Dear Dr Dawkins,
You taught my younger brother in the early 70’s at Oxford and he still remembers you striding into the lecture hall and asking ” Who does NOT believe in evolution ? ”
I studied physics and then did an D Phil in engineering, both at Oxford. So I guess you could call me ” well- educated”. I also consider myself a rational thinker.
I am now 62 and I have lived in Hong Kong for the past 30 years, selling high-tech vacuum equipment to China
I became a born-again Christian while at Oxford and very soon moved into the charismatic / free – church movement, where I remained until about 3 years ago when I became increasingly disillusioned with the narrow – mindedness of my Christian friends. That’s not to say that I did not respect their devotion, commitment, and above all their self- sacrificing life-styles, and so whatever the rights and wrongs of Christianity, at its best it produces some of the most “lovely” people alive today.
But at its worst it produces the horrors with which you and I are all too familiar.
I have read almost all your books on evolution and, as a scientist, I am as convinced in the correctness of evolution as I am about the laws of physics.
(BTW : Have you ever wondered at how brutal evolution – and indeed the whole world of nature – is? I often watch the Discovery Channel wild life films, and then realize that that highest aspiration of almost every living creature in the world is to be killed and eaten quickly by another animal so that death does not come slowly . If I was a loving God and wanted to create a paradise world I would certainly have made every animal – and humans – vegetarians !)
I have just finished reading The God Delusion for the 2nd time, and used the opportunity of a week in hospital to view as many of your videos on Youtube as possible. I must say that you have the patience of a saint to have controlled your temper with some of the interviewees, and it did not escape my notice that at least one particularly antagonistic “Christian” opponent went on to betray every moral standard he ever claimed he believed in ( as – it seems – have many evangelists whom I admired in my younger and more naïve days) .
What struck me most about the videos was the huge chasm between what you were saying as a perfectly rational person, regardless of your atheistic position, and the total closed-mind attitude of most of the interviewees . It’s as if you and the interviewee were speaking different languages – or even living in different worlds. But to any rational person, regardless of what faith or religious beliefs, it came across loud and clear that you were the one living in the real world .
Probably, if you had met me 30 years ago I would have been as closed-minded as they were – but I hope not as rude.
So what has changed? Why have I changed?
It’s not because I believe in evolution and the geological history of the earth, because I see no reason why a Christian ( nor any religious person) need deny evolution and geology just because it conflicts with his/her personal belief in God as the ultimate creator .
I think the answer is that I have come to realize how narrow-minded we all are unless we base what we believe on scientific facts. Those who believe in God all have their own very narrow, personal view of what ” God” ( and for Christians : what Jesus) means to them in the precise details. And they do not hesitate to dismiss others who disagree in even the smallest detail.
I have a good Christian friend, Jack, who, a few years had joined another good Christian friend, John, in setting up a new free church in Hong Kong : new Church, new vision, new revelation, new movement ! Never mind that the new Church was a break-away from another free Church which was a break-away from a free Baptist Church, which was a break-away from the official Baptist Union in Hong Kong, the Baptist Union being a breakaway from……. whatever in the distant part, being a break-away from the C of E, which is itself a break-away from the Catholic Church . Jack and John eventually parted company ( “fellowship” ) . Jack is now a part-time pastor in a Pentecostal sub-denomination Church, while John left his job to become a full-time pastor in the successor of the free Church he helped found, which – predictably – is now spending a small fortune on its own Church building. I recently bumped into Jack, and he asked how John is these days. I thought they kept in close contact as good friends, even though theologically / fellowship -wise they have split up, but apparently not, because Jack told me he considers John has “lost the vision / gone off the rails ” etc.
Most people in the Protestant Church and certainly everyone in the free church movement think that a lot of what the Catholics do and believe is as silly as the tooth fairy ( e.g. making John-Paul 2 a saint after all the child abuse scandals he authorized Ratzinger to cover up ?!) . But the RCs are considered fair game to the Protestants. However, when two formerly such close Christian friends can part company over whatever minor theological differences they have, then something is seriously wrong. Because both Jack and John are two of the most rational, good-natured, non-extremist and “lovely” people as you could ever hope to meet .
