Dear Professor Dawkins,
I'll try to keep this succinct, since the span of my journey into the bowels of religion and out again was a mere two decades. Pardon that metaphor.
I am the progeny of catholic German, French, and Irish protestant ancestry.
My father was one of ten offspring of a sweet little bible-thumping Orange Irish woman and a French philanderer who cut out after the tenth child was born. Although surrounded by catholics, my father never displayed a trace of religiosity. Yet he was a generous and sentimental man, and a good provider, who understandably resented his hard-earned money going to the church on Sundays. The harm caused to my parents by “catholic birth control” (just say no) is unforgiveable; and it played a part, I believe, in my deconversion in my late teens.
Two brothers before me went off to the seminary, one Benedictine, one Maryknoll; and I in my turn went to Sacred Heart Mission seminary, all three of us, straight out of grade school.
It was the IN thing at the time, immersed as we were in catholicity, urged on by persuasive parish priests hungry for recruits. (my grand old seminary is now county office buildings).
I received an excellent general education throughout my 6 years of seminary high school and junior college, culminating in my decision to jump ship at the tender age of 18, shortly before taking the final vows (poverty, chastity, and obedience). I look back on that day with self-congratulatory relief at having had the gumption to take my leave at the eleventh hour.
My Benedictine brother is still a priest to this day, having spent 15 years teaching young boys at the Benedictine seminary in Guatemala, and 35 years as a cloistered monk in the U.S.
My Maryknoll brother, after an 'investment' of 8 years in the seminary, bailed out mere weeks after my escape. He was always my pard and my mentor; but by a strange twist of fate, I suddenly seemed to be setting the course. I promptly joined the navy, while he chose the marines and was soon heading for Vietnam.
On entering boot camp at age 19, I forswore all religious observances and never looked back. On long submarine deployments, my miniscule locker was packed with existential books, and I lapped them up: Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camus, Mann, Hesse, Chekov. I had never been exposed to these books and found them a refreshing contrast to the seminary fare of Augustine, Benedict, Aquinas, et alia, and endless encyclicals and revisionist histories of the lives and times of popes and saints.
Many of my shipmates didn't know what to make of the 'weirdo who was always reading thick books,' so some opted for disdain and aloofness. But there soon formed a small circle of chaps who enjoyed talking about ideas, playing chess, and listening to classical music (when not on-station & running silent).
And so this self-reinforcing pack of wise guys made the dreary months of submerged patrol seem easier. We talked a lot about gods, contradictions, fear, authorship of 'sacred texts,' and extra-terrestrial life.
I may have provided the impetus, but I think the gang talked themselves out of any remaining delusions they may have had about religion. I think they just needed to know that they could, as I believe you have said on occasion.
In summary, for me the early realizations leading to my deconversion were:
–the contradictions inherent in the anthropomorphic attributes assigned to god, primarily 'just but merciful' seemed like patent nonsense.
–my perception of the structure of fear meticulously created and nourished by the church: purgatory & hell as appropriate punishment for ANYthing, let alone the so-called mortal sins.
–the irrationality of eternal reward and punishment.
–the inanity of an all-good god who tolerates pervasive and inexorable suffering of innocents–human AND animal.
–the sham doctrines of Aquinas, Augustine, et alii 'church fathers': original sin, sacraments, transubstantiation, virgin birth, limbo, recent 'discovery' of the immaculate conception, etc.
–the ambiguities in Greek and Latin translations studied in seminary, pointing to human authorship.
–the universal claim of all religions to veracity and singularity…they can't all be right, but they can all be wrong.
–and not least, my Eureka moment when I realized that up to that particular point in my life, age 19, I had not done one god damned thing wrong, though I had been confessing for years!
Finally, Richard, coming to the present day, I am thoroughly enjoying the renaissance of enlightened and highly entertaining atheist works that you and your confreres have authored.
I recently 'circumnavigated' the U.S. by car and took along a collection CD audio books to ward off driver's fatigue.
Yours and Lala's performance of The God Delusion was superb… both times! And so was your reading of The Origin of the Species.
I assiduously follow the debates that you and others are taking on with such great success. I don't know where you find the strength, but I hope you continue for a long, long time.
Ronald Palmatier, Seattle