Dear Professor Richard Dawkins and the team at RDFRS, without whom the world would be a much poorer place.
I have the temptation to start this email off with a personal history about my religious upbringing and the events that lead to my embracing atheism entirely, but a small part of my brain, undoubtedly fighting with other nerve centers for control over my fingers as I type on my rather luxurious (if I may say so) keyboard, is telling me that, “No, Greg, under no circumstances should you start this email off like that. You should start at the end, and then make your way to the beginning.” I am trying desperately to remind this part of my brain that circular logic only works for apologists and dogmatic bible-bashers, but I seem to be losing the battle as, after all, it might be right. In this instance, at least.
So, to finally begin. I am perhaps one of what I am sure are many atheists on the Converts Corner that, using what I affectionately refer to as the Dawkins scale, places himself at a firm and unwavering 6. I have used the term ‘unwavering’ before, as well as ‘unapologetic’ and ‘resolute’ to describe my atheism and, to my dismay, it has alarmed more than a few people who like to accuse me of being ‘strident’ and ‘fundamentally atheist’ – even ‘obtuse’, though I’m certain that the person who used that terminology had just come away from watching The Shawshank Redemption. Professor, it is my pleasure to take a leaf out of your book every time these accusations are leveled at me – I remember fondly the night you were on the Australian television program Q&A alongside politicians, an Australian of the Year and a female rabbi, and upon being described as ‘outspoken’ you declared “Why am I the only one that’s outspoken?”
I am proudly outspoken, proudly strident, proudly obtuse – Any opportunity I get to have an intellectual discussion is taken with the delight one usually reserves for that piece of cake you’ve been dying to eat all day. The God Delusion, as well as The Greatest Show on Earth, have become important resources not just in conversational opportunities but in day-to-day life as well, as I struggle to stuff information and facts in to my mind which is, after all, sadly limited in terms of capacity. For that alone, Professor, you have my thanks and my respect, and should I ever have the opportunity to meet you one day then I shall surely give you that piece of cake I am so looking forward to.
My particular point of contention with religion (I believe we all have one, maybe two core disputes with this defunct institution) is similar to the gripe you expressed in The God Delusion – that of the virus of faith infecting our children. While having no children myself (the bachelor life is still good at twenty-five years of age) I was immediately outraged by what I read in your delightful prose. It caused me to remember a situation that had taken place some years before. As part of my high-school education, I did work experience and I am glad to say that my work experience was in a primary school, where I was allowed to take over English classes for two weeks with a delightful class of grade five and six children. Earlier this year I made a video and posted it on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij2fe-_7gzc ) in which I explain what occurred in the class during one of those two weeks, but I shall briefly explain in this email as well (for those on the Converts Corner that, should this email get published, do not wish to watch the video).
A chaplain from ACCESS Ministries, an evangelical ‘education’ ministry who’s activities in public secular schools are funded by the Victorian state government, came to the class and started to proselytize to the class. Three students were told by the chaplain, rather gruffly, to “Get out of the classroom” and, despite being a (not very good) Christian at the time, I felt compelled to follow these students out the door and chat to them. They were not fussed about this treatment – it was normal – and to add insult to injury the children, each one intelligent and inquisitive, informed me that they weren’t allowed to study or work on classwork while they were out of the classroom during religious education. They had ‘free time’ – an opportunity I’m sure you’ll agree was too good to pass up. We walked around the school grounds examining insects and trees and generally shared unrestrained joy – and knowledge, on my part – about the natural world around us. I’m sure it was far more valuable time for those children than the religious education would have been!
I mentioned in the above paragraph that I was a (not very good) Christian, and I guess now is as good a time as any to start at the start. I was raised Christian by my father and mother, a decision influenced by my grandfather and grandmother (both now deceased). The oldest of four children, I frequently tormented my younger sisters while we sat in the pews of the very same Baptist church that I showed in the video I have linked for you, and then retired to Sunday School where I generally tormented my sisters some more while striving to make sense of Noah’s Ark.
Since the age of four I was fascinated with dinosaurs – this is the most important aspect of my childhood in regards to this letter, because a fascination like this inevitably led me to discover things like evolution and time periods and dating methods and fossilization and all kinds of wonderful and exciting and brilliant things that piqued the interest of my young mind in the exact same way that religion failed to do so. My father never sought to press religion on me and neither did my mother – the strongest religious influences were my grandparents and even they did not enforce religion to an extent. The only condition to being a child in my family was that on most Sundays of the year we went to church. Far from despising this time in my life, I revere it and I am even thankful for the opportunity to go to church as a child, because I was able to question everything that was said, and frequently did so. There’s nothing like being eight years old and realising you can make the Sunday school ‘teacher’ cringe when you mention dinosaurs.
