First I want to apologize for the length of this letter – it strays over various points of my life, but as anyone who has read a good novel knows, many subplots often converge to a single climactic event.
A couple months ago, I finished reading The God Delusion, which I found in an airport bookstore. I remembered that a co-worker had mentioned it, who had high praise for the author, so I picked it up. Reading a single paragraph hooked me and I bought it immediately. I flew right through it, your writing style was amazingly rich, captivating, and humorous, nothing like the dry read I would have expected on the topic of religion.
When I got to the part where you mention Douglas Adams as possibly your only convert, I was determined to send you a personal letter informing that this is untrue. Although I have to say that Carl Sagan opened my mind to the possibility of evolution/origin of life, and planted the seeds of doubt of God's existence, you helped me to the path of atheism and immensely deepened my understanding of evolution.
I was raised by Jehovah's Witnesses. I can't say that I have ever truly considered myself one of them, I had never committed myself to God through baptism, as I found a lot of their reasoning faulty and some of their practises questionable… none of their explanations felt very deep. Especially refusal to undergo blood transfusions because of a scripture that commands to abstain from blood. They take it to the extreme and refuse any sort of foreign blood entering their body, not just through transfusions, but also through animal by-products in food, improperly draining an animal of blood, and some even refuse to suck their finger if they cut themselves. I had seen this as absurd even as a child, as the scripture had given no specifics. It seemed to make more sense that this advised to bleed animals thoroughly for hygienic purposes, or protect against diseases or something along those lines. Refusing to take blood which could save your life over a couple short scriptures seemed baffling. I had asked many questions about this, along with other logical questions such as, “If animals were friendly with each other and people in the Garden of Eden, why do they have sharp teeth and claws? How can it prophesy that the wolf will eat straw like the ox if they are made to eat meat?” “If in the Paradise people will never die, what happens when they have too many people without death to keep a balanced population? Will people stop having babies? And what happens when they fall of a cliff? And if there will be no pain, what happens if they trip and fall? Will they speed-heal if they cut themselves?” Lots of questions all glazed over with “We don't really know… but God must know what he's doing.” This didn't make much sense to me, but they said it was so, and their training to accept the Bible as knowing better regretfully won over.
Over the years I witnessed a lot of hypocrisy among the members of my congregation, many giving a front of morality, but seeming to not care when you got to know them more fully. I didn't lose my faith over the core beliefs, but following the scripture of “Bad associations spoil useful habits” I thought it would be wisest to distance myself from the congregation – or maybe that was my excuse for leaving, not wanting to admit to my deeper doubts of the religion itself. They came to the surface though, and I strayed from the religion of my family over several years of inventive excuses as to why I couldn't attend their tri-weekly congregational meetings. Eventually they stopped trying. They still thought that I believed in God and the religion, but was just going through an exploratory phase and would eventually come back when I saw how terrible the alternatives were. I thought that they might get the hint when I married a woman who was not a Jehovah's Witness (or any sort of Christian), which was completely against the religion. Maybe they thought that I would try to convert her.
Although I alienated myself from organized religion and came to the conclusion that even though the Bible seemed to be in error, I still believed that a “God” existed. I thought that the Bible may have began as truth, but became distorted over time though countless copying and translations, until the currently understood version of God is completely different from the original intention. It made sense to me that such an organized and finely tuned world and universe had to have been designed by an intelligent creator, whatever that deity may be, or at least designed the rules of the Universe which, when set in motion, would eventually result in what we see today, with a few helpful pushes along the way (strangely, I never thought of what that deity would be doing for all that time that he didn't have to intervene when it was doing everything basically on its own). It didn't make SENSE to me for the spark of life to just HAPPEN out of nowhere. I thought I understood the basic principles of evolution, because I had faithfully read the Jehovah's Witness publication “Life: How did it get here, by Evolution or Creation?” and I had never thought they would be deliberately feeding me misinformation. The usual creationist arguments against it stuck in my mind. I could see why others might believe it, but it still didn't convince me that it could happen on its own without outside encouragement. And looking at various species and their precise specializations seemed to be improbable to the extreme that they came about through random mutation. What confounded me the most was the spark of life. How could random molecules just happen to fall together in the precise order necessary. All the necessary ingredients of the primordial soup present, it still didn't make sense for it to just by accident come together to form the beauty and immense complexity of even the simplest cell – how could all of that just HAPPEN? How did DNA manage to get a protective bubble around it and keep it? It sounded so ridiculous I found it baffling that anyone could stretch their credulity so far as to bet their careers on it.
