Dear Professor Dawkins,
Like many people in the UK, I was raised as a christian; C of E specifically. I went to a faith school because it was the best state school in the area, and my mother backed up much of what they taught me at home – although, looking back now, I realise that my father was never really sold on the whole idea. I love and respect my parents very much, but looking back I’m astonished that they allowed my head to be filled with such abusive rubbish. I was a very imaginative child and to me the idea of hell was very vivid and very literal; like many young children, I suspect, it simply wasn’t in my makeup to think that adults would lie to me, so I believed implicitly in the literal truth of the nativity, the great flood, genesis etc etc.
For me the turning point was in year five of primary school – age nine to ten – when we studied a module on the hindu faith. This was literally my first inkling that there was any other school of thought out there than christianity, and there was such an air of smug superiority in the way our teachers taught us about this alternative faith – they were quite open in telling us that we, of course, knew the truth because we were educated, but we had to accept that these people believed in their primitive gods because they didn’t know any better (by the way, I am not old and this is not an account of a “different era” – this was 1993/94!). As any reasonable person would, I wondered for the first time why what I “knew” to be true was inherently any better or more true than what someone else “knew” to be true – and that was the beginning of the end for my faith.
It was not a quick or an easy process, and I spent months praying frantically for god to see my internal agony and prove himself to me. I hated thinking that my teachers – and even my mum – were lying to me, and from my perspective it seemed that what I had been taught was not any less true because I was struggling to believe it; it was me that was lacking, my faith that wasn’t enough, me that was upsetting and angering god by being unable to switch off my brain and look past the simple, common sense errors in christianity. It’s difficult to explain now, but even as I was learning to doubt my faith I was petrified of going to hell for doing so and I felt my own thoughts had turned traitor against me. I remember asking the school vicar what I could do to regain my faith, and he told me very callously that if I didn’t want to be separated forever from my parents and my siblings and cast into hell that I simply MUST believe… that answer remains to this day the most terrifying childhood experience I can remember, and I struggle to comprehend what could make an adult say such a thing to a scared ten-year-old. When I got home I begged my dad – who didn’t go to church except for school events – to swear that he believed in god and that he’d help me to get my faith back so we could all stay together (I’m close to tears just remembering this). As you can imagine, he was livid with the vicar and went to see him; the result was that I was called into a meeting the next week at school with my head teacher, the vicar and my form tutor and told that I shouldn’t make people question their faith because I was risking their souls as well as my own. I never told my dad about this meeting because I was already in an agony of fear that I might have condemned him to hell.
Anyway, not long after this I moved to a secular secondary school in a far more culturally-diverse area, and without the daily threats and rituals christianity finally lost its hold over me. For many years I remained agnostic; I knew that no one belief made any more sense than another, but I couldn’t rule out the existence of a god altogether. I don’t know exactly when I shifted from agnosticism to atheism, and I suspect that for many years after belief in a deity was altogether gone I would have said – if pressed – that I didn’t know either way. I was far too anxious to keep everybody happy and avoid ruffling feathers, essentially.
This attitude that everyone is entitled to their beliefs began to change after the London 7/7 bombings. My father (who, incidentally, also had two incredibly lucky escapes from the IRA bombings in the 70s) and many of my friends were in the city that day, and along with most of the people in the UK, probably, I had a few very anxious hours when the phone networks were jammed and it seemed like every five minutes there was news of more death and bloodshed. The next day, of course, it was all over the news and – now the event itself was over – people from all over the world were shoving and elbowing to get their condemnation of the violence on the air and on the record. As you would expect, these included several prominent muslims, both from the UK and from overseas, anxious to condemn the actions of these “fundamentalists” and “extremists” and to urge us not to judge the whole of islam by its militant minority. This seemed reasonable on the surface of it, but I couldn’t help wondering where these “moderate” muslims thought the extremists had learned the dogma that led them to commit terrorist acts and mass-murder. Did they think fundamentalists sprung out of nowhere, that nobody was to blame for their beliefs?
With this new conundrum niggling away in my head the world started to look different. So much of what’s wrong with the world can be directly attributed to religious belief; to this day, I don’t know whether people commit these horrendous acts out of genuine belief, or if religion is just a convenient excuse – and frankly, I don’t know which alternative is scarier. Religion seems to be the only “justification” that is considered reasonable for acts of violence and murder – on what other grounds would Scott Roeder have been allowed to plead manslaughter after shooting a doctor in a premeditated and cold-blooded attack? For what other reason would Joe Rat be allowed to tell the world’s most vulnerable people that they are not allowed to protect themselves from disease? On what other grounds could a group advocating violence against women, the destruction of Western civilisation and the abolition of free speech demand special privileges from the EU… and be taken seriously?!
At any rate, while this was all going on in my head The God Delusion was published and I read it on holiday. I was already an atheist in practical terms, but this book helped me to appreciate that it IS possible to state, based on the facts, that there is no god… and to crystalise the reasons that my having no dog in the religious fight doesn’t remove my right – even my obligation – to object to the fight itself. Only atheists can view religion from the outside and with objectivity, and that gives us the right to criticise a religion and its values in a way that adherents of another religion – who after all base their belief on no more solid grounds – cannot legitimately do. I am proud to be a part of this New Atheism (the result, I suspect, more of social networking than of increasing numbers) and take part daily in online conversations with theists all over the world.
I believe that atheism is now reaching a critical mass. I am hugely encouraged every day to see that I am far from the only atheist willing and even keen to be outspoken against religion. The two most important things we can do, in my opinion, are to make sure children receive a sound scientific education (of all the hundreds of people I’ve met who reject the theory of evolution, not a single one has properly understood it) and simply to be willing to stand up and criticise religion. Theism has had its own way for too many years now, and we need to break down this bizarre notion that religious belief – alone – is above criticism, above reproach, and somehow inherently worthy of respect no matter how contemptible its values and actions might be.
Professor Dawkins, you are an inspiration to me (although being told about once a week that I “worship” you, Christopher Hitchens and others as my prophets can get a bit wearing – no offense or anything) and I greatly admire your willingness to fight unreason against often staggering odds.