Dear Professor Dawkins,
I'd like to add my story to your growing list of “atheist conversion” at www.richarddawkins.net. This is not an easy piece for me to write and I'll admit to some degree of anxiety as I type. Being an atheist in a theistic society like the U.S. and especially in the rural county where I live is something of a scary proposition.
I was raised in the fundamentalist, evangelical Christian church (non denominational) and received a full indoctrination in conservative Christianity both at frequent church services and at home. The notion of human sin and my own need for salvation were pounded into to me since before I can remember and caused a confusing mix of guilt, shame and fear. I can remember one church leader telling me and a group of pre-adolescent girls that we were like “a dirty sanitary napkin” before God (a sort of double slam against our impending womanhood as well as our self worth). There was a lot of talk of my heart being “black with sin” and my need to be saved lest I should die that way and go directly to hell. I was taught that everyone (including most other Christians in the more liberal denominations) was going to hell, even my lovely Roman Catholic neighbor, unless they had prayed the “proper” prayer and accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts. I was never completely convinced that I had said the prayer exactly right and so I was constantly getting “re-saved” just to cover my bases. The whole idea of hell was (and to some degree still is) terrifying to me. Yet, at the same time, I could never understand how I, personally, had become responsible for the sin of all humans since the time of Adam. I didn't really feel wicked and sinful. In fact, I thought I was a good person. I had to hide these ideas from those around me, however. And I felt guilty for having them.
Other than my religious upbringing, you might say I had an ideal childhood – parents who were always there for me and my siblings, plenty of educational opportunities, a loving (if occasionally dysfunctional) family life, plenty to eat, a warm bed to sleep in, presents on my birthday. And I am profoundly grateful to my parents for all that they did right-especially the way they encouraged me to think for myself (little did they predict the consequences of this). However, the religious indoctrination was very damaging and it has taken a long time to undo.
The first step “forward” was when my parents decided to leave the fundamentalist church and attend a very conservative, but far more intellectually stimulating Presbyterian church. At least at this church, there was some respect for human intelligence, thought their conclusions were every bit as nasty as the old church. Then my siblings returned home from college with positive experiences in the Episcopal Church – a much more varied and inclusive denomination. By the age of 19, I became an Episcopalian (with my parents' blessing) and found some comfort in the church's embrace of beautiful music, ancient ritual and its much wider acceptance of all people. It was there that I met my husband, the son of an Episcopal priest. The marriage was not approved by my family as my husband was deemed “too liberal” in religious and political views and a rather dramatic family schism occurred around this time.
Through the years, I became increasing uncomfortable being in church, even my liberal, inclusive one. I found that I choked on the creeds. I didn't really want to kneel and confess to sins I hadn't committed. And once we had children of our own who started asking questions that I couldn't answer, like, “Is there really a God? Do you believe in God?”, I knew my goose was cooked. We stopped attending church. I was guilty and fearful, but I really had no choice. I didn't know what to call myself and we lived in a period of being unchurched and undefined.
One night, I got the courage to Google the word “agnostic” on my computer; then later, “atheist”. It seems silly, but that was really pretty frightening for me and I did it in the dead of night, afraid that someone would see. I came across some great atheist videos and sites. I decided that I was agnostic, then agnostic atheist. It took me several months more before I was able to look at anything that said “Richard Dawkins” because for me, you were the epitome of “those bad, extreme atheist people” I had long been taught to hate and despise. I desperately did NOT want to be one of the “those people”. And yet, the more I looked, the more I knew I WAS one of “those people”. I finally ordered and read the “God Delusion” last year and it was such an affirming and amazingly helpful book. Thank you, thank you for writing it!
I'm hardly what you would call “out” as an atheist, but I have told a few people, including some strangers and one of my brothers. My husband is right on the same path with me and actually arrived at this point earlier than I did. We are raising, happy, healthy free-thinking kids who are being educated about religion but not being indoctrinated into ANY religion (we are taking them to the Unitarian Universalist church with some reservations but overall it seems an OK place to learn about comparative religion). I've discovered that I am just as good a person as I always was – God or no god. And while I initially thought it would be too depressing to give up on the concept of “eternal life”, I now value my own existence and those of others even more than I did before. I've got one life and I'm going to live it to the full. I would say that atheism has freed me to be a better person – more moral, more thoughtful and more grateful than I was before. That is not to say that atheism is my “new religion”, just that being free from religion is a very good thing! The fear of hell has evaporated (mostly with lots of help from therapists) though I guess it'll always be with me. I want better for my children. I want them to value truth and live lives of integrity, just as I am endeavoring to do now.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your role in this important, life changing transition.
a U.S. physician