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Skeptical Ambassador

Jim Underdown

April 16, 2015

Sometimes we become so embroiled in our own affairs that we forget there are skeptic and humanist allies all over the world and things to see that underscore our causes. And so I was reminded on a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa via London, England.

Jim Underdown at Sea Point Contact, Cape TownSea Point Contact, Cape Town

Most routing to Cape Town from Los Angeles passes through Europe, in our case London Heathrow. Heathrow isn’t a bad place to spend a nine-hour layover between two eleven-hour flights, but my wife and I decided to take the tube to the British Library to see an exhibition on the Magna Carta.

They had a couple of the surviving copies of the 1215 ce document that sought to end the conflict between King John and his barons, who apparently were tired of being randomly taxed and randomly tossed into jail if they tried to dodge the taxes. The original Magna Carta (it was rewritten over the centuries) introduced some early due-process ideas to a society that was used to the church and the monarchy calling the shots. Weeks after the Magna Carta was signed, Pope Innocent III got wind that rule of law superseded holy authority, and he promptly annulled the document.

Jim Underdown and Richard WisemanLondon Fire Memorial with Richard Wiseman

Between family obligations and getting interviewed by The Times in Cape Town, we were fortunate enough to have dinner with a great group of skeptics. Jacques Rousseau and his wife, Signe, (both of the University of Cape Town); Bryan; Kelly; and Clint all gathered at the Waterfront in Cape Town for some delightful conversation, food, and drink. South Africa has its share of nutty beliefs, and it’s gratifying to know there are folks down there who are armed with good evidence and willing to speak up.

Blocks from where we stayed in Cape Town at a place called the Sea Point Contact, Charles Darwin arrived on the HMS Beagle in 1836. This is a spot where two different ages of rocks meet and give clues as to the great age of the Earth. Darwin wrote about this in the Origin of Species in 1859.

Jim Underdown in front of Down HouseIn front of Down House

The Darwin theme would continue in London (on the way home) as we embarked on a pilgrimage to Down House, Charles and Emma Darwin’s home for some forty years. Pilgrimages shouldn’t be too easy, and we (now joined by our friend, South African author Henrietta Rose-Innes) fought wind, rain, and Sunday bus and train schedules to walk the final half mile to the place where groundbreaking science was put to page. Not content to coast on family money and domestic life, Darwin turned his home and grounds into laboratories and places of contemplation. It fed my skeptical soul to walk where he walked, see what he saw, and be where he was. All those in love with science should make their way to Down House if they can.

The trip ended with a lovely visit with our friend Richard Wiseman, the distinguished parapsychologist and author. We traipsed through the Clink museum, which gave a taste of old-time jail conditions, climbed the London Fire (1666) Monument to a spectacular view, and joined another renowned colleague, Chris French and his wife, Anne, for a delicious Italian meal in Soho.

I have to say it warms the world up a bit to see good people great distances from where you live. The planet seems a bit more manageable somehow.

Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown is executive director of the Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, and the founder of the Independent Investigations Group.