I don't really remember much about my childhood, but I might have been a precocious kid. I remember watching the low-budget cartoon "Speed Racer" on TV as a tot and figuring out that Speed always hit the same button on his steering wheel but different things would happen, such as it creating an oil slick behind his car or the button press leading to the deployment of big saw blades to cut the trees down as he raced through the forest. I think it bothered my budding sense of cause and effect and I lost interest in the cartoon after that.
Later, when I was about 5, my mother's father died. My mother, a twice-a-year Protestant, tried to explain to me that Grandpa had gone to heaven. My response was "let me see." I don't think she knew what to make of my request and she didn't satisfy my curiosity. It was pretty clear, even to me as a kid, that she was rationalizing. I think this episode was indicative of my core personality. I like to understand how things work and I find most religious concepts to be nonsensical. I still don't understand how souls are created, associated with bodies, or supposedly move on to the next world. I've tried very hard to get a coherent answer from the believers but the whole notion of souls still doesn't make any sense to me.
I didn't really get exposed to religion until my college years. Not having been indoctrinated as a child, I think I had a more detached and objective perspective about it. I was aware of the large number of houses around the university that had been bought by various religious groups for off-campus student centers. Was life that bad on campus that religious students needed to escape? There were so many of these student centers around my small campus that they seemed like vultures circling some hapless victim.
The culture war was alive and well on my college campus in the 80s. The division was most pronounced between the fundamentalist groups, Campus Crusade for Christ and Maranatha, vs. the gay & lesbian groups that were just starting to find their place at the university. I was surprised, even then how the Christian groups were misrepresenting the gays and creating a sense of animosity toward fellow students who were struggling with their sexuality. Members of these Christian groups seemed to have a worldview so different than mine that they seemed not even share my reality. I couldn't understand how otherwise intelligent people would think the way they did.
This same tension seemed to play out within the hearts and minds of fellow students who had been brought up in a religious family, but who had found themselves coming to grips with their own attraction toward the same sex. These people carried a tremendous burden of religious-induced self-hatred that nearly always left them deeply scarred. By contrast, those coming out without the religious burden seemed to do well. I felt sad for the unnecessary suffering of the believers. Why couldn't they just cast off their religious shackles and learn to like themselves? Why did they stick with such self-defeating beliefs?
Religious conservatives seemed to notice self-destructive behavior among gays and blamed it on the sin of homosexuality. I knew better. In fact, I think a lot of the self-destructive behaviors in the gay community that lead to the rapid spread of the AIDS epidemic was caused by this religious-induced self-hatred. Someone close to me at the time fell into this trap and ended up dying a horrible death from AIDS before reaching the age of 30. He died still believing in God. Later, another friend died of AIDS. He had been agnostic his entire life, but some religious group played on his fears of dying in his weakened state and got him to convert to Christianity just before he died. His funeral was a celebration of a "victory for Jesus" over "the evils of homosexuality." I was aghast at the malevolent and self-serving display at the expense of a genuinely good man-at his funeral, no less. Recalling this episode still pisses me off years later.
While the pain of losing friends is not pleasant, it does have a silver lining. It forces you to confront your own mortality. I did this self-exploration in my late 20s and my skeptic bent gelled into a basic atheism, that is, a fundamental doubt about most religious concepts. The last thing to go was my hopeful attitude toward the idea of soul. It was comforting for a time to think that these friends were still with me. Eventually though, I realized that this was just wishful thinking and I let it go. My friends are still with me in memory and through their lasting impact on the world. This is the only way that people have an afterlife. This realization has caused me to think a lot about what memories and lasting impact I will leave behind. It's something I still think a lot about.
