Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I don’t know if Mr. Dawkins actually reads these but if you do I just wanted to let you know you’re doing an awesome job spreading reason, and thanks to you reason was able to reach me at a young age. I was a devout Catholic until I was about 15 or so. I went to church and all of the other “fun” stuff, but then I started having my doubts after I started learning about the sciences. My particular interest was biology which lead me to question creationism because I saw why evolution was true and if creationism was wrong then what else was wrong with it? Then about a year ago I discovered your lectures and was able to completely see through the lies and fairy tales that the Bible says.
I am currently 17 and trying to spread reason much in the way you spread it to me, although I am nowhere near as smart as you. I promise to do my best with the knowledge I do have and I am buying your book The God Delusion tomorrow to help me on my way. My aspirations are to pick up a biology degree and work in the medical field.
I do have one question though. How do you deal with the fact that we are all going to die and there’s nothing afterwards? I try not to think about it because I’m still young but I know I have to face it eventually.
I wish you a long and happy life friend,
Your excellent letter has come to the wrong person, but I am grateful for it anyway. Once in a while people mistake me for Richard Dawkins because we’re both involved in atheism and we have the same first name, but there I’m afraid the similarity ends. Dr. Dawkins is a giant in both the atheist movement and in his field of evolutionary biology. I am merely a retired marriage and family counselor who answers letters from people who are having conflicts about religion with their families, friends and co-workers.
Your letter is both earnest and encouraging, and you should definitely send it to The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. There is a section called Converts’ Corner where people have published letters similar to yours. Read some of them and add yours to the wonderful collection. Then read an article he wrote called To Live at All is Miracle Enough, which begins famously with, “We are all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”
Even though you wrote to me by mistake, I would like to take the liberty of responding to the question you posed. The loss of the comforting idea of immortality is a concern that young or newly “deconverted” atheists often express.
We all have a self-centered part, a natural and necessary feature of our personalities that, as we grow into young adulthood, helps us to differentiate ourselves from others who are important in our lives. It helps us to become independent from our parents and our peers, to act in our own best interests, and to begin taking responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
It’s natural for young people to be somewhat self-centered, so I’m not using the term as a value judgment here. It’s simply a stage that people must go through to grow and develop. As we begin to move into full adulthood, we form more and more important relationships with other people, and so we begin to shift toward being less self-centered, and more other-centered, more interested in the needs of others, rather than exclusively our own needs. Most people reach a healthy balance of the two. People who don’t make that shift in adulthood are called “self-centered” in the disapproving, judgmental meaning of the term.
I think that much of our desire for immortality comes from our self-centered part. We want our self to continue, and so we’re too often willing to believe, as you say, lies and fairy tales that tell us we will. But as we mature, we begin to see that how we affect and influence people around us can be a legacy that can live beyond our physical existence. That legacy can be positive or negative, something that makes the world a little better or a little worse because we were here. Our other-centered, self-less part can be a very comforting and satisfying compensation for the eventual loss of our own self if we see that we are adding to the well being of people, even in small, humble, and non-famous ways.
Kevin, as you grow and mature, focus on your desire to help others. You have displayed two examples of that in your letter: You want to work to spread reason as Dr. Dawkins does, a task that is very much needed. You are also interested in working in the medical field, which is a powerful way to have a positive, even lifesaving effect on people and their progeny who will live long after you.
As I grow older, I am increasingly aware of opportunities where I can have a positive influence on people around me, both who are younger and who are older. In my previous work I had the privilege of helping many thousands of people who were in very dire and miserable situations, who were at their rope’s end. It was dramatic, tangible, life-or-death, and exhausting. I don’t do that kind of heartbreaking work any more, but there are still plenty of things I can do to make the world a little bit better. They will never be as grand and important as perhaps what Dr. Dawkins does, but that doesn’t matter. Knowing myself, focusing on grandness and importance would only reawaken my self-centeredness, and I’d rather not do that. My life has already accomplished a very fulfilling meaning and purpose in service to others, and one way or another I ardently, fiercely intend to keep adding to that as long as I’m alive.
Some of this might seem hypothetical or remote for you because you’re so young and you’re still building what looks like an admirable adulthood, and if so just file these ideas away somewhere in your mind, and in the future perhaps you’ll run across them again when they might be helpful. In the meantime, enjoy your life, invent your own meaning for it, and pursue that meaning passionately every single day.