Dear Mr. Dawkins,
I am currently reading The God Delusion and was curious whether or not you have heard of Young Life? Since I haven't seen it mentioned in the book (at least up to this point) I would like to share with you my experience with it.
First, I'd like to tell you about myself. I became an atheist when I was fourteen years old. I was fortunately raised by a family that advocated free thought, although my parents were Episcopalian (I should mention that my fortune might be a result of my father's upbringing by a religious fundamentalist who has recently sent me a letter warning that the rapture was imminent and I should start getting my bags packed). I remember my journey towards atheism: I thought about the stories I used to make up when I was younger, I thought about how ancient people might view the Sun as a giver of life and therefore a god whom we should worship, and how people might seek security from a 'Father.' I was curious as to why in the hell God just did not let everyone know that he existed if in fact he did. I eventually found myself unable to employ supernaturalism into my world view. As an ignorant young mind, I also had no trouble conceptualizing evolution as an explanation for the origin of species (though, admittedly I did not know anything about the mechanisms of evolution until later on; I had seen how environmental pressures change animal behavior and the appearance of material things, so it was not much of a stretch to imagine that life forms changed overtime due to environmental circumstances).
Later in my high school years I met a girl, Margaret, and we started dating. She had been brought up Catholic and, unfortunately, the meat of our relationship was an ongoing discussion of morality and the nature of God (I've come to find out that her parents hated me because I was an atheist and thus discouraged our relationship). She was unsure with her beliefs but she struggled to maintain her faith against reason and the evidence. I was open minded to explore the existence of God and so she introduced me to this program aimed at promoting Christianity to young teens, Young Life.
Young Life was much different than some of the “in your face” young Christian programs described in your book. Every Monday, two Young Life leaders (who were in their twenties) would invite several high schoolers over to a house to “hang out.” They would tell jokes, play out humorous skits and games, and sing songs. None of those activities were Christian oriented; it was all normal fun. The night would end with the song sequence. At first we'd sing popular culture songs, but the last three would be contemporary Christian songs. After the singing session, one member of this particular Young Life group would sharetheir personal experience with God. I thought it was interesting and I was also having fun. Rather than being a forceful religious event, Young Life just provided a place for teenagers to meet and have fun on a Monday night.
The head leader of our Young Life group was Scott. The first time I met him was at a high school football game where he was clearly recruiting people into his religious group. He was just going around meeting kids, talking, and cracking jokes. He was just a 'cool and hip' guy that totally related to us high schoolers. After he found out that I was an atheist (I had no hesitation letting anyone know), it became his mission to covert me. I did not care; rather, I thought 'why not? Maybe I am wrong, I shouldn't discard his opinions.' He invited me over to his house once to have a discussion. He explained that he found God when he was at Young Life camp. At the end of camp he realized that the reason why he was having so much fun and that he was so happy was because God loved him. I was literally floored when I heard this. In response, I asked him, 'Well, don't you think that perhaps your sudden realization of Christianity might be attributed to the intentions of the camp' He said no, that was not the case. So, I asked, 'well, what if that camp was a Muslim camp, or perhaps you were raised in a Muslim nation, don't you think that maybe you would have found Allah?' He said no, he believes that if he had been raised in a Muslim nation he still would have found Christianity. He did not even pass a thought on the idea that his cultural and social surroundings might affect his beliefs. I asked him if I could speak at the end of a Monday night session where I would promote faith and a belief in God. Naturally, he rejected my proposal; I simply wanted to test my ability to engage theism as an atheist, something that theists clearly cannot do.
Scott found God at camp, so I decided I wanted to experience the camp. It was a fabulous place: it had a rock wall, hiking trails, a lake, and all sorts of fun activities. The campers could do anything they wanted, which included a place to smoke cigarettes despite being underage. The buildings and sleeping quarters were first class and the food was prepared by gourmet chefs. Every night hundreds of excited teenagers would wait outside an auditorium for its doors to open. Suddenly, the doors would swing open and everyone would run towards a stage where a rock band would playing a popular song. After the band was finished, there would be a few humorous skits and then a guest speaker would enter. The speaker would tell a few stories before suddenly condemning us for not accepting God. He said something to the like of 'look at how much fun you are having here. It is only because of God that you are happy right now. Yet, you still smoke pot, drink alcohol, and have sex to find pleasure in life. If you do anything for pleasure that does not involve having a relationship of God, then you do not know God and you will not reap the benefits of his love.' On the last night after he dished out another guilt trip to suck up the vulnerable, he told everyone to leave and find a place to reflect on their relationship with God. When we returned he asked the audience who had converted that night. About thirty people stood up, tears streaming down their faces, and 'accepted' God into their lives. I see how Scott found God.
I wanted to tell you about this group because I find it almost more dangerous than some of the other fundamentalist religious groups. These people lure in vulnerable high school students looking for a reason to get out of their house on a Monday night, show them a good time, and then credit that good time to Christianity. It is frightening to me because the group has a massive following and it is based in the fundamentalist movement in America. Every person I know that is my age (22) has either been deeply involved, attended, or at least heard of Young Life. I failed to mention earlier in this letter that the meetings would take place in the homes of Young Life participants.
I used to believe that religion was right for some people. After reading your book, particularly the part about 'moderate religious faith,' I can see how faith can be catastrophic to the mind and society. I watched a show recently on television called 'Answers in Genesis' which distorts the theory of evolution and promotes Young Earth creationism. The television host was teaching a class and portrayed as shattering evolution theory. He condemned secular schools and calmly called for a reformation of the education system. Another show I watched presented an exaggerated and fabricated history of the United States where the founding of the Nation was called for by the Christian God. The problem is that people actually believe this, and as an atheist I am becoming frightened.
I hope you have received this letter. I wanted to share with you my experience as an atheist in the fundamentalist Christian movement, perhaps just for the sake of interest or for general knowledge.