I felt I had to submit this letter under the category of Converts even though my “conversion” is not recent.
My particular back story was of a childhood wherein I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (albeit Christian, they’re an awful lot like North Korea in their fanatical isolationism).
As with any child indoctrinated with theistic dogma, I accepted it as true simply because it was the only thing I had ever been presented with.
My struggle with a belief in god was preceded by a struggle with religion itself, as in my late teens I had to reconcile everything I had been taught and the realization that I was gay. While there are some more moderate Christian households that might find those two compatible, Jehovah’s Witnesses absolutely do not.
I struggled with it for quite some time, even after leaving home. While my belief in religion and even god had begun to waver, I didn’t have anything to replace it with. I tend to use the analogy that I had been infected with a malicious computer virus, well programmed to prevent its own deletion, I hadn’t yet been given the antivirus software needed to finally eradicate it.
After leaving home I met a friend who luckily was an atheist, and he presented me with a gift of The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. That was all I needed. By the time I closed the back cover of The Blind Watchmaker my belief in god was finally and completely destroyed.
The main reason that I am writing this letter now after so many years (I’m 31 now) is that once again I found myself at a new turning point in my life.
I recently ended a relationship of ten years and the reasons are irrelevant to this letter, but what is relevant is that my ex was a Christian and believed in god, and it was the only topic that we ever got into vicious fights over. For ten years I had to label myself “agnostic” as it was the only identifier that wouldn’t trigger violent argument. The main point is that the conversion you helped me achieve was so absolute that it sustained direct attack from a loved partner, it sustained being repressed for many years. Even keeping it hidden and personal, the logic of it was so fundamentally accurate that it was unbreakable.
My beliefs have evolved over time, and I have found that over time the absence of a belief in god or religion has made me happier, and continues to do so. I wrote the following Blog article a few weeks ago: (yeah, it’s a little long, but this I felt it compelling to quote it in its entirety, because this is the point in life that Richard has helped me get to, and I feel it prudent to express it)
An Atheist’s View on Appreciating Life
As I have progressed through life, I have had the opportunity to reflect on my own beliefs on a number of occasions and strengthen my atheistic views. As Richard Dawkins would put it, I “came out” in my late teens as an atheist, but looking back I must admit that while it was liberating, my true understanding was tenuous.
The concepts that Dawkins outlined in The Blind Watchmaker served to irrevocably destroy any remaining doubt about whether there was, to me, a supreme being. There isn’t.
But while my scientific understanding at that point now had a solid foundation, I had yet to grapple with other tenets of my belief, or lack thereof.
Theists, and Christians specifically (I do live in North America, they are rampant over here in this part of the world), like to try and confuse atheistic views by lamenting the positive principles of a theistic dogma. God Loves Us, religion is a source of happiness and support, religion lifts people up and serves as a source of good in the world.
I’ve had Christians argue that sunsets and the scent of a Rose are sweeter because they see a loving and omnipotent creator behind them. Where atheists can only see the scientific principles behind such phenomena.
Honestly, it did take me some time to grapple with those arguments. I could easily say “A rose smells just as sweet to me” but couldn’t specifically argue why. It just did. Such an argument doesn’t go very far with a theist, to them it’s just a vacuous statement.
The last few years of my life I’ve hit upon a number of concepts that I think help to put into better descriptive terms why I find life so enjoyable, and even more so now that I’ve been freed from the shackles of religious dogma.
As an atheist and evolutionist, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I am completely content with the knowledge that when I die, the biomass that is me will either decompose or be burned rapidly to carbon, and the constituent elements that form to make me who I am will be released back to this shining blue ball that is our biosphere and become part of another grand circle of life on this planet. That in itself is rather comforting, but to take it one step further, because I know that the life I live is the only one I will ever have, it makes the enjoyment of it far greater.
I might be inclined to take my existence for granted, if I were to believe that this existence is but a step towards another version of living. To me it would make it less important, the value of each day would be diminished because, after all, there’s another one coming.
Religious dogma attempts to prevent its followers from sliding into laziness by preaching that entry into another plane of existence is only granted if certain criteria are met; “Love thy neighbor” and such.
For a theistic believer, such requirements are there to enhance one’s appreciation for existence, but unfortunately I have to argue that whatever else it does, it still detracts from the simple enjoyment of living.
Take for example a terminal patient. We have all heard or read the stories of a person that is given a finite amount of time left to live. It might be weeks, it might be years, but they know that they will not have the opportunity to live their life to its completion. In each of these cases we read about people that embrace life, are happier than they ever have been, they treasure each day and each hour spent on this marvelous planet of ours, and the company of the loved ones around them. They travel, they experience, and they live the remainder of their lives to the fullest extent possible.
