Dear Prof. Dawkins,
My first encounter with The God Delusion was about 4 years ago in college. For a small class of around 10 students our professor read out excerpts from the God Delusion encouraging us to read it. At the time I was a pseudo-agnostic; I say pseudo because even though I prided myself on being rational and open-minded and took part in discussions and debates on controversial topics such as religion, in my mind I felt the need to believe that there is a higher being. Hence, when I heard the excerpts that my professor was reading out, which at the time were pin-pricks to my ears, I felt what can only be termed as ridicule. Ridicule for my beliefs. I also felt a touch alienated since this professor is someone I look upto. After that episode and a rather disturbed sleep later that night, I convinced myself that whatever I heard in class was just an academic point of view by one person and I should respect that person’s right to free speech. I left it at that.
A little background here before I talk about my next encounter with atheism. I have been brought up in a Hindu family in Mumbai, India. As a child up I had quite a lot of exposure to religious practices. My grandmother was deeply religious and my mother’s religious beliefs too have only grown over the past 25 years. A certain kind of adherence to faith was always expected for e.g. joining the morning/evening prayers. Most of the family gatherings were on religious occasions. Prayers were offered before exams, long vacations, new jobs and so on. Everything good was always attributed to God’s blessings and more prayers were offered for it. Astrology was and still is treated as sacrosanct. Those dead are worshiped and large offerings are made to make sure they have a good after life and even rebirth.
The good thing is that all of this was exclusive to what I studied in school. Participation in academics and especially science was not only encouraged but also expected.
In high school I studied basics of the evolution of species in my biology class. It was just one or two chapters but it was enough to evoke anger in my science teacher, a devout Roman Catholic. She didn’t hesitate for even a second in telling us immediately after the class that we had to study evolution for our exams but we shouldn’t believe it and the earth is 6000 years old, was made in 6 days and that all fossils are put there by God.
In hindsight I am thankful to her and some other teachers because it is owing to episodes such as the one described above that I started questioning the nature of things. I would hear the Hindu world-view at home and the beliefs of some of my Catholic teachers in school. I found it impossible to reconcile the beliefs that these two religions held. Furthermore, none of the things that I would read in science books sided with either of those.
Religion would say that the Universe has always been there because God has intended it to be so but when I read about the Solar System and the 9 planets (8 now thanks to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson) I found it scary and difficult to believe that the Sun had a finite life and would one day engulf the earth. The more I read the more I realized that Religion had a rather prejudiced view of the universe one that we are somehow the center of all that was, is and ever will be. None of this though conflicted with my long held belief that a higher power was responsible for everything. ‘Maybe we have just not understood it in the right way’ is what I would tell myself. Astrology was another thing that confused me. As you might know, the Hindu astrologers base their so-called predictions on the birth time of a person while the Western Zodiac, which would be published in papers and vouched for by movie stars, is based on the birth date. As a result of this I have two Zodiac signs! As per my birth time I am a Saggitarius and as per my birth date a Cancerian! Of course if you put Ophiuchus in the equation I am a Gemini. No astrologer wants to entertain these conflicting possibilities sadly.
I started drifting more and more from religious practices. I would take part just to the extent of standing like a zombie during prayers and such. Of course, my questions were always met with disdain and some anger. I wasn’t supposed to question the origins of the Bhagvad Gita! Why not? Because you are simply not supposed to! It is the word of God and can’t be challenged. How about my two zodiac signs? Ignore the western zodiac we are Hindus. But there is a Hindu astrologer on TV talking about it. Ignore him, he just wants to make money by cheating people. But non-Hindus have a birth time too. There might be millions like me with two zodiacs and not aware of it. How does the western zodiac work for them then? Because they are not Hindus. So you are saying they just choose to believe something and it still works for them. Yes. Then why do you say I have to believe it? Why can’t I also just choose. All right go ahead and choose but don’t tell others what to do! Such was the nature of these conversations …
Gradually over a period of time I had assured myself of the mortal origins of religion. I still was a believer of course and my faith in that higher power was strong. That was until the episode that I mentioned at the start after which I assured myself that I would never ever read your book. After all, I was pretty rational, wasn’t I? I had reconciled my faith in God with my knowledge of science, right? Wrong.
Thanks to the aforementioned Professor and many other people like him I was introduced to the works of mathematicians like Cantor and scientists like Dr. Feynman. I became interested in astronomy and the writings of Carl Sagan whose words have had a profound effect on the way I think. The more I learned from people at the very cutting edge of their fields the more I was exposed to the scientific world view. I had slowly but surely put my religious demons to rest. This is the right time to acknowledge that your book was the nail in that coffin.
Dr. Dawkins, thanks to you I am no longer fearful of admitting that I am not a believer. I have also come to acknowledge that it doesn’t take an extraordinary effort to adopt the scientific world view; indeed it is the only view that matters because it deals with evidence and the truth. I recently had an argument with a cousin who took strong objection to my atheism. Her fear is that my new found world-view will lead me to be nihilistic. In response I mentioned to her what I have heard you say often – we have just one life and that makes it all the more important that we live it right.