Thank you from an Alabama Student
I want you to know just how radically your writings have altered my life and my worldview. Here is a bit of history first. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family (Southern Baptist) in Alabama. I "received Christ" at the ripe age of 9 and was baptized, but I did not truly claim ownership of my own faith (as opposed to being a "Christian child" simply because of my parents’ religion) until I moved to a Wesleyan church during middle school to participate in their local Hispanic outreach ministry. It was through the ministries at the Wesleyan church that I was "born again", and from middle school all the way through my undergraduate studies and subsequent year as a schoolteacher, my God was my life. I led worship as a singer for years at the local Hispanic church, and at the same time taught a children’s church class during service and also a weekly youth Bible study. (The price of being a leader in a small church is that one does not have the luxury of specializing in a single ministry area.) I was also actively involved in the Wesleyan church itself, attending Sunday service, running the sound system during the Monday night college/young adult worship service, and occasionally participating in weekly Bible study home-groups.
Summer brought even more ministry opportunities. Several summers I taught Vacation Bible School, a week of crafts, games, and Jesus education for childrenalways culminating in an emotional "altar call" during the finale service, where many children (and often a few parents) either received Christ for the first time or rededicated their lives to serving the Lord. I also led or participated in 15 one-week mission trips to Mexico, where we built churches, distributed food and clothing, bonded with the children through games and conversation, and (most importantly) held Bible school for the children and services for the parents. (The children were lured by promises of candy and soccer. Interestingly, no one on these trips ever mentioned how suspicious it would seem if a band of strange, foreign Mexicans who barely speak English went door-to-door in our neighborhoods, inviting our children to "Catholic camp". And we thought we had the right to be frustrated that so many of the women were reluctant to send their children with us?) I still look back on these trips with the fondest memories; I think I always will, no matter my current beliefs on religion and the horrors of brainwashing children and taking advantage of the uneducated.
I don’t know for certain when I began to honestly question my beliefs. I was plagued by doubts throughout high school, the price of being in the International Baccalaureate Programme with many of the brightest (and most liberal) students in the state. But I saw it as a test of my faith, and I prided myself on my ability to stay strong despite the doubts. (As my former pastor once said, doubts are okay, as long as they don’t lead us away from God. I remember responding to that sermon in a private journal entry, asking what the point of doubt was if we must always continue to hold onto our beliefs.) The turning point was my first year as a graduate student in biology, when I took a class on evolution. The professor was also my major advisor (and remains so) and a self-proclaimed agnostic, and we frequently talked outside of class about religion. I had never before had any sort of trusting relationship with a non-Christian, and as such, I began to open up surprisingly quickly to her very rational arguments, and I realized that if I were completely honest with myself, I could no longer believe with unwavering certainty that my God exists. My God, Who I had known my entire life, and with Whom I had had a very powerful relationship for 10 years.
My advisor recommended several books. At the top of the list were your own God Delusion and Devil’s Chaplain, in addition to Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation and End of Faith, Hitchens’s God is not Great, and Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. I am pleased to say that the more I read, the more I understood the irrationality of my former beliefs and of religious faith in general, and I came to the conclusion that as an intelligent, rational human being, I cannot continue to hold onto my childhood faith when there is absolutely no evidence in support of itand even much evidence against it, as you and the others clearly describe in your books.
My change of heart (or, more accurately, mind) certainly has not come easily or without pain. I was sitting outside reading at the University one day, very soon after my "dead again" experience (as opposed to "born again"I believe I came across this catchy word play in one of Ehrman’s works, but I am not certain) when it hit me that there probably is no God. At least, not the God I knew. No one to guide my every major life decision. No one to grant my three wishes when I or a loved one is in need. No one to sing praises and lift my hands to. No one to send His angels to wrap around our vans in protection while traveling to Mexico for missions work. Not even anyone to give me a damn parking place on campus in the middle of the day. For the first time in my life, I felt completely, devastatingly alone. And I was terrified. It was the first of many occasions when I had the urge to lock myself in my room and cry until I was too exhausted to continue. Several of those times I have done just that.
A couple of months after my "dead again" experience, in the heat of frustration at myself for continuing to hide my change of heart, I published a note about my beliefs on Facebook, an online network connecting people worldwide. This was an efficient way to tell the majority of my friends all at one time (and without the intense nerves that would come from a more personal face-to-face with any one of them). Had I postponed this rash decision and thought through the potential consequences, I probably would have been more careful. One day after posting the note, I removed it. I had received many messages from friends insisting on maintaining friendshipsmessages perhaps encouraging at first blush, but somewhat demeaning and patronizing upon further analysis. Messages such as, "Nothing you could ever do would make me not be your friend", "God still loves you and so do I", or "I don’t know what made you change, but I still love you!" The underlying sentiment being that even though I don’t believe in God, they still want to maintain our relationship. The reason, though, that I took down the note was because of the more intense (and perhaps more honest) responses, such as, "It’s not about you or making you comfortable it’s about GOD!!" or "You sound like a very wounded little girl, who is striking out at friends trying to hurt as many as possible, hoping to get attention and help" or "the Bible tells me (and you) that 'the fool says in his heart there is no God.’ The things you are saying are foolish" or "I’m so disappointed. I have been praying for you ever since you started college that you wouldn’t get so caught up in the intellectual world that you lose your faith."
The stress of the backlash I received from friends and family not only made my transition more difficult emotionally, but it also made me physically sick for several weeks. Fortunately, the intensity eventually subsided, and I have been able to maintain positive relationships with most of my family and numerous Christian friends. Now, a year later, I am once again secure in my beliefs and once again confident in my ability to lead a fulfilling life this time without God. I recently re-read God Delusion, and I have read many articles in Free Inquiry, including several you authored. These and other works (such as those I previously mentioned) are very encouraging to me. Just knowing there are brilliant people out there who don’t believe in God or religion and still lead fulfilling lives has been an enormous support during this otherwise emotionally difficult year. I was inspired to write this note as a thank-you while watching the Four Horsemen discussion. I listened to Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and you question the worth of your work and whether it has made any positive impact. I am here to tell you it most certainly has. Here in Alabama, I am one of probably very few non-Christians, as you no doubt witnessed during your brief time with radio hosts Rick and Bubba and subsequent "debate" in Birmingham (if you could call your minute of speaking time vs. Lennox’s seemingly hours a debate). You have no idea how much I appreciate your dedication to informing the public about the silliness and dangers of religion. Please do not stop now.
Catherine E. Newman
M.S. Graduate Student
Evolution and Systematics
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alabama