When I was nine my grandfather passed away and when I was ten my parents separated and I moved interstate with my father to sunny Queensland, along with his new girlfriend. His new girlfriend and I did not get along at all well, and so it was inevitable that disaster would strike. I had a loud and raucous argument with this girlfriend (out of respect for her family I shall not mention her name) which resulted in an ultimatum from 11-year-old son to respected father – She goes, or I go. The girlfriend left.
The next day she was found at the bottom of a cliff.
I spent years blaming myself for this tragedy, and eventually turned to religion to alleviate my guilt. I did not become ‘born again’, but I did start attending church more regularly and started to believe that, yes, there was something out there that could forgive me, and that being was God. I moved back to Victoria at 12 and lived with my mother for a couple of years while my father stayed in Queensland. It was during this time that I learned, through my mother, that my father had in fact abused her sexually, mentally and physically throughout their entire ten-year marriage, which was of course the catalyst for Mum throwing my father out of the house.
This only made me pray. I did not trust my father anymore, and I asked this God fellow to give me the strength to love him again, to forgive him – all the while seeking the means by which to forgive myself for my father’s girlfriend’s death.
The danger signs are all there, folks. I’m sure you’re reading them as well as I didn’t.
After a couple of years of living with my mother, my father decided to move back to Victoria and settled in Melbourne, and I went to live with him again. There we eventually moved in with a man named Barry Waters, a man in his early fourties who loved a beer and loved his porn. He was also a man of God, a born-again, and it was in this time that my father took a similar outlook on life. Thankfully, I never succumbed! I stuck with moderate religion and thought that perfect for my purposes.
On April 5, 2001, Barry Waters was reported missing by my father, and a few weeks later the missing persons investigation was put on ice, with suspected mishap being the reason. A few more weeks passed, and I was hurriedly rushed back to my Mum’s house with all my belongings in the early morning. My father, having seen me safely dropped off, then went missing himself, turning up sometime later in a police station under suspicion of withdrawing funds from the account of a man reported missing. Stupidly, he had used an ATM, and he had been photographed in the act.
The police came to talk to me and I gave a statement detailing the wallet I had found in the glovebox of my father’s Toyota Landcruiser (not my father’s wallet, surprisingly) and the bullet I had found, still live, in the pocket of my father’s jeans as I was pulling them out of the washing machine. I had the bullet with me, having kept it due to growing suspicion. It was the same size caliber bullet my father would have used in his three rifles. Of course I handed this bullet over to police.
Months later, my faith in my father shattered, and my faith in my God wavering to the point of collapse, we received a phone call. Barry Water’s body had been found. My father was being formally charged with murder. Both of my fathers had failed me, abandoned my trust and my love and my faith, and for that I deserted them both utterly. I became an atheist almost overnight.
My father was tried and found guilty. He is now under investigation for the death of his girlfriend in Queensland as well, the result of a television investigation that I was part of, which covered evidence Queensland police had not thoroughly explored before describing the death as a suicide. I need not go in to the gritty details.
Meanwhile, I would do my work experience and witness firsthand, with a young adults eyes, the treatment of school children in secular schools under the auspices of religious education, and I would solidify my atheism. And then, as a young man of 23, I would come across a white paperback book with a big red explosion of colour in the middle, with the bold Times New Roman text declaring the title “The GOD Delusion” by one Richard Dawkins. And I have been strident and shrill and outspoken ever since.
A word on the Converts Corner before I finish what I am sure is the gargantuan, the titan, the tyrannosaurus of long, pointlessly wordy emails.
It is such a pleasure to read the emails that flood in, to cry out in joy and weep in shared pain with my fellow converts. Amongst all the wonderful people and the myriad experiences, it give me the greatest pleasure to see so many young people, from all over the world, aged from as tender as twelve and as bold as eighteen, speak with such awe-inspiring clarity and crisp intelligence about their own experiences, their own thoughts and realisations. We are going to die, Professor Dawkins once said, and that makes us the lucky ones. Luckier still are the beneficiaries of your bravery, young atheists of the world. Every inquisitive, desperately lost young person that happens across your eloquent and poignant words and comes to the conclusion that they are not alone, that somewhere in the world are people that think the same way, feel the same way, love and care and adore the same way – every single one of those new freethinkers is one more person that inspires others, and just think. It all started with you.
Young freethinkers of the world, we are the New Atheism. It is we who must take the mantle of rationality and pass it around, allow others to try it on, share ideas and thoughts and discuss every single detail and every single possibility of these mind-seeds even as they take root. To us falls the task of progress – let us be the generation that strives to reason.
Respectfully yours, in wonder at the hope clearly displayed here;