When I was 8 years old, my parents enrolled me in a private Roman Catholic school, where I was indoctrinated.
In my early high school years, I had been only a few degrees shy of being a biblical literalist. The only bit of dogma I rejected was that the earth was 6000 years old. So yes, I believed that anyone who did not believe in the saving power of Jesus was going to hell, where they would share the company of homosexuals, people who didn't attend church, people who didn't pray every night before they went to bed, etc.
I was convinced that God was the ultimate explanation for everything. Why is the force applied to an object equivalent to the object's mass multiplied by it's acceleration? God designed it that way. What caused the big bang? God. How was the moon made? God. You get the idea...
So I didn't think twice when I challenged my two atheist friends to a debate at the lunch table.
I remember thinking that I (surprisingly) held my own ground in this debate, but it eventually came to a stalemate with neither party being convinced by the other. We agreed to disagree.
But I didn't give up there. I set out on a quest to do what no man had done before - logically (scientifically, where possible) prove the validity of Catholicism so that everyone may know God and His greatness. I came up with a plan: prove the existence of God, then prove the existence of the historical Jesus, then prove that the Bible was God's inerrant word (despite the fact that I had studied the bible and thus was aware of its internal contradictions). Basically, I planned to start from the bottom and work my way up.
Despite the months of research, pondering, and attempting to formulate air-tight arguments, I never made it past the first step.
The night before I lost my faith was the scariest moment of my life. I had exhausted every possible argument I could think of. "No," I said to myself, "this can't be right. God does exist, I *know* he does. He's gonna send me to hell if I don't believe in Him!"
A voice responded. It was the voice of reason, "After everything you've learned, you know you can't believe that."
I stayed up until 4 in the morning with these two thoughts running through my head before I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
February 17, 2009. My life changed. I knew the voice inside my head was right, I couldn't believe any longer. I let go. I always thought this moment would be the most depressing moment of my life. It was the happiest. This moment was so powerful that I literally dropped to my knees and cried tears of joy. I saw the world around me for what it really was - a beautiful machine directed by the laws of nature, and I was a part of it.
My first words as an atheist were: "I have been living in this world for 17 years, but I have never bothered to look at it until now."
In the weeks that followed, I stumbled upon your videos on the internet and I quickly became a fan. I heard about The God Delusion and I wanted to buy it, but my parents were believers. How would they react when I asked them to drive me to the bookstore to pick up a book promoting atheism?
I watched and re-watched your videos, making sure, of course, that my parents weren't around while I watched them. You urged the atheists of the world to be militant, to come out of the closet, to be brave. I took your advice. Confronting my father was the second scariest moment of my life.
"Can you, uhh, take me to the bookstore?"
"Sure, what book do you want to get?"
"Umm... The God Delusion..."
"...Oh." A few seconds pass, "Do you believe in God?"
To be fair, my parents took it well, but it was obvious that they disapproved. I began to regret my atheism. That didn't last long, though, because when I finished reading your book, I was proud to be an atheist. I started to come out little by little to the point where I was able to admit to my *entire, predominantly Roman Catholic high school* that I was an atheist (my two atheist friends who I mentioned before applauded me when I did so).
I may have convinced myself to convert to atheism, but you, Dr. Dawkins, helped me realize its beauty. Science is my religion now; it brings more meaning to my life than Catholicism ever could. It begs us to search for the truth, no matter what it is, and that's something I can believe in.
I am brave, I am wise, and I am free, and I have you to thank.
P.S. I gave a talk on the beauty of science during my senior year of high school. You can watch it here: http://www2.summitcds.org/chapeltalks/index.cfm I'm the second one from the bottom. I was afraid of citing you in my talk for fear of repercussions. I wasn't quite over my fear of persecution, and citing you would have made some people suspicious.