Dear Dr. Dawkins,
I have no idea if you yourself will read this, but I wanted to share my story with you anyway because you are such an important figure in my life. I can never thank you enough for the ways that your work has set me free and enhanced my life. This isn't so much a story of how your work has converted me to atheism as it is a story of how your work has made me confident and secure in my atheism.
I was born into a strange family. On the surface we were Mormons, but our lives moved with a deeper current of Evangelical Christianity. When I was six years old, my parents divorced – the greatest scandal my family has ever seen – and my mother moved my sister and me out of rural Idaho and into the more open-minded “blue state” of Washington. I shudder to think how I would have turned out if I'd stayed solely under the influence of my patriarchal, bible-thumping Idaho family. My mother still felt that it was important for our development to know our father and his side of the family, and to spend time with them. We spent every summer in Idaho. I am certain that if I'd had the skills and the courage to tell my mother what my father and his side of the family were doing to us, or even if I had the understanding to recognize how wrong it was, that I never would have been subjected to such abuse again. But I believed that was I was being told was right and good – such is the power of religious indoctrination.
Nurturing mental illness seemed to be the hobby of my father's side of the family. My father himself was incorrectly diagnosed and treated as a paranoid schizophrenic (much later in his life, he received the correct diagnosis of severe bipolar disorder). Part of his delusion was a belief that he was the true prophet of God – or perhaps that he was Jesus himself, come again – it was never entirely clear. He was a charismatic man, and he convinced his family that it was true. Of course, they were already primed and ready to believe anything that came to light by means of “revelation” – if Dad said that Jesus had revealed his divine prophecy to him, then damn it, it had to be so. My father could even point to passages in the Bible that seemed to support him specifically as the prophet that would herald in the End Times and Jesus' return to Earth. The passages seemed convincing to me, but I was only a little girl – what logical processes could I really apply to such a story?
Every summer, I was surrounded by Evangelical beliefs and was immersed in this strange culture of listening with reverence to any “prophecy” that my father made. The pastime of my family was looking for signs of the Second Coming and discussing the Trepidation to follow. I had not yet been baptized, but I was too scared to ask that it be done for fear that I would reveal myself as a sinner, in need of cleansing, and that the Holy Family would cast me out.
Every single moment of my young life became a constant, fearful watch for signs of Christ's imminent return. Every lunar eclipse was the moon turning to blood; every hint of war or negotiations to avoid war was the Last Battle; Schoemaker-Levy 9 smashing into Jupiter, an event that should have thrilled me, was the “stars falling from the sky,” an even that instead filled me with dread of what was surely to come. I fancied seeing Jesus' face in benign cloud formations and was sure that it meant He would show up to smite me tomorrow. I must have played and had friends, but I literally have no recollection of anything occupying my time other than worrying about my destruction at the hands of an angry Christ. I was constantly afraid, and constantly depressed. I remember having no solace from my fears of the Second Coming, and every moment I was around my father's side of the family, my fears were compounded. My childhood was a complete wasteland of family-imposed terror and religious lunacy. I was too afraid to do anything that normal children do. How could I find it fun or safe to ride a roller coaster or a horse when God, who loved me and wanted the best for me, was so much more dangerous and unpredictable? I did nothing; I went nowhere; I made no friends. My life was devoted entirely to listening to anything my insane father spouted and trying to find some way to fit it into current events.
Strangely, this knack I developed of finding correlations between “prophecy” and current events was the only thing that provided me some comfort. It gave my life an air of predictability and security. If I could see what this all meant, then surely I could avoid the worst of the disasters to come. The closer I grew to my father and the more I paid attention to his prophecies, the safer I felt. After all, what better place to be when Christ came back to smite the world than next to His divine prophet?
Unfortunately, my worldview was shaken yet again when one of my uncles decided that he wanted a stake of the attention my father was getting from the family. My uncle was better than a mere prophet – he decided that he was actually Jesus Christ himself. And he, too, had all the revelation and scripture to prove it. My family became even more unstable and weird. Soon somebody had decided that they both couldn't be Jesus – clearly one was really Jesus, and the other was the Antichrist.
Well. Now who to choose? Suddenly it was no longer safe to be my father's little handmaid – what if I'd chosen wrongly, and he was the Antichrist? I lost my taste for interpreting world events and descended deeper into depression and fear.
Around the time I was 15, my mother caught onto the way my depression seemed to wax with my trips to Idaho and decided that I needed to stay in Seattle during the summers and spend time with my happy, normal, teenage friends. I didn't go back to Idaho again until my grandfather's funeral a couple of years later. Two years' distance from the craziness gave me marvelous perspective. Suddenly, my entire family looked pathetic. It made me sad on their behalf, that they'd led themselves so far into insanity. My fear of the Second Coming became less pervasive, but it still persisted in the back of my mind whenever there was a threat of violence in Israel or whenever a lunar eclipse reared its head.