During the late 90s, the culture war in the US was beginning to heat up and two events struck a cord with me at about the same time. The first was an article I read about various conservative religious groups targeting some gay rights issue and a quote by one of the spokesmen for a group freely admitting that they used these sorts of initiatives to raise money. I was quite struck by the immorality of raising money and power at the expense of the rights of others and doing so by spreading hate and misinformation. I believed that that these people weren't inherently mean. Yet, based on this and many of the things I'd witnessed about religious belief led me to the conclusion that there was something systematically wrong with religious belief. Religious beliefs seemed to cause immoral behaviors in the faithful. More specifically at the time, I began to think very seriously about what might be the source of religious people's animosity toward gays. This notion of homosexuality being sinful just didn't account for the strong drive to persecute gays. I knew that adultery was also considered a sin, but it seemed to go unnoticed in the culture war. Why was that? The very same themes that I first noticed in college were now very much a part of a national drama. I knew I was on to an important question, but it took me a while to really get my arms around it.
The second event that struck a chord with me was that I was reading Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene." I had picked it up as my very first book on evolutionary biology. It was a marvelous and wonderful introduction to the gene as the unit of evolution and the amazing lengths genes go to in order to get themselves copied into the next generation. What a fascinating viewpoint it was. Near the end of the book, Dawkins introduced his now famous concept of the meme, a unit of cultural information that, according to Dawkins definition, was the basis of the life form of culture in much the same way that genes are the basis of biological life. Just imagine: this meant that there was another whole biosphere playing out unnoticed right under our noses! Furthermore, Dawkins pointed out that religions were coherent, self-reinforcing gangs of memes, called meme-plexes that help perpetuate themselves through their transmission to next mind that might be a suitable host.
My burning question about the immoral behavior of religious believers suddenly had an answer in that these people were under the influence of another agent in the form of a religious meme-plex with its own "agenda" of self-propagation. When viewed through this lens, the behavior of religious people began to make a lot more sense. While individually religious people might seem kind and rational, their beliefs had an impact on their aggregate behavior that I was seeing in various religious movements in the US that were collectively part of the culture war. This realization led me to a decade long exploration of all manner of aggregate behaviors of Christians. If you know where to look, it's easy to find situations where the religious memes' "self-interests" are at odds with the self-interest of the believer (or humanity as a whole).
During this time, I also began to find my voice and began writing up some of these ideas on a web site I created, called ChristianityMeme.org. This site is still up and I am still tinkering with it. Whether or not the writing captures the idea well enough yet, I am very much convinced that the memetic explanation of religion (especially Christianity) is the best way of understanding it and its impact on the world. The memetic explanation implies that the culture war is not a battle between people, but a battle between people vs. religious meme-plexes that employ religious believers as their minions. Unfortunately, this viewpoint comes across as being too far out for most people to take seriously.
A few years ago I came to the Atheist Community of Austin looking for an audience for my ideas. Perhaps at a deeper level, I was also looking for a way to make these ideas have a positive impact on the world. By interacting with a community of atheists, I have grown and broadened my own perspective. My ideas have been validated, I think, but they need to be expressed very differently to have the impact I'm looking for. I found the ACA to be a nurturing environment as I completed my transition to being a hard-boiled atheist and finding my voice in atheism advocacy. My core understanding of religion hasn't changed drastically, but my message has become crisper:
A theist believes that his god has ultimate power over him in terms of threats and rewards-either in this world or a supposed afterlife. Belief in gods therefore warps a person's self interests to the detriment of others, effectively causing the believer to "sell out" his fellow man in situations where the god's perceived interests come into play. Religious belief therefore causes immoral behavior.
Of course, it's hard to improve on Blaise Pascal's quote: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." I've tried to explain why in terms of a basic conflict of interest. This core message is what I now bring via much of the material I present, either as part of the Atheist Experience TV show or my atheist writings.
Like many other atheists, arriving at my current atheist convictions took many years and involved a long path of learning and thinking. Someday, I hope to write up my ideas in the form of a book. In my wildest dreams, I hope that this book will have a positive impact on the world. Maybe it will turn the tide in the epic battle of the religious meme-plexes and allow humanity to prevail.
And they say that atheists lack hope.
Join us for the Bat Cruise Lecture, 1:15pm September 27th at Trinity United Methodist Church, at 40th and Speedway. Lecturers will be Richard Carrier and Chris Johnson.
The ACA Bat Cruise is set for Saturday, September 27th, 6-8pm. Purchase tickets in advance here.