Converts, Wed, Jan 30 2013 #(615)

Jan 30, 2013

Dear Professor Dawkins,

I'm a twenty-two year old woman living in the United States, (Utah, to be precise,) but it is not so much for my own story that I am writing, but more for the journey my mother and I have made together. I apologize that this is such a long email, but I don't know how to truly relay both my feelings and my mother's without properly setting up our interwoven 'conversion' stories. I recognize that this will likely be far too long to ever go up on the Converts' Corner on the website, but I couldn't find a way to properly summarize any more than I have without losing the essence of the entire experience. Also, I realize that you, personally, are not likely to read this, as you're a busy man, but I felt the deep desire to reach out, somehow, with my experiences with escaping religion and 'coming out,' and how your book helped both my mother and I with the latter.

My mother was very, very deeply scarred by the child abuse caused by the same religious indoctrination you spoke of in The God Delusion. Her mother, a truly fanatical Baptist, did her best to destroy my mother's intelligence, inquisitiveness and imagination by calling her innocent questions disobedience, and her vibrant imagination a penchant for being a liar. My grandmother clipped every drawing of Jesus out of every religious magazine she had and made a scrapbook, like some sick kind of teenage worship of a rock star. We found the scrapbook after she had died – my mother, who was not yet an atheist, still saw it for the fanaticism it was and threw it away.

My grandmother said throughout my mother's life that her only wish, her only goal in life was to be alive when “Jesus comes back.” She spoke of little else. Any time a television evangelist proclaimed the date of the End of Days, she would mark it on her calendar with gleeful celebration, and would tell her tiny children to prepare for the end of the world, and for Judgment. My mother was terrified as my grandmother counted the days with morbid hope. Every time the date circled on the calendar would go by and Christ didn't come, my grandmother fell into the pits of despair. My mother says this happened too often to count, and was a staple in her young life.

When she got a little older, she had a terrible dream that was so real to her that she was convinced she was going to die. In the dream, she fell down on the grass, felt the cool, dewy blades on her skin, and looked up – Jesus appeared to her, and the most horrifying music accompanied his fearful appearance that at first sounded like the angelic voices of Heaven, but soon turned into the terrifying chorus of Hell. She told her mother about this, and the woman was elated. She said it was a vision, and discarded my mother's fearful shaking, the quaver in her voice, the fear in her eyes – these things were good. One should fear a vision of the Almighty. She was blessed. But she didn't feel blessed.

She grew up with a deep fear of Hell, and developed many psychological problems. She developed obsessive compulsive behaviors surrounding ritualized superstition. There were perfectly good shirts she would throw out because they were 'unlucky,' or shirts she'd wear for days because they were seemed to bring luck instead. A broken clock could not have it's hands stuck on threes or sixes – sixes being part of the 'Mark of the Beast,' and threes being associated with unlucky 'thirteen,' and so on and so forth. Her life was completely controlled by horrific guilt over the slightest infraction, ritualized obsessions, and constant, terrible fear. To this day, she has unexplained panic attacks and paranoia. To put it bluntly – religion nearly destroyed an intelligent, capable, sensitive, loving human being, and permanently impaired her mental health.

My mother gave birth to me rather late in her life, in her forties, but due to that she was secure enough in her life that she had time to devote to me, fully. She kept within her a fascination for science, and even named me after a constellation, shortening 'Cassiopeia' to 'Cassi,' in honor of her secret love for Astronomy that she'd never been allowed to explore. She remembered the fear and constrained, loveless atmosphere of her childhood, and chose instead to raise me in a loving, free, safe world full of wonder and imagination. I was not only allowed to use my imagination and to think for myself, I was encouraged! When I asked questions, she didn't call me disobedient, she endeavored to answer, and in answering the questions of a curious child, found that she yearned for the answers, too. Why -was- the sky blue? Why -did- the birds sing? Why -was- the grass green? Through me, she was allowed to learn things she'd never been allowed to before, and through her, I developed early-on a love for learning, and an appreciation of the natural world. Religion was presented, but God was posed as a loving, caring deity, who encouraged questions and loved little children. I wasn't afraid of God, but the questioning nature proliferated by my mother led me to wonder whether he wasn't much like Santa Clause, who's writing on the tags of my presents reading “From, Santa” I'd long ago noticed was exactly the same as the ones reading, “From, Mommy and Daddy.” But then came Sunday school – LDS Sunday school.

