Here is an edited version of the talk Cara Santa Maria gave at FFRF’s 40th annual convention on Sept. 15, 2017, at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.
She was introduced by FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert:
Cara Santa Maria is a Los Angeles-area Emmy award-winning journalist, science communicator, television personality, producer and podcaster. She’s a correspondent on “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix, reports on local issues for “SoCal Connected,” and hosts the digital companion series for the popular competition reality show “America’s Greatest Makers” on TBS. She’s the creator and host of a weekly science podcast called “Talk Nerdy with Cara Santa Maria.” She also co-hosts the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” popular podcast, and she’s a founding member of the Nerd Brigade and co-founded the annual science communication retreat #SciCon camp.
We’re very pleased that she’s here today to accept FFRF’s Freethought Heroine award. So please join me in welcoming Cara Santa Maria.
By Cara Santa Maria
I’m so thrilled to be here. Wow, what a full house today. I want to take a moment for you guys to all cheer yourselves on for coming here to this incredible event. Look at how many of you there are. And this is just a microcosm of the 30,000 members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Can you believe that? Thirty thousand strong, and so many of you are represented here. I want to thank you for this honor, and I thought maybe what I could do is just take a few minutes to introduce myself.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m going to meander a little bit like I do on my podcast. Any podcast listeners out there know that this is just how I roll.
I was born and raised in the Bible Belt in the South. I’m from the suburbs around Dallas. I live in L.A. now, but I spent the first 24 years of my life in Dallas and the surrounding area where I went to elementary, middle and high school and also college for my undergrad and my master’s degree.
I grew up in a Mormon household. As you may know, when you grow up Mormon, it is all-encompassing. Being born into the faith, that’s all you really know. And especially when you’re living in a place like Dallas, right there in the heart of the Bible Belt. Even though many of your friends aren’t Mormon, pretty much all of your friends in public school are religious and of the evangelical variety, definitely the Christian variety.
Growing up in that environment, there’s not a lot of places where you can go with your questions. I left the church when I was 14. It was a really difficult transition for me because there wasn’t really much social support; I didn’t really know anybody else who called themselves an atheist or who overtly said, “No, I don’t believe in God.”
When you grow up in that environment, it can be tough. But I didn’t have that standard epiphany moment. There wasn’t one day where I was like, “Oh, it all makes so much sense.” Instead, I think back and I realized that I never actually believed, or maybe I thought I did, but I never had that kind of transcendental moment. Jesus never spoke to me personally.
I did sometimes get goosebumps and a little bit teary-eyed when I would sing in the church choir. And for years after, I thought, “Well, gosh, that religious music, it really did move me, maybe that was the Lord speaking to me.” Then I realized, “No, I just really like music.” No matter what the content of the lyrics are, the music is still pretty beautiful.
My father and my mother had been long divorced at this point. I really saw a streak in my mother that was kind of a secular humanist streak. I think she wanted to believe. I think that it was in her mind the right thing for her to do.
She grew up in Puerto Rico. My father was raised in an Italian family. They were both Roman Catholic stock and they became Mormon by choice, I think because they were seeking answers that their previous religion didn’t bring them.
When I was 14, I went to my father and said, “You know, not only do I not really believe in this, I don’t think I believe in any of this.” He didn’t react. I don’t know what I expected, but I think in my heart of hearts I hoped that we could have some discourse, that we could really talk about it, that he would maybe test my questions and try and provide answers.
I remember to this day, he said to me, “I have a moral obligation to God to force you to go to church until you’re 18 so long as you live under my roof.” And I said, “Then maybe I won’t live under your roof anymore.”
This caused a really big rift, and after many, many years in therapy as a teenager and as an adult, I really came to realize that he kind of put me in a pretty unfair position for a young child. I had to make the decision between his faith and my family. It wasn’t my faith. And giving me that Sophie’s Choice was completely unfair, so I ended up living with my mother.
