Dear Dr. Dawkins:
I wish that I could say I was always an atheist. Raised with very benign Christianity - Christmas, weddings etc. Religion wasn't really discussed or debated, we were allowed to believe what we wanted but left to figure it out on our own. I remember going to church and Sunday school when I was about 5 - I liked the stories, but remember it being boring. But personally, I had come to accept that there was a God, Jesus was real but hadn't really thought about the son of god thing too closely, and that there was something after we died and whether that was going to be a good experience or not was going to depend on whether I was good in this lifetime. I prayed irregularly and just basically thought I was being ignored. I loved Christmas and all the myth surrounding it; as far as I was concerned the best thing about Christmas was getting out the Christmas albums in November, October if my parents would have let me and listening and singing along until they disappeared after the new year.
There have been times over the past several months where I have been almost ashamed that I didn't intrinsically "know" it was all bunk and "see the light" or lack of light much younger and on my own. But reading other people's experiences has helped me to realize that personally pursuing religion may be make sense at a specific point in time, given the situation and environment one finds themselves. Luckily I was also taught to question and think for myself and take responsibility for my actions and thoughts. So even though I was not formally introduced to Atheism as an option as a child, my Mom in particular laid the foundation for me to become a critical person in pursuit of self actualization. Rather than beat myself up about "taking this long to become an Atheist" but be grateful I did find Atheism before my own children were asking questions about religion - I am most proud of the future I have helped my children create for themselves.
I had a best friend at the end of high school into University that was a devote Lutheran. I was exploring religious ideas, questioning what it was I actually believed. I have never been someone to do things half way. I started researching; even took a University course in second year on Eastern Religions. I think I was looking at a way of understanding people in general. More specifically I was desperately searching for personal happiness. I was always seeking approval and feeling like "nobody likes me, everybody hates me" whenever conflict arose or I did not get the approval I was seeking; ultimately this was either a symptom or a contributing factor that led me to experience extreme mood swings, eventually diagnosed as unipolar depression at the age of 20.
My best friend and I were very close and I wanted to know more about why she felt so strongly and felt that God and her religion added so much to her life - at the same time I was struggling through life long depression, first time on Prozac etc, parents divorcing and dealing with my father's mild alcoholism and my mother's extreme depression that led to the divorce, while working towards a Commerce degree. Now at 36 I look back and see that period as when depression took over my life; the pursuit of "fixes" for it, including finding someone to love me dominated my behaviour. The Prozac wasn't enough or the right thing at the right time. I blamed myself for my condition, outlook on life and my parents of course. I drank a lot and remember how desperate I was to be loved and get approval from everyone.
As part of my exploration, I went with my friend to her church for a weekly Bible discussion. I wasn't planning on converting, just finding out more. She had suggested the course, but never pushed me, she didn't need to, I was looking. By the end of the 15 weeks or something like that, I decided I wanted to be Baptized. It's easy to talk about religion with Christians when you say you are and just got Baptized. At least I wasn't judgmental of non Christians at this time, I was simply too self absorbed. Like I said I don't do things half way and I was much much harder on myself than I was on others and I expected more of myself than I did of others. The best thing that came about as a result of this is that I read the Bible cover to cover more than once and started paying attention to other people's behaviour and choices with respect to religion more closely. The hypocrisy was impossible to ignore. It took over 4 years to completely reject formalized religion based on my own exploration and the influence of my now husband.
Surprisingly at the same time became best friends with my now husband. At the time he hated religion, thought it was all stupid and useless. Luckily for me he loved me more than he hated religion and stuck with me as my boyfriend through the entire Baptism thing and even accompanied me once or twice to church. Hell, once we were engaged, I still wanted a "Church Wedding" and we even attended marriage classes at my church. His family's background is Ukrainian Orthodox so he had good reason to hate religion and all the strict nonsensical rituals and beliefs that went with it. There was enough pressure and basic expectations from his family and in some part of him that he didn't fit the fact that we would be married in a church and everything that would entail.
