Breaking the Surface

Imagine what it’s like to drown in deep water.

I’ve never had the experience, but I can guess what it must be like: the silence, the darkness closing in, the crushing pressure. It’s not a fate I would wish on anyone. But when I look around at the world, I’m convinced that there are millions of people who are suffering something like this every day of their lives. What’s more, they’ve chosen it for themselves.

I’ve written about how religion creates imaginary crimes, turning a vast variety of harmless actions into grave sins. There are many religions – and not just fringe cults, but major faiths – that carry this to the extreme by making rules for every aspect of daily life, governing every waking moment and every action down to inmost thoughts. What’s worse, these mountains of prohibition are backed up by an ideology that treats believers as eternal slaves, both in this world and in the afterlife they imagine – teaching them that they’ll find the most perfect happiness in total submission, surrendering both body and mind to an external arbiter and drowning out their own conscience and reason. Though they may walk among the rest of us, their minds are deep beneath the surface, suspended in a fathomless abyss.

When I write of these things, I’m not speaking of people who are forced by circumstance to be part of a community against their will. I want freedom for them as well, but they need help that’s more than mere words, help that’s beyond my power to give. Today, I’m writing for people in a more tragically ironic predicament: people who decide of their own free will to be part of a fundamentalist community; people who could walk away if they wanted to, who are kept there by nothing except their own choice. It’s as if they chose to walk out into the sea and sink to the bottom.

In her book Unorthodox, for example, Deborah Feldman paints a vivid picture of the exacting, ever-growing web of rules that constrain life in the Hasidic Jewish community, especially for women: the gender-segregated sidewalks and stores and synagogues, lengthy and meticulous rules for what’s considered modest dress, the contamination-obsessed rules of separation that wives have to observe during their menstrual periods, and the ultra-Orthodox women who spend the week before Passover cleaning every crevice of their floors with toothpicks and kerosene, paranoiacally trying to eliminate every last crumb of leavened bread.

Ironically, there are commonalities across religions that are often mortal enemies. Consider the Islamic women who freely choose to shroud their faces and bodies under heavy black cloth in public, convinced that the glimpse of an ankle or a stray wisp of hair might tempt men into uncontrollable lust. And then there are the Islamic men who strive to make their lives an exact replica of how their prophets lived, down to how they brush their teeth.

Or take Roman Catholicism, where taking monastic vows often means a lifetime of loneliness, deprivation and hard labor. In her book An Unquenchable Thirst, Mary Johnson writes about how nuns in Mother Teresa’s order were expected to give themselves sponge baths in a bucket, to eat meals of stale bread and rotting vegetables donated by supermarkets, to do penance by ritually beating themselves with a whip, and worst of all, to forever renounce the mere touch of human affection.

And then, as most Americans know well, there are those evangelical Protestants who consider sexual temptation an omnipresent menace, a thorn in their flesh goading them into sin if they succumb for even a moment. I once wrote about an evangelical who was in emotional agony because his refusal to use contraception was tearing his marriage apart, as well as a Christian advice website where the vast majority of questions came from people who were mortally afraid of sexual transgression, struggling with how to desire nothing but the narrow subset of sexual pleasure permitted by their beliefs.

All these people are weighed down by rules, obligations and customs that they’ve wrapped around themselves, like chains dragging them downwards. They’ve grown so used to living like this that they’ve come to accept these suffocating constraints as normal, as if water could substitute for air.

These trapped souls need freedom, and we can help them. We have glad tidings for them, a message of hope that says simply this: You can ascend from the abyss. You can shrug off the crushing burden of superstition, cast aside those empty rituals and senseless obligations that accrete like barnacles. And you can set aside the harmful belief that underlies it all: that there’s an angry shadow looming over your shoulder, a malevolent supernatural tyrant who surrounds human beings with traps and temptations and punishes those who touch them, who made us free and commands us to be slaves.

You don’t need that belief to live or to thrive, and if you discard it, you’ll be better off. Set it aside, become an atheist, and you’ll find it an explosive, exhilarating liberation – like one swift, powerful stroke upward, breaking through the dark surface into sunlight and filling your lungs with fresh air.

And if you do, you won’t be alone. Take the hand I offer, come up onto the shore, and then look back and see the crowds of people emerging from the booming surf. The secular community may already be larger and better established than you realize, and if you’re a refugee from those dark and storm-tossed seas, there’s a home for you there.