My father actually withdrew his child support and we had a very difficult relationship for many years after that. We’ve since patched that up, and we’re very close now, but there’s still this lingering sensibility between us.
How many of you have parents who are or were religious? You probably know the experience that I’m talking about, where even if there’s mutual respect, and even if you care dearly about each other, and you kind of try to know where the other one’s coming from, even in the best of scenarios, there’s still a bit of kind of a sorrow between you — a guilt, maybe.
You feel bad for the other person. You know they feel sorry for you because you’re going to go to hell, and that’s terrible in their mind. And you feel bad for them because their worldview is so incredibly narrow, and there’s so many opportunities that they may never be able to experience, or never had the chance to experience, maintaining that narrow focus.
That’s where my father and I are, even to this day. I have several siblings, many of whom are adopted — a really beautiful, rich family. Many of them stayed in the church, but some of them did not. And they have similar experiences to my own. I’m very lucky that my mother was a source of support for me through all of those years when I was really trying to figure out who I was and what I believed.
Coming to science
I came to science in a little bit of a different way. We talk about this a lot on the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” especially when we have guests on who are both scientist and atheist, or scientist and skeptic, or all three. Remember, none of these things is mutually inclusive or exclusive. Being one does not make you better or worse at the other.
I am all three: I don’t believe in God. Plus, I have worked as a scientist in the lab, and now I’m continuing my education. I’m also a skeptic, although I didn’t really know it until the “Skeptics Guide” invited me to join their podcast, and I started to dig into the culture.
When you talk to a lot of individuals who wear all those different hats, they all came to it in a different progression. I find that it’s somewhat uncommon to declare oneself an atheist first and then find science a decade later. For many people, that journey into the scientific endeavor is really what helped them realize their skepticism and their atheism. But I was a typical young female student of the era. I was a baby of the ’80s.
Like many girls today, and like many girls decades past, I was really afraid of science. I was really afraid of math, and I avoided those courses like the plague. I remember looking back at my undergraduate transcript, and I was required to take three science classes in order to get my degree. I thought I would take the three science classes that scare me the least.
Oceanography — it’s a lot harder than it looked. Stellar astronomy, right? And I want to say paleontology, but to be honest, it was listed in the course guide as “DINOSAURS!” in all capital letters with an explanation point. Yeah, I’m going to take that class! And I did honestly have a lot of fun in those classes, but I still had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about science. There was a stigma there, and I was still kind of afraid and don’t think I really blossomed.
I ended up studying psychology in my undergraduate degree, and I think that’s when I found science more truly. I became very interested in neuropsychology through a series of wonderful professors, many of whom were women, and many of whom influenced me really deeply, and I still am grateful to them to this day.
That’s when I decided to continue my education and get a master’s degree. I moved into the biology department and studied neuroscience. I was behind, though. I had to take a lot of classes to catch up. That’s truly when I fell in love with the scientific method and kind of made the decision. I started my Ph.D. soon after that. I left pretty quickly. I think I needed a break, and at that point I was realizing how much I loved communicating science, kind of for the public, for the masses, for all of the people out there, and I had a few wonderful opportunities to work in television. I was able to work in television, to start a podcast, and to be involved in trying to shape the narrative about science in this country. Let me tell you, it is an uphill battle.
Uphill fight for women
But I’m really lucky. I’m fortunate to be a correspondent on “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Bill Nye is my childhood hero. He made so many people excited about science. If you’re a generation above that, then we could be speaking about Carl Sagan. And, of course, if you’re a generation below, perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks to you. But one thing you may notice about all three of those gentlemen is that they are gentlemen. It’s a difficult, uphill battle for women who are working in public science communication.
Again, I’m so honored to be a part of “Bill Nye Saves the World,” but I am just that: I’m a correspondent on the show. There are a lot of other incredible female correspondents on the show, as well. One of my colleagues, her name is Emily Calandrelli, is the only female host of a science show on American television right now. Her television show is a show for children that appears on Fox in the mornings.
