Dear Richard Dawkins,
Yes, you were responsible for pushing me over the edge of the atheism abyss. Granted, by that point it really only took a nudge, but you were the nudger, by way of your interview entitled “The Atheist” on Salon.com. And it is by way of thanking you, and delighting in my own 'conversion,' that I'll sketch in some of the details of my personal story, as many others have done here in the Convert's Corner. Demographically, I have the extraordinary fortune to personify the two most reviled characteristics an American can possess in 2007. I'm a gay atheist — GaYtheist for short (which I sometimes use as a blog name on Salon.com). [My beloved partner even has me beat. A gay atheist like me, he is also a foreigner here on a work visa. A gay/atheist/foreigner! I mean, really, in the U.S. in 2007, you just don't get much more reviled than that.] Add to that the fact that I make my entire living in the Catholic church as (you already guessed) an organist and choir director, and you DO have a recipe for hypocrisy and internal strife. BUT! Lest anyone think I'm about to burst into a 'poor me' diatribe, let me assure you my basic quality of life is terrific! I truly think that most anyone who walked a week in my shoes wouldn't want to give them back — and there I'd be, with chilly toes. Having grown up in the Catholic church — but in only a vague sense, since my family attended Mass weekly but not much else — my Catholicism was basically cultural, and only lightly so at that. Then, as a budding musician in high school, church offered me the opportunity to perform regularly in front of largish 'audiences' — and later, as I matured and improved, it offered me a way to supplement my income by doing so — and before long my whole income (of rather average size, with good benefits) came from making music just a few hours a week in a Catholic church and as a Catholic School choir director. However, this much time spent in church quite successfully removed any of the mystery and mysticism from the Mass — heck, as the organist, I was the one actually supplying the mystical atmosphere! Add to that the fact that time spent getting to know priests 'behind the scenes' left me feeling DEEPLY unimpressed with so many of these men who dared to go before a congregation and tell the 'faithful flock' how to live their lives! So many of these men are, well, basically social misfits (and, as we all know, closeted gay men) who don't have to earn a living and have probably never been in a long-term romantic relationship, but they are presuming to tell married (or 'romantically-active') working people how to behave! The whole situation continues to strike me as flat-out absurd. Nevertheless, – ironic twist of fate – my particular style of musicianship, and love of spare time, make me very well suited to this part-time music-making work.
Anyway, the above paragraph gives a good idea of my mental state two years ago — very real contentment with music-making providing a livable income, but no hint of any personal belief in what the Catholic church held up as dogma. I would say I was defining myself religiously as “no longer Catholic” (defining myself through what I was NOT) when I read that Salon.com interview. By a couple days later, with my brain nicely marinated in your strong, spicy arguments, I realized quite simply that I as an atheist! And one with a bit of an interest in evolutionary biology at that! I have since read almost everything you have published, Mr. Dawkins, and my “Atheism & Evolution” bookshelf groans under the weight of your and Sam Harris's works. Now, a new atheist gradually realizes that s/he has to develop a new philosophy of life, to some extent. How do I feel about death? What does it mean that I send a little money every month to a kid in the Philippines (through an agency) and that I occasionally get notes back from him dripping with a particularly superstitious, brain-washy version of Catholicism? And what of my two nephews to whom I am (ahem) “Godfather”? And my parents? And the married couple who are friends of ours, and ONE of whom is very interested in our atheism (she was loaned a printed copy of that Salon interview), while the other is, at least culturally, quite religious. Do we avoid the topic in order not to start any brushfires between them? In a very real sense, I find myself needing to 'come out' AGAIN! But to go through my days completely unburdened by religious fantasies, and to have been forced to come up with my own rudimentary philosophy of life, feel to me like great and rare privileges. Of course, reading the daily paper can cause epic frustration, but leading a wholly reality-based life (and with an equally reality-based partner) is a more-than-adequate compensation.
Thank you, Richard Dawkins!