Richard Dawkins likes to compare openness about one’s atheism with coming out of the closet, but in my case they were even more closely related.
Like so many kids I repressed my homosexuality out of religious (in my case, Christian) compunction and social phobia. But once I finally begrudged myself some sex in college, I knew intuitively that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I reacted against the idea of the victimless crime, described as sin by the Bible. But while I had shed my denominational identity, I remained stuck in a kind of anachronistic deism. Indeed, having jettisoned the doctrine of original sin, I probably overcompensated with an overly optimistic view of nature and its presumbaly benevolent creator.
So I was in for a shock when some of my friends started coming down with, and dying from, AIDS (this was the early nineties). Of course I knew about it from reading the newspaper and watching television, but I had put off revising my worldview until now. How to explain AIDS? Of course I already knew that it wasn’t divine punishment because there was nothing wrong with sex and, anyway, it had spared many “fornicators” including myself. But it didn’t exactly accord with my new-model deism either. I was experiencing a crisis that was as much intellectual as emotional.
Resolution beckoned in the form of evolution, which I had learned in high school but never related to my daily life in that hiatus between polio and AIDS. With its frequent mutations in response to medication, HIV was (and still is) the poster child for evolution. I began to take a more jaundiced view of nature, which seemed increasingly like a struggle for existence. But I found reassurance in the thought that all this took place without reference to morality or values, instead deriving from the virus’s need to replicate and adapt to its environment.
I suppose plenty of people going back to Asa Gray have been able to reconcile evolution with their religious beliefs. But as I was seeing it in its cruelest guise, I could not. To me, evolution was an irrational and wasteful process that was fundamentally incompatible with any definition of creation. And if you take away creation, what is left for a god to do?
So it was my experience as a gay man, specifically of religious homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, that brought me to atheism. At first glance, those seem to have little in common besides their coincidental effect on the gay community. But in accepting my sexuality and recognizing the true nature of AIDS, I embraced what is rather than what cannot be. To me, atheism is the “reality-based community” of journalists’ dreams.