My name is Dick Powis, and I’m a 24 year old anthropology student at Cleveland State University (Ohio). I’ve just finished reading The God Delusion (again), and I’m overcome with things I want to say. While I’ve read some of your other books, I feel that The God Delusion certainly is the definitive, quintessential reader for anyone caught on the fence. Unfortunately, I cannot join Douglas Adams as one of your converts, but know that you have reinforced many of my values as an atheist in ways that I cannot articulate.
On indoctrination-as-child abuse: I cannot agree with you more. My childhood was rife with religious enculturation. I was born in Oxford, and shortly after, my parents had me dedicated at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Dedicated! – and without my permission, no less. I’m sure you’re familiar with the film, “Jesus Camp.” To my friends and colleagues, the film is appalling; to me, it’s just a reminder of my childhood. I wanted to be a warrior for God; I sympathized with martyrs; I was a creationist; I consciously turned down evidence against my beliefs, even when they were more rational that my own; I supported backwards-thinking politicians; I was pro-life and pro-death penalty – which is ironic, in hindsight. I was 12 years old at the peak of my zeal. Though my parents were the primary perpetrators of my indoctrination, it was my father – former military – that told me as a young teenager, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I would die defending your right to say it.” I took that line, and ran with it. It was that motto, which I’ve heard again and again in different ways and contexts, that single-handedly turn me into a liberal – and I’m sure it was not my father’s intention. In the mantra, I found the faculty to have compassion for people with whom I did not agree. My faith in God began to buckle.
After a few more years, my “relationship with God” had completely broken down. I replaced God with…gods; I began to follow neo-Paganism. And can you blame me? All I knew was religion, and it was impossible to me that there was no god at all. After high school, I began to question everything. I began to read anything related to religion, and all perspectives that I could find. And slowly, my faith broke down. After reading your bit on the spectrum of theist to atheist, I can look back now and see my life move gradually from one to six…point-seven. (I only estimate myself slightly less sure than you [at a 6.9]…because I posit that things like telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. can be possible with more neurological evolution and progress in the field of quantum mechanics. Or maybe my hypothesis is simply residual “wishful-thinking” from my theist days.)
I don’t believe that there was any long-term damage from my childhood brainwashing – I’m not afraid of hell, death, guilt, or God – but I’m still angry about it. As I stated above, my parents are responsible for my extremist-Christian childhood. And when I came out about leaving God, we didn’t speak for 5 years. Marvelously, we’re on fantastic terms now, but it took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. So, why do I still feel victimized? For questioning my faith, I lost five years with my family…but I count myself lucky. I suppose that tt hurts me to think that there are children that are still being used as…”God’s foie gras.”
Here is what I do know: God is like Father Christmas, except someone forgot to tell us when the joke was up. I was seven when I was told that Father Christmas did not exist, and it would have been the perfect time for my parents to tell me Jesus didn’t exist either, but apparently, their parents didn’t tell them Jesus doesn’t exist. If I were a diabolical psychology student, I would take some children and raise them with the idea that Father Christmas and Jesus do, in fact, exist. At the age of seven, I would tell them that Jesus does not exist, but continue to proselytize Father Christmas. I theorize that by middle-age, these now-adults would defend the existence of Father Christmas as fervently as they would Christ. Of course, we have to add all of the other elements that create ecclesiastical religions: legend, mob psychology, propaganda, and of course, “Father Christmasist” politicians and leaders. Obviously, this hypothesis can never become a theory without crossing some serious ethical boundaries, but I’m sure you get the idea.
I love to question everything. Being an atheist is like a weight off of my shoulders; being able to answer a question with “I don’t know” is like a breath of fresh air. I don’t have to have all the answers, and I don’t have to depend on a flimsy crutch like the Bible. I was a terrible student in high school, because I figured that God would take care of me later. As an atheist, I’m a 4.0 student in an undergraduate program, I’ll be studying abroad in Spain next summer, I have creative contribution on an academic article being published next Spring, the anthropology department has given me an honorarium, and it’s only my freshman year; I’m on what I call, “The Academic Warpath.” (In fact, I will be applying to Oxford’s post-graduate anthropology program in a few years; if you’d like to write me a letter of reference, I don’t think I would turn it down.) Reading your books has given me the courage to live my life to the fullest, and has motivated me to be as academically successful as I can be, because this life is the only one I have. Atheism has liberated me, and you are a hero.
Whether or not you reply, at least this has been cathartic.
Thank you for your time.