Converts, Wed, Jan 30 2013 #(773)

Jan 30, 2013

Dear Professor Dawkins,

I was raised in the Church of Christ, above all a fundamentalist christian sect which had its roots in the religious movement now termed the Second Great Awakening ca. 1790-1803. However, my (adoptive) father was an organic chemist, his father a small-town physics professor who loved demonstrating how to make high school physics teaching apparatus from free cast-off and household objects. Grandfather himself was the son of a one-room schoolhouse teacher. As a result, I was simultaneously reared as a believer, but also as a third-or-fourth generation critical thinker and self-educator, with a particular emphasis on the physical sciences.

The irony in this is that I have my adopted family to both blame and thank for, firstly, raising me within religion, and, secondly, inadvertently supplying me with the tools of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning I'd later use to escape it.

In adolescence my parents exposed me to the work of a “creation science” advocate named John Clayton (his ministry is called “Does God Exist?” and it is surely findable on the Internet.) As a young believer with an interest in science, I was impressed: the subject of God's existence could be approached from a “scientific” perspective. Clayton worked the Drake equation, and would display the Lorentz transformation on an overheard projector at his lectures (another irony is it's from this roadshow of his that I actually learned the Lorentz transformation.) I would go on to proclaim, as a teenager, that I believed that design implied a designer. A failure of the imagination, as with all who have not fully understood the “crane” of Darwinian evolution.

My belief was finally undone by the works of Douglas R. Hofstadter, of whom I became aware by reading a review of Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (sorry about the missing diacritic) by Mart in Gardner in the July, 1979 issue of Scientific American. I toted this book to Bible camp in the summer of 1983, learned propositional calculus, and read his brilliant outline and exposition of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

The impact of Godel's theorem on me was dizzying. Here in the simplest mathematics possible, the properties of the natural numbers, was a demonstration of unprovability. So the “Does God Exist?” programme was put out the window, because amongst its assumptions was the idea that God's existence was decidable. Virtually overnight, these sorts of realizations converted me from a believer into an PAP agnostic (permanent agnostic in principle) at age 13.

The rest of my deconversion had to do with the obvious social backwardness of the sect in which I was raised against the modernity of my urban environment. But I thought you might be interested to know that I got a leg up from symbolic logic as a child. Professor Hofstadter was also very kind to my c hild inquiries, and we have developed a permanent friendship. (I actually saw, but did not meet, Dan Dennett at Doug's A5 birthday conference: at the time Dennett was below my radar and I simply knew him as co-editor of The Mind's I.

I've since made many trips from Louisville to Bloomington, Indiana, passing the little Bible camp where I was baptised so long ago, near the birthplace of the astronaut Gus Grissom. I usually pour a few drops of my beverage out the window to water the weeds that grow by the side of the highway. It is a symbolic ritual fueled by a problem that appears in the little-read, out-of-print exercise addendum to the Feynman Lectures on Physics: I'm sure the Oxford physics library has the exercises, which are just as entertaining as the Lectures themselves. The copy in the University of Louisville library is a charming facsimile of typescript.

The problem is this: a raindrop falls on a mud flat and a d inosaur steps on it. 65 million years later, a paleontologist takes a draught of water from a canteen as she inspects the fossilized footprint. How many molecules of water from the original raindrop has the paleontologist consumed?

In upending my bottle of water upon the Mitchell Plain of Indiana, I am returning my baptismal waters to the Christians, a few molecules at a time.

As an atheist, I became a fan of the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, whose writings allowed me to relax a bit from really hating christians as well as christianity. I wound up joining the Episcopal Church, which of course is the American branch of the Anglican Church, as an atheist, because I wanted to affirm and encourage the positive steps toward a post-religious way of thinking which were emerging from that church tradition. Like Dennett, I have been a liturgical musician, and I agree with what I believe to be his assessment that we'll eventually look at the church as a crazy old aunt who isn't v ery pleasant, but who was beautiful once, and whom we'll mourn when she passes. But we may not have to mourn very hard, or all for the same reasons.

Thank you for your wonderful words, Richard, I wish everyone communicated as clearly and as enthusiastically as you did, and naturally I hope your very important message continues to spread more virulently than the opposition: I say, virulently, for what could have more survival value for a meme than it lead to knowledge of real scientific truth amongst its hosts, and their survival as a consequence? You have detonated a charge at the base of a dam holding back a river of ink.

Alan Canon
Louisville, Kentucky
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