. steelsheen11b says:

    I’m not trying to be dickish here but am I supposed to know who George Hrab is?

  3. billgeorge says:

    To paraphrase Woody Allen “I wouldn’t want to be part of a group (community) that would allow me as a member.”

  4. Max says:

    Some skeptics, conspiracy theorists, and porn lovers have a desire to socialize with like-minded people, others don’t.

  5. Peter N says:

    “Who cares why they love the little tower? They just do. It isn’t hurting them or anyone else. And it stirs them. And that is cool.”

    That’s model train collectors. Now some skeptics may be thought of as similarly being part of a cute little community with a shared interest, but let’s not forget that some of us are actually trying to save the world!

  6. badrescher says:


    What a lovely post that man wrote. I do wonder, though, if he’d have a different view of us if he’d spent more time with the group and if religion was discussed. Then again, he’d likely understand that there are examples of all kinds in every crowd.

  7. I’ve never believed in a model-train movement, but I’ve always believed in the power of the model-train community. When they join forces huge (small) engineering projects can come together with nary a trainwreck.

  8. lazarus says:

    @ Peter N. What is it about the world, exactly, that needs saving? It is my experience that when people claim they are trying to save the world, (skeptics, christians, enviromentalists, whomever etc.) what they really mean is themselves. I leave it to you to decide whether that is collectively or personally. The long hoped for triumph of reason over superstition will not save anything. The existence of consciousness on this planet is but the blink of an eye and the lid is almost closed. Sadly, the ideologies that have motivated so many to embrace the greatest of evils, or to have reached for the dizzying heights of reason and beauty will have been, in the end, much ado about nothing. Let us not forget that, regardless of which side you find yourself on, we are but voices crying out in the wilderness. I think I read somewhere that there is grandeur in this view of life, given that we are able to remove the cataract of ego. Three si on dog.

  9. WScott says:

    And yet, social connections based on common hobbies or labels…could also be viewed more cynically as “granfalloons”

    Not at all. Granfalloons are bogus associations of people who really have no interests in common beyond having been born in the same state or whatever. Getting together with people who share common interests to spend time pursuing those interests (sci-fi and gaming geekdom being my personal flavor) would seem to be the exact opposite of a granfalloon.

    • Vonnegut specifies some voluntary common-interest groups as examples of granfalloons (such as the International Order of Odd Fellows and the Daughters of the American Revolution).

      • WScott says:

        Fair enough. (It’s been a long time since I read Vonnegut.) Tho I would still argue there’s a difference between those sorts of organizations and hobbyist groups. Model train geeks are still model train geeks even if they never go to a club or convention; the shared interest exists prior to and separate from the organization. And when they get together, it’s specifically to practice their hobby – the shared interest is what they actually do.

        With the Odd Fellows, DAR, et. al. the purpose of the group is the group itself; it’s not like there are Shriners who don’t belong to the group. I don’t mean to discount the civic/charitable works such groups often do, but those works are not dependent on one being a Shriner. The interest is not fundamental to the group’s purpose, or vice-versa.

        Shorter version:
        A model train geek is someone who likes model trains.
        An Odd Fellow is someone who is a member of the Odd Fellows organization.

        But then too, it could just be a matter of outsider perspective (or lack thereof): “I don’t understand the interest, therefore it must be a granfalloon…”

  10. I’m terribly wary of all those chummy concepts such as “family”, “community”, “subculture”, “tribe”, “commonality”, etc. Is it not possible for an intelligent skeptical individual to adhere simply, not to a clan, but to a bundle of proven ideas and intellectual principles? The attempt to define some kind of fuzzy skeptical togetherness annoys me… particularly since my hermitic lifestyle here in the south of France means that I’m condemned to be forever an outsider.

  11. Stuart says:

    that’s the beauty of sub-cultures and the social media – now, no matter where you dwell or exist, you can reach out and find and interact with like minded people {most times} – I’m all for granfalloons – but then I like true eccentrics – unfortunately they’re a rare breed these days!