This really shocked me, and has become one more step in my break with my Christian past, which started in a totally different way
This is the main purpose of this letter, and hoping that you have read this far : my break with my Christian past came about because I set myself on a quest for the historical Jesus.
It turned out I did not have to look very far for modern research on this topic, and struck gold when I stumbled on “The Jesus Dynasty” by Dr. James Tabor. I have read this book several times, and although Tabor at some times goes off into conjecture (e.g. who were the real parents of Jesus), the limitations of which conjectures he openly admits and qualifies accordingly as pure conjecture, the whole book has the “ring of truth”. It was researched and written by an open-minded and honest academic who wanted – and still does want – only to know the historical facts, whatever they may say. Here is a man who has spent more days in his life on the ground of Israel researching the archeology of the Bible, in particular the time of Jesus, than the average devout Christian has spent hours reading the Bible in his life. As I read his book, and many other books about the early Church, in particular its totally Jewish origins which the whole established Church prefers to forget, I began to understand how “Christianity” as we understand it today has become so far divorced from what Jesus actually said and intended, for which it seems we should blame Paul. And if that’s really the case, then the whole concept of ” Jesus as the Son of God” is completely flawed, and with that goes the whole notion of God – at least in the Christian sense as I understood God and Jesus in the past.
I do strongly recommend ” The Jesus Dynasty ” to everyone in the Converts Corner, and to you Dr Dawkins if you have not yet read it . But I warn you not to expect devout Christians to agree with you if you quote Tabor and other similar authors to them . Genuine archeological and literary research into the origins of Christianity have no place in the mind of someone whose whole basis of theology is just “faith”
My younger brother, who remains a strong evangelical Christian, has no hesitation in condemning the Catholic Church as the 666 beast and whore of Revelation ( and even with an archaic proof of the 666 connection based on some number/ lettering system ). But when I point out that the whole doctrinal basis for the reformed / protestant church movement from Luther onwards is based primarily on the personal revelations and visions of Paul, who never met Jesus, did not even bother to consult with the Apostles of the mother church in Jerusalem until several years after his conversion, and who claimed to have his “own gospel direct from God and Jesus “, he cannot see that Paul in his day was probably as way out as Joseph Smith was in his day . And if something as crazy as the mormon church can gain credibility in a hundred odd years of the modern age, how easy it was for the original Catholic Church to become established within 300 years as “the” Church against all the other early versions of the Church, including the original Jewish mother Church.
Another book which helped nail the coffin of my belief is ” The Jesus Family Tomb ” by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino . This book is as controversial as its title suggests, and the Discovery Channel film based on the book was banned in the UK because the topic was just too hot ( even though the same evidence had earlier been discovered by the BBC, though not in such detail). But as a scientist, I must say that this book also has the “ring of truth” . This is another book I recommend for its pure honesty and search for facts, wherever they lead. I am astonished that this book has not caused more controversy, which I can only explain by assuming that every Christian in the world prefers to brush the book and its conclusions under the table, while to every atheist it’s no big surprise to find out that Jesus was in fact buried just as was any normal person, and so of course there was no resurrection and ascension.
And the fact that there was no resurrection and ascension explains the weird and fuzzy way in which all the gospels end, which I had never dared to face up to before .( In fact the earliest versions of Mark’s gospel do not even have a resurrection story !)
Why am I writing at length about the historical Jesus? I think because the main residual anchor of religion in my very human and emotional mind is the person of Jesus. Unless one has gone through the born-again Christian phase it’s probably very hard to understand how strong this anchor is . If there was just a choice between Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and the Jewish faith it would be easy to reject them all. But culture and society admittedly does have a big influence, and I was brought up in a very loving Christian family, although without having Christianity stuffed down my throat. Then at Oxford I was “born again” and saw with new eyes the persona of Jesus as ” the ultimate” person – everything good in the world encapsulated in one God-like person. From that it’s just a short step to accept Jesus as the Son of God and with that the whole Pauline theology of redemption. When that happens, out goes the established church, arm-chair Christians, and all the trappings of the typical western – C of E “Christian / cultural” lifestyle ( and especially the Roman Catholic Church and it’s weird beliefs and sordid history) . In comes the person of JESUS, which certainly does a have a lot of appeal.
