You know those sappy implausible mass emails that you always seem to get from the same few friends who are too fluffy, holy or gullible for their own good? There's a name for them - glurge. I hate glurge. Really, really hate it. If I had my way, it would be banned worldwide, and anyone sending it would be stoned to death with something suitably ironic - Windows XP installation CDs, maybe, or possibly frozen effigies of Walt Disney.
I almost never get any these days due to my habit of tersely replying with a link to the relevant Snopes page. But people change, and there was a time when I was far more ready to believe anything I was sent, even if I didn't then instantly forward it to everyone in my address book.
It was the late 90s. I was still very new to the internet, and I'd recently turned from a detached, almost cultural Christian into an irritatingly enthusiastic God-botherer, so I could hardly have been more vulnerable to this sort of thing. I was to glurge what hot, damp, poorly ventilated feet are to fungal infections.
So when I got involved in a lengthy online argument with a bunch of worryingly well-informed atheists (because I lacked the sense to ignore blatant trolling), I thought it would be helpful to add the story of NASA and the "lost day" into the conversation. I didn't think it proved anything - mainly, I thought it would be interesting to discuss - but even now, I flush with embarrassment at the memory.
In a way, I got off lightly. Several people raised questions about some things that I'd wondered and then disregarded as I read the story, like how a "lost day" thousands of years ago would be apparent now, and that prompted me to actually go looking for supporting evidence. My search didn't take long, because it quickly became apparent that it was completely untrue, but it meant that I was able to withdraw and post the debunk before anyone else got round to it.
Following that rather humiliating experience, I quickly learnt to be much more careful about believing what I was told. I scrupulously checked the evidence, and before long, I had adopted an entirely different mindset. When I came across a printed circular urging a boycott of Procter & Gamble for being Satanists, I passed it through my bullshit detector, considered it dubious, researched it and returned to deface the circular with a basic debunking. Yay me.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this was a massively significant event in my life, even if I didn't know it at the time. I'd discovered how easily we can mislead ourselves and stop thinking rationally just by wanting something to be true, and realised how dangerous that could be. Effectively, you could say I'd just reinvented critical thinking for myself.
Although it would simplify the story if I could draw a direct line from this moment to my eventual loss of faith, it wasn't really like that. And to be honest, although I could be cheesy and annoying, I was never really an unthinking God-bot. But the lesson on the importance of self-criticism, and the the lasting shame at being taken in so publicly by a very crude hoax, effectively inoculated me against accepting claims without considering them. After that, I was never going to be securely tied into any set of beliefs.
Over the following years, my beliefs moved in various directions. At the time, it felt as if they were changing randomly, but in hindsight, taking a long view, that "random walk" was clearly leading me away from my lifelong faith and towards atheism, and it all began with a simple piece of glurge.