Dear Professor Dawkins,
I am a 26 year old female British Military Doctor who has just finished reading The God Delusion.
I had to write to you.
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. Baptized, attended a Catholic school from the age of 3 until 16, and went to church every Sunday, as well as participating in every other custom and activity that my Catholic upbringing dictated. I never once questioned God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or any else that had to do with Catholicism. Everything I was taught, I totally believed, unquestioned.
I remember when I was 16, I ended up in an Anglican Sixth Form, much more open minded than my previous schools. One of the most shocking moments of my life was the moment I met an atheist. I didn’t know such a concept existed! One of my school friends and I were having a chat, and he threw into conversation that he did not believe in God. Images of fire, the devil, eternal damnation and suffering all came to mind. I could not believe for a second that someone could not believe in God. The thought just wasn’t acceptable.
I continued to meet other atheists at my school, including my Biology teacher, who was very strongly opposed to religion and had no problem voicing it. I used to think of him as a very poor role model (as he was trying to convince me to not believe in God). One phrase I remember his saying, which will stay with me forever, is – ‘you do not need religion, or God, to tell you how to live. So long as you don’t do harm to yourself, or others, you can pretty much do what you like’. This to me, at 16 years of age, sounded totally absurd and I dismissed it entirely. Thinking about this sentence now (and wondering why I remember it so vividly), it makes a lot of sense to me. The millions of religions that have evolved throughout the ages, claiming to be the one and only truth, have all tried to teach very similar things – in particular about morals and good and evil. What my biology teacher’s statement made me realise was, that, we, in fact, do not need religion to tell us what is good and what is bad (something you clearly explained in your book). However, because of my strict upbringing, it was only 10 years after hearing that statement that I can finally voice that I no longer agree with religion of any kind.
Back to my story, at the same sort of time, I discovered that I was attracted to women. This was a total disaster for me, and as a teenager, trying to form an identity, this mere fact which conflicted with my beliefs was enough to induce what I recall to be several years of suffering and inner conflict. I was also unfortunate enough to have a large family who at the same time decided to divide into 3 main religions. Of my mother’s eight brothers and sisters, all raised as Roman Catholics, two sisters decided to convert to Evangelical Christians, and one brother and his wife became Jehovah’s witnesses. The remaining Catholics became more extreme in order to defend their beliefs against the new and very fanatical views introduced into our family. I recall most of our big family gatherings ending up in complete and utter rage between family members, attempting to convince one another that their particular faith was the ultimate. I would always sit silently in the corner and listen to these debates. The one thing the 3 branches did have in common was an utter dislike of homosexuals. This was particularly enforced by my Jehovah’s witness uncle, who deemed it appropriate to bring in into conversation at every given opportunity, and thereby convincing the others to hate homosexuals as much as he did. From my eyes, and my naïve mind, the message I received almost weekly was that I was hated by God, that I would go to hell and that I deserved to be unhappy. The other choice for me was to avoid homosexuality altogether and overcome my desires by praying to God and becoming very religious.
When these people talk about homosexual acts, and how these can be avoided, like any other ‘non-righteous’ sexual act, they forget that sexual orientation is not just about having sex with the same gender. They forget that it is a form of a loving relationship between two human beings, that by forming a bond, not only sexual, but also intellectual and spiritual, become one. By asking us to avoid acting out these desires, they are also asking us to be denied of a relationship with another human being which would bring us companionship, friendship, love and fulfilment. So, the path of chastity was a path of loneliness, of self denial, and of ultimate absolute unhappiness. Despite this, I did in fact try this path. I attended several Catholic retreats with my sister, and I would sit in confession with the priests and explain my predicament. They would provide me with the ‘tools’ necessary to avoid homosexuality. Daily prayer, pamphlets on guidance from ‘ex-homosexuals’ and rituals which were not dissimilar to exorcism. I tried, with all my heart and mind to follow their advice, but I remember nothing more than a feeling of pure and utter misery throughout those years (years when I should’ve been embracing my own self discovery, and increasing my self esteem, not trampling on it over and over again). After many attempts to ‘become straight’ and to live a ‘virtuous life according to God’, I realised that my attempts were futile. I honestly cannot understand how so many people truly believe that homosexuals are on a par with say, paedophiles, and that both behaviours are equally wrong?
