Converts, Wed, Jan 30 2013 #(973)

Jan 30, 2013

Dear Professor Dawkins,

I address you this way because you are truly deserving of the honorific,
and I most certainly consider myself your student. My conversion story
is quite long and detailed, so I'll just sum up here (though I do plan
on sending the entire story to Isobel Cook).

I was brought up Southern Baptist–a denomination with which I think you
are increasingly familiar. My entire family is Protestant, mostly
Baptist and conservative Methodist. A few weeks after my birth, I was
taken to my parents' church and Dedicated to God (Baptists don't go in
for the whole baptizing babies thing, though they were happy to baptize
me at the age of five). I was taught that the human race (though not
necessarily the world itself) was only 6,000 years old, evolution was a
lie concocted by scientists hellbent on destroying Christianity, I was
terribly sinful, and that the virgin birth and the resurrection of
Jesus were literal truths.

It's quite strange. I think I realized the inconsistencies in the
things I was taught even as a child. But in my world at that time, it
was a given that all these things were true. Somehow, I managed.

There are two kinds of Evangelicals (in other words, Baptists and those
like them). 1)Those who take to evangelical Christianity like fish to
water, and 2) those who don't, but try very hard to. I was of the
latter category.

I'm a bit nervous sharing such personal details, but it's best that I
do. I was a boy who never felt totally like a boy. From an early age,
I was aware that I felt partially female. As I reached adolescence, I
found that I was sometimes attracted to other males, though mostly to
females. This only fed religion, however. My pastors and Sunday school
teachers never reacted with shock when they found out about this. In
fact, my gender/sexuality issues seemed to endear me to them. I think
they saw it as my cross to bear, per the old saying, and they encouraged
me to pray for God to take it away, and to ask forgiveness whenever I
had sinful thoughts. “Sinful,” of course, also described heterosexual
lust, and what thirteen-year-old is free of that? (What adult is free
of that?)

I eventually developed severe depression because of my religion. My
parents, deeply concerned took me to a psychologist–one who had also
graduated from a Baptist seminary. He encouraged me to pray and ask
forgiveness as well, though to his credit, he did try to help me with my
self-esteem.

In high school I began to question. I found more inconsistencies in
Christianity than I could keep track of; but like Douglas Adams, I had
no other framework for explaining the Universe except that there must be
a god of some type. I read books on Hinduism, Buddism, even
Zoroastrianism and alternative religions. Though many of these
resonated with me, I found that I had objections to all of them, and I
knew that if I followed Buddhism, for example, I would just be replacing
one god with another.

At the library one day, I found Bertrand Russel's “Why I'm Not a
Christian,” and read some portions of it. His arguments were elegant,
but at that point, I couldn't totally accept atheism. Eventually, my
mother–worried sick, of course–had me read a book called “The Case for
Christ” by Lee Strobel, a former journalist who says he's a former
atheist. I had never read any other New Testament scholarship, so I
completely accepted his arguments, and I rejoined Christianity, though
this time as an Episcopalian (much to my parents' initial dismay).
Interestingly enough, the Episcopal church in Alabama, where I then
lived, was made up largely of former Baptists. (Category 2 evangelicals
have to go somewhere when they fail to fit in….)

This story is already growing long, but I have to do it justice.

At my Episcopal church, I met and befriended a (female!) priest. I'll
call her “Jane.” Jane was kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and a
psychiatrist to boot. She had left her practice a few years earlier to
join the clergy. One day, I set up a meeting with her in her office and
opened up about my gender issues. She was totally accepting. It turns
out that as a psychiatrist she had done extensive work with gender
disorders in children, and was totally convinced that these conditions
were natural. I was not as surprised as I might have been. After all,
this was a priest who called the Holy Spirit “she” instead of “he”. I
left her office feeling quite uplifted.

Several things nagged at me, though. A few months earlier, I had read
your book “The God Delusion,” initially intending to refute the entire
thing. I failed at that task, of course. Though the book had not
totally convinced me, it had motivated me to examine my beliefs. It was
then that I began to discover things like skeptical inquiry and peer
review. I had always been a gifted child, but in a very religious
world, I had never been taught these vital elements of scholarship. I
found Lee Strobel to be biased and quite lacking. My mother recommended
another writer, Josh McDowell. Though he makes an even more valiant
effort, his work is full of half-truths, convenient omissions, and what
I like to call “intellectual sleight-of-hand.”

Then I read several books that actually seemed to explain something.
Your book “A Devil's Chaplain” and Sam Harris' “Letter to a Christian
Nation,” followed by “The End of Faith.” I also read three books by the
late (and greatly missed) Carl Sagan: “The Demon-Haunted World,” “The
Varieties of Scientific Experience,” and of course “Cosmos.” By the
time I was finished reading these (and watching “Root of All Evil?” and
“The Enemies of Reason”) I had significant reason to doubt.

I went and talked to Jane again. I told her of my doubts. She
recommended I read Kierkegaard. I tried, but couldn't make sense of his
almost hallucinogenic descriptions of Abraham following God's orders. I
e-mailed Jane and asked her what her reason for believing was, in the
face of so many reasons to doubt.

Her answer? Subjective experience. I'm not kidding.

“But you're a scientist!” I thought. “You have a medical degree!
You've studied psychology. You of all people must know that subjective
experience occurs in all religions and can have any number of mundane
causes. IS THAT REALLY ALL YOU CAN GIVE ME?” I think I wrote her an
e-mail to that effect, though more polite. She left the country for
some priestly activity or other. I never heard from her, though I still
respect her greatly.

By this time, I had stopped going to church. I wasn't going to stand in
the nave and say the Nicene Creed if I wasn't sure I believed it. Soon
I realized the truth: I just plain disbelieved.

I felt free. In fact, my gender and sexuality issues diminished
noticeably once it was okay to have them–though I think homosexuality
is quite natural in most cases, and harmless even if in some cases it
isn't natural. I no longer had to divide the world into those who are
saved and those who are damned. I didn't have to be superhuman anymore,
but rather a human trying to make the world better. I had never
realized how interested I was in all areas of scholarship–science,
history, psychology, anthropology. Though my university degree is in
visual art (photography particularly) I still read these subjects
eagerly, and your website is a great resource for me.

Thank you very much, Professor Dawkins. I think it was about halfway
through “The God Delusion” that I realized that this rational scholar
whose thoughts I was reading was the same Oxford scientist who is so
vilified in the Intelligent Design literature. I hope that you will
continue to speak out, question, enlighten, and learn.

–Convert in New York

P.S. Interestingly enough, another huge influence for me was “The
Language of God” by Francis Collins. He makes a wonderful argument for
human evolution (this was the book that made me a firm believer in
evolution), but relies on the same argument that C.S. Lewis failed with
for the existence of God.
.

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