Those closest to Randi are fiercely loyal. His longtime companion, Jose Alvarez, met Randi 20 years ago, not long after Alvarez was involved in a cult. "Randi showed me that reality — the real world — has a very special kind of beauty," says Jose, now 41 years old.

The other frequent criticism of Randi is that he's just wrong. Like many of the psychics Randi encounters, Geller says reality is composed of paranormal events every day, though science can't yet understand or quantify it. Geller contends that everyone, Randi included, has some psychic powers. "It's simply not developed in everyone," Geller says. "We all have a sixth sense, because we are animals. It's a part of our chromosome buildup. It's a part of our DNA. There are too many synchronicities in your life to ignore it as coincidence."

The critical-thinking movement is all about examining explanations for the paranormal from multiple angles, questioning the accepted reasoning. That's also why the movement is made up mostly of atheists. "Religion is the biggest scam of them all," says Randi. "You go into the voting booth and you're going to depend on a spirit in the sky, some old guy with a beard, a jealous, vindictive, very-uncertain-of-himself, provocative, angry god? No, I don't think that should be your driving force."

Connie Sonne flew from Denmark to Las Vegas to try for James Randi's $1 million; magician Banachek administered the dowsing test.
Scott Hurst
Connie Sonne flew from Denmark to Las Vegas to try for James Randi's $1 million; magician Banachek administered the dowsing test.
The Amazing Randi has a geek-chic following of young people dedicated to thinking critically about every part of life.
Bill Hughes
The Amazing Randi has a geek-chic following of young people dedicated to thinking critically about every part of life.

Geller says: "Most people are believers. Most people are religious. Most people want to believe there's a creator. Most people want to believe in spirituality. Most people want to believe there is something out there. Seven billion people can't be wrong. Whether you call it a god or Buddha or religion, there is some kind of spirituality out there. The skeptics are a tiny, tiny minority. They're insignificant. They are molecular nothings."

To illustrate how easily spiritual leaders can garner followers, Randi and Alvarez, a visual artist, perpetuated a hoax on Australian national TV in 1988. Alvarez pretended his body was inhabited by "Carlos," a 1,500-year-old fortuneteller. Within days, Alvarez had thousands of followers. "It was just so easy," Alvarez says. "It's sad and remarkable."

During most of the Amazing Meeting in July, Alvarez pushes Randi's wheelchair around the expansive Las Vegas resort. Some days, Randi feels great. Some days, he can't lift the phone to his ear. Doctors have put his five-year prognosis at 50-50. Medical science, though, is the one thing this old skeptic actually has faith in. Two weeks after the conference, Randi will start a regular routine of chemotherapy. He will lose the soft white hair around his head, his bushy, expressive eyebrows, and the beard he hasn't shaved in more than 25 years. "That's fine," he says. "Growing hair is something I'm good at."

Still, the cancer hasn't changed his views on death: "One day, I'm gonna die. That's all there is to it," he says matter-of-factly. "Hey, it's too bad, but I've got to make room. I'm using a lot of oxygen and such — I think it's good use of oxygen myself, but of course, I'm a little prejudiced on the matter."

Up in his hotel room at the conference, he's asked about whether nearing death will make him recant his lifelong atheism. "I've been wrong about things in the past," he says, "but not anything this big."

It's the skeptics' willingness to say "I don't know" that makes them a mostly libertarian bunch. "We don't trust anything or anyone," a science teacher from Texas explains, "least of all the government."

Dr. Yaron Brook, president of the think tank Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California, says Randi has been a prominent promoter of reason and scientific method. "Part of his legacy will be the resurgence in atheism and all the debunking he's done, but one of his greatest achievements has been the reassertion of one objective truth," Brook says. "So many of those influenced by him just want to debunk for the sake of debunking, but Randi is better. He is a defender of the truth."

When Randi does go over to the great big nothing, it's unclear what will become of his foundation or the million-dollar challenge. The foundation's board of directors recently installed astronomer Plait as president of the foundation. But Randi is the face of the organization, and he knows that fundraising and organizing conferences could suffer if he's not there to put his name on the place.

Things are still bright, though. On the second morning of the conference, two skeptics get married on stage. The bride, Rebecca Watson of Boston, and the groom, Sid Rodriguez of London, met in Las Vegas at the Amazing Meeting three years ago. MythBusters' Adam Savage is the ring bearer. After the wedding cake is cut, in front of 1,000 or so of the most dedicated atheists on Earth, the lucky couple take to the floor for their first dance — to a cover of the Beach Boys' hit "God Only Knows." Everyone in the room giggles at the ironic refrain. For the last two lines, the lyrics are changed to "Randi only knows what I'd be without you..."


Back in the dark banquet hall, everyone is ready for the results of Connie Sonne's dowsing test.

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