I was born and raised in 1967 in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. I attended the same Catholic grade school as my mother had, and the same Jesuit high school as my uncle had. As an altar boy, I felt God’s eyes on me night and day. Everyone I knew believed in God, so it was just an obvious fact — until my junior year of high school when I decided to read the entire bible. That was when the first cracks appeared.
Catholic schools taught the basics of Darwinian evolution and accepted that Genesis was not literal. I wondered how to separate the myths from the facts. So I read books on comparative religion, the history of how the Catholic Church formed, and the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Within a year, I realized all religions were equally man-made.
I never had any bad experiences with priests, nuns or the Jesuit brothers — I simply didn’t believe anymore. I didn’t tell anyone I was an atheist, but I did stop going to church, which caused some problems, especially since I was still in Catholic school. Mostly, I felt relief that Big Brother was no longer watching and deciding if I deserved heaven or hell.
After winning a full scholarship to attend The American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago, a famous artist named Richard Schmid asked a group of us young students what we thought about the existence of God. One after the other, each classmate affirmed their belief in God. I was last. My heart was pounding, but I stated my disbelief out loud for the first time. All the other students were shocked. One of them said, “But you’re such a good person!” Then, to my utter surprise, Richard Schmid said, “That’s what I think, as well.” It was the first time I realized I wasn’t alone.
While in art school, a girl in my class told me that her mother gave all their savings to Oral Roberts when the televangelist said God would “call him home” (kill him) if he didn’t raise $8 million. This was in 1987, and the girl had to leave school because of this family disaster. It was the first really negative consequence of religion I witnessed. Years later, while staying at a collector’s house in Tulsa, we were invited to attend an event at a country club where Roberts was a member. I warned our hosts that if I met Roberts, I would tell him the story of my classmate, since I’m not the kind of person who can simply say nothing in the face of such a con artist. I left it up to them if they wanted me to go with them. They decided to take us to a restaurant instead.
After art school, I attended Columbia College for writing and film, and then made a living as a gallery painter, while occasionally doing paid jobs for film. (I worked on a development team for an animated feature called “Spirit” for DreamWorks, as well as writing a couple screenplays for them that never got made.)
Tired of the city, my wife and I moved to North Carolina about 20 years ago. We spend a lot of our time traveling. While in Africa, India, Tibet, Peru, Turkey or wherever else, I love reading the history and religious texts of the culture we’re visiting and then talking to people about their beliefs. Many of those stories and images work their way into my novels and paintings.
I wasn’t active in the freethought movement until a controversy erupted in King, N.C. (the town we live next to). A very brave Afghan veteran, [FFRF Life Member] Steven Hewett, complained about a Christian flag hanging on a veteran’s memorial in our town’s public park. After the City Council took the flag down under threat of a lawsuit, near-continuous protests flared up. At a rally attended by 5,000 flag-waving Christians, speaker after speaker said there was no such thing as separation of church and state and anyone who disagreed should be “encouraged” to leave town. People told local businesses that if they didn’t hang a Christian flag in their window, they would be boycotted. Everyone complied.
I was so angry that I decided to make a documentary called “In God We Trust?” in my spare time. It took me a year to film and edit entirely on my own. I released it on YouTube simply to feel like I had at least stood up these bullies and exposed them for what they were. To my surprise, the documentary was widely seen and ended up as evidence in a lawsuit brought by Americans United against the town of King’s fake public forum that was used to put the flag back up.
A week before I was scheduled to testify in federal court last year, the town finally gave in on all counts. They removed the Christian flag and other statues from the memorial, and the town’s insurance company paid half a million dollars in court costs to Americans United (and $1 to Hewett). All the threatening emails I received as a consequence of the film and trial are merely a bonus, but the most gratifying thing about that film were the handful of religious people in town who told me that watching it changed their mind about why the separation of church and state makes sense even for believers.
Because of this film, Sue Kocher of The Triangle Freethought Society contacted me and asked if I’d film a documentary of the first Reason Rally, which I did with her help. Then she talked me into doing another one with the society and Katherine Stewart on The Good News Club — and then the first interviews for the Openly Secular project.
The most exciting part was interviewing so many of my atheist heroes like Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Lawrence Krauss, Adam Savage, and on and on. Because I make good money from my paintings and novels, it’s nice to be able to donate my time to a cause I feel is essential for our future. At every museum show or book signing I do, there are always a few people who come up to me (sometimes with tears in their eyes) and say how thankful they are for my openness about being an atheist, since they cannot come out of the closet for fear of retaliation.
On one panel discussion moderated by George Gallo (writer of “Midnight Run”), I was asked if I ever worried that being so openly atheist might hurt my career. I replied that if you’re afraid to express your honest thoughts and ideas, you probably shouldn’t be an artist, writer, or filmmaker — at least not if you want to do anything of value. Even though George said this was a very good answer, we clashed a few years later when I saw a film he wrote and directed called “Local Color.” In the film, his main character says, “In my opinion, an atheist can never be a great painter. In order to create great art, man must make peace with his own mortality and bow to a higher power.” I called him out on this publicly, and we had quite an extended and heated exchange, though I never succeeded in getting him to see how insulting and ridiculous such a statement was.
My newest novel (The Immortality Contract) is the first one I’ve written that focuses entirely on religion. I give Annie Laurie and Dan credit on the Acknowledgements page, since it was while listening to one of their podcasts that I first came up with the story idea. In the novel, a billionaire atheist scientist (Theon) offers a fountain-of-youth pill to the world free of charge — under condition that the recipient abandons any and all support for religion (especially financial). The pill will only be available in countries with strictly secular governments. Almost overnight, every person on the planet must decide if they have more faith in science and life in this world — or religion and the promise of life in the next. Theon’s goal is the destruction of organized religion and ushering in a golden age of reason and science. Unfortunately, things don’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped. Probably, there won’t be as large an audience for this book as for my science fiction novels, but it was fun to write!
To me, questioning and continuing to learn is what art and living is all about. We’re all works in progress. The saddest thing would be to mistakenly think you know all the answers and give up searching.