But the whole Jesus theology stands or falls on his death and resurrection. Without that it’s a castle built on sand
So by searching for the historical Jesus, and then finding that the castle is indeed built on sand, I can logically and rationally cut the last emotional strings I have to my previous “Christian” faith. I believe Jesus certainly existed, and that many of the teachings in the gospel record his actual teachings. I believe he was crucified. But I no longer believe he was resurrected from total death ( revived from a deep coma, perhaps, but not raised from the dead ) . The custom of secondary burial at the time of Jesus goes a long way to explaining why his body was missing from the temporary tomb, as is explained in the “Jesus Family Tomb”, but to go more into that here would be to digress.
My main point is that if one rejects the resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent interpretation of his life, death and “resurrection” by Paul, and then goes back to read what Jesus actually said as recorded in the gospels, it actually makes a lot more sense. I always felt very guilty when non Christians challenged me to show where Jesus claims to be God or the Son of God, because you have to search very hard to find any verses in which Jesus says that without a lot of twisting. On the other hand, what Jesus taught and did makes much more sense if one sees him to be what I now believe he saw himself to be : the Messiah in the strictly Judaic sense of a worldly savior who would throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom of David – “Hosanna to the Son of David” – and that he thought that by allowing himself to be crucified God would somehow do this through his personal sacrifice ( In fact, as history attests, just the opposite happened with the complete destruction of Jerusalem 40 years later and the ejection of the Jews from Israel)
Thus my quest for the historical Jesus was finally the critical last step for me
Incidentally, there is now an enormous amount of modern archeological research into the historical Jesus. The books I mentioned are just two of many. I am not talking of Dan Brown/ Da Vinci Code fictional rubbish . Rather, I am talking about very solid archeological evidence and scientific research, which is now revealing facts which in some respects are even stranger than fiction .
Dr Dawkins, you once were asked what would convince you of a possible flaw in the theory of evolution, and you said that the only thing would be to find fossils of a modern species in older strata than more ancient species. But that in fact that has never been the case, and indeed as more and more fossils are unearthed we are finding more and more missing links, every one it its correct strata.
Similarly, if one accepts the historical reality of Jesus but does not accept his resurrection, and one also understands that the early Church was a time of great confusion and diverse theological interpretations, especially the chasm between the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem and the gentile congregations founded by Paul, one would expect to find exactly what we are finding now : multiple alternative gospels, some of which give a completely different slant on what Jesus did and said, contemporary documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls which cast the new testament times in a completely different light, and even provenanced ossuaries with the names of Jesus and his close family members, indicating that finally he was buried like any other man.
And as to why we have now have just one ” standard” version of Jesus and the ” gospel” ( as per the Nicean creed) a would simply quote what Barrie Wilson writes in his excellent book ” How Jesus Became Christian” : The winners get to write history .
I hope this letter has been helpful. Thank you Dr Dawkins for your totally sincerity and honesty.
In everything you have written and said, I also see the “ring of truth” and a willingness to face facts and base your beliefs purely on the facts.
If your critics accuse you of being “militantly” atheist I would only say that your militant-ism is but a fraction – and a good deal more generous and kind-hearted – than any evangelistic Christian’s attitude towards non-believers, not to mention the attitude of many extreme Muslims and those extremists of other faiths.
And if one day an explorer satellite to the sun bumped into an orbiting teapot I am sure you – as would I – change your views accordingly. But as we both are certain, that will never happen (unless the teapot turns out to be an alien spacecraft secretly monitoring our solar system !) In the meantime, there are millions of items of evidence here on earth on which to base our beliefs, whether regarding evolution or religion
So am I now an atheist? I am not 100% sure, but I am 99% sure . Certainly I no longer hold to the passionate evangelical Christian faith of my Oxford days, and I feel I am actually becoming a better and more compassionate person because I have dropped my extremist religious beliefs of the past.
Very best wishes
Peter D Bentley ( Dr)
PS : May I please take the opportunity to use this letter to contact any like-minded people in Hong Kong? My email is firstname.lastname@example.org if it is permitted to publish this along with my letter