Image credit: Shutterstock

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • ctcss

    One of the problems with evangelical anything (including atheism) is the that the evangelizer often doesn’t realize that that the person they are trying to “rescue” is actually quite at peace right where they are. However, I will agree, I don’t see the need to use materialistic rituals in my own religious practices (basically because my religion doesn’t actually focus on such things), but I cannot imagine forgoing (what I believe to be) God in my life for the “promises” or “advantages” of atheism.

    You find atheism to be freeing and liberating. That is good. I am glad that you have found a helpful home for yourself. But I, too, have found a helpful home for myself. I have read your list of points and you have obviously thought a great deal about what procedures, ideas, and objects you are willing to place your trust in. You know what it is that you are practicing and you find it to be very helpful. I, too, have my own points, and have thought a great deal about what procedures, ideas, objects I am willing to place my trust in. I also know what it is that I am practicing and I find that practice to be very helpful. Some of your points are very likely some of my points. That is to be expected. But I cannot see myself adopting all of your points any more than you can see adopting all of mine. Why? Because these points of difference form different frameworks of thought and outlook. You could not go forward within your atheistic framework with my religious points merged with yours. I, likewise, could not go forward with my religious framework with your atheistic points merged with mine. This is also to be expected. Outlooks of people often differ. That does not necessarily mean that either is better than the other, or that those with differing outlooks must be at war with, or have acrimonious relations with one another. We should be quite able to “agree to disagree” regarding our areas of difference, and still remain on friendly terms.

    That is because you and I have chosen our differing paths carefully and are very much interested in exploring them fully, since it should be quite obvious that neither of us could know everything about our own chosen path since we have not fully traversed them yet. And since we haven’t even explored our own pathways fully (and thus do not understand all there is to know about them), it should come as no surprise to either of us that we cannot fully understand all there is to know about the other person’s chosen path, since we are not even making an attempt to explore it! Exploring one’s own path fully is very likely going to require a lifetime commitment. And unless, upon further examination and experience, we find our own individual paths to be sadly lacking somewhere along the way and are compelled by our own freely arrived at conclusions to change course, we will most likely both continue on our separate journeys. But I am more than content for you to fully explore your chosen path. I hope that you feel the same way about me and mine.

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    While much of what you say is true about the conditions of at least many religious individuals, I think at least a fair amount will be rather put off by the universally messianic tone of your pronouncements. There’s a Christian trope that says all non-religious people are desperately searching for the freedom of Christianity; and now there’s an atheistic trope that says all religious people are desperately searching for the freedom of atheism. Meh. Generalization from insufficient evidence, in many cases, methinks.

  • http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com Rob Davis

    I concur with “Unhappily’s” observation above. I think it is a false equation between “religion” in general and fundamentalism. And, I don’t see a universal hope that every person who leaves “religion” is going to find the kind of freedom you describe.

  • Azkyroth

    Meh. Generalization from insufficient evidence, in many cases, methinks.

    Pot, meet kettle.

    How exactly does one go through life without even looking at reasoning supporting superficially similar claims? This is like saying “Well, they say it’s ‘the Cadillac of floor cleaners’ so if I buy a bulk pack, that’ll be just as good as a car!”

  • RR

    Really more condescending than anything I can recall Adam writing on The Big Think. “Though they may walk among the rest of us, their minds are deep beneath the surface, suspended in a fathomless abyss”? There are plenty of people with no religious background who suffer from depression and other self-inflicted wounds.

    Adam’s solution for those in the abyss? ” Take the hand I offer, come up onto the shore”? No thanks. I would encourage patheos readers to be patient. This is not a very good representation of Adam’s writings.

  • David Hart

    Unhappily Agnostic: “now there’s an atheistic trope that says all religious people are desperately searching for the freedom of atheism”

    I think the point is rather that they are not seeking, but that they don’t know what they’re missing … and that the people who stand to benefit most from becoming atheists are those who are currently believers in the most pathological forms of religion. This sounds reasonable to me. Certainly it is rare to meet an atheist who will tell you that they were so much happier when they used to be a fundamentalist Evangelic / Catholic / Sunni or whatever.

  • GCT

    ctcss,
    The big problem with your comparison is that you have not a shred of evidence for your position. You rely 100% on faith, while we rely on empirical reality. How does one even ‘follow your path’ when it’s made up from your own wishful thinking?