Luckily, and in retrospect, the whole issue with sexuality, for me, was the gate that opened my mind away from religion. As soon as something as big as my sexuality came into conflict with my otherwise unquestioned beliefs, I started to question everything. At the same time, I was at University studying Medicine, and came into contact with many religious individuals, from several denominations, as well as agnostics and atheists. I decided to keep an open mind and indeed participated in discussions with my evangelical Christian friends as well as one particular devout Muslim girl (who luckily was open minded enough to listen to me!) amongst others. I came across a very interesting individual, a profound atheist, who opened my eyes again, but this time to a very different perspective. Before him, every atheist I’d met was very happy to respect other people’s beliefs and never once tried to ‘indoctrinate’ me. Therefore a lot of their ‘non beliefs’ sort of passed me by, unnoticed. This particular friend however, was more than happy to voice his opinion when I told him I was, at the time, the vice president of the Catholic society. We engaged in lots of discussions, but as someone that tends to sit on the fence a lot (which I don’t think is a bad thing when one is going through the process of finding truths) I was always more than happy to listen to his views rather than try to oppose them with mine.
The more I discussed with different denominations, and the more interesting, lovely, moral people I met, who all happened to have totally different religious (or non religious) backgrounds, the more I started to doubt the teachings of my own religion, and then consequently of every other religion that exists. Logical questions such as: every single religion claims to be the ultimate truth, based on faith and unquestioned belief. So, who is right? They all differ so much, yet they all claim enlightenment. This fact made me very curious. Also the fact that so far, in my 26 years, by rule of thumb, the vast majority of people that I’ve met that are the most open minded, respectful of others’ beliefs and cultures, least racist/ageist/sexist, amongst other things, have all been atheists!!!!! Considering that God is supposed to be a God of love, compassion, loyalty, etc, and that Jesus taught us to not judge, and to love everyone the same, it is ironic that the only people who seem to truly follow the above are non believers. Again, I totally agree with you when explaining that we do not need religion to have morals.
To finish my story (and this is my trying to summarise what has been a very difficult and confusing past few years), I went through the process of ‘coming out’ as gay to my friends and immediate family at the same time as trying to analyse all my former religious education. Needless to say, being a ‘child of Catholic parents’ and gay, makes the process of coming out even more difficult. Add to that my entrenched fears of going to hell, of being hated by God, and generally of going against everything that I grew up with, it’s no surprise that many people suffer unnecessarily, again, due to religion. I wonder how my teenage years would’ve been had I not had such a strict religious upbringing.
Now, after a long process, I can now happily call myself gay and I am very fortunate to live in a fairly tolerant society where most people accept homosexuals as natural variation. I have had to work very hard on regaining my self-esteem, but all this process has given me so much self awareness that I think it’s been very worthwhile.
For the past few years I have more and more strongly doubted the existence of God. I never dared to mention this to anyone, but it has become more and more difficult for me to believe in the concept. It seems that the obvious step now is that I will eventually go through the process of coming out again, not as a gay person, but as a non believer. The thought itself fills me with dread. And despite my logical mind telling me the truth, I do still feel afraid of hell and God from time to time! I agree with you that indoctrinating children from a very young age is a form of child abuse. I do not see my particular case as extreme as that, because I know that my parents, like many others, had my best interest at heart. Still, it is fascinating to see what these beliefs can do and how they stick around even in the light of opposing evidence.
I know I still have a long way to go along this path of discovery. I am just grateful that unlike many others, I had the opportunity to see beyond what I was taught, and I feel happy that my mind has been cleared.
Thank you for your book, it has been enlightening to say the least.
(I shall remain anonymous at this stage. Maybe sometime in the near future I will be able to put my name down and proudly announce my new set of non-beliefs)