I am an ex-fundamentalist Christian from the Bible Belt. Yes… I did indeed used to be a fundamentalist Christian… I have danced in the aisles of churches. I have met Jim and Tammy Faye Baker on outings to their “PTL” (Praise the Lord) retreat. I have been a missionary to Venezuela (pre-Chavez days), encouraging others to “see the light”. I have read the Bible from cover to cover many times. I have taught Sunday School. I have been “healed”. I stopped just shy of speaking in tongues (I never “felt” the Holy Spirit trying to make me talk… and I didn't want to be false by pretending… something that I suspect a lot of people do because of the pressure from others). I have held all night prayer vigils. I have even preached a sermon. Yes… I have done all of these things. All before my 18th birthday.
I wish I could say that I am an atheist now because of Mr. Dawkins' book, but my transformation has been a long time coming. I think it began when I was still under the influence of my parents. Around age 14 or 15, I had a very vivid dream (perhaps the doubts of my unconscious mind finally forced themselves through and made themselves known). I dreamt that I was in a room with three doors. Jesus stood by one and said, “This is the only way to eternal life.” Mohammed stood by another and said the same thing. And Buddha stood by the third and also said the same thing. While trying to make my decision, I was suddenly tranported to a higher plane above the room, and I could see that all the doors led to the same place! Surrounding this room was the vastness of the universe, and no matter which door you went through you would find yourself in this universe, not in some mythical heaven or paradise.
I buried this dream for a long time (goodness knows I couldn't tell my family about it). But I began to harbor doubts. In secret, I would research other religions. I would look for answers (I was tired of always being told that things were the way they were because 'God wanted it that way'). Meanwhile, I was on a path that would lead to my attendance at a Christian college called Evangel College (in Missouri). I wanted to study chemistry or biology (I loved science), but at this college, classes would be interspersed with chapel and there would be no mention of evolution or natural selection. (Let me digress by telling you that I never learned about evolution in high school, either. My biology teacher was a Christian, and she refused to teach it to us. So at this point in my life I knew very little about evolution except that it was an “evil” idea perpetuated by Satan.)
I finally rebelled. I had so many doubts and unanswered questions. So I refused to go to college. My family greatly protested. I instead moved in with my grandmother (herself a devout Christian lady) and entered the workforce. The one benefit is that my grandmother did not insist that I go to church every Sunday as my parents had done (although she did make me feel guilty when I didn't go). So I was able to distance myself somewhat from the constantly reinforced brainwashing. I continued to search for answers on my own… But I would lie awake many nights thinking about my religion and my doubts and wracked with uncertainty and guilt.
Eventually I got married and was no longer living with my grandmother. And I also remembered my long-ago dream to become a scientist. With the tremendous support of my husband (he's from England and was never a very religious person), I quit my job and returned to college, eleven years after leaving high school. It was at my undergraduate institution that I was first exposed to natural selection in a very real way. Suddenly everything made sense! It was like the curtains had been pulled back from my mind. I felt like I could finally understand the world and why things are the way they are. I would no longer have to depend on the idea that some invisible god willy-nilly decided to make some things perfect and some things imperfect and who left behind more questions than answers. It was a beautiful moment of awakening.
I am now in graduate school working towards a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta. As anyone who has ever been to graduate school knows, there is not much time for personal reading. But I have managed to start reading The God Delusion. It is a wonderful book, and it beautifully summarizes the struggles I have been going through with issues of science vs. religion for so long. I am even considering a lab rotation in a lab that looks at the evolution of the human brain. And I am looking forward to reading Richard Dawkins' other books.
The problem is that my entire family is still very much fundamentalist Christians. To say it makes for unpleasant Thanksgivings and Christmases is an understament. They all feel that I am going to hell and they must save me. It's very emotionally challenging to have your mother cry in front of you because she thinks that she will never see you again in eternity. It's a struggle that I am constantly facing. I am constantly getting e-mails telling me how science is wrong. (My dad has a bachelor's degree in biology which makes him think he understands science better than anyone.) I am just so thankful that I have my husband as a support (oddly enough, my family aren't as concerned with trying to “save” him). The one thing that keeps me sane in the middle of this whirlwind of religious family members is the fact that I feel at peace for the first time. It is as if everything finally makes sense. There are no more nights lying awake wracked with uncertainty and doubt. Whereas I used to try to “convert” people to the Christian faith, now I wish I could share this inner peace with everyone. I am truly sorry for anyone I did “convert” during my younger years…. I hope I did not lead too many people down a path of guilt, doubt, and uncertainty. Now I hope to live by example and show others that atheism is not the same as immorality.
Thank you, Mr. Dawkins, for infusing me with courage to share my story with others. I no longer feel compelled to hide my atheism.