Dear Mr Dawkins,
I am now fifty years old. I was raised in the beliefs of the Protestant Dutch Reformed church as practised by Afrikaans-speaking descendants of the 17th C Dutch and French Hugenot immigrants of South Africa. My first suspicions that religion was the source of tremendous human suffering and exploitation dawned on me during my very early teens – perhaps aided by the inherent and very obvious contradictions inherent in the support for and justification of apartheid by the Dutch Reformed church in South Africa. Religion, I argued, was the problem, but not the world of spirit and metaphysics. So I abandoned religions, but not belief in metaphysics. And then, in my mid-twenties, I literally had an epiphany: all this spirit-stuff and metaphysics is a load of hog-wash. I declared myself an atheist.
The only problem was, I found myself cognitively clear that I was an atheist, but emotionally still a closet metaphysicist. After reading THE ANCESTOR’S TALE and THE GOD DELUSION I finally realised that the reason for this double and contradictory life was simply my fear of death. The belief in gods, I realised, was not just an opiate for the randomness of life in general, but one that served very well to numb the terrible dread that one may feel when contemplating the inevitable end of your existence. Then I read UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW and could not agree more – that if anything in human emotion should or could be called “religious” it is that feeling one feels when contemplating the wonderous fact that the universe exists, and that a species evolved capable of cognising the fact that it exists.
But still the fear of the nothingness of extinction remains. (And the argument that I did not know fear during the billions of years before I was born and therefore should have no fear of the billions of years after my death offers little consolation – I was not conscious of the fact that I was going to be born, but I am very conscious of the fact that I am going to die.)
I cannot believe in gods. It offends my common sense and reason. I shall die an atheist, and always fear death. I have therefore come to the conclusion that despite any failings I might have, I am a man of courage, because to live life without the opiate of religion and metaphysical reassurances takes real courage. A soldier who rises up from a trench under enemy fire believing that he or she will “go to heaven” and “live on” should he or she die, is no more courageous than one who does so numbed by an opiate. The real hero is the one who rises up from the trench knowing full well that should he or she die, he or she shall cease to exist.