Dear Richard Dawkins,
I’ve been thinking to myself, “Where do I go from here?” for the past few months, and have neglected to think that other atheists might have gone through this sort of experience. I remembered from reading The God Delusion there you had a website which might have some resources, and I checked it out. So here I sit, crying out of the rare sense of understanding, honesty, and warmth that I got from reading a few letters from the converts’ corner. My question, “Where do I go from here?” specifically relates to my direction in life; how I can best make a positive difference in the short time that I have here on Earth. It’s really been on my mind since I read The God Delusion two years ago and fully, finally admitted to myself that I’m an atheist. When I was younger I knew the answer to The Question; God’s will is good, and God’s will is clear. What happens on Earth only matters if it leads to the salvation of others. The God Delusion helped put the final nail in the old belief’s coffin for me, and I’ve had a palpable sense of uncertainty ever since.
As so many of us atheists, I was raised in a very religious home. I think a religious upbringing forces children to really consider the possibilities and nature of the Universe in ways that a semi-religious one doesn’t. My father was a pastor, and my parents frequently took me on mission trips to Africa and South America. As the son of a pastor, I was pretty heavily disciplined as a child. I knew every major bible story. I tried to answer questions in bible verses. I was the apple of my parents’ eyes. But on top of all of this, I thought I was haunted by demons. I don’t know if it was simply an overactive imagination tinged with religion or mild schizophrenia or what, but I thought demons talked to me. I’d think I heard the voice of god, then I’d act on it only to realize later that my actions contradicted scripture. In the end, I realized that I couldn’t be a child of god because the bible says, “My sheep will know me by the sound of my voice.” And I couldn’t figure out which was the right voice to listen to.
So I started my journey to Atheism. I couldn’t be sure at first, I mean, it made more sense to me at the time that I was simply a bad person who didn’t measure up to god’s standards. That fear of being deeply bad has shadowed me for my entire life. Every time I’ve broken up with a girlfriend or had to make a serious moral choice, that fear has jumped up and choked me. But with time and the guidance of people who saw my psychological issues for what they were, I’ve been able to learn tools to counter all of that.
The most powerful tools I’ve learned are doubt and examination. I’ve looked at the arguments for and against a Universal Being, and I’ve found that while it’s possible, it requires a lot more explanation than the argument that there isn’t one. The beautiful thing about science is that it doesn’t assert anything to be true forever, only true as long as the evidence backs it. Sometimes, I really hope that there will be proof that god exists so I can go back to being sure about my life and where I’m going. Until then, I live in doubt. Doubt of what is best for me and those around me, doubt on the nature of man and society and the universe. Doubt doesn’t mean inaction; I do what seems to be the best at the time. It’s less comfortable, and I have to admit that I’m wrong a lot, and I have to face down the possibility of a potentially meaningless existence. However, once I learn something I can’t unlearn it. I’ve learned to trust my reason, and that feelings aren’t facts, and I believe if I continue on this path of skeptical truth-telling I can’t help but do some good. After all, it’s only been a couple of hundred years since atheists have even started to come out and speak openly about their understandings of the world. Besides that, I’m teaching English in China and I’m considering taking a few math classes to see if maybe a career in science is for me. I don’t know if helping people communicate better or helping to further the pool of human knowledge is more useful to humanity. I can’t definitely foresee the fruit of my labor in any field; I’ll probably never know if I helped prevent nuclear war or helped get people to Mars. The unknowing is hard for me, because I really do want to do good. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s ok because at least I know I’m trying for the best. In my darkest moments of self doubt, there is the truth of my big picture goals and the camaraderie of like minded people to see me through.
So thank you, Richard Dawkins et al. for giving me a little comfort in this difficult time. The Answer to the Big Question isn’t much clearer, but from reading the letters I know a few kindred spirits out there are going through the same thing.