This post is the first in a series of profile interviews. You can see the full collection here.
I recently had the good fortune to speak to Alex Penuelas. Alex is 24-years-old and lives in Los Angeles. He has been an atheist for about 4 years now, not that long, but he has been running in some prestigious circles among the atheist community.
Alex owns the Godless Facebook page, and he also helps out David Smalley with his social media.
I asked Alex about his transition to atheism. "I was surprised by how fast it happened. I was a Catholic, and never necessarily questioned it. Everyone around me believed, and I never saw a conflict between religion and science," he said.
While studying at UCLA, Alex took a class on comparative mythology, and it was there that Alex's inner skeptic started sowing some early doubts about his faith.
"I started seeing all the similarities between other myths and modern religions," he said. "God supposedly created us in his own image, but really we just created gods in our image, like, Zeus is the anthropomorphization of lightning."
Alex was not an atheist yet, though. Continuing his studies at UCLA, Alex took a paleontology class. The class, he mentioned, had to offer a disclaimer about evolution. ...yup.
While taking that class, which Alex really enjoyed (dinosaurs, woo!), he was offered extra credit to watch the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Alex had plenty to say about Ham's performance, and Ham's frequent mention of "historical and observational science," which both Alex and just about everyone else acknowledge is not a real thing. Ken Ham just likes to use that in his defense of creationism.
A big moment for Alex came near the end of the debate (you can see the moment by clicking the link above and skipping to the 1:51:00 mark). The moderator asked Nye and Ham, "What, if anything, would change your mind?"
Ham's response was long and rambling. But, most importantly, he said, "As far as the word of God is concerned, no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true." He admitted that nothing could ever convince him that the Bible is not 100% true.
Nye's answer was VERY different. "We would just need one piece of evidence," Nye answered. "Bring on any of those [pieces of evidence] and you would change me immediately," he went on to say after giving some examples of the kinds of evidence that could change his position.
That was a major moment for Alex. He was not an atheist yet, but seeing that kind of intellectual close-mindedness in Ham, and the openness to evidence in Nye, was an important milestone.
With his interest in biology and evolution, Alex began watching videos on YouTube of Richard Dawkins giving lectures about his field of expertise. But Alex soon found himself falling down an Internet rabbit hole, and he started seeing videos of Dawkins criticizing religion. That also introduced Alex to videos of others' criticisms of religion, too, like Christopher Hitchens.
Alex has since read both the God Delusion by Dawkins, and God is Not Great by Hitchens.
I asked Alex if his family knew about his atheism. He told me that his parents know. There was "a massive argument," when he told them. "My parents got really defensive. My mom taught me to always question everything, and to always have evidence for things that I believe." Pretty ironic, right?
"I'm literally the same person. Mom thinks it's just a phase. My brother knows. My extended family knows, and they don't talk to me anymore," Alex told me.
"It's amazing how fast people's attitudes toward you can change."
Alex admits that he was not prepared for how other people would react to scientific facts. "I had the naive idea that people would be open to evidence and facts."
When Alex realized he was a non-believer, he decided that he needed to make sure his arguments were as strong as possible. "Aron Ra and his organization were very helpful," he told me.
And Aron Ra is more than just a point of reference for Alex. He has actually gotten the chance to hang out with him! "I met Aron Ra after a talk here in LA. He came back a couple months later, and we went to the Natural History Museum together. I work next door to the museum, at the California Science Center. He invited me to go to the museum. He was really fascinated with the prehistoric mammals exhibits."
Speaking about his work on Godless, Alex said that, "it's a group effort. I run it with some admins. We're really busy and it really helps to be on good terms with the other admins. We've taken the page from about 5,000 followers to nearly 180,000."
As I mentioned in the opening of this post, Alex also works on some of David Smalley's social media. "He's been really busy with his stand-up. A friend of mine does sound and tech for Dogma Debate. He asked me to help run Smalley's Facebook content."
That is actually a new development that only started a couple months ago, and Alex still considers it pretty "new and fresh."
One of the things that Alex was particularly concerned with when we talked was that he often hears the question "How do people find meaning without God?"
His answer? "However they can."
But, personally, Alex finds meaning by expressing himself with poetry. Specifically, he writes poetry from a scientifically-inspired viewpoint. I have had the pleasure of reading several of his works and you can see his love of life and the cosmos come through in his writing.
Speaking to Alex was very refreshing. He is someone who, like myself, was raised Catholic. His path of coming from that religious background and leaving his faith is pretty inspiring, in my opinion. Education and an openness to rationality were all that were really needed to "show Alex the light" so to speak.
And how great is it that such modern things as videos on YouTube and a debate featuring Bill Nye the Science Guy were among the things that helped him discover the absurdity of religion?
I was truly sad to hear about his family's reaction to his non-belief, but when we spoke, Alex was strong in his conviction. And I think that also feeds in to the inspiring nature of his story. He still loves his family, and as he himself said, he is still the same person he was before, he just stopped believing in God. And that has helped set him free.
I think the best way to finish off this post is with one of Alex's own poems. So, here is "Cosmic Soliloquy" by Alex Penuelas:
You are a collection
of atoms and stardust,
formed together in this moment in time,
to have the honor and privilege
to exist in this world,
which lies in the vast cosmos,
and to see it as
that it truly is.
Don't you ever forget
that you were born from stars.
And that you can outshine them all
with a simple smile.