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About this Author
What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Is there a God or isn’t there, and if there is a God, what is its nature? Of all the world’s religions, which one is the most correct? Is there an afterlife? Are we primarily physical beings or spiritual beings?
People have struggled for millennia to tackle these questions. Wars have been fought over them. But as much as these questions cause people to lose their heads (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally), the bottom line is that these are very practical questions.
Behind the Wheel
The way we answer these questions will provide the ultimate context for everything else we do with our lives. If we place any value on our lives at all, we must give some consideration to these questions.
Let’s say you have your life organized around goals, projects, and actions. You set a goal like starting a new internet business. You break it down into projects like writing a business plan and launching your web site. And then you break those projects down into actions like going to the bank to open a business account and registering your domain name. Fair enough.
But why start the business in the first place? What’s the point? Why pick this goal vs. any other goal? Why even set goals at all?
What determines the goals you set (or don’t set) is your context. Your context is your collection of beliefs and values. So if the values of money and freedom are part of your context, you might be inclined to set a goal to start a new business. But with different kinds of values — a different context — you may be disinclined to set goals at all.
The most significant part of your context is your collection of beliefs about the nature of reality, which includes your religious, spiritual, and philosophical beliefs. Your overall beliefs about the universe will largely determine your results. Context dictates goals. Goals dictate projects. Projects dictate actions. Actions dictate results.
Within a certain context, it will be virtually impossible for you to achieve certain results because you’ll never set the required goals that will lead to those results.
Your context works like a filter. When you are inside a particular context, you lose access to the potential goals, projects, and actions that lie outside that context. For example, if your context includes the belief that criminal behavior is very bad, then you aren’t likely to work towards becoming a future leader in organized crime.
Walking in My Shoes
This is a long personal story, but I think you’ll find it interesting. If you take the time to read it, I want you to notice how my beliefs (my context) shifted over time and how dramatically they changed my results.
For half of my life, I’ve been searching for the context that would give me the best possible life. Of course, this is a strange pursuit because it requires searching for a context while at the same time always being stuck inside of one. In other words, the definition of “best possible life” is also part of any context, so I have to find a context that both defines that term AND provides a means to fulfill it.
This pursuit began almost accidentally for me, but eventually I began pursuing it consciously.
For the first half of my life, until the age of 17, I was Catholic/Christian, baptized and confirmed. I went through eight years of Catholic grammar school followed by four years of Catholic high school. I was a boy scout for several years and earned the Ad Altare Dei award. I prayed every day and accepted all that I was taught as true. I went to Church every Sunday with my family. All of my friends and family were Christian, so I knew nothing of other belief systems. My father was an altar boy when he was young, and his brother (my uncle) is a Catholic priest. One of my cousins is a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. In high school I went to optional religious retreats and did community service, both at a convalescent home and at a preschool for children with disabilities. I expected to be Catholic for life.
But near the end of my junior year of high school, I went through an experience that I’d have to describe as an awakening. It was as if a new part of my brain suddenly switched on, popping me into a higher state of awareness. Perhaps it was just a side effect of the maturation process. I began to openly question the beliefs that had been conditioned into me since childhood. Blind acceptance of what I was taught wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to go behind the scenes, uproot any incongruencies, and see if these beliefs actually made sense to me. I started raising a lot of questions but found few people would honestly discuss them. Most simply dismissed me or became defensive. But I was intensely curious, not hostile about it. My family was closed to discussing the whole thing, but I did find a few open-minded teachers. My high school (Loyola High in Los Angeles) was a Jesuit school, and the Jesuits are very liberal as far as priests go.
I was disappointed though. What I found was that regardless of their education and their much greater life experience, very few of my friends and teachers ever bothered to question their beliefs openly. And that really gave me a huge shot of doubt. I thought, “If everyone is just accepting all of this blindly and no one is even questioning it, why should I believe it?” Over a period of months the doubt only grew stronger, and I transferred more of my faith from my Catholic upbringing to my own intelligence and senses. Eventually I just dropped the whole context entirely, and in the absence of any other viable contexts to choose from, I became an atheist.
I entered my senior year of Catholic high school as a 17-year old atheist. Oh, the irony. Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect, but soon I found the context of atheism to be incredibly empowering. Having shed all my old beliefs, I felt like my brain had gotten an intelligence upgrade. I could think so much more clearly, and my mind seemed to work much better. I also felt more in control of my life than ever before. Without a belief in God, I assumed total responsibility for my results in life. School was easier than ever for me, even though I was taking all the school’s most challenging classes, most of them AP courses. I was so good at calculus that my teacher actually gave me a special test, different from the rest of the class. And one time my AP physics teacher came to me before school to have me show him how to solve a difficult physics problem. I especially found math and science classes so easy that I began looking for new ways to challenge myself. So I’d try to do my entire homework assignment on a 1″ by 1″ square of paper, or I’d do it in crayon on the back of a cereal box cover, or I’d color in my polar graphs with colored pencil and turn it into artwork. People thought I was wacky, but I mainly did these things to keep it interesting because the problems themselves posed no challenge. You haven’t really lived until you’ve done calculus in crayon.
I made no secret of the fact that I was an atheist, so when taking religion classes, I’d regurgitate all the raw data needed to ace a test, but whenever there were open-ended essay questions, I’d address them from an atheistic perspective. I’m grateful the Jesuits were as liberal as they were and tolerated my behavior. I have to give them a lot of credit for that.
My family was not happy about all this, especially when my subscription to American Atheist magazine started coming in the mail (I got good at intercepting the mail early). But I was doing so well in school that it was hard for them to complain, and they didn’t want to openly address any of my questions, even though I’d have been happy to do so. They did force me to keep going to church though, which I tolerated for a while because I knew I’d be moving out in a year anyway. But eventually I started sitting in a different part of the church and would sneak out the back and go for a walk and return just before it ended. But one time the mass ended earlier than expected, and I got back too late. My family was already at the car and saw me walking down the street. Whoops! They drove off without me. But instead of walking the two miles home, I stayed out the entire day and didn’t return until midnight. Aside from weddings and funerals, that was the last time I ever went to church.
Despite these conflicts, my senior year in high school was by far my best ever. I aced all my classes and was accepted into six colleges as a computer science major: Cal Tech, UCLA (partial scholarship), UC San Diego (full scholarship), UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvey Mudd.
I opted to go to UC Berkeley because at the time, its computer science program was the highest rated in the country. I was very happy to move out and finally be on my own. In the fall of 1989 I moved to Berkeley and lived in the freshman dorms.
Then things got weird.
While at Berkeley my atheism context was further molded. No longer surrounded by Catholics, I met a lot of interesting people there with a wide variety of belief systems. I quickly made a lot of new friends who were very intelligent, and some were open to discussing the nature of reality. I think my Catholic upbringing was like a coiled spring — as soon as I left behind the environment that kept the spring coiled, I immediately shot to the other end of the spectrum. But I went way too far with it. I not only shed my old religious beliefs, but along with it went my whole concept of morality. I was like the guy in Mark Twain’s short story “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” a story about a guy who kills his conscience.
I started embracing all the stuff that was basically the opposite of my upbringing. I completely lost all interest in school and hardly ever went to class. I really didn’t care at all about getting my degree. I went to parties almost every week and drank a lot, one time doing about 14 drinks in a row and waking up with no memory of how I got to bed. I had to ask friends to piece together pieces of the previous night. To this day I’m certain I drank more alcohol before the age of 21 than after (and I’m 34 now).I also started shoplifting — a lot. The first time
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