If I were asked to state the three things that have brought me to this point in my life (religion-wise), it would have to be my semi-religious upbringing, the works of the late Dr. Carl Sagan, and your own works.
I was brought up in a rather lax Roman Catholic household, with my parents attending mass mostly on the high feast days. Even from a young age, I was aware of other faiths, and even the divisions within
Christianity. My grandmother was Presbyterian, and I had neighbours who were anything from Jewish, to Muslim, to Unitarians. It was always perplexing as to why some of our neighbours went to church often, while others went to different churches, and some went to places that weren't even called churches. As is ever so common, when I would ask my parents why this was, they would respond that “that is their culture” or “that is how they were raised”. As any child would, I came to the conclusion that religion was solely based on culture. Growing up, you are taught to avoid assigning certain religions and beliefs to only certain ethnic and cultural groups, but the unpolluted mind of a child is often correct. Though, as I aged, my beliefs continued to become more and more lax, I always clung to some belief in the supernatural, and whenever asked, I would identify myself as Roman Catholic. Attending Catholic school meant that it was a fairly homogeneous group, made up mostly of children with Irish, Italian or French ancestry, but since this 'separate board' is publicly funded, there was the odd Protestant or Sikh child too. My clinging to Roman Catholicism met its match when I took a world religions class. Though it was merely a survey course and barely did justice to any of the faiths we covered in terms of depth of knowledge, it pointed out that either one was the correct faith and the rest were incorrect, or they were all wrong. It took me a couple couple years from that point, catechism classes from varies faiths, but finally a shook off my “Deistic (culturally) Catholic” outlook (which I had always ended up back at), and embraced my inner non-believer.
One individual who played, and continues to play, an immense role in my life is the late Dr. Carl Sagan. The natural world has always fascinated me, from plants, to animals, to weather, to the stars. Two things were essential in my upbringing, digging around in my mother's garden and computers. Worms, potato bugs, spiders, plant roots, leaves, stems, thorns, squirrels, and the birds; these were all my closest friends and greatest interests when I was young. But when I first watched Dr. Sagan's Cosmos series, it all changed. Science became so much more, as did those things I did to entertain my idle mind. Everything in the world seems clearer, things have a place and a purpose, there were answers to some of my questions, but most important was that there were infinitely more questions associated with those answers. The world had always been a mystery, but science changes your view of that mystery. Instead of merely accepting the mystery, you charge head first into every mystery and every question with a unique view, hypotheses, and a method through which you can attempt to answer these questions. The natural world is infinitely more beautiful now. My outlook changed astonishingly, for I was instantly humbled before the grandeur and majesty of the cosmos. When I first heard Dr. Sagan describe the Earth as a pale blue dot, this insignificant looking speck, he banished all anthropocentric notions from my mind. To this day, when I read those words or hear him speak them, I cannot help but be instantly invigorated and inspired, and all by such a simple fact. The result of all this was countless days out in nature, countless nights watching the night sky, countless hours tying up the home phone line as I slowly ventured into a still infant cyberspace for more and more information. It would also affect my views on religion, and was one of the main reasons my beliefs were often Deistic. The very notion that we were made in God's image, or anything of the like, seemed ludicrous. Even the thought of theistic evolution (I had always believed in evolution) off, compared to a purely naturalistic approach. My God, until I finally stopped believing, was the God who gave us the four fundamental interactions of physics and then walked away. Though I rarely fully believed even that, it was my crutch; it meant I was still religious to a degree. Sometimes I look back and wonder why that was important at all.
Lastly, there were your works Professor. The first of your books that I read was 'River Out of Eden', and I couldn't put it down. Once I was finished with that, well, I just had to read your three previous works. Though I never doubted evolution, my knowledge of evolution was never great, and biology had always been the weakest of my natural sciences. Yet, while reading these books, understanding evolution was so natural. I've always had a strong background in computers, so anything that appeared so perfectly algorithmic was bliss to me. Natural selection is such an absolutely beautiful and logical mechanism. Needless to say, you had yourself a fan. When 'The God Delusion' was first released, I had just finished reading Dr. Sagan's 'The Demon-Haunted World' for the nth time, so your book was the perfect follow up. I was one of those people who were sitting on the fence. Though I was greatly leaning towards atheism, I was still perched up there. Your book provided me with likely what you would have expected, not grand revelations, but rather a lot of agreement. I couldn't help laughing to myself after I had read it for the first time. If my vocabulary was larger and my writing more elegant, I could see myself writing various portions of that very book. Then it hit me, what was I really clinging to? The only purpose I had for God was the creation of the Universe itself, and instantly after that, nature took over. But why? That was hardly very sceptical or scientific of me, yet I had allowed it to take root in my mind and I didn't see reason to question it. Well, I wanted a better explanation. As bizarre as it sounds, found greater comfort in acknowledging the likelihood that I may perish before we ever known how our Universe came into existence, rather than chalking it up to a God that created it and then proceeded to vanish. The truth and the pursuit of that truth is liberating; it is far more liberating than any ad hoc explanation designed to comfort us could ever be. It couldn't have occurred at a better time either, since I was just beginning my post-secondary studies and I was able to start two new chapters in my life simultaneously.
As for me now, I'm still in school, still an atheist, and I still find endless inspiration from the magnificent world we live in. As I ponder the prospects of graduate school, your influence is still felt
Professor Dawkins, as I constantly debate between Theoretical Computer Science and Computational Biology. All I can say is I hope I can find a middle ground and include both somehow. I could never thank you enough, and please, try to return to Canada soon!