March 9th, 2013
08:49 AM ET
By Josh Rubin, CNN
Austin, Texas (CNN)– As the Catholic world focuses on Rome and awaits a new pope, the secular world has turned its attention to Austin, Texas, for the annual pilgrimage of tech and music.
This weekend marks the start of the 20th annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival, an event with the goal of “fostering creative and professional growth.” For five days, some of the world’s brightest minds will commune, collaborate and experiment.
With its live music, free-flowing alcohol, and hook-up culture, SXSW has developed a reputation as being a spring break for nerds. There’s even an app by Qpid.me that lets attendees share medical records to prove their STD-free status.
But there is more to it than pure bacchanalia.
For Bijoy Goswami, this is a high holiday with as much virtue as vice. He sees SXSW as a secular celebration where people join together to take the tools of technology and transform them into world-shaking culture. It's no accident that Twitter was released at SXSW.
At 39-years-old, Goswami is the quintessential Austenite with long hair, a casual style and a computer science degree. He has made a home and built a career around the Austin ethos. He's introspective, relaxed, hip and weird - in a good way.
Goswami describes Austin as a place of becoming: “I’m trying to figure out what to do in my various aspects of my life - spiritual, work, relational - things like that. Austin gave me the communities to work through those questions for myself,” he says.
Moving to Austin from Silicon Valley in the mid-'90s, Goswami started a software company before finding what he says is his true calling. Taking what he learned during his own self-discovery, he now makes his living helping other entrepreneurs find their own path.
Successful startups are often built by people who know who they are and what they want, said Goswami who tries to provide a platform for people to find those answers for themselves.
It’s that message of personal exploration and responsibility that local leaders like Heather McKissick find so appealing. “If there is a secular guru, it's Bijoy. His message is one of self-enlightenment through the hard work of bootstrapping and chopping wood.”
Through years of friendship, SXSW panels, and her work as president of the Austin Leadership council, McKissick has experienced all sides of a man she calls a brilliant secular humanist. “He has his disciples, but there is also a trusted inner circle that sees past the charisma and understands him as a brilliant, articulate and equally flawed human as the rest of us.”
Born in India to a Hindu father and Catholic mother, Goswami was a child of both Eastern and Western philosophy. “I always had exposure to Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. They were all in the water and air I was breathing. “
Goswami’s mother, however, wanted her children to be raised Catholic.
“My dad said, ‘Fine.’ So all the way through 18, Catholicism worked for me. I didn’t question it - I just liked it.”
His father’s career moved the family from India to Taiwan and then to Hong Kong. Goswami’s mother began teaching at the American Hong Kong International School, allowing him and his brothers to attend for free. Goswami’s life in Hong Kong was a happy one - at home, school, and in church.
“I was an altar boy. I had no problems with priests. I read the Gospels. I was a student of the Bible. I believed I had a personal relationship with God … all of that stuff. “
But long before Pope Benedict resigned, Goswami had already fired him.
While attending Stanford University, Goswami began studying the history of the Catholic Church, and long held beliefs began to erode. “My mind's getting blown. Every single thing that I believed, like the sacraments, were just invented by various popes and people.”
Like many, after leaving home for college, Goswami had a crisis of faith. By the end of his sophomore year, he came to a realization “that not only were Christianity and Catholicism invented by people … but so was every other religion. Take the Catholic Church - it’s caught up in old conversations that aren’t relevant. They’re still fighting the battles of 50 years ago within themselves rather then helping people on their journey or path.”
For Goswami, not being a Catholic meant more than shrugging off the teachings of the church. It meant fundamentally changing his relationship with his mother. “That was a really hard moment for my mom and me. I went back to Hong Kong for summer break and I said, ‘Hey Mom, I’m not going to go to church with you.' ”
The beginning of Goswami’s story isn’t unique, but that didn’t make his religious disillusionment any easier. It hurt him to hurt his mother. “I was her blue-eyed altar boy who had done no wrong, who she thought would be a priest … and I am a priest, just differently,” he says.
As a secular priest of sorts, Goswami has officiated weddings and provided council for hundreds in the Austin startup community. He received his ordination online through the popular Universal Life Church, which according to its website ordains, "ministers, priests, rabbis and clergy worldwide who are totally non-religious or even anti-religious."
One such person counseled by Goswami is Josh Baer, manager of Austin’s Capital Factory incubator. Goswami was a crucial part of his development as an entrepreneur.
Goswami “has this Zen quality and personal confidence that makes people feel comfortable sharing their dreams and aspirations,” Baer says. “He guides others on their path.”
To Baer and hundreds like him, Goswami is like a high priest for Austin’s entrepreneurs, a role he built over the years by leaning on the lessons of the faith he left.
He created a congregation of like-minded entrepreneurs by founding bootstrap Austin, an informal group of founders coming together to share experiences. His message is that just because you’re going it alone doesn’t mean you have to be alone, and it permeates the Austin start-up scene.
That deep understanding of the importance of community is one of the reasons he isn’t bitter towards Catholicism. “I’m grateful to religion. In the march of history, it has served a very important purpose,” he says, pausing and smiling slightly. “Now we start to take that back.”
Participating in the 10-day SXSW festival is part of what Goswami calls his self-curation. It’s one of the ways he has found meaning without God.
“We’ve recreated those structures, we need celebration, we need community, we need conversation about meaning and identity, all those things we need,” he says.
For Goswami, religion is of his past, and now it’s time for him to move on.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.