Dear Mr Dawkins
Having just tonight finished reading your “The God Delusion”, and not being able to sleep, I decided to come downstairs and finally take a look through your website, and came across Converts Corner. Reading “The God Delusion” has been for me less of a cathartic experience than a crystallisation of all the debates and searching I've been through in the last 39 years. You have so eloquently outlined all the areas I've spent years thinking about and reading about, and added a few more I'd not gotten around to yet!
Raised a Roman Catholic and detesting the wasted Friday afternoons cooped up in Catechism classes with some religious nutter, I eventually rebelled once I'd left home, and whilst in the Air Force, away from home, came under the influence of one of those happy-clappy sects. Things went well for a while in the aforementioned sect, it was a small, close-knit community, and I'd met a really hot girl. This lead to a few problems as it was really hard keeping my hands off her, which inevitably did not endear me to her “values”. I then moved to another similar group, but eventually started growing weary of them, because they just seemed to have this hangup with how evil we were by nature, and how everything we did was evil unless explicitly blessed by God, which mean praying a lot!
Moving back to my home town I started attending the Presbyterian Church that my mother attended, having by now worked out that it was a good place to find hot girls, but not having worked out that it was not going to help as none of them were allowed to acknowledge their sexuality. Having found what I can only term a “spiritual home” (still working on a definition for that!), I found that I liked the flavour of Calvinism being espoused, and decided to become a Minister in the Presbyterian Church. I should at this juncture probably mention that I was born and raised in South Africa during the apartheid years, and only realised in hindsight, once I'd emigrated to the UK, how thoroughly Calvinist the whole regime of the time was! So it was not entirely surprising that the Calvinism of Presbyterianism fitted nicely with my world view at the time, and becoming a Minister was probably just a way of extending my comfort zone. Also, I figured that I liked working with people, liked observing people, and was generally inquisitive about what made them tick, and so was shipped off to University to study Theology.
I majored in, inter alia, New Testament Studies, and did two years of Greek, at the end of which I was reading the New Testament texts in their “original” Greek. That in itself was a *huge* eye opener, and was fundamental in sowing the first seeds of doubt in my mind. Having also done 3 years of Old Testament studies under rigourous tutorship probably only added to the forment, as both courses required students to prepare material for presentation to the class: the lecturers themselves did not lecture, merely set topics, guidance notes and reading lists, and the lectures were researched and presented by the students. In hindsight, once again, I am now convinced my Old Testament Professor was an atheist, looking back on the reading lists and topics, and not having ever seen him attending a single church service.
One of my other majors was Systematic Theology, presented primarily by a wonderful professor. He was a Roman Catholic, having one been a priest, and having served as an advisor at Vatican II. An expert in the writings of Karl Rahner, he was one of the other major influences in my life. It was not so much what he taught me in terms of content. That I have now long discarded. But what he taught me was how to think. His philosophical methodology was fantastic, even though it broke down when it clashed with his religion an beliefs. But it set for me the framework around which I have done all my thinking, and my Old and New Testament studies provided me with the skills to do proper research, and the ability to digest and organise, in my mind, vast amounts of data as I read. The two years of Greek provided me invaluable understanding of the need to contextualise what I was reading, regardless of who it was. And so I spent a lot of time reading about, and researching, the life and the times of the authors I was reading. That too was something I learned in Old and New Testament studies, and has proved invaluable.
Following my formal University training I was posted to a congregation in a Black township just outside one of South Africa's major cities. Once I'd got over the initial culture shock (being pinkish myself!), I was flabbergasted to find that the congregation was nothing more than a social club. The religious overtones were just that, overtones, and the link to any form of “genuine” belief or religion were tenuous at best. That really shook my world, and I eventually found myself wondering why they bothered, until I realised it was just a clever ruse to make the christian missionaries *think* that they had converted them, when in reality all they were doing was what they would have been doing anyway.
Add to this that I was becoming progressively more disillusioned by the Church. It was, unsurprisingly, filled with politics and rivalry that, to my mind, had no place in the christianity it professed to. Being new in the “firm” that was the church, I was firmly put in my place when I tried to be too ambitious and actually *do* something of meaning, and in the end, when the congregation I had been posted to ran out of money and I ended up paying for a lot of stuff out of my meagre stipend, no one was willing to admit they'd made a bad mistake with the posting, and no one was willing to help me out of the pit I'd been cast into. Not one. Once I'd resigned they were all very eager to reclaim the cost of my years at University though!
