Dear Converts Corner and Dr. Dawkins,
I grew up in a religious Christian family. It was never a question of whether or not ours was the right religion, or whether or not the Bible was fact, it just was. This was, at least, always the assumption. We would go to church on Sundays every week, and if we were late to church, we would have family church instead. My dad would pick out verses for us all to read and we would sing church songs and whatnot. We weren’t allowed to play any video games on Sundays, and we prayed before every meal as a family. When I was old enough I was encouraged to go to camps, and I went to a popular Winter camp called Forest Home for a number of years, all the way through high school.
In high school, I had my first doubts. I had an atheist friend. I wasn’t into evangelizing, but we were well aware of each others beliefs, and we would have discussions sometimes. I was probably hot headed and wouldn’t hear him out most of the time. In the end, I was wearing down. I didn’t fit in very well in the high school group at my parents’ church, despite my years of attendance (I had been there since 2nd grade at this point), and so I wasn’t getting much out of my church attendance. Since my family had instilled only the framework of strict Christianity, and was otherwise happy so long as I kept going to church on Sundays and bowing my head at family prayers, it wasn’t hard for my “faith” to begin eroding. When I was 15, I decided that I wanted to be agnostic (or something similar to that, anyway). I told my atheist friend that from then on, I wanted to view the world on my own terms and decide what I wanted to believe for myself. He congratulated me on my decision and encouraged it. That wasn’t it though. My folks had already signed me up to attend the upcoming Forest Home camp, and so I went, and was re-brainwashed. I came home and told my friend that I was wrong and had repented, that Jesus was lord, etc. etc. (Fail)
It was shortly after this that I made some new friends in an entirely separate area of my life, and was delighted to find that they were Christians. They all attended a small church a few towns over and swore by it. My parents were somewhat skeptical about letting me go to a church other than theirs, but in the end they let me go. The new friends picked me up and took me with them, and I loved the new place. Everyone was friendly, I thought that the “message” was powerful and true. In retrospect, it was a much more charismatic church and was much more compelling. I became involved there immediately, and would go on to teach the high school group (when I was 17 or 18), and also went on annual mission trips to Mexico for the better part of the next decade. I went to classes at the pastor’s house and other events that the church held, and was involved with all levels of all affairs of the place.
Around this time, a co-worker at my job at the time told me about the church she was going to. By now I was in college, and she was referring to a college-aged group on Sunday nights. It would be easy for me to attend both my regular church on Sunday mornings and the new one on Sunday nights. I checked it out, and found it to be to my liking. It was predictably more geared towards my age group, and was more engaging. I also had built up a stigma in my head against big churches, having attended a small one for so long, and found the “teaching” to be surprisingly profound at that time. At that age, I had passed a point where I felt that I had really come into my own as a Christian. I believed that I had previously only known the faith crammed into me by my parents, but NOW I had found my “true faith”, and in fact the “Truth” itself. No question in my mind God was there and he was Jesus, just questions of interpretations of scripture, which I believed and was taught was literal. I would have to call myself, at that time, a 1 on your scale of belief (1-7).
As I studied the Bible more, I found inconsistencies in policy between Scripture and the little church that had been my home for so long. I tried talking to people about this, the pastor even, but my questions were more or less shrugged off. A major altercation that took place on a mission trip brought the issue to a head, and I left that place and never went back. Not in bitterness, but in disagreement. I also cut ties (temporarily, as it would turn out later) with a couple of people that had been some of my best friends for several years because of this – I really really believed it to be the right thing to do. I had made some new friends at the bigger church, where I had become, again, heavily involved. I ran two Bible studies and attended several very large scale church trips. I evangelized on occasion (though was never really comfortable with it), and really really believed in all of it. The “literal truth” of scripture. I believed without a doubt that god was there and he was real, and that any protests anyone could come up with could be countered by him. If not by me, then by someone else, if not by someone else, by god.
