Dear Prof. Dawkins,
When I was very young, my family became involved in a new-age personality cult, where people paid money to a “guru” to improve themselves spiritually. When I was very young (I don’t remember exactly, but maybe when I was in about 3rd grade), my parents sent me once a week to have a private session with this person (who is still in business and now has a website) and she would teach me meditation and give me readings about my past lives, among other things. There were also weekend retreats with her other students, usually around a dozen, including some families. The teachings were a hodgepodge: maps of consciousness, life colors, gestalt, transcendental meditation, the christ consciousness, tarot cards, siddha yoga, past lives, reincarnation, projection of mental energy and emotions, and basically anything that she could make sound good, which was just about anything, as, in retrospect, she was very skilled at spinning this stuff. I still have a large collection of crystals that I bought with my allowance from that time (they are pretty, after all). One of her techniques was to tear people down with criticism and abuse to keep them dependent on her “teaching.” I and my family were the target of this from time to time. This was horrible and traumatizing for me, as I trusted her implicitly. I remember sincerely wanting to fix whatever it was I had done wrong, though I was never sure what it was, as it often involved something about “negative vibrations.” From what I heard later she destroyed all of the families involved with her, including mine.
As the years passed, our family became less involved with her, as this kind of group was inherently unstable and enough people left that she needed to move to find new clients, and my family moved to follow her. For various reasons, my contact with her decreased and stopped completely by the time I left home for college. I began to talk about the whole experience with my mother, who had become skeptical (or had always been), and I slowly began to let go of the worldview that I had been taught as a child. This was a very difficult and painful experience for me, and looking back it took several years before I was able to recognize and expunge all of the bogus assumptions and instinctive reactions that this worldview had embedded in me. I still catch myself occasionally to this day. I saw this “guru” one more time a year after I graduated from college, and I was astonished by how transparent all the tricks of guilt and control she tried on me were, all with the aim of getting some money out of me (I had a good job) — she had lost her inheritance in the 2000 stock market crash.
Later that same year I moved to from California to Colorado for work, and soon found myself with all new friends who had a very different worldview from mine, who explained to me that I was “agnostic.” On one hiking trip I had a friend tell me that “the earth is 6,000 years old,” and that “scientists have shown that some biological systems, like blood clotting, are so complex that they could never have evolved.” “Have you read the bible?” “Well, no,” I replied, “I haven’t, but I did get my undergraduate degree in physics, so I’m pretty sure that the earth is more than 6,000 years old, and I did graduate work in bioinformatics, so I’m pretty sure evolution is true, but I don’t know anything about blood clotting.” Then I discovered one more thing I had been taught when I was a kid that I hadn’t realize was there: Christianity is bullshit. I felt terrible when I realized that, as at that point I was over 30 and had never read any of the bible – a fact that reflects poorly on public education in California, I can’t help but notice. I quickly started reading the bible they provided, with the suggestion that I concentrate on new testament. I wish I could say that I noticed that the discrepancies between the four gospels, or the many other issues that now jump out at me now that I am aware of them, but I didn’t. My thoughts after slogging through the thing were: How was any of this supposed to help me live a better life; all I see are a few fairly obvious rules of morality presented in the framework of guilt and control. I also have a good friend that is Mormon, so I read the entire Book of Mormon, and learned about Joseph Smith and about the history of his church, which is a fascinating piece of American history, and oddly familiar.
In the end I found myself not wondering how people could really believe it all; I had believed even stranger things when I was a child. But I did find myself feeling guilty that I couldn’t accept it, almost as if I had done something wrong, and they did their best to encourage this. But, in the end, after studying their doctrines and beliefs, I came to the realization that I don’t believe in mysticism, had never seen any evidence of it, and that I hadn’t believed since I was 18 years old. I had never realized that the Christian religions were based so solidly on the assumption of the existence of the mystical, and that many of the nice and friendly people I met during my investigations not only believed in the mystic, but in lots of other pseudo-science crap as well. How else could you think the earth is only 6,000 years old, for god’s sake?
Even after all of this I still felt guilty, as if maybe I had some unconscious motive for my decision, as my friends always implied. If you can’t believe in god, what is the point of it all? have can you live a moral life without god? — a question that did bother me greatly. I happened across a DVD copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which I had never seen, and it did help me greatly. I especially like his jibe during a discussion of stars that went something like this: “The universe is mostly hydrogen. Where did all the other elements come from? Perhaps a separate creation for each element?” But this wasn’t enough to satisfy me. Then last June I happened to order a copy of The God Delusion. I don’t remember how I came across it or even why I was looking, but I know I was feeling that there was something important out there to be learned that I was missing out on (an uncomfortable sensation of one’s own ignorance should be assiduously nurtured, I’m convinced). Prof. Dawkins said everything I was thinking and much more beyond that. His book was finally able to connect me intellectually with a worldview I can fully commit to, a worldview that I had learned about in college but had never realized how powerful it is. I no longer feel guilty for not being able to accept the mythological narratives of the past, or that I should be able to bear my testimony about absurd fairy tales.
Now 36, looking back on it all, and an entire shelf of books on my bookcase later, I feel like a fool for taking nearly 20 years to have the courage to realize who I am. I am an atheist. I never even realized it was an option.
Dave, Colorado, USA