While watching the “Beyond Belief” conference, mention was made several times by the various presenters of whom they held to be their personal heroes. Many of them mentioned the obvious pillars of modern science; Einstein, Darwin, and Newton. And I’d agree that those men were and are great heroes of science. However they weren’t my heroes because I wasn’t a scientist and I could barely understand the theories they offered in my school science classes. My heroes were heroes because when I read their books, I fully understood what they were saying and the information they shared was in a tone of voice almost as familiar as a dinner time discussion.
My first hero, whom I understood to be a personal hero, was Carl Sagan. My heart and eyes still well up with the true sense of wonder and Love for the cosmos he brought into my life. It’s indescribable – nearly a religious experience to be honest – and I’ve had a few religious experiences to compare it to, so I know what I’m talking about here. Now I say Carl was the first hero of mine that I recognized as a hero, because earlier in my life there was another scientist for whom I held great fascination and it may be that that fascination opened my mind enough for the majesty that was Cosmos to enter into my life. And he was Jacques Cousteau.
It was Christmas 1981 when I received the hardback book “Cosmos” from my parents. I still have the book and the inscription from my folks inside the cover is:
“Merry Christmas Bob, ‘Thumb’ a ride thru the Universe with Dr. Sagan, and ‘Happy Travels’! Love, Mom & Dad 1981”
I was 15 years old at the time, and I read the book cover-to-cover before the Winter School Break was over. And then I read it again. In the spring of 1982 I purchased Sagan’s “Dragons of Eden,” which for the first time made me wish that I had paid a bit more attention in my biology and zoology classes. Shortly after that I bought and read “Broca’s Brain.” It was almost as if a whole new world of science and reality had opened up for me.
You need to realize that at the time I was at the height of my own religious fervor and was dealing with the fact that I knew I was “different” in my sexuality from others. I had actually made that realization much, much earlier around the age of 8 or so. But I didn’t really think about it and its religious implications until I started going to Seminary at the age of 14. And then I started praying, crying to God to change me – but that’s a whole ‘nother story as they say.
My next hero came along several years later, around 1988. In the interim, I had pretty much left the Mormon church after hitting an apex around 1982 and slowly losing my faith until a final break around 1985 – I had graduated from Seminary in 1984. I think the final straw was a 1984 move with my folks to Portland, Oregon. I now went to church where the majority of the congregation was no longer a “born and bred” population, but a “converted” population. I remember thinking to myself “My God! Who are these people?” They were SO intolerant and odd to me, it was there and then I discovered just how different a convert was compared to someone raised in a particular belief system. Converts are much more “fundamentalist.”
After basically leaving the church I started exploring sexuality and other belief systems – really for the first time in my life. I remember buying nudie magazines featuring both men and women, even though I was really only interested in the men. I was still so ashamed of my sexuality that I didn’t want the adult magazine store clerks to think I was “gay or something.” Man was I a mess! And in the realm of spirituality, I filled that void with all kinds of “New Age” garbage, but it really wasn’t very fulfilling – just as “regular” religion was as bland as dry toast to me.
In 1988 PBS introduced me, again, to my next great hero; Joseph Campbell and his series “The Power of Myth.” Here was an amazing person who recognized the web of similarities between the various religious belief systems for what they were. They weren’t chance similarities, they were in fact just re-tellings of the same age-old myths in each of the local geography’s natural settings and languages. The almost comically annoying thing about the series was the narrator, Bill Moyers. So many of his comments were so far “off the mark,” it’s obvious that Bill didn’t understand what Joseph was talking about, due to his own (Bill’s) extreme Christian prejudice.
After seeing the TV series, I bought myself “The Masks of God” series of books and read them all. It was enlightening to say the least and further illustrated to me the folly of religious and so-called spiritual movements (like “New Age”). But it also showed me that there was indeed a way to be an immensely spiritual being while also be totally rational and atheistic. And that was Epiphany. All it required was a faith in humanity and the ultimate good that humanity can offer to itself without the requirement of a jealous god or overbearing government.
The only problem with that idea at the time was I didn’t really hold much optimism towards neither humanity nor governments. It wasn’t until sometime in the early 1990’s that I found my third and final Hero (at least for this overly long essay). By this time I had “come out” as a gay man, not just to myself but to my family as well. I was in my mid-to-late twenties, had a decent job, was living on my own and had had a few romantic flings here and there. I’d even fallen in love a few times, but unfortunately the feelings were not reciprocated.
One of those “flings” happened to introduce me to Ayn Rand, whom I had never heard of before. I didn’t begin by reading her voluminous fictional works, instead I was introduced to her work through her shorter collections of philosophical essays: “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” and “The Virtue of Selfishness.” This was my second, and even more intense Epiphany. I had finally found “The Truth,” and someone who wasn’t afraid to damn all others who couldn’t handle it, because damnit, sometimes the truth really does suck (as in terminal illness, etc). You’re just NOT going to get everything you want just because you want it – ok? That’s just the way it is – Reality: there aren’t any genies in any bottles anxiously waiting to hand out wishes. Period. Economics: If you really want something, you’d better be willing to work your ass off for it, and Morality: don’t fuck up other people while you’re trying to get there.
Aside from Rand’s sometimes less than gentle approach, which I actually quite enjoyed, I did find that she had an almost religious respect for and dare I say faith in mankind’s humanity and capacity for not just reason and rationality, but also goodwill and compassion. It was this reverence for the Ideal and that it really is worth pursuing that really struck me. Just because you rationally know that you’re never going to reach the Ideal, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aspire to it. By reaching for the Ideal, you’re going to improve yourself and possibly inspire others to improve as well. There are real grounds for optimism towards a reasonable, rational, and joyous future.
Wow, again this entry ended up much longer than I intended, but I hope someone will enjoy it at least a little bit anyways.