I must begin by stating that I had a nominal christian upbringing, I was not interested in anything religious until I got to my late teens. With me it all started in about the early 1980's with a book on creation by the Jehovah Witnesses. After 2 or 3 years I was heavily influenced by an old lady that me and my grandmother used to help who told me many stories about Jesus which gripped my imagination, and the main thing I remember about this old lady was her enthusiasm and keenness in trying to convert me. This lead me on to read religious books and later I would go through a conversion after reading a book by Billy Graham. From then on I would become a committed member of the evangelical baptist church, keen to spread the Jesus message!!
I started off spreading the jesus message throughout pembrokeshire on beach missions, door to door work, street preaching and even night time evangelism outside pubs and clubs. Then I became interested in world missions through a group called OM, this group's aim was in reaching muslims for christ as well as going to places were the gospel was not being spread, establishing fellowships when local people got converted as well as bible translation in minor languages like uighyr, kazakh, turkmen, Kyrgyz, tadjik, evenki and the list goes on and on (such is the drive of groups like the evangelical church and the jehovah witnesses, that continues unabated day and night in translating the bible into minority languages in order that everyone hears the good news). I first worked with OM evangelising in northern England, then I got a bit bolder and went for a summer to Grenoble in the south of France. I was keen to go somewhere outside of Europe, like Central Asia or Mongolia. Then in 1993 I got the opportunity to go to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to spread the gospel. When we first got there we intensively learnt Kazakh and the Russian language, witnessing bible translation work in lots of central asian languages (if only “the origin of species” or “the greatest show on earth” was translated in Uighur, kazak, turkmen, Uzbek, Evenki, Mongolian, russian, etc!!!) as well as the establishing of small fellowships of christians, nurturing them to become stronger which was not easy in a communist/Muslim culture.
During this time I started to have strong doubts about my faith, and I found people who lived in Kazakhstan where very well educated, very seldom religious, very friendly and kind, the kazaks having a culture of hospitality and kindness, and for me this was a time of reflection of why did I come to try to convert them. I was always amazed at the high standard of education in former soviet union countries, especially in science and maths; I know I'm detracting from the subject but when my wife was a interpreter for a Russian girl in a local school in Haverfordwest, she said that the gcse questions in science was so easy that she had already done them by the time she was 11 in Kazakhstan.
While I was in Kazakhstan I met my soon to be wife, while on holiday in Kyrgyzstan. We fell in love and met secretly for a couple of months for fear of me being kicked out of the missionary organisation. After two or three months I decided to tell the missionary in charge of our relationship, and he became very disappointed with me, told me this would make or break me and promptly sent me back home to Wales. I later went back to Kazakhstan to arrange to bring my wife to Wales and later that year she arrived heavily pregnant with our first son. After years of giving away all my money, trying to be as anti-materialistic as possible, we settled down with £40 between us. Those first 2 years where the hardest of my life, I was working all the hours I could on very small money, just getting by while my wife was looking after our new born son. I feel this is an important point, but when I left the evangelical church it was very hard because they were like an extended family, we helped each other through difficulties and doubts and now I was out on my own, that ten years of support was just pulled from underneath me. I have no doubt that other people like me have gone through equally difficult times when they have left their religious organisation and this is a vulnerable time for ex-believers.
I didn't come out of the evangelical church because I'd read a book on evolution, or atheism or anything else for that matter, it was a case of becoming more moderate over time, marrying an atheist from Kazakhstan (even though her grandparents are muslim, she and her parents where educated under communism so they were not religiously indoctrinated in school) and the influence she had on me as well as her science background in educating me in my ignorance.
These early years of me leaving my faith where testing times for my wife, I turned to heavy drinking for a while, invited Jehovah witnesses around my house to argue through the night about the bible and wondering whether I did the right thing by coming out of the church.
Living in Kazakhstan had left its mark on me though, now I was leaning towards socialist/communist ideals and this is what I turned my attention to. I read books on Russian history and the history of the soviet union. Sometimes I would try to have religious conversations with my wife but my wife would always reply that she was an atheist and that when she went to school in the soviet union they where not taught any religion. My wife had excelled in school and university and had gone on to get a degree in bio-chemistry and this is where she had learned about evolution by natural selection. Through the influence of my wife's scientific background, I started reading books ranging from Stephen hawking and quantum mechanics to Susan greenfield on the brain. This train of thought and reading material later lead me to reading “the God delusion” by Mr Dawkins. The first time I read this book was very difficult for me, the message was totally foreign but kind of made sense and it was not until reading it the second time did I get to grip with the message.
When I see my friends from the church these days, they say things like “have you read some of the books in reply to the god delusion?” and my answer to that is that I have read my share of creation books. Christian reading matter runs into the hundreds of thousands of books, the propaganda machine is working day and night, we are taught that we are in a war, that as a christian we must have a vigilant mindset, always ready to witness, always ready to give out literature and being as poor as possible like jesus. The sacrifice some people give is huge, bible studies being ways of suppressing any doubt that creep in and being taught to challenge anything thing which is contrary to our interpretation of scripture.
After reading “the greatest show on earth” my opinion is that this is a great book but the people who need to read it won't, they are taught not to read it, that it is misguided. I feel Richard Dawkins latest book preaches to the converted and the people who really need to read it are already being warned against reading it and are taught how to argue and to criticise. We cannot get away from the fact that religion is taught as a fact and lots of young minds are being shaped by it. Let's teach evolution and also good morals.
When I look back and why I was drawn into religion, there seems to be a couple of factors for my conversion; (1). I did not know about evolution by natural selection (2) My knowledge of science was extremely small (3) ignorant of a counter argument, critical thinking skills (4) giving religious people too much respect and a deep down respect to agree with everything they say.
These days I try to teach my children as much science as I can, hoping they won't go down the same road that I went down. Just because I've left the church, I haven't become immoral, I still believe in helping people, being kind to homeless people, using time effectively and trying not to waste it knowing that I'll be a long time dead!! Not everything I learned from the likes of mother teresa was bad eg. having an open home, being hospitable, always being ready to help somebody less fortunate.
One of the things that struck me when I lived as a missionary in the villages of Kazakhstan was the hospitality of kazakh people, which blew me away! There I was, trying to be helpful only to witness such openness into peoples homes, the Kazakhs always cooked a meal for you when you came into their home, the sincerity and genuineness of the local people and the warmth was something which will always stay with me. Because life has been so hard for the traditional nomadic Kazakh, these people have a custom where if you a hungry stranger they will take you in for 3 days, no strings attached. In Kazakh culture, the guest is King!!!
I hope my story serves as a warning that we must be diligent in teaching science and not being afraid to be critical.