And then I came across a Youtube clip of Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos', the well-known animation of the evolution of life. From the first five seconds, the animation and explanation of the molecules forming a shell suddenly opened my eyes. Carl Sagan will always have a fond place in my memory for convincing me of spontaneous generation in five seconds. My co-worker humorously pointed out that it is positively Messianic that Sagan was able to give a message of truth from beyond the grave.
Watching that video was the first moment I doubted the existence of God. If I could be so devastatingly wrong about the spark of life, I could also be wrong about the spark of the Universe. If life can originate completely on its own, perhaps God was not necessary to begin the Universe either! But still, the habit of nearly two decades of belief in God fought for survival. Religious upbringing is fiercely resilient. The idea of a God outside of our realm of understanding bringing the observable Universe into being still made basic sense to me, and the explanation of God being an eternal being not needing a beginning was deeply engraved in my mind, although the youthful ponderings of 'What did God do for the eternity before he created the Universe?' still visited occasionally to bring a smile. My faith did gradually weaken from the logical (he's nearly Vulcan in his extent of logic) help and encouragement of the co-worker I mentioned previously, until I tentatively settled on agnosticism in regards to God, and extended it to a life philosophy, of which the latter has been very helpful.
And then I come to the point where I found your book. Even though technically I was not fully converted since I was already on my way, your wonderful depth of detail and explanation brought me to see that I only held on to the belief in God, even the possibility in agnosticism, because it was a comforting thought. I derived no particular comfort from a loving God, it did not make a difference to me whether he cared, it didn't bother me if there was no afterlife. There was no personal comfort in that sense. The God I had once thought possibly existed was more indifferent, the result of humankind just a happy by-product of its creation. But I was just so used to the idea of a higher being, whatever that may be, that I still held a tenuous thread to the concept. I am deeply grateful for your kind, helpful manner in your book, actually presenting understandable reason to get your point across and helping me get past that ingrained tendency. I had never encountered such structured arguments before, so my understanding had never been fully fleshed out and I could not see its full validity. Most of the internet arguments I entered on evolution vs. creation were against people either giving incomplete information in their arguments, or just insulting me for believing in God. Thank you for taking the time and effort to bring light to so many topics that I did not previously grasp. Especially atheism – at the time I started to read the book, I thought myself agnostic. The term atheist had never seemed to fit me, from what I observed in others who used that term. So when I came to the seven point scale and counted myself as a six, I was shocked to suddenly realise that I WAS atheist and didn't even know it!
I was also delighted to no end reading your comments of the Jehovah's Witness publication, making me look back and see how truly feeble and ridiculous their “logical” arguments were. By the end of your book, I felt like a new person – free and open to a new world of learning. Since then I've sped right through some of your other books, and listened to any audio book I could find of you and Lalla reading them. I couldn't believe my luck at finding the audio book of you reading The Origin of Species, how appropriate! Hearing you read your own books gives such a flavor to them. Hearing your own excitement or incredulity or disdain for whatever the topic may be really enriches the experience, and it feels almost like I'm having a conversation. I hope that you can make some of your earlier books into audio, since I haven't found many.
About a week or so ago I started searching through Jehovah's Witnesses Creation book and did some research online. I found that their references for quotes, both to back them up and the ones they refute, were almost entirely misquoted, selectively quoted, or taken out of context. There were dozens of examples, and probably more that are concealed. Among the ones that upset me most were two from you that I could find, one from Carl Sagan and several from Charles Darwin. The book claims to be “well researched” yet they take a snippet of someone's words and don't pay attention to the sentences immediately following or what context it is in. There are also endless cases of ignorance and false logic like the ones you outlined in your book, along with misrepresentation of evidence, denial of evidence, and lots of other cases of outright deception, distortion and misrepresentation. When before I thought that Jehovah's Witnesses had been misinformed, under-educated (they actually DISCOURAGE pursuing anything past basic schooling) and generally mistaken, I had now realized that the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses are deliberately feeding lies to their people to keep them enslaved to the religion. I knew I had to take it to my family to tell them I wanted nothing to do with their, or any, religion.
