I hope I may write with this familiarity, and I’m assuming that it is Richard Dawkins who reads these e-mails.
I am an 18-year-old female from Bangladesh, living in Vietnam for nine years, daughter of Hindu parents. There is a story in the Hindu mythology about a small boy who questioned god’s existence by going to Goddess Durga’s shrine and deciding not to leave until he saw the Goddess. Finally, after a certain amount of time (I have no idea how long), the Goddess was pleased with the boy’s courage and determination that she decided to show up. From then on, the boy knew that the Goddess Durga was real. (This story could be true. The child could easily have been imagining it.) When I was 8, I did just the same (though I only stayed at the shrine for 24 hours), getting a different result from him, and coming to a different conclusion. This must have been the first time I ever doubted the existence of god.
Now, being from this part of the world, it’s very difficult to hold no belief. People’s lives are shaped by their own beliefs. Here, a religion is a race, a specie even. The dominating religion (Islam, in Bangladesh) is the superior “race” or “specie” to all the others. Public schools have religion classes, where all students are taught about Islam, and classes are given after school for children whose parents are Christians, Hindus or Buddhists. I am lucky to have left Bangladesh as a fourth grader, but I had been brainwashed and oppressed thoroughly enough. My “Muslim friends” used to tell me how Hindus are evil, and if I didn’t convert to a Muslim, I will burn in Jahannam (hell) along with anybody else who didn’t believe in Allah. I have been through this since I was 5, when I first started going to school. I am amazed by the capacity of children’s minds. How did we carry all that in our heads? All that “knowledge”? Shame I’m having so much difficulties now, cramming for my coming exams.
As a child, I have also seen a girl being raped in public. Apparently, she had been a Hindu who was in a relationship with a Muslim boy. I had learnt early that it was forbidden to fall in love with children of parents who held a different belief. My childhood memories are full of stories like these.
In the summer of 2006, I was in Bangladesh for holidays, and as always, I went to my hometown in the countryside. I had an encounter with a middle-aged countrywoman. She eagerly asked me, “So you’ve been on a plane? What is it like?” Not wanting to disappoint hear, I replied, “Oh, it’s wonderful. You can see clouds from above that look like beds of cotton.” Wide-eyed, she questioned me, “Did you see Heaven?” I wished she was joking but her eyes showed eternal belief and hope. I knew that I would sound extremely patronising, but I said anyway, “Well, you know that the earth is round, like a ball and along with some other planets, it goes around the sun. The earth is just a tiny tiny part of the universe. You could go ‘up’ thousands of miles and still not reach heaven.” She did not seem to understand me. Firstly, I didn’t think she had any idea of a distance further than her husband’s house and her father’s house. Secondly, she seemed confused when I mentioned that the “earth is round, like a ball”. She described to me her version of the earth, and it was a flat piece of land, and you could fall off the edges down to Hell. But if you could go high enough, you could reach Heaven. Now, I don’t know where in any holy book it says that, but I was shocked by the fact that even in the 21st Century, there are people who still believe that the earth is flat.
I am grateful that I had always been an open-minded person, and my parents didn’t hold the dominating belief in Bangladesh. That would have made it so much more difficult for me to even consider questioning religion. After I moved here, started going to an international school, I felt that I was finally able to breathe. It had been a gradual process, but I have been completely able to let go about a year from now. Maybe it happened earlier. I just couldn’t admit it to myself: it would bring such shame to my family. And what if I was mistaken and there really was a god somewhere? What if I would be damned to hell if I didn’t believe? I must admit, though, they were actually the Literature classes that really made me question (and I thank Mr. Andrew, my teacher, for it). However, I was never able to tell my friends and family that I didn’t believe. Most people I go to school with now, claim to be a believer of their parents’ religion. If the parents hold some belief, the kids “hold” the same belief. If the parents hold no belief, neither do the kids. I didn’t tell them about my disbelief, in the fear of being despised, being left alone. I did start to become more and more confident with the new me though. During discussions, if people asked me “aren’t you Hindu?”, I started to say, “My parents are.”
This year, I applied to Oxford to Human Sciences and was offered an interview. In the Introductory Reading List for Human Sciences, there was The Selfish Gene, that was one of the three books that was also in my school’s library. I borrowed it the night before my Skype interview. I read the first chapter and the last chapter. I felt so dumb that I didn’t read it ages ago, not just for the sake of my interview, but for the sake of myself, for the sake of truth: scientific truth. I did finish the book, after my interview and I found the answers to the questions I’ve always asked – but never got an answer satisfying enough. A week later at a book fair at my school, I spotted The God Delusion. I sneakily picked up the book and placed in our school’s “shopping basket”. This was two weeks ago from today.
I have finished reading The God Delusion today and I marvel at its power. It has everything I knew deep in my heart that I was never able to put in words. It gave me the reason not to “believe in belief”. From the first quotation by Douglas Adams to the last page of the book, I kept saying in my head, “go Dawkins.” Most of all, it made me laugh so often. Today, after putting the book down, I told my mother that I am not a Hindu, I’m not of any religion, and in fact, I don’t believe in any god. It shocked her, and she scolded me. I’ve also asked her to change the name of her charity (which is called Mother Teresa Foundation or something of that sort). But I hope that she secretly envies me. After all, I am free and I can see a new light. I can look at the world with wonder and smile and say “wow”. Not to any superhuman being, but to nature itself. I can see the “beautiful garden without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too”.
Thank you, Richard, for your masterpiece. I might be the only person from Bangladesh who was influenced by your work, but it’s a start. We have to be willing to take in reason, to start with.
Sincerely, (and I’m really sincere)
Protiti Mondal from Hanoi