My mother remembered having been outcast for being a Baptist in a small Mormon town, and so, with the best intentions at heart, she decided to convert us to the LDS church in order to save me from the loneliness of her own youth. The Mormons teach a loving God also, and that sat well with me as a small child. My favorite part of Sunday school was singing the hymns; my favorites included a hymn derived from Jesus' 'new' commandment, “as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” ( Though, I find humor in retrospect that the song I always requested was “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree,” which had nothing to do with the religion I was being taught, and was just a fun song for a child to sing. At the time, I didn't know the difference. ) But there was something I didn't know as I got older and continued to attend church; something my mother didn't tell me. In church, you aren't allowed to ask too many questions, and you are -certainly- not to be dubious at the answers provided. The answer I received for many questions started the first real shock-waves of doubt within me: “It's just the way it is. You have to have faith that Heavenly Father's plan is perfect, and we can't always understand it. Now stop being disruptive and let me finish the lesson.” After being brought up to ask questions, being essentially told that asking questions and understanding the answers was bad really rather annoyed me. I felt an eyebrow raise, and I shut up, but the rest of the lessons began to become meaningless to me after being told this over and over again.

I continued to question inaccuracies, contradictions, and everything else that seemed wrong about Mormonism. My teachers began to see me as a disruption, because often the other students in the class would agree with me and lend their voices to the continually repeated, “But -why-? But -how-?” that I lended to the lessons. Eventually, one of the teachers asked my mother to keep me at home for a few Sundays, and that perhaps she should use that time to teach me how to be more 'reverent' in church. She never made me go back.

Throughout all of this church nonsense, I have fond memories of my mother and I cuddling up on the couch and watching re-runs of Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. The answers I got there were far more engaging than anything I learned in church. The universe held a certain awe for me that was absent from Sunday school, and I quickly drifted away from the notion that I needed to go to church to learn anything worthwhile. Soon, I found the Discovery Channel, and I'd sit for hours learning about the natural world, and especially about the behaviors of animals. I didn't know the names for the fields of study at the time, but I was enthralled by Cosmology, Biology, Archaeology, and Physics – all provided to me by television and books. I don't remember watching many cartoons or children's programming. What I do remember is learning about lions on the Sahara, about black holes in outer space, about blue whales in the deep oceans, and how we are all made of 'starstuff.' School provided little sustenance for my curiosity, and I was in fact picked on heavily by the other students for being a 'know it all.' This was due to the fact that I often already knew the answers to the questions asked in class before the lesson was even taught – thanks to Carl Sagan, the Discovery Channel, and my mother's home-tutelage in reading and writing. My third-grade teacher even suggested to my mother that I not use such big words at school so that I could make more friends. My mother fumed. “Absolutely not! What kind of teacher are you? I will -not- tell my daughter to dumb herself down. Help -them- come up to -her- level!” The teacher quickly retracted her statement, but I never forgot that. Though, despite the discouraging atmosphere at school, at home and in the library I continued to fuel my curiosity. I basked in the light of knowledge, and my mother did so along with me.

It wasn't until my teens that I started to -really- doubt God. I had no idea there was such a thing as a deist, so when I sat down at my little electronic typewriter at around twelve or thirteen and typed out my thoughts on what God might be, I thought I was being truly revolutionary. God, I wrote, was the universe. So to understand the universe, was to understand God. Later I added that God didn't directly influence anything, but simply was everything that is – sort of the way we can't influence our cells directly, but they are nonetheless an important parts of our bodies. Us. The cosmos, the earth – every particle was God. I look back and laugh, now – I thought I was about to win a Nobel Prize due to this 'revelation' when I grew up.

