Meet a member: Stephen Gay

Name: Stephen Gay.

Where I live: Fountain Hills, Ariz., and part-time in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Where and when I was born: Houston in July of 1957.

Family: I am single, but have a wonderful sister, Patricia Williams and her family in Sonoma County. My deceased brother’s wife and daughter live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I grew up. I moved my mom out to California four years ago as she is almost 90.

Education: Graduated from American Graded High School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1975. Graduated from University of Texas with a degree in accounting in 1979.

Occupation: Airbus A320 Captain for American Airlines.

How I got where I am today: My father was a CPA with Price Waterhouse in Sao Paulo. I lived there until going off to college. Growing up in Brazil, I became fluent in Portuguese and have a passing knowledge of Spanish. I also became a big fan of soccer, and saw Pele play live on many occasions.

The other big advantage of growing up abroad was seeing another culture up close and how the “other half” truly lives. One of our homes was in a very nice neighborhood, but we had a small slum immediately on the other side of our property. (Zoning laws need not apply!) We came back to the U.S. every two years or so, and I came to appreciate why a lot people want to move here.

I followed in my dad’s accounting footsteps, but my heart just wasn’t in it. Dad, on the other hand, loved accounting like Mozart loved music. So I went and found something I liked doing and settled in on computer sales.

Flying has been my passion since I was a kid. Flying to the U.S. on Pan Am’s iconic 707 Clipper Jets, and a fortuitous meeting with a Continental Airlines captain revived the dream after a few successful years in computer sales.

I finally made the break in 1989 and left to become a professional pilot. My path included five years as a flight instructor and charter pilot, followed by three years flying for a small regional airline. In 1997 I was hired at a Phoenix-based airline called America West, which through two mergers became American Airlines.

I have been a captain on the narrow-body Airbus fleet for 12 years now, and with American may have the opportunity to fly wide-body aircraft overseas.

Where I’m headed: With just six years until retirement, I plan to move permanently to Santa Rosa, buy a Piper Cub and give Sonoma Coast/Bay Area aerial tours along with taildragger flight instruction. I also plan to start a Freethinker/Atheist Meetup group and grow it to regional prominence.

Person in history I admire and why: Anybody who has had the courage to stand up and make a difference. There are countless of those through history, of course. This includes almost every freethinker of note, especially up to the 18th century, where speaking out could and often did cost you your life.

If I could be indulged with two choices from the recent era, I would pick Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens.

During my time in computer sales, I saw Jobs introduce a stunning array of products and life-altering ideas — things like typesetting fonts for the common man, the mouse and the computer/cell phone for the masses. Most people forget the Apple Newton, which started the whole PDA revolution and preceded the Palm Pilot.

I admired Christopher Hitchens for his intellect and sheer breadth of knowledge. His anthology of essays “And Yet . . . Essays” and “The Portable Atheist” are required reading in my book. I could listen to him speak for hours and not get bored. Hitchens made atheism respectable and fun. I was really sad to see him go so soon.

A quotation I like: “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” — David Bowie

These are a few of my favorite things: Flying, of course, and photography. My subjects are generally aviation-related and nature, mostly flowers. I make greeting cards, fine art and wall-size prints with my various Epson printers. I have won awards for my photography, and have been occasionally published, including in USA Today.

I recently took up guitar after a 40-year hiatus, and enjoy that immensely.

Despite not having kids, I absolutely adore them for their innocence and joy. The most enjoyable part of my job is giving cockpit tours to kids. One dad filmed his two kids getting a tour from me, and the YouTube video he posted has received over 25,000 views.
I am godfather to three wonderful kids.

I read a lot of books on atheism and freethinking. I also devour political coverage on TV (MSNBC, mainly) and on the web, with a fondness for state-church issues.

Like Sam Harris, I practice and find great value in meditation. I was attracted to Zen because of its totally nontheistic, nonspiritual and nonreligious approach to seeing the world as it is, without stories or filters. Zazen (seated meditation) is a liberating practice because nothing that arises in your mind during those 30 minutes of silence is judged bad or good. By simply observing and releasing what arises without judgment, our unending torrent of random thoughts gradually loses its grip on us. What is left is the inherent kindness in reality, or what is actually going on.

These are not: Creationists, fundamentalists of any stripe, authoritarians, but above all else, people who don’t use reason to reach conclusions and who remain rigid in their thought process. Birthers and climate change deniers rank right up there.

My doubts about religion started: Pretty early. I remember asking my mom in third grade about a Jewish classmate of mine. I asked if he was going to hell because he didn’t believe in Jesus. When she said yes, something shifted for me at a very deep level. There was no reason why Howard should go to hell just because he was Jewish. He hadn’t done anything wrong! He was a wonderful kid!

From then on the contradictions just kept growing, like barnacles on the underside of a ship. The home stretch began when I read “Who Wrote the Bible?,” by Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor at San Diego State University. That’s where I learned about real biblical scholarship. It absolutely blew my mind.

Before I die: Have kids late in life like Larry King?

Ways I promote freethought: As often as I can, I mention I’m an atheist, and I have a small group of freethinkers in the pilot group I correspond with.

As we all know, it’s not always the best course of action to bring up lack of belief because of people’s deep fears and misconceptions. I really try and keep it out of the cockpit because I wouldn’t want the other pilot to rattle on about their Mormonism or fundamentalist beliefs.

I find the best way is to throw out nuggets every so often, and use humor as often as possible.

My cousin (who is on the ragged edges of faith already) knows I’m an atheist but had never heard about Elisha and the bears in 2 Kings. As I was telling the story, I said something like, “Elisha was being teased about his bald head by some 8-year-olds, so what was his only option? He picked up the Bat-Phone and told God to take care of those merciless kids. Pronto!” The moment I said “Bat-Phone” she broke out into one of those uncontrollable, unstoppable bouts of laughter, which caused me to join in. We haven’t laughed together that hard in years. I’m pretty sure she will never forget Elisha and the bears!

Freedom From Religion Foundation