  • Paul

    ctcss, what you say may or may not be true or wise, but it really doesn’t address Adam’s point. If your religious beliefs don’t restrict you in ways similar to what Adam wrote, then what he wrote doesn’t apply to you. But if they do, and do so as severely as Adam’s examples, then he’s telling you that there is another way. But for anyone to take that other way, they will first have to realize that their belief in a god is not justified, and that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    @David Hart: Fair enough. In retrospect, I meant less “searching for the freedom of atheism” than “in desperate human need of the freedom of atheism.” So a better way to say what I was trying to say is that some brands of both atheism & theism see all or nearly all the members of theism & atheism, respectively, as caught in a desperately and horribly unhappy situation, both of which evaluations seem, unless given heavy qualification, to be false. (Granted, Lee doesn’t explicitly state “all or nearly all” theists are so desperate. The implicit is pretty strong.)

    “Certainly it is rare to meet an atheist who will tell you that they were so much happier when they used to be a fundamentalist Evangelic / Catholic / Sunni or whatever.”

    This is surely true, but there’s probably a bit of something like the anthropic bias going on here. I mean, atheist-to-Catholic converts are also usually apt to tell you that they are happier as they are than as they were as well.

    @Azkyroth: What was the generalization from insufficient evidence that I made? Your argument’s brevity left me uncertain as to its conclusion.

  • Azkyroth

    There are plenty of people with no religious background who suffer from depression and other self-inflicted wounds.

    *sigh* Red herring.

  • Azkyroth

    @Azkyroth: What was the generalization from insufficient evidence that I made? Your argument’s brevity left me uncertain as to its conclusion.

    You picked out a superficial similarity in thesis-like summations of two very different arguments and concluded they were basically the same without examining the relative merits – evidence and internal logic and evidence – of the supporting arguments themselves.

  • Azkyroth

    How does one even ‘follow your path’ when it’s made up from your own wishful thinking?

    A path made of wishful thinking can literally lead anywhere. That makes “following” it really easy.

  • Bob Jase

    Amazing isn’t it how some folks will defend the artificial controls their religion imposes rather than admit they obey the most ridiculous religious rules out of fear that their sky-daddy will punish them eternally for not putting a dime in the collection basket every week or eating meat on Friday or some other meaningless action. My grandmother was an old-fashioned Catholic from eastern Europe so I got to grow up watching the terror that religion imposes on people who are too indoctrinated to consider that they might just have options Her Jesus was not the modern liberal god of love but a tyrant just waiting for an excuse to crush people for the literal hell of it.

  • Nes

    ctcss:

    That is because you and I have chosen our differing paths carefully and are very much interested in exploring them fully, since it should be quite obvious that neither of us could know everything about our own chosen path since we have not fully traversed them yet. And since we haven’t even explored our own pathways fully (and thus do not understand all there is to know about them), it should come as no surprise to either of us that we cannot fully understand all there is to know about the other person’s chosen path, since we are not even making an attempt to explore it! [emphasis added]

    You do realize that most atheists were religious, right? That is, most atheists have traveled on your path. One doesn’t need to traverse the whole path to realize that it goes in the wrong direction.

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    @Azkyroth: Ok. To respond to that in whole would require more than a comment, as I haven’t at this moment the leisure to examine all the internal logic and evidence pertaining to either position (the theist position that the atheists are unhappy, or the atheist position that the theists are unhappy). So I concede that I have not proven that the two positions are comparable in terms of the evidence one can use to support them.

    I maintain that there is a very strong prima-facie case to be made against either of the two positions; the theists that I know are generally not miserable, obsessed with death and punishment, following rules in an OCD fashion, adhering fanatically and blindly to stone-age superstitions with no importance to life. Of course, you could say that my personal acquaintances are cherry-picked–maybe they are. But if you could say that about my acquaintances, you could *definitely* say the same to Lee’s litany of complaints against religion given above.

  • http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com Rob Davis

    Adam has responded to some of my criticisms with his opinion that I have misrepresented his post.

    Here was my first post. And here’s my second.

    To which he responded via Twitter: “My post said ‘many religions’, which you chose to interpret as “all religions”. I can’t help willful misreadings.” And, he continued: “There’s nothing to “disagree” about. You misrepresented my post and won’t admit it. No point in further dialogue.”

    What do you think? Have I misrepresented/misinterpreted him?

  • http://asktheatheists.com/questions/answered_by/13-george-locke/ George Locke

    Adam Lee: Religion creates imaginary crimes, turning a vast variety of harmless actions into grave sins. There are many religions – and not just fringe cults, but major faiths – that carry this to the extreme by making rules for every aspect of daily life, governing every waking moment and every action down to inmost thoughts.
    Rob Davis: Which religion(s)? What kind of religion? All religion? The implication from my reading is, yes, all religion does this.