There are some difficulties when you’re working in children’s programming. You aren’t really afforded the opportunities of prime-time programming. This is something that we’re always fighting against. Many shows are pitched, many shows are developed, many shows do not get made, often because they are too smart, they are too forward thinking. The public’s not ready for a woman. The public’s not ready for someone so young. The public’s not ready to think about those things.
It’s an opportunity for science communicators of all stripes — people who are professionals who have been doing it for years, who work in television, on YouTube, and podcasting, public information officers at universities, individuals who work at NASA and other government organizations, all the way to graduate students, undergrads, everyday people who want to start a blog, who want to start talking about science and don’t know where to start. It’s this wonderful opportunity to get together instead of across the Internet, in person, face to face, and learn from one another and develop new relationships that we’re sometimes missing in that lonely freelance life.
Know your audience
One thing I always say to people when I talk about communicating science is rule number one — know your audience. You need to know who you’re talking to. You’re not going to present a paper to a group of 9-year-olds, and you’re not going to talk to a bunch of adults like you would talk to a group of 9-year-olds. You have to know your audience, and you have to kind of meet them where they are, and really exercise that empathy when you’re communicating science.
The quickest way to get somebody to stop listening to you is to make them feel stupid, to make them feel small. It’s very important that we meet people where they are, and that we flex that empathic muscle, even when it’s not comfortable for us, even when we’re talking to people with whom we fundamentally disagree. We need to find common ground, otherwise our message will absolutely fall on deaf ears.
And the number two thing that I always say when it comes to communicating science is to never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary. The problem is that Hollywood producers often get those two things conflated. They think, “We need to dumb it down, dumb it down.” It’s the worst thing they ever say, especially when they say it in front of the scientists I’m interviewing. “Oh, no, don’t use that phrase, they’re going to get so mad.” We don’t need to dumb any of it down, we just need to choose our words more carefully. If I were to ask the plumber what he was going to do to fix my toilet, and he used a bunch of jargon, it would fall on deaf ears. “I don’t know what that means, but go ahead, I trust you.”
Every career choice out there, every focus of your life’s work, has a specialized vocabulary within it, and science is no different. It takes years and years to learn that vocabulary, and, really, it’s just a shorthand. We can communicate more rapidly and we don’t have to circumlocute and talk about everything in 10 words when we could use one very technical label.
But when we’re discussing this out in the open with people who haven’t spent 20 years of their lives within a certain scientific field, let’s just use real words. Let’s just use analogies, let’s tell those stories in a way that everyone can understand. This is important advice for the science community. It’s important advice for the skeptic community, and it’s also important advice for the freethinking community.
Be a good example
I think one of the biggest mistakes that we make within this community, and I am absolutely at fault for this, as well, is that in our zeal and our excitement to protect the rights of everyday individuals, and in our zeal and our excitement to fly the flag of the First Amendment, we end up insulting and criticizing so many people in the process. It’s really ironic because isn’t that the thing that we’re most upset about, that we’ve been marginalized for so long, that we haven’t been heard for so long, and that there is sort of a Christian majority in this country.
I think it’s so important that we rise above and we don’t make the same mistakes of the past. We can set really good examples. We can go out there, we can be strong, we can be role models for younger generations. We can also make a good example, and I know many of you in this room are just primed for this. You’re already doing it.
What makes the Freedom From Religion Foundation so incredibly important is that you are examples of civic duty. You vote. You talk to your representatives. We’re seeing a disconnect where the young people, in increasing numbers, are becoming less and less religious, but they’re also less and less politically active. Those two things are going to fight against each other. The message can’t just be that we’re all equal and we should have equal protection under the law, but that we need to make sure our voices are heard, because if we don’t speak up for ourselves, our representatives won’t do it for us.
I really do appreciate the hard work that everybody right here in this room does day in and day out to make people like myself feel safer and more protected. And I want to thank you for this Freethought Heroine Award. It really means a lot to me. Thank you.