He has an Aunt that was and is REALLY into alternative spirituality which influenced his personal views on religion/spirituality for the next several years and mine too. When she started talking about how she believed strongly that we all originated from the constellation The Seven Sisters - my husband and I backed away fast from alternative spiritually. I don't think I went to church more than once after we were married. We didn't really buy into any formalized religion, but were kind of vague about our beliefs. I went to palm readers, read all about essential oils and continued to be immersed in fantasy and science fiction literature. I honestly don't think that if I hadn't forced him to articulate his beliefs he would be in the same place with respect to religion. But I forced the issue, kept asking him to explain if he was an atheist or agnostic. I finally got to the point where I was a solid agnostic and he was able to state with confidence that he was atheist.
I kept exploring, questioning and was getting to the point where I finally considered myself closer to atheism than agnosticism - there was no ah-ha moment. One day he showed me an essay Penn Jillette had written on "I believe" which so succinctly defined Penn's atheism and it clicked in me how much committing myself 100% to the fact that there was no god could be freeing, positive and the antithesis to much of the thinking that fuels my depression. That was sometime in the fall 2005. Like I said, I go all out once I believe something and the more I read and thought about the impact of truly believing there was no god the more it made sense. I have felt the need to identify myself as an atheist since the spring of 2006 and it has been one of the best years of my life personally so far. I spent the summer of 2006 listening to podcasts of Penn's radio show and e-mailing regularly with Goudeau. I listened intently to your (Richard Dawkin's) appearance on the show promoting The God Delusion. Up until that point I hadn't read any non-fiction on atheism, agnosticism or the like. I was finding sufficient evidence in day to day exposure within the media and my daily life that Atheism was the way to go and felt right to me. Needless to say my husband loved me joining him on the dark side - it definitely strengthened our relationship in terms of values and our approach to child rearing. We have two extremely inquisitive daughters now aged 6 and 3 1/2 years old.
Both my husband and I began appreciating how many of the authors and writers of both fiction and non-fiction of books, graphic novels and television were Atheist or at least addressing the challenge and idiosyncratic nature of religion. Particularly, Joss Whedon as we had both become avid fans of all his work. I read Unweaving the Rainbow while waiting for our local bookstores to restock The God Delusion; I loved the scientific approach and challenge of grasping the biological and genetic rationale. I loved reading The God Delusion on so many levels. I appreciated the humour, how grounded in popular culture and current issues the entire book was. I laughed out loud and constantly interrupted my husband from whatever he was doing or reading to read aloud to him passages and entire sections at a time. I have now just completed The End of Faith by Sam Harris and will be taking some time to consider other novels suggested by both Mr. Harris and yourself.
Oh, and with regards to the depression thing, Atheism didn't cure me, I have actively sought psychological and psychiatric therapy, currently am on the right dose of a combination of anti-depressants and have a solid support system around me that makes staying healthy possible. I came out with being a depressive, or someone who will be managing depression in one form or another probably for most of my life to people for around 6 years. The hypocrisy of people saying they understand and felt badly for me and that they don't think I am any less capable but at the same time insipidly seeing me as overwhelmed and emotional even when I am simply tackling very demanding and stressful projects/jobs (I'm a high school teacher) infuriates me. Just as the reluctance of intelligent, generally rational people have by refusing to debate and discuss religion or beliefs like I was proposing we cook and consume children or something equally horrid.
Coming out as an Atheist has been an entirely different experience. So far no one looks at me like I am defunct or a less capable person but rather are slightly taken back. As far as the future is concerned I want to put myself in a position to reduce stigma's and their powerful effect as they relate to people suffering from depression and further promote discussion about religion and present Atheism as a healthy and viable alternative to any type of religion. Thank-you for providing the final rational, evidence based push away from faith towards an exciting and transforming life as an Atheist. I am confident that my children will be able to thank-you in their own time!
Sincerely and with Gratitude,