    When Lee writes “there are many religions”, he’s explicitly differentiating some religions from others. He says that “religion creates imaginary crimes” (true in general, not in all cases), and goes on to describe “extreme” cases. These extreme cases are thus not taken to be representative of the whole. So your reading that he’s talking about all religions is not supportable.

    The rest of your argument seems to rely on this misapprehension: Lee does not think he’s describing problems endemic to all religion. I’m sure he also recognizes that religion isn’t the only way to create “mountains of prohibition”, but it does do that, and it’s horrible and needs to stop – atheism would stop religion from creating that problem, but it wouldn’t stop the other causes of the problem.

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    #Davis: I think his post appears to be about all or nearly all religions, while not in fact logically committing him to that position. In short, it is ambiguous, just like the documents of Vatican II.

    But I’ve also decided I should criticize my criticism of him. Viz (http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/day/2013/01/22).

    Short version? What we have here is a sermon to atheists exhorting them to help convert the benighted inhabitants of religion. It isn’t really meant to be about whether all religions or bad, and really kinda takes as its premise that most / many of them are. It isn’t a piece of careful logical reasoning–it’s an exhortation. And exhortations, which lack very finely drawn points, are just fine. We just should recognize them as such, and not criticize them as if they were serious arguments.

  • LindaJoy

    @ctcss- You can not compare your religious beliefs with atheism and honestly come up with an apples to apples comparison. There is a glaring difference between the two points of view, and one that points out why Adam refers to moving towards atheism as a coming into the light or out of the abyss. Religious ideas are based upon non-evidence and mythologies. Atheism is not. When one has their mind immersed in religious ideas and thought, that mind is captured/surrounded/boxed in by imaginary ideas which can go on and on forever, but have no basis in the real world.

    What Adams’s writings represent is a view of the world free of the chains of religious ideas… free to address the world as it is and free to thoroughly question and refute claims that are made without evidence. And the world is still marvelous and awesome in its REALITY, even more so without the layers of stuff that religion puts on it. So I as an atheist do NOT agree to disagree with a religionist; I disagree, period.

  • ctcss

    @GCT

    “The big problem with your comparison is that you have not a shred of evidence for your position. You rely 100% on faith, while we rely on empirical reality.”

    I’m always amazed that non-believers (OK, maybe just you), supposedly so careful in gathering and evaluating data in order to arrive at useful, rational conclusions, seem to ignore that very helpful approach in favor of simply making assumptions about the person they are arguing against. Consider, have you been carefully studying my life (60 plus years) to see how I conduct my religious practice? Can you lay out the specifics of what I do to illustrate how you have come to the conclusion that everything I do religiously is relying 100% on faith and uses no empirical evidence whatsoever? That I have found no evidence in the practice of my religion regarding God? (Note: evidence, not absolute proof.) And that evidence (such as it is) has helped convince me that I should continue pursuing my path further. Personally, based on what I have experienced in my religious pathway, I am very confident about the fact of God’s existence. But that said, I doubt very seriously that you would find my evidence compelling enough for you to want to pursue a religious path yourself. But that’s OK. My evidence is more than enough for me, and that is all that is necessary. It is my path that I am treading, not yours. You are quite free to pursue the path that makes the most sense to you, just as I am free to do the same. And as I often tell others, since I was taught universal salvation, your desire to pursue a path other than mine puts you in no danger whatsoever.

    @Paul

    “if they do, and do so as severely as Adam’s examples, then he’s telling you that there is another way. But for anyone to take that other way, they will first have to realize that their belief in a god is not justified”

    Well, if the only possible other way to freedom is atheism, then I would agree that realizing their belief in God is not justified would be helpful. But if they simply needed a better view of God to help free them (meaning that they should consider adopting a more helpful theological approach), then keeping their belief in God but replacing the toxic bits of theology relating to God would be more appropriate.

    @Azkyroth

    “A path made of wishful thinking can literally lead anywhere. That makes “following” it really easy.”

    If what I were following was simply wishful thinking (made up of my own desires), I guess it might be easy to follow. As it is, however, I am trying to follow the Christ, which (at least as I understand it) is considerably more specific and demanding than simply doing what I feel like doing.

