by Edan Tasca

Meet CFIC member William Davis. He’s had a long and remarkable career acting in and directing many projects, both on the screen and on stage. But you most likely recognize Davis as the Cigarette Smoking Man (sometimes known as Cancer Man or simply the Smoking Man) from the TV series The X-Files.

Since 2014, Davis has been a member of CFIC, whose mission he refers to as shining a “beam of validity” onto important issues, evoking The X-Files’ motto: “The truth is out there.” Davis became a member of CFIC after he was introduced to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). CSI used to be known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which was abbreviated with the acronym CSICOP, which Davis still finds amusingly appropriate. “Scientific cops got to test it out!” CFI U.S. has since taken CSI under its wing and merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Imagine Davis’ surprise when he found out that, while at the most popular point of his acting career, the show he was featured in had been criticized by one of the world’s most famous skeptics: Richard Dawkins himself. A hero of Davis’, Richard Dawkins — whose book, The Selfish Gene, Davis says changed his life — suggested in his 1996 Dimbleby Lecture, that The X-Files was problematic. Dawkins felt the show encouraged and glorified belief in the supernatural. Davis pondered. It isn’t every day that one of your heroes is arguing that you’re a prominent part of a show that’s encouraging unhealthy thinking.

He noticed, however, that Dawkins made the claim without any real evidence. Dawkins arguing that The X-Files was convincing people to think in unhealthy ways was as dismissible, in Davis’ view, as the idea that the show was, say, sexist. After all, didn’t the show’s formula involve the male character, Fox Mulder, always being right? Meanwhile, wasn’t the female character, Dana Scully, always wrong? This would-be evidence for a “sexist” X-Files would have seemed stronger to Davis than Dawkins’ for a problematic X-Files.

Davis describes himself as having been skeptical from a young age. He recalls one of his high school teachers arguing that hundreds of years ago, before the Reformation, all the students in the class, who he assumed were Christian, would have been Catholic. Davis raised his hand, and told the teacher that he wouldn’t have been a Catholic. Taken aback, his teacher called him to the front of the class, where Davis explained that he would not have been a Catholic before the Reformation, because he wasn’t a Christian after it. He simply did not believe in the teachings of Christ, whether they were called Catholicism or Christianity.

His skeptical and analytical nature led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1959. Davis tends not to like labels, but when faced with the options of “atheist” or “agnostic” — or both or neither — he’s comfortable calling himself an atheist. “I don’t wonder whether there’s a creator or higher power. I just think there isn’t one.”

During his time playing the Cigarette Smoking Man — whose real name, for those trivia-minded folks, turned out to be Carl Gerhard Busch — Davis has been asked and has answered all the questions you can imagine. Do you believe in aliens? Are they here? Are there government conspiracies? He answers these questions as he does religious questions: with skepticism. When prompted by fans to explain how he could play such a central role in a show about conspiracies and the supernatural and still not believe, Davis might be heard making a suggestion about where exactly the onus for proof lies, reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s ageless advice: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

At a speaking event many years ago, Davis asked his audience to raise their hands if they believed that aliens had come to Earth. About fifty percent of the audience raised their hands. Then he asked how many thought that there were government conspiracies in general. One hundred percent of the audience raised their hands. He remembers reminding fans that the government’s ability to hide endlessly complicated conspiracies looks unlikely — nonexistent, even — when you consider that, as he laughs, “Bill Clinton couldn’t even keep his affairs private.”

Because he was The X-Files’ main antagonist, many saw the Cigarette Smoking Man as the Darth Vader of the X-Files universe. Indeed, in an episode entitled “The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati,” the Cigarette Smoking Man tells Fox Mulder, as the latter appears to be dying in a hospital bed, “Take my hand. I am your father.”

Given so many similar organizations within the secular and skeptical community, Davis hopes to see more cooperation, partnerships, and even merging — for simplicity. It does seem redundant to have Canadian Atheist competing for bandwidth with Humanist Canada and yet again with Humanist Association of Toronto; and CFIC with CFI U.S.; CSI with SciCon, etc. He feels we should work more closely, perhaps even merging in the way that CFI U.S. and the Richard Dawkins Foundation have.

Davis’ passion is climate change. To this end, he has donated a significant amount of wealth that he inherited from the fossil fuel industry to the David Suzuki Foundation. CFIC thanks Davis for his passion for science and skepticism. We thank him for his continued membership, as well as for taking the time to meet with us for this piece.

The truth is out there! Let’s keep shining that beam of validity.

Davis’ book recommendations:

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life — Daniel Dennett