My name’s Sean Gallagher, and my story is less dramatic and more gradual in its process than many I’ve read here in Converts’ Corner. Actually, I think I’m writing it as a sort of personal record for people in my life to read as much as I am motivated to share it with the world through your website. They all know that I’m atheist now, thanks to their discovery of how sharp my intellectual duelling sword has become on this subject, something for which I obviously owe many thanks to you Mr Dawkins. I particularly liked your Flying Spaghetti Monster analogy; it has been used to ridicule those members of my family who insist that I disprove God to justify my position, to much amusement for me and frustration for them. In fact, refusal to understand the metaphor is the only defence I’ve ever known having been used against it; a rhetorical triumph I believe, and one which I’m sure you have no problem with me propagating in defence of the ideas we share about God and the nature of religion.
I was brought up as a Catholic, the third generation of Irish immigrant stock, in Swindon, until I was ten years old. There, religion was presented as something warm, fuzzy, cuddly and comforting. Confession was now to be known as “Reconciliation,” and what I knew about hell, fire and brimstone I found out either because I read about it myself (I was an avid child reader; as well as the Bible, I had read dictionaries and at least one thesaurus from cover to cover!), because I asked questions about those people who didn’t go to heaven, or because my mother, brought up in an altogether more combative era for Catholicism, wanted to scare the living daylights out of me. Priests and nuns were kindly figures, and elements of the more joyous and musically participatory forms of worship more commonly seen in America were being adopted by the church my family attended, so my view of religion was generally a positive one.
When I was ten, my family moved to Northern Ireland, where Catholicism is practised in a much more traditional way. I passed my 11+ and went to the local Catholic boys’ grammar school. I found church to be less joyous, but much more monotonous and hypnotic (the lazy priests’ way of getting inside your mind; not as much energy expended as in happy-clappy gospel music!), and the combination of RE lessons at school with my burgeoning scientific knowledge meant that there was always going to be tension if not conflict between what I was taught in different classrooms.
For example, in religion I would be taught that contraception went against God’s teachings (wherever THEY were obtained from), but in biology the teacher was forced by the National Curriculum to inform us about condoms and the risks they were aimed at reducing or preventing.
Another problem I faced was my inability to stop masturbating. I was at it before I had a sexual thought in my head and therefore, there had to come a moment when I realised the full implications of my actions in this department. When I did, I was filled with religious guilt and self-hatred, because obviously my sexual urge was a much greater urge than my love of God. Well it had to be, I knew it to be wrong and I couldn’t help but continue!
Thankfully, when I was 16 I met the most wonderful girl with whom I had a two year long distance romance, and her counselling helped me come to terms with my sexuality in a way that I never thought possible. Though we are now broken up, I will always be grateful to her for explaining that if it was a natural urge that felt good, then who was a priest, or anyone for that matter, to call it sinful? That celibate priests were probably acting out of subconscious jealousy anyway, and that all of these so-called rules were implemented before the dissemination of reliable contraceptive tools and techniques, and so were designed to help people navigate through life in a culture that bears little relation to our own situation today.
Ultimately, what did for religion in my mind was a brutal exposure of how inflexible the church’s teachings are, combined with my history teacher’s lessons in the critical assessment of historical sources and sarcastic description of the Bible as such (thanks Mr Oliver!). In order to prepare us for our RE GCSE examination, my class was forced to memorise large chunks of Mark’s Gospel verbatim or face punishment.
When it came to preparing for the debate questions of the two papers we had to do, the non-dogmatic way of teaching students how to tackle such questions is to teach them how to express their opinions clearly, concisely and eloquently. In fact, the way we were taught to answer these questions was to copy verbatim the standard Catholic line from more overhead projector slides than I care to consider the existence of. When, in mock exams, I gave my own opinions instead of the Catholic one, I was marked wrong and regularly received grades as low as a D or E, a massive anomaly compared to the rest of my academic performance.
This was confirmed when, simply out of morbid boredom, I showed up for the exams themselves. I wrote exactly the same answers as I always had, and obtained a B, despite having lost out on at least 25% of the marks available due to not having bothered to complete any coursework! I realised I had been put through two years of punishment and suppression of my opinions and impressions, being made to feel a failure every time, for no other reason than the stupid RE teacher feared for her job if she gave me good marks for an argument in favour of euthanasia, contraception or divorce.
That rid me of the impression I had of the benevolence of the Catholic Church. I realised that they could be as on-message as the slickest politician with the most expensive PR staff on an organisational level, but on the individual level, the one on which we all operate, dogma would inevitably lead to suppression of new ideas and immense pressure to conform to an externally applied standard. This robbed me of too much of what I loved about being alive.
I have never had a problem with evolutionary biology. The simplified version we were taught at school always sufficed for me, and our religious teaching did not seek to dismiss evolution out of hand; rather it attempted to claim it as part of “God’s rich tapestry.” I therefore have not read any of Mr Dawkins’ books on the subject, although I have attempted to inform myself more deeply on the subject since I discovered that there are people who don’t accept it. I did, however, buy The God Delusion and devour it within an afternoon of spying it in an airport bookshop with 50% off.
I was curious because although I had discarded the Christianity of my youth, I regarded myself as agnostic because I could not think of any really convincing argument capable of dismissing the concept of God. When I read The God Delusion, I realised that such an argument was unnecessary. I realised that those making an assertion should bear the burden of proof; it shouldn’t be up to those who are sceptical to disprove the idea of God when nobody has offered any real hard evidence of his existence. To quote another internet essay I wrote,
“To prove God’s non-existence is unnecessary when the evidence for its existence is, as the evidence put forth for God’s existence is, impossible to substantiate, completely reliant on subjectivity and so lacking in factual support as to render it unfit for the rhetorical purpose to which it has been put.”
I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom the analogy of the Flying Spaghetti monster has had such a dramatic effect. It really was the key to my understanding that my own philosophy, once conformingly Catholic, once agnostic, has now shifted once more to Atheism. I think I probably would have come to this position alone were it not for the efforts expended in indoctrinating my made by my family and the church. I believe this to be the case because, once I had adopted my new philosophy, I realised that I viewed the nature of human beings (we are animals) differently, and that my memory bank of experience seemed a lot more coherent given this new insight into both my own nature and that of everyone else around me.
That is not to say that The God Delusion and the Atheist Pride campaign that Mr Dawkins propounds are unnecessary. Rather, that they are only necessitated by religion’s pre-eminence in our society today. I expect that, given the choice between the status quo, in which his ideas and expressions on Atheism garner him much success, and a scenario in which his ideas and expressions on Atheism already represented the status quo, I have no doubt that the latter would be his preferred option.
In a spirit of contribution towards that ideal, I’d like to state that, just as Mr Dawkins wishes, I have been making the case for religion’s exit from the stage of humanity at every opportunity, and I’d like to place on record my thanks to him for having the passion and discipline to tame such wild ideas into such a readable book.
Mr Dawkins, thank you for not simply putting up and shutting up, as I’m sure you were often encouraged to do. Thank you for accepting the burden of hostility that religion confronts you with on all Atheists’ behalf. Because you have made an intellectual contribution, you have been set up as a figurehead for Atheism, and I admire the grace and tenacity with which you have given yourself to such a role. Maybe if you hadn’t done it, someone else would have, but the burden is no less yours for that fact, and I’m sure I speak for a great many Atheists when I say that I am grateful for your advocacy in the media and in print.