    @Bob Jase

    “Amazing isn’t it how some folks will defend the artificial controls their religion imposes rather than admit they obey the most ridiculous religious rules out of fear that their sky-daddy will punish them eternally …”

    I’m not sure you were addressing this remark to me, but if you were, wouldn’t it have made more sense to actually find out if the person you were referring to had such a view of God? As it happens, I was taught universal salvation and redemption, not eternal punishment. So, no, I don’t live in fear of God.

    @Nes

    “You do realize that most atheists were religious, right? That is, most atheists have traveled on your path. One doesn’t need to traverse the whole path to realize that it goes in the wrong direction.”

    And you do realize that all religious paths are not necessarily identical to each other, correct? Thus, an atheist who has abandoned their former religious path may have had (because of what was on that specific path) reasons to reject it. But based on what I have read over the years, I do not think the path that I have been following matches the substance of the path(s) that most atheists reject. (In other words, nothing that they have described has matched my path.) So my point (that I have chosen my particular path carefully, have traveled quite a bit on it, and see no current reason to reject it) still stands. Would you have me abandon my path just on your say so? Or would you rather that I think about it carefully (as I believe I have done) and come to my own conclusions?

  • Lagerbaer

    I found it to be a great article. Many believers, especially those who grew up in a fundamental faith, do not realize that they have a choice. That they can walk away from the faith that makes their life miserable, be it due to polygamy, their overly repressive nature when it comes to sex, or maybe just because you’d REALLY like to try bacon for once.

    It’s good to constantly remind them that, yes, they do indeed have a choice. And highlighting all the ridiculous taboos of religion can be a great catalyst for deconversion: I grew up in a largely moderate Catholic household, so I never really thought that much about it. But there were a few instances where faith collided with what I wanted to do: The first was my mother claiming that rock music contained hidden Satanical messages, then my father didn’t quite like the dark fantasy theme of Magic The Gathering (black magic, you know?) and I’m sure they didn’t really approve of it when it became evident that I was planning on having sex waaaaaay before marriage. Each of these episodes made me question faith a little more, as it started to appear more and more ridiculous, contrived and controlling to me.

  • GCT

    ctcss,

    I’m always amazed that non-believers (OK, maybe just you), supposedly so careful in gathering and evaluating data in order to arrive at useful, rational conclusions, seem to ignore that very helpful approach in favor of simply making assumptions about the person they are arguing against.

    Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt. You have no evidence. You may claim that you do, you may think that you do, but what you really have is logical fallacies (usually begging the question, special pleading, selection bias, etc.) There is not a scrap of evidence for any supernatural entities. None. No one has ever presented any, ever. You must rely upon faith in order to make the illogical leap from natural to supernatural.

    You are quite free to pursue the path that makes the most sense to you, just as I am free to do the same. And as I often tell others, since I was taught universal salvation, your desire to pursue a path other than mine puts you in no danger whatsoever.

    Apparently you are not very good at reading the Bible it seems. You want to “follow the Christ” as you put it, yet he was very specific that those who do not follow him will meet a gruesome fate in the fires of hell. He expounded upon it time after time. Universal salvation? It obviates the need for Jesus to even come here and makes the Xian position self-defeating.

    But if they simply needed a better view of God to help free them (meaning that they should consider adopting a more helpful theological approach), then keeping their belief in God but replacing the toxic bits of theology relating to God would be more appropriate.

    How do you determine what is or is not a toxic bit of theology? How does one adopt a more helpful theological approach? These are meaningless because one is dealing with faith.

    But based on what I have read over the years, I do not think the path that I have been following matches the substance of the path(s) that most atheists reject. (In other words, nothing that they have described has matched my path.)

    Your “path” is based on faith and is therefore illogical and irrational. There is nothing unique about your “path” that atheists would not or should not reject it.

    Would you have me abandon my path just on your say so?

    No, I would have you abandon it because it is irrational and faith-based.

  • LindaJoy

    ctcss- your “evidence” is all in your head. There was no “Christ”, and if you read the history of that concept, you will find that it is merely a result of the pulling together of various philosophies or guesses about a cosmic system to create an explanation of how the world works. No facts or evidence stand behind this concept and certainly your sense of “evidence” is made of air too.

  • http://asktheatheists.com/questions/answered_by/13-george-locke/ George Locke

    ctcss – Atheists understand that theists often have reasons for believing. Our contention is that they are bad reasons. So when we say “no evidence”, we mean “no credible evidence”. This isn’t an assumption about your own life experiences, but a surmise based on the vast quantity of “evidence” that people present to support their faith. It’s uniformly bad evidence, so it’s reasonable to say that it’s not evidence since it’s not actually suggestive of anything.