Throughout my teenage years, I felt that I needed some kind of spiritual polestar in my life and I began learning about varying religions, trying to find where I fit. I liked the idea of a loving, kind God rather than the wrathful bogeyman I'd been raised with. I soon discovered that the Mormon church didn't teach the kind of wacky End-Times prediction games that my family had ascribed to it, and that it was in fact a kind, caring, supportive community that believed in a “user-friendly” Jesus. I had myself baptized at the age of 19 and felt happy and secure with faith for the first time in my life.
Alas for my faith, it was not to last. I decided around the same time I was baptized that I wanted to be a biologist and work to conserve habitats and animal populations. I had very little money and, being white, qualified for disturbingly little aid from the state even though I was living ridiculously below the poverty line. I saved my money for several months and then enrolled in a single biology class to begin my education, planning to continue working and applying for aid until I could afford a full quarter of classes at a time.
My biology class utterly changed my life when we began learning about evolution.
I knew “the basics” of evolution – animals change over time in response to changes in their environment, and over time new species arise. I understood that we evolved from apes, but I believed that God guided evolution according to His plan. But learning about it on a college level completely opened my mind to the awesome power of biology and genetics. I was hooked and when my money ran out I continued to eat up every book I could find on the subject, including The Selfish Gene.
It was about this time that I began to realize that God's hand wasn't necessary in guiding evolution at all. It guided itself most ably. But surely God was necessary to have started the universe. This led me to a couple of years' worth of self-education in cosmology, astronomy, and chemistry. It wasn't long before I'd formed a clear picture of the universe existing quite well on its own without God, thank you very much.
But I still held that kernel of fear of God. What if it was all true anyway? Couldn't God be testing me with this knowledge of the universe? Couldn't he be setting me up for damnation, backing me into this corner of atheism so that he could ride out of the heavens on a white horse and spear me some day soon? Maybe after the next lunar eclipse? The “god box” in my brain was in an all-out war with my reason, and it was most uncomfortable. I began to have panic attacks and was even hospitalized with one especially severe one. I was put on anti-anxiety medication, which did calm me down enough to learn how to beat the god box into silence and let my peaceful reason control my thoughts…most of the time.
Around this time, I read an essay on the internet written by a young Airman. It was a to-the-point debriefing for the religious, telling them was atheism was and was not, explaining why one becomes an atheist, and what an atheist's world view is like. I was so enchanted by this simple logic and clear thinking. I'd never seen atheism described so eloquently and simply before. I thought, “I would like to be an atheist. But what if God wouldn't approve?” I began writing to the young man and we soon developed a strong friendship. He helped me slowly shed religion in favor of rationality. Our friendship intensified and soon we were visiting each other during his military leaves. When he was finally released from service, incredibly getting out at the height of the Iraq war, he told me that he had no home to return to. I invited him to come live with me. He accepted, and soon we were planning our wedding, which, I am pleased to say, was completely non-religious.
On a recent vacation, though, I realized that my religious indoctrination still had some hold over my mind. We were both a little bit drunk in our hotel room, and a news story came on about some stupid political event or other. I think the alcohol allowed the god box to spring back to life. It just triggered something primal in me – I began to panic and cry in total terror. My husband tried to comfort me and tried to understand what I was so upset over. I couldn't even identify it myself. What was it about this news story that made me fall completely apart? After much careful thought, I decided that I'd been trying to use it to predict the Second Coming again, and that had in turn brought up the old terrors of my childhood. How stupid, to worry about something I didn't even believe in – and I truly did not believe in the existence of God any longer – not one little bit.
This episode made me realize how deeply my brain had been wounded at such a young age. I could still have psychological relapses into fear that were so strong that I would cry over a fictional character's wrath. I was so angry that I could barely enjoy the rest of our vacation – and when we got home, I headed to the local book store and perused the atheism section (which is sadly tiny, by the way). I found The God Delusion and read the whole thing during a two-day power outage with a flash light. I went through many batteries during those two days.
In The God Delusion, I found the answers to my questions about why and how my brain could continue to have this deep-seated, primal reaction to something that I knew to be false. I was so relieved to know that I wasn't crazy that I cried all over again, but this time it was a wonderful release of all the pent-up fear and tension. After reading the book, particularly the parts about your discussion with Jill Mytton, I felt NORMAL for the first time in my life. And I felt secure for the first time in my life, too. I understood that God was a fantasy, and I understood why and how my brain continued to fear that fantasy. Once I had that knowledge in my hands, I was able to master my fear and completely tamp it out.
I feel so free and happy now, and I feel like I have you to thank for it. Thank you so very much, from the bottom of my heart – your work is amazing, inspiring, and enlightening, and it has saved my sanity. I feel that I owe you so much. I will be grateful to you for the rest of my life.