Religions puzzle me with their power to subvert otherwise intelligent minds and turn them in directions that an outside observer (and under normal circumstances, the subverted mind itself) would instantly recognize as ridiculous. Francis Collins is an excellent scientist whose success in running the huge organization that was the official American Human Genome Project demonstrates his cogent grasp of how the real world works. Suppose, now, that a candidate for an important and responsible job in Collins’s organization announced at his interview that he liked to put a sprig of mistletoe in his hair and dance around a fairy ring in order to appease the forest sprites. Collins would immediately show him the door with a polite “Don’t call us” and turn hastily to the next candidate. Yet what Collins himself believes—virgin mothers and the risen Jesus and frozen Trinitarian waterfalls—is just as thoroughly divorced from reality and sense. The point is that Collins himself would recognize this clearly but for the subversive power of religion.
That power to impose ridiculous beliefs on otherwise intelligent and sensible people is a fascinating phenomenon. It is vitally important that we understand it, but it’s hard for us to appreciate its full weirdness when we live in a culture where the ridiculous beliefs concerned are deeply embedded. In America, Christianity and Judaism are so ubiquitous and familiar that we tend to overlook absurdities that an objective observer—the proverbial Martian, say—would have no trouble spotting. Similarly, it is hard for citizens of Iran or Afghanistan to notice the absurdities of Islam; it is too familiar, part of the default background of their culture.
It is, therefore, especially interesting when we encounter somebody of high intelligence who has voluntarily, sincerely, and over a long period embraced a faith that is alien to the culture in which she was brought up and has now recovered from it. Lisa Bauer is such a person. She was raised in an ordinary American home with no Muslim connections; she did well at an ordinary American university; and yet she voluntarily, and apparently without coercion (that came later) embraced Islam. This was no passing whim: she did the thing properly, with the utmost sincerity and seriousness, and she stuck with it for seven years before eventually seeing the light and becoming an atheist.
It was toward the end of her Islamic period that I first became aware of Lisa. She wrote me an e-mail that began “Asalaamu alaikum (Peace be upon you) Professor Dawkins” and continued with what sounded to me pretty much like a cry for help:
I desperately wish I could make up my mind about what it is I believe. Although I pray five times a day, I am assaulted at least fifty times a day by the thought that there is no Allah, no God at all, and that all the praying and fasting for Ramadan and reciting the Qur’an (in Arabic, of course) that I do is for nothing.
The letter was signed with an Arabic name, so I complimented her on her excellent English, which I said would put most British and American native speakers to shame. She then told me her native language was indeed English. She was an American convert to Islam.
Not wishing to exert an undue influence on somebody so evidently vulnerable, I responded to her cry for help by sending her a couple of books (by Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali), although I later learned that there was almost nothing she hadn’t read. I also suggested that she might find friendship and support on the forums of RichardDawkins.net. She did so, and she soon began to fill the role—highly necessary—of unofficial fact-checker, developing a reputation among our regulars for scrupulous accuracy and knowledge (a reputation that she more than lived up to when I later employed her to check facts and prepare the bibliography of my new book, The Greatest Show on Earth). I like to think that the sympathy and good fellowship she encountered on our forums may have encouraged her to escape the clutches of Islam.
Her seven years as a Muslim had an effect on Lisa (as she again calls herself) and her psychology that could fairly be described as a personal disaster, and she is only now recovering, with help. I suggested that she write an account of her experience, perhaps eventually at book length but, as a first step, as a series of three articles in Free Inquiry. Fortunately, she is not only intelligent and well-read, she is also a very good writer, with the ability to express herself and explain what it felt like, from the inside, to be taken over, body and mind, by a ludicrous and pernicious belief system: taken over so thoroughly that she even…but let her tell her own story.