  • E

    Just because a person “chooses to walk away” doesn’t mean they can “shrug off” harmful, self-limiting beliefs. The two should not be conflated.

  • Azkyroth

    Just because a person “chooses to walk away” doesn’t mean they can “shrug off” harmful, self-limiting beliefs. The two should not be conflated.

    …what.

  • E

    “You can shrug off the…harmful belief that underlies it all: that there’s an angry shadow looming over your shoulder, a malevolent supernatural tyrant who surrounds human beings with traps and temptations and punishes those who touch them.”

    Realizing I didn’t believe and undoing the psychological indoctrination of belief were separate things. Indoctrination is not “shrugged off” so lightly. Atheism an “explosive, exhilarating liberation?” No. Liberation is hard. I worked for it. For a long time. This post simplifies de- and then reconstructing an entire worldview down to a single decision, “one swift, powerful stroke.” Shit don’t work that way.

    Leaving religion and becoming an atheist did nothing to free me of my mental prison. I did that myself.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2013/01/breaking-the-surface/ J. James

    Adam, in the interest of constructive feedback, allow me to echo the general impression that this piece was a bit too heavy-handed with the prose.

    Anyway, to those religious commenters that claim that most people are “at peace where they are,” allow me to remind you that you are living lives of obscene decadence and sin compared to these extreme cases. These people- a heartbreakingly massive number of them- are living in a hell beyond imagining; every minor transgression, even things that seem completely normal to you or me, saddles them with immense guilt and blind panic that they will be cast into the pit. They are terrified, mistrustful, and trapped. Although it may seem as if they should be happy with where they are because they choose to be there, bear in mind that to them it’s either be miserable or be tortured for eternity. They put up a stoic facáde, but inside, they’re bleeding… To say nothing of the sick rape and domestic abuse that is practically the norm in these types of situations.

    Hell, lots of fundamentalists are specifically brainwashed to preclude even the concept of atheism, some don’t even have any idea what we actually are. Talking to them may be difficult, but dammit, we have to do something. The way you people talk, it seems as if you would rather just pretend the problem doesn’t exist, or that it’s so rare that you shouldn’t even bother trying.

    I’ve tried. And so far, I have failed. But I never regret trying.

  • jane smith

    As someone who has recently “broken the surface” I, too, found this article to be excellent. And to those of you who claim to be at peace with their religion, that’s fine – but the problem with almost every religious person I have ever encountered – and I have encountered many – is that they all actively seek to control other people (particularly women).

    I might add that most religious people of the sort that Daylight Atheism describes are not happy people at all.

  • Nolan

    I think Adam has a hard case here to make to religious people. In my understanding of the current social science, people in the US who are more religious tend to be happier, with non-believers being less happy. At the same time, the countries with the highest proportion of non-believers also tend to be happiest, and best off in many metrics.

    This suggests that being in the majority belief-group, especially one that is praised by culture as a whole, is conducive to happiness, but religion itself is not the cause of happiness- it’s being one of the “winners”. So it’s likely that the religious in the US are in general happier than the non-believers. Those who break the surface are likely to be unhappier, but if everyone broke the surface (arguably), everyone would be happier overall. It’s sort of a tragedy of the commons sort of deal.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2013/01/breaking-the-surface/ J. James

    Nolan, actually I think what studies have found(if memory serves) is that it is the CERTAINTY in your beliefs that matters; those that are more confident in their religion or irreligion are happiest, whilst those that are tenuously Christian or atheist are unhappy.

  • Adam Lee

    @E:

    This post simplifies de- and then reconstructing an entire worldview down to a single decision, “one swift, powerful stroke.” Shit don’t work that way.

    It’s one of those metaphor things. I’m well aware that becoming an atheist usually isn’t an instantaneous Damascus Road experience; it can take years to fully rid oneself of superstitious fears and the pull of familiar beliefs. Still, it’s a common element of deconversion stories that there’s often one initial moment when the person realizes their worldview is starting to shift, and that moment very often is described as an explosive feeling of liberation.

    @Nolan:

    In my understanding of the current social science, people in the US who are more religious tend to be happier, with non-believers being less happy.

    Sort of. As J. James said, it’s confidence in one’s worldview that creates happiness. When you lump strong atheists together with confused searchers and weak believers, you get lower overall happiness for the group. But when you control for this factor, higher life satisfaction is just as common among atheists as it is among the religious. I discussed this in a post from 2009.


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