Reading other people's letters of thanks on your website I can relate to many of them and especially those from my own religious background. One person in particular who is facing his family with his atheism, despite likely becoming an outcast because of it, has put much heart in me. Before now I have never had the heart to tell my family openly of my rejection of religion. I am closest to my grandparents, who are in their late eighties, and I couldn't bear the thought of their disappointed faces so close to the end of their life. But I realized that this man stands a lot more to lose than I do – I married a woman who was not religious, don't have children brought up in the religion, no longer have friends in the religion, distanced myself from my parents already (for separate reasons), and only had the thought of my grandparents' disapproval to deter me. What the hell was really holding me back when this man had the guts to do it with much more difficult circumstances? Both his admirable example and your encouragement to be proud of being an atheist, have given me much help toward facing my family. After all, with my experience of having curtains over my eyes for most of my life, and my delight with finally seeing reason, I would rather live knowing the truth, even if it is not comforting, than live in ignorance. I hoped they would see it the same way.
The general attitude of Witnesses toward those leaving the religion or any members who disagree even with the most minor teachings, are ruthless in contrast to their usual boasts of morality, kindness, generosity and understanding. They are exiled as apostates and shunned, so I fully expected the relationship with my family to end. But I kept your words in mind, reminding myself that I could not live my life under the shadow of what my family wants me to be, and that they should acknowledge my right to think for myself. It would also show how much they valued me as a person, if they would accept me for the person I am, the grandchild they practically raised themselves, seeing my birth – or reject me from their lives just for excercising my right to make up my own mind.
Yesterday, I brought their “Evolution of Creation?” book, the pages filled with post-it notes of my criticisms against it, and told them everything. I talked with them for four hours, on topics ranging from misunderstandings of “fact” and “theory”, the theory of natural selection, the history of their religion, logical problems with God and the Bible, and even well into philosophical matters. It took a lot of effort to get past my grandfather's initial disputes and interruptions and citing the Bible to back him up, but eventually he listened to me. After I explained all the misunderstandings of evolution, he even conceded (if God and the Bible were real and true) that evolution could be used by God as a tool for producing life. I still adamantly argued against the Bible as evidence at all, and explained my firm stance against faith, religion and belief in God. I repeatedly had to explain the distinction between believing there was NO God, and me not believing there was a God. I had to explain that while I cannot KNOW for sure, and there's a very minute possibility, I saw no evidence TO believe there was a God. Surprisingly, and bringing me to tears, they respected my opinions and did not even become upset at my rejection of their religion, and of all religion and spiritual belief entirely. I explained my reasoning and that I was not leaving out of rebellion and to do whatever the hell I wanted to – that I would still lead a moral life as well as I could maintain, just as I always had. Only now without God.
There is no way I can ever repay you for the insurmountable gift you have given through your inspirational books. They have brought the light of understanding, an enhanced thirst for knowledge, an expansive appreciation and fascination of not just our earth, but all of the Universe, and showing me the beauty, elegance and fascinating complexity of the evolution of our life. I have always had a deep respect for nature and life's endless wonders, but my already great sense of awe of God's creation has exploded hundred-fold with your explanations of how life could have arisen on its own. The wonder I have now is more than I can describe, these words seem pitifully inadequate to the thrilling, mind-expanding view I now have toward life. Through the tone I have felt in your books, I'm sure you can understand the deep emotional connection it can have, and right now it almost brings me to tears, just thinking about the impoverished view I could have carried through my life if it had not been for you and Carl Sagan. Thank you also for helping me to open up to my family, allowing me to feel liberated and free at last. It's led me to learn more about them and understand them better and for them to understand me, which has probably saved our family relationship.
So thank you very much, not just on my account, but for helping all these people I have read (and likely many, many more) on the pages of your website toward understanding, logic and reason, helping them break through the narrowing, destructive binds of religion, and to live a much more rewarding and intellectual life. I have regretted many times not being able to thank Carl Sagan personally for first opening my eyes, so I am very grateful that I am able to thank you, who have helped me just as much, if not more. The best I can do to show my appreciation is to try to help as many others as I can as you have done for me.
As a side note, I find it a fascinating coincidence that just as I became an atheist and as my hunger for further learning in evolution exploded, it came at the start of the year of Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Granting my wish for more, suddenly all sorts of BBC specials and National Geographics and scientific magazines came out focusing on evolution. There can't be any more perfect timing than that!