I remember you mentioning the woman who simply didn't know not believing was an option, and that was exactly the case with me. I didn't know what an atheist was, but I knew religion was wrong, and that I had to find answers elsewhere. After that I had a short, childish career as a self-taught philosopher. Yet, through all of this 'soul-searching,' I occasionally went to church, mostly at the invitation of friends, but I took everything with a grain of salt. I only kept going thanks to my need to belong. I was socially outcast due to my demonstrative desire to learn, and I wanted so, so desperately to be a part of a community.

I stopped attending services almost entirely, but I continued to go to the 'Young Women's' meetings during the week. They always acted as though they genuinely liked me and wanted me there. So, craving friendship and feeling terribly lonely, I went. I even fell back into belief for a while. I shamefully remember a night at Girl's Camp. ( Girl's Camp is a camping trip held once a year for all the young women of a particular church Stake.) During a 'Testimony Meeting,' I bore my testimony; that I believed the church was true, that Joseph Smith was the true prophet… etc., repeating words verbatim that expressed what I had been told I believed. When I was done, I was dry-eyed. Another girl repeated these words, and in a heartfelt addition, wept about her conviction. I felt left out. Shouldn't I have cried too? My conviction was as strong as hers! So I raised my hand, and asked to give my testimony again, and I cried. I actually cried. Afterwards I was ashamed. I realized I was a hypocrite, and worse, that I'd been utterly brainwashed by a need to belong. During my tearful testimony, I absolutely felt the conviction of my words, but I did not once I was lying quietly in my tent before I fell asleep. I kept going to the camps, but one year I experienced something that left me shaken, and convinced me I was in a cult.

It was a perfectly benign thing, and certainly not something most people would even think of the way I did. They did nothing to hurt me, or anyone else, but there was something… creepy about it. They woke us up one night and led us, bleary-eyed, through the pine trees, and didn't tell us why. We arrived at a clearing, and two sisters with candles wearing white baptismal robes began to read from the scripture. I don't remember the lesson they were trying to teach, but I remember the sick feeling that I recognized this tactic as a kind of brainwashing. I became suddenly afraid, and had the eery idea that suddenly they'd make us all drink poisoned punch, and tell us that Jesus was about to take us up on his holy spaceship to Jupiter. Of course, nothing like that happened. It was completely benevolent, but I never saw the church the same way, and I never went back to the yearly camp after that.

I don't know when the turning point was, but slowly I lost faith in any kind of higher power, save for in the deistic sense. I never shared these doubts with my mother – I knew it would frighten her. It wasn't until the word 'atheist' popped out of my mouth one day that I even knew where my views did lie. It was when I heard a boy I knew from another school was an atheist that the word came out of my mouth in reference to myself for the first time. He was talking about something – hell, I think – and I turned around in my chair despite my profound shyness and boldly said, “Good thing there is no God, right?” He smiled at me and asked, “Wiccan or atheist?”
“Atheist,” I replied. He nodded, and we shared a look of understanding. I'd found someone else who didn't believe in any of that rubbish! I wasn't alone! Unfortunately, I didn't know him well, and that was the last time we spoke of it.

After that, determined not to live the lie of calling myself a Mormon, I started calling myself a Buddhist. I did believe in some of the central tenants, and for some reason people accepted it far more easily than that awful, rabble-rousing word, “atheist,” and really, I thought, atheism lacks a the beauty of having -some- belief. I'd even begun to dabble into the new-age mysticism that had begun becoming so popular. But then I went to college and read The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, and I started to think differently. I was still far too afraid to announce my views to anyone, however, not even to my understanding mother.

I remembered Carl Sagan from my childhood, and gobbled up his books. I began to view things differently, and he cured me of my brief flirtation with the ridiculous 'pseudo-sciences.' But still, I sensed that Sagan retained if not a reverence, but a kind of respect for religion in some sense, and so did I. I contended that announcing I was an atheist was downright rude, and discussing my views was ruder still. If I walked down the street with one of his books in my hand, I kept the title turned towards my body, afraid of someone wanting to start a conversation with me. 'Let them have their beliefs,' I thought, 'I should respect them. They are as valid as my own.' I kept a personal credo that discussion of atheism was strictly off-limits. It was a person thing, and not suitable for discussion with anyone else.