But you never read about them lamenting that the only reason they are now embracing life so tightly is because of a belief in god. Granted, I’m sure a majority of them are theistic, my point is that you don’t see them spending the remainder of their days serving a deity, you see them living, truly living, and reveling in each day they have left.
To them, the knowledge that a definitive end is near changes perspective. Even if they believe in an afterlife and maintain a tight grasp of their theistic faith, the knowledge that this particular existence will end soon drives them to live better.
To me, not being a terminal patient, I cannot argue that I understand what they are going through, and won’t attempt to do so. But being an atheist, knowing that this life is all I have, it drives me to live each day to its fullest.
I only have one life to live. One shot at being happy and content, I will only ever get a single December 4th, 2013. That day, when over, will never come again. Knowing that each day that passes was the first and last of its kind, and knowing that I am heading to a final and definite end, I am placed in a mindset of peace.
“Life’s too short”, we’ve all heard the phrase. To me, it essentially serves as a reminder that unlike anything else that happens during the course of your life, you don’t get to experience trial and error for your life itself. You only get one.
From a personal perspective because of this, I have a difficult time with anger or aggression, I don’t understand violence. Irritability even I struggle with. (Though physiologically I do suffer from it myself when I fail to eat properly, damn glucose). When I witness others live their life and live with a tendency for aggression, violence or discontent I find it sad, I don’t want to look back on my life if I am lucky enough to live it through to its natural end, and regret that I didn’t embrace life to its fullest.
That I wasted my time, the only time I’ll ever have, living with a malcontent over other people or “my lot in life”.
I’m struck by news articles or even personal experience when I observe people in routine daily scenarios, at a super market, for example. You will witness people becoming agitated over miniscule things, and the agitation begins to escalate until they are visibly disturbed and upset, if not outwardly violent in either a verbal or physical manner.
I can’t help but believe that those precious minutes, or the hours afterwards spent fuming about the event were completely wasted and irretrievable, and what’s worse, if such aggression was targeted at another person, those moments of their life where stolen from them. It’s exceptionally unethical.
I’ve heard a number of arguments over the years about the reasoning for discontent. Why aggression and anger are justifiable and even should be encouraged. Arguments like “It makes me stronger” or more primitively “People need to know not to mess with me”. Essentially however, it boils down to intolerance and self-preservation.
Another interesting common phrase, typically used in religious dogma is “The Root of All Evil”. I don’t really believe that there is a root of all evil, but if there was one that comes markedly close, it’s intolerance. It’s exceptionally dangerous. Intolerance breeds anger and discontent, if you really evaluate the underlying source of most routine aggression, its ultimate fuel was intolerance.
To explain the idea further, let’s look at the word itself: Intolerance, the opposite of course would be tolerance, or the ability to tolerate. Let’s use an example: You are at an airport, waiting to board a flight. You’ve been sitting at the departure gate for several hours now because there has been a mechanical problem with the aircraft. I think most people have been in this situation before. Inevitably however, there are always several people that are unable to tolerate the delay, they become angry and upset, ultimately they become aggressive, towards the airline employees, and occasionally towards other passengers. This lack of tolerance breeds aggression. A tolerant person would intellectually realize that while unfortunate, it cannot be helped, and sinking into aggression would in no way improve the situation.
Being in similar situations myself, I try to evaluate the event and determine what is ultimately more important to me. Would I rather devolve my state of mind to one of aggression and intolerance, ruining the experience for myself and potentially others, or would I rather “let it go”, and happily move on.
Of course this doesn’t always work, I am, after all, human. We each have breaking points where stress or a lack of glucose can lead to an aggressive and irritable state of mind, I’ve been there myself. But at least it provides me with a starting point to significantly reduce these times in my life, which ultimately makes me happier.
Of course, a theist could do the same thing, it’s not like it’s the universal purview of atheists, but I do find that at a core, knowing that each day is the only one of that particular day I will get to live serves as the perpetual fuel to remind me on a consistent basis why I need to keep myself in check, and appreciate my life more than I otherwise would if I believed that at some point it wouldn’t matter, because I’d be living in some other secondary plane of existence.
Because I believe it will all be definitively over at some point, I don’t want to miss a single opportunity to be happy.
I don’t know why a rose smells sweet to me, I have some ideas, and have read some books and scientific papers that explain it nicely in evolutionary terms. But ultimately, I don’t care. Whether I understand it scientifically or not, it doesn’t threaten my belief. To me there is no god, there is no afterlife, and I’m much more content now with that belief than I ever was as a theist.
So, in the end, to sum up this letter:
Richard Dawkins; Thank You. While I’m sure that your dedication to you career has been to enlighten people, you did much more than that, at least with me. You saved a life. If I ever get the chance, I’ll shake your hand in person and repeat it again.