Converts, Wed, Jan 30 2013 #(1232)

Jan 30, 2013

Dear Prof Dawkins,

I am celebrating 10 years of being a happy atheist this year. Reading through the stories of other converts here, as well as talking to other atheists in my circle of friends, I am amazed at how similar everybody’s testimony is.

My parents are missionaries in an extremely conservative mission here in South Africa, and my two brothers and I were brought up pretty much with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Every school holiday we went to Christian camps, which meant that my brothers and I were probably the only pupils in our school NOT looking forward to school holidays. My earliest memories of these camps were of four services per day, indoctrination, fear, hell, guilt, horribly boring hymns, and then subdued mass hysteria as, at the end of each camp, we were encouraged (some would say coaxed) to witness about what the Lord had done for us during the past few days.

One particularly memorable incident at such a camp was when my one brother and I were playing chess (we are both avid chess players and were school and university champions), probably the only intelligent activity at one of these camps. Anyway, a very kind old lady, no doubt with pure intentions, walked up to us, put her arm like a loving grandmother around my shoulders and asked: "What does check mate mean?" I replied: "The king is dead". Then she asked: "Is the king of your heart dead?" At the time I was, what one could call, burning for Jesus, so I assumed this was her way of starting a pious conversation about the love of Jesus and all those nice things, so I replied: "No, he’s not", and she retorted: "Then you won’t play chess, because every time you say check mate, you say that Jesus is dead". I was dumbfounded, and pointed out to her that that check mate really means that my opponent’s king, and not mine, is dead, but that made no difference to her. That was my first experience of how religion can turn one irrational. Another colleague my parents believes she is married to Jesus, and she is considered extremely pious for that. Nevertheless, I carried on believing, but I was never really convinced. Something of religion didn’t make sense to me. I was always very interested in science (especially astronomy), and for starters religion does not gel with astronomy, especially when it comes to the age of the earth and the universe. Despite that, I slaved on, hoping that one day the Holy Ghost would also speak to me, and that I would be sanctified (which loosely means something like you’ll never become angry again). That also didn’t happen. Nowadays I find the concept of a holy ghost somewhat ridiculous.

Then I went to university, and eventually starting dating a girl, with whom I experienced the most important thing up to that age, losing my virginity. Because of my religious upbringing, I was, however, overcome with guilt. The next day a bee was circling around my head (I am mortally allergic to bee stings) and I saw that as God’s way of expressing his disgust at what I’ve done. It didn’t stop me from having sex, though, which, today, I see as a sign that the urge and need to leave progeny is much stronger than religious convictions and insanity. However, the most insane thing I did, and which I feel bad about up to this day, is that I eventually broke up with this poor girl, because I started looking for a job and needed God’s help, and God won’t help a fornicator find a job. I’ll die feeling stupid every time I think about it. But worse, it was a long time before I had sex again after that.

Anyway, I carried on believing, but never with that complete conviction that I was told to have. Then, at the end of 1999 I got a job in Brazil. It was a once in a lifetime chance and actually set the course of my career since then. For one thing, I was out of the clutches of my parents’ mission. One day, a couple of months after moving to Sao Paulo, I sat on my balcony with a cup of coffee and had an epiphany about religion that I will never forget and told myself: "This is just rubbish", and that put me on the irreversible path to being a devout and outspoken atheist nowadays. I didn’t immediately turn my back on religion, though, I tried to fight off my nagging and increasing disbelief, but there was no turning back.

It had struck me before that religion promises people a life after death, and that this relief knowing that you will survive you own death is what grabbed people, and was being exploited to the full by religion. Hell was a place to fear, and heaven a place to long for. I remember having sleepless nights thinking about a dear gay friend of mine that would burn in hell one day. When this realisation about selling life after death dawned on me, further realisations happened. I was suddenly at a loss when I realised that, having no god to forgive me, I was ultimately responsible for my own actions. That huge responsibility, and wondering where to look for guidance, was extremely daunting. In conversations with other atheists, and reading several books, I was struck by the fact that all of us face that dilemma. I did miss the calm that religion offered in times of crisis. In subsequent years, especially after learning about evolution, I have however come to realise that science does provide a perfect and better substitute. Knowing that death is part of evolution, because we shouldn’t compete against our offspring for scarce resources, gives me complete assurance and peace about death. I therefore disagree strongly from Karen Armstrong that science cannot provide consolation. It can and it does.

I am therefore, I think, one of a group of atheists that came to the conclusion that there is no god solely based on my own reasoning. However, a few things spurred me into action around 3 years ago, and here I have to go back to sex. My then girlfriend decided to become religious, and told me that we had to stop having sex. This made no sense to me at all, although I knew that from a religious perspective she was right. But since I see the prohibition on sex imposed by religions as completely ridiculous, and all the supposed advantages of waiting until you are married as devoid of any reason, I could not accept this change in status quo. That was when I started reading Sam Harris’s End of Faith and started to realise the real impact of religion on society. I have always resented the wasted opportunities we had as a result of my parents’ decision to live in faith, but I started to realise that religion is a pernicious lie with a horrible grip on humanity. I started reading books by Stenger and Hitchens as well, and started to gather arguments that I could use against Christians in conversations. I only read the God Delusion in 2009 and that was a further eye opener.

However, I do not want to thank you only for opening my eyes to atheism, but indeed to evolution. I have read both The Greatest Show on Earth, and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, and have just finished listening to your recording of The Origin of Species. I find evolution such a perfect theory, there is almost a poetic beauty to it. It is so simple and elegant. I can now hold my own in conversations with Christians about evolution, yet I never fail to be stumped by their counter arguments. Not because they are scientifically wrong, but because they are just no brainers. Recently I was told that I make evolution fit my beliefs because I desperately want to believe there is no god. This was coming from an engineer that I thought I could engage with in meaningful conversation. I must admit, I didn’t know what to say, and just gave up. It is just impossible to reason with those who refuse to look at the facts.

I want to end with a final story involving sex. I do not want to sound like a pervert, but, as I said before, religion’s obsession with sex is truly astonishing and no Christian could ever explain to me how not having sex before you get married makes any difference to the marriage itself. They don’t make such a fuss about any other "sin". You don’t see sermons about "Why we should not murder", but topics on "Why sex is wrong" go up on church billboards every Sunday. While living in Brazil, I became friends with an evangelical Christian girl. There was a strong attraction and one night she came over to my apartment basically begging me to have sex with her. When I asked her how she could reconcile this with her religion, she replied that God had promised her a husband, but he hasn’t delivered on his promise, and she has needs which God clearly wasn’t considering in his grand but hidden plan for her. Therefore she asked God for forgiveness in advance for what she wanted me to do. Needless to say, with forgiveness having been obtained in advance, I had to oblige.

Kind regards,

Emile Myburgh

South Africa
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