Shortly after reading these books by Sagan, my mother had confided in me that she had lost faith in religion. She still considered herself a Christian, but she felt no religion had it right. I thought perhaps she was ready to hear the truth, so I told her of my lack of belief (saying I was a Buddhist, though, as I was still afraid to say 'atheist') and handed her The Demon-Haunted World, with some of my notations and thoughts in the margins. She read it, and I waited nervously for her to finish and tell me what she thought. A few days later she called me, and I remember her saying, “My God, Cassi. I've been so blind.” The oppressive weight of guilt and fear she'd carried so long were finally tugged off of her in one, fell swoop – she was free. We both cried with happiness for her. I can't help but look back at the fake tears of exaltation I'd shed for the sake of making others believe that I believed, and I compare the two moments now in my head. It's breathtaking to me how far both my mother and I have come.

But still, we had fear of a different kind. We whispered to each other of our newfound knowledge like it was a dirty secret. People in my town still came up to my mother randomly and said, “How is Cassi? She's such a sweet, gentle, spiritual girl. She has such a strong testimony. I always held her up as an example to my child of her age.” We did nothing to deny this, but we didn't lie. Her house was the only place we spoke of this new way of thinking, and we still let the Mormon home teachers come in, and still let them think we believed. We both retained respect for religion, and thought society needed it. We thought ourselves a couple of odd, fringe weirdos and avoided people all-together when we could.

This was when a friend I'd been discussing atheism with over the internet told me about The God Delusion. After reading it, I just sat and thought for a few days. My journey towards atheism was a slow process, but The God Delusion hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, I wasn't alone. I'd long thought that most scientists were non-literal theists, and so did my mother. We thought we were weirdos, that we were freaks, but your book assured me that religion had far more to answer for than my gentle non-belief. I remembered the horror-stories of my mother's youth, and felt a bit of, shall we say, righteous anger? I knew, finally, that I did not have to be so respectful of religion, and saw suddenly that the fact that we felt we had to hide as we did was just plain wrong. We simply have a different view of the origin and purpose of the universe! It's a philosophical opinion based on a scientific, logical way of looking at the world – not a dirty secret to be ashamed of. A weight of shame was lifted off of my own shoulders, and I felt proud – proud that I basked in the light of reason while others continued to wallow in the darkness of superstition. Again, I cried, but this time for myself. All my life, I'd thought I was an oddball, an outcast, an intellectual Quasimodo. Finally, finally someone said it was okay, and even good, to think for myself. I realized it is beautiful to be different, because most people today are slaves to ancient mythology. My fascination for science instead of fashion is a virtue, not the trait of a peculiar eccentric. What freedom I felt! I can't help it that, even now as I write this, I feel a lump form in my throat at this realization.

I shared the book with my mother, and she had the same revelation as I. She now clings to it constantly, reading it over and over. It's like armor to her, and truly comforts her. It's heart-warming to see, after the abuse inflicted on her by religion in her childhood. We joked after we both read it that we would like to see the looks on our Mormon neighbors' faces if we set the book out in plain sight for them to see. Then I said, “Why not? Why should we hide it?” And we don't, not anymore.

I can't express to you enough what your book has meant to both of us. The only way I can explain it is thus: Imagine that you're in a small, dark room with a single candle for light and warmth, huddled with one other person, afraid and alone. You know that if your candle should go out, there will be no more light in the room, no chance for survival, and no hope of escape.

Suddenly, someone flicks a switch, and the power comes on. The room you thought was small is revealed to be huge, and the room was actually filled, the entire time, with other people huddled near their own candles. You notice that you only didn't see the others' light because there had been small, cardboard barriers in the way. If only you'd had the courage, you could have easily knocked one down and joined a friend, but fear of the darkness kept you all apart.

Thank you, Professor Dawkins, for flipping on that switch for my mother and I. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sincerely,

Cassi Hardy (And her mother, Bunny Thompson)
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