Fortunately, the University they had sent me to was the first university in South Africa to have a full time permanent leased line connecting us to the precursor of Uninet, and hence to the juvenile Internet. The University also had the enlightened policy of opening its computer labs to the general student populace after hours, and it was here that I emerged myself in the world of Bulletin Board Services (BBS's) and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), debating for hours on end with Christian fundamentalists. Even at that point I found myself becoming a literalist as far as my interpretation of biblical writings was concerned, and despite fundamentalism's claim to be literalists, I personally found them to be extremely vague on many points of interpretation. I took the text at face value, spent many hours understanding various parts and strands in the text in their context, and researched the historical situations that influenced the texts for as many hours. Fundamentalism however, had to resort to all kinds of interpretative gymnastics to hold their story together. It is, as you say in your book, their belief that they believe in, and just don't realise it.
All of this eventually had me out of the clutches of Christianity not much more than 10 years after I'd entered the abyss. My years of reading and research, soul searching and thinking, was, looking back, leading me inexorably away from my previous world view. Much water has since passed under the bridge of my life, but I have never stopped reading and researching, albeit significantly more slowly what with a full time job and a family. Ever since leaving the ministry, I have found my “spiritual home”, as it were, on the internet. I found structure, sense and beauty in the anarchy; immunity from meddling controls. I've been really lucky to have evolved an understanding of the “geist' of the Internet: what makes it tick, and have become quite proficient in the technologies it uses. None of this would have been possible had I not had the education I had had at the University I had been at, with the lecturers I'd been exposed to. How ironic that it should have been the faculty of Theology that gave me the life skills that has brought me to the point where I can now say that I am, without any doubt, an atheist.
In your book I found many explanations and clarification of things I'd been contemplating for a while: one small example is the enjoyment of classical music. Much of the best classical music I think was written with very obvious religious overtones and for religious purposes, and I really enjoy listening to it, but was struggling philosophically to wrap my head around the apparent disconnect with my atheist leanings! The way you explained it crystallised it for me: they were very talented individuals these composers, it had nothing at all to do with any deity: sheer human endeavour, and to explain it any other way would be a denigration of the achievement of these individuals, which has made my time on this planet so much more beautiful.
As for where I am right now: I must admit to still be struggling to discard all the years of useless baggage of christianity. Wrapping my brain around the fact that there is no afterlife, that this is it, there is nothing more other than that the atoms that currently make me may one day make someone else. In that sense there is an afterlife, but certainly nothing like Christianity espouses. Its just sometimes hard to come to terms with the enormity of the deception and how ingrained it is into the everyday lives of most people, and how hard it is to cleanse oneself of it. But I am more determined than ever to raise my children as thinkers, and not followers. They're strong willed enough that even if I just let them be they will make up their own minds about things, but I will be encouraging that trait for as long as they're under my roof. Hopefully they can sit back in 40 years time and understand what I've done for them. That in itself will be my life's greatest achievement, if I can make that happen. That is one of the reasons we emigrated to the UK: to raise our children in a non-religious environment, to let them travel and experience other people and cultures and understand that no one has a monopoly on the truth, and that they have to work it out for themselves, and keep working it out.
In closing I just want to mentioned how tickled I was by the irony of picking your book up at Gatwick en route to a conference in Dallas. It didn't really sink in until the Sunday morning, when I turned on the television hoping for a news broadcast and a weather forecast that I realised that I was deep in the Bible belt! Every 3rd channel was some televangelist sprouting his or her nonsense, brainwashing innocent men, women and children, reducing them to tears by induced guilt. There was even one woman, rake thin, plastered in make up, talking like a machine gun (I sat there waiting for her to breathe, a whole 3 minutes, because that was all I could take of the drivel she was sprouting, and she didn't breathe, not once!), something about the perfectness of the number 7, and how donating money to her account in multiples of 7 was somehow going to ensure your place in heaven. I was, to use a very British phrase, utterly gobsmacked!
Anyhow, congratulations on a brilliant book, and very useful web site. And many thanks for saying so eloquently what I've been trying to say for years!