Meet Jose Giles, a secular activist and cartoonist who will be creating a unique cartoon each month for the Richard Dawkins Foundation newsletter. His cartoon Skeptic Al was created alongside fellow activist Jacob Fortin.
Check out Skeptical Al’s first adventure here.
RDF: So, José, tell me about how you got interested in the secular movement? Have you always been an atheist?
JOSE GILES: No, actually, I was raised in a traditional Catholic family in Puerto Rico; the kind of family that goes to church once a year, I did the first holy communion and I went to a Catholic junior high school for six years.
I always took religion seriously, probably more seriously than my parents did. I considered myself a real believer. We didn’t go to church every Sunday and I thought it was wrong, that we were doing something wrong, that we had to go to church (more)… I used to pray every night.
When I turned 13 I started questioning my beliefs. I remember when I was in 7th or 8th grade I asked my Religion teacher: “Who created God?” and he wasn’t able to answer that. I think he said that there were some questions that we weren’t able to access or answer; that there were things that were mysteries, but that didn’t keep me from looking for those answers.
Eventually, when I was almost graduating I got in contact with a new age religious group based in the United States that had a chapter in Puerto Rico and I was involved in that cult, because that’s what it was -a religious cult-, a New Age fundamentalist cult. People have this idea that New Age is very liberal and very hippie, but this sect was very fundamentalist, very strict. I started going to that group because I felt that I was getting the answers that the Catholic church hadn’t given to me during all those years so I thought “Wow, I’m getting answers!” but I was never critically examining them, I didn’t have that capacity then, I was only 17.
I got very involved in that (movement), little by little, the way they take you in; they don’t go and tell you all the things they believe in the first day; it’s always a slow process of brainwashing and you start believing more and more things, magical stuff.
RDF: What were the craziest things that they led you to believe in? How did you escape?
JOSE GILES: Their brainwashing and mind control was basically based on this idea of praying and the decrease. You had to spend like 2 or 3 hours every day praying to their ascended masters and all the pantheon and you had to repeat like a formula; it was a very established list of prayers that we had to do every day; constantly.
RDF: How did you escape?
JOSE GILES: I was going to college at the same time, during the first years, and I got in contact with philosophy, humanistic and fine arts courses and that’s when I got in touch with Rene Descartes’ philosophy and we had to doubt before taking something as a truth; we had to question it. That opened my mind. I started thinking “Well, I believe so many things and I’ve never considered to analyze them to see if they’re really true” and that was the first step towards being free from religion, that contact with philosophy. Then I found a book written by Carl Jung, the psychologist, called “Answer to Job” and it was like a psychological analysis of the figure of god in the Bible. That was a big revelation to me that was the first time that someone was calling god for what he is: a psychopath.
RDF: So how did you stop being a part of the cult? Did you just stop going cold turkey or was there a turning point?
JOSE GILES: I had a responsibility charge there, I was part of the directive in the puerto rican group and it wasn’t easy at first, I didn’t know what to do. I remember I was giving conferences and inside myself I thought “Jeez, I don’t believe in this anymore! And I’m preaching it!”… I really didn’t know what to do. I was very young and they saw me like a very illuminated soul, because most of them were old people or adults, and this guy, 18 years old, they thought I was like a Buddha or something. It was not easy for me to tell them… so I started going less and less to their meetings and reunions and one day the Director asked me if I wanted to leave my seat to another person and I said “Yes!” but the explanation I gave was “Yes! I have no time for this, because I’m studying” and that was that, I stopped going.
RDF: What was the name of the organization?
JOSE GILES: They have 2 names: The Summit Lighthouse, and the other name they use is Church Universal and Triumphant.
RDF: And you consider them a cult or just a strange religion?
JOSE GILES: For me, when I was inside, it was a religious group. Once you start seeing weird things and the way they control the minds of the people, you start realizing that it’s a cult. It’s not the most horrible cult there is; I think there are degrees. They were very controlling, especially with the people that lived at the headquarters in Montana, where they have their administration and HQ.
RDF: How many years has it been since you escaped?
JOSE GILES: I entered in ‘94 and got out in ‘97.
RDF: Could you tell us something about how you got interested in art and what your design goals are for the Skeptic Al cartoon?
JOSE GILES: I’ve always been interested in art since I was a little kid. I wanted to be a comic book artist, but I didn’t have money to go to New York and study in a comic book art school or anything like that, I was able to go to the University of Puerto Rico, which was very close to my house, and they offered the typical Fine Arts degree and that’s how I started to leave comics behind and entered the Fine Arts and paintings world. I then went to Mexico, started painting there, got a Master’s degree and came to Spain in 2003 to start a Ph.D. in Fine Arts and Art Theory and finished 6 years later. I studied for 12 years.
This is actually very funny: I had two conversions. One was from being religious to becoming an atheist; and the other conversion was from being a fine artist believing all the art theory and conceptual art stuff to realizing that art, the Fine Arts world, alternates as a religion too.
Have you ever gone to a gallery or an art museum? Specially a contemporary art museum… You see all these piece of art that you find disgusting and you don’t understand and you say, “What the heck is this doing here? I could do this!”
In the art world we have justifications for that, they’re full texts written explaining to us what’s supposed to be the meaning of those works of art and you have to take that by faith, because the evidence is telling you through your eyes that what you have in front of you is a piece of crap and you have to believe that somehow the person that created it is a genius that you cannot understand and so you need someone to explain to you what the real meaning of that work of art is. And it’s all a bunch of bullshit. It’s all false. It’s a fraud. That’s why I consider myself converted twice, because my second conversion – after finishing a Ph.D.- I realized it took me 12 years to realize that I was being manipulated by that system. And so that’s why I took back comic books; I went back to my original passion and that’s what I’m doing now; I’ve been doing it for 4 years professionally.
RDF: Can you tell us what we can expect to see in Skeptic Al or what the angle is for the cartoon?
JOSE GILES: Jacob Fortin and I have been thinking about working together for a long time, but we never had the time. He was busy working on his project and I was doing mine, but we finally decided we had to do something.
I think our passion, which is fighting against religious superstition and authority, (can be poured into) a comic book, that can expose that but in a very humorous way. We want to make people think and feel that skepticism is necessary in your life. You probably need to be a bit of a hero, you know, because nobody wants to be a party pooper, the skeptic guy, the one swimming against the current, and Skeptic Al is this character that is always trying to find the real explanation for the paranormal activities that surround the world around him.
I think Jacob has great ideas to express that skeptic necessity that we all have.
RDF: So you’re saying it’s a unique point of view on issues of reason and science and it’s told through a funny format and we’re going to learn a lot more? That’s great!
JOSE GILES: Yes, I mean, it’s starting and we still have a long road to go but we have planned the first stories and I hope that people will follow us and like our look at skepticism through the eyes of Skeptic Al, the protagonist of the story.
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