Dear Professor Dawkins
First of all, I would like to thank you for your work – over many years – to put the case for reason. I only read 'God Delusion' this year – but stepped out of the religious fold four years ago – though of course I was aware of your work, amongst others, well before that.
My story is for the most part typical – joining a church youth group – a growing affiliation to liberal christianity, periods of fluctuating devotion and sometimes of severe doubt. The process of moving away was gradual – over decades, really. All the intellectual reasons seemed to get stronger, but the change to atheism was more to do with being honest with myself, and other people. A major factor holding me back was personal – that other members of my family (wife & younger children) were quite involved in the church – as are my in laws; and many of our friends were through one or other church.
Obviously there is more to say in general, but you may have interest in the association between my public admission of lack of faith and a much more personal and family earthquake, that is, my coming out as gay.
With the benefit (or bias) of hindsight, it seems to me now that, as I struggled with doubts over faith, at times sure, at others agnostic, still others atheist – so too with sexuality. Since adolescence I'd been very worried I was different, was gay. This got mixed up with church (it wasn't the girls that persuaded me to join the youth group), into dalliance with high church theatricality, confessions of my 'problem' which led to an attempted excorcism – even thoughts of a monastic vocation (quite a stretch, as I was then Methodist). I suppose in the last ten years or so I kind of lived with agnosticism on both fronts – not sure how much I believed, nor if I was bi.
So, when I finally accepted that I really was gay, I decided that, as with sexuality, spirituality is a personal affair, no matter what societal pressure I might feel to remain compliant. I had simply run out of excuses to keep up the pretence.
In the end, both my 'liberal faith' and my 'bisexuality' fell down together like a house of cards. After years of wobbling it just got too much – and when parts of the edifices started falling, the rest soon followed.
I still haven't quite worked out how I managed to keep up the pretences so long. I suppose you could say I was just lying – but I don't recall it like that. I kept thinking through my faith, trying to make sense of what I could. Likewise, I tried to reason I couldn't be gay as I was married. (I now wonder if fear – in this case of harm to my children of my coming out – was a factor in stopping me thinking things through: perhaps fear of losing the church paralysed my reason in respect of religious doubts as well).
In the case of sexuality, finding out there were others like me, as well as common sense, proved I was wrong. Wrong to think I couldn't be gay, wrong to think I couldn't be honest. It's perhaps no coincidence I came out to myself on both counts in the summer of 03 – when anglicanism started going through its ridiculous convulsions over gay bishops.
When I accepted I was atheist (and gay), that was it, pretty much. It was a question of when not if I would tell others – stopping church was first, as it seemed (and of course was) by far the easier change to make in my life. To be fair to my family and my ex-church, I have not encountered the rejection that others on this site – and others concerning coming out – have suffered.
I remain intrigued as to what part my personal traits and situations may have shaped all this and if my 'coming out' in terms of sexuality was truly linked to coming out as atheist. I am by nature anxious to avoid conflict, and perhaps part of that is a tendancy to moderate or liberal views. I had a need to be accepted and a reluctance to upset people – e.g., my parents. (How much, I wonder, are people's respective spiritualities linked not so much to the merits of whatever religions they encounter, but to the combination of their circumstances and their personality traits? And what is the psychodynamic, so to speak, of conversion?)
This site is a valuable atheist equivalent of support sites, in other contexts, for those are thinking the unthinkable, and prepared to act on it. In reading other posts, it is clear this is a support at a personal as well as an intellectual level. As I began, I am very grateful for this resource. If you can find a use for any part of this post, please do so.
All the best in your work and kind regards