So then I moved out of state for awhile and went to live/work in Arizona. I hated it almost the entire time. Among the things i did not like was the lack of a “good” church where I was. I had developed somewhat discriminating taste in churches (hilarious to think now, I may have well have had discriminating taste in McDonalds locations), and at the time I thought that this was a good thing. Based upon my experiences with other churches I had been to, especially the little one, I had figured that most churches were “doing it wrong”. I tried a few, the more local the better, but none of them really sat quite right with me. The best one, the one most comparable to where I had come from, was far away, over an hour drive, and other complications made it difficult to think of getting to this place every week. I went a few times, but never regularly. I had kept my beliefs though, the whole time. Eventually, because I disliked it so and because of financial hardship, I moved back home.
I had to work a lot more hours at lower wages to keep my income up high enough to pay off debts (aforementioned financial hardship), and so it was difficult to get back into my old routine. I went back to my old church a few times, but ultimately couldn’t do it every week. Now, for some reality:
I got re-enrolled in school (I had stopped going for awhile, including the entire time I was out of state) and was taking courses again. One of the classes that I enrolled in was biological anthropology, with one of the greatest professors I have ever had. Of course, the keystone of biological anthropology is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. When this discussion began, I was a little bit apprehensive. My family never talked about evolution. My church never (as far as I can remember) outright told me it was false. I knew that the idea was, however, hostile to the world I had grown up in. This wasn’t just something I decided, it was the general feeling on things. If not outright forbidden, evolution was at least taboo. But alas, here I was in this class, with a relatively open mind (soon to become fully open) and a renewed fervor for my education. As the class went on, and we learned more and more about our ancestors, and about nature, I was fascinated. Nothing I had ever learned in school had drawn my attention so. I had always loved nature, but it was never too high on my priority list, but slowly, nature began to replace god in my life. The more I learned about how things worked, the less necessary god seemed to become.
Additionally, during this time, I read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. What this book did was to make me gasp a few times at the audacity of the author. I mean, in the third book, they kill the Metatron, they show god to be a feeble old man, aged to mindlessness, who is happy to be released from the prison of his own existence. Azriel is set against “The Authority” himself. Some of these things send shivers down my spine and, literally, made me gasp. It’s like the shifting of god away from my priorities was a gap, and reading these books just helped to widen it. But they are, of course, childrens’ books. Later on, I decided “why the hell not” and picked up “The Greatest Show on Earth”, now one of my favorite books.
Shortly after I finished “Greatest Show”, I figured I would take another step and pick up “The God Delusion”, which seemed to articulate the swirling pool of ideas and thoughts that had begun to occupy my psyche progressively more each day. Over time I came to realize that I really didn’t believe in it. It just didn’t make any sense. As I have continued to study, this has continued to crystallize in my mind, and now I have no doubts whatsoever. It’s been about two and a half years since I decided, and about 2 years since I came out to my friends (the ones I still hang out with, anyway).
In practically every way, life has never been better. I have a wonderful girlfriend, great friends who share my ideals, and I am pursuing a BS in ecology and evolution (basically evolutionary biology). I was never as happy being religious as I have been since I left, and as you have read, that’s not why I left. In the end, I think I am happier because I am free, and I am free because I left.
My family does not know, and really can not. As you may remember from earlier, I moved back home from out of state because of financial hardship, and then I re-enrolled in school. Still at home, still in school, and I truly don’t believe that they could possibly handle the revelation that not only am I not like them anymore, but I think they are taking stern orders from a non-existent invisible sky man. They know I am not going to church, and that I don’t talk about it with them. My dad will bring up something along the lines of “I sure with you’d get back to church. It’s not good to be away for long…” but I don’t think he is prepared to full-on ask me – possibly because he is afraid of what I might tell him. My mom is not as big on pressuring me, but I know she would be devastated if she found out. I have brothers, and they might have an inkling, but they aren’t likely to make a fuss about it or rat me out. Long story short, I live a double life. I find that living at home is increasingly unpleasant, but I can’t quite afford to get out yet. I spend as little time as possible there and as little time as possible interacting with members of my family (mostly my dad). So that’s the only bad news, I suppose.
There you have it, my long-winded story. It may be that the foundations for a life of science and reason had already been laid by the time I began to read your books, but they were very likely the solidifying factors that helped make me the enlightened man that I am today. Thank you so very much for your fervor, your dedication, and your fine work. You make the world a better place every day so long as your books are on the shelves and in cyberspace.