Ask Richard: When Will I Stop Feeling Angry About My Religious Past?

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Hello, Richard.

I’m a female in my mid to late 20s, not exactly an atheist, but definitely losing my religion for a variety of reasons only some of which are mentioned here.

I’ve spent most of my life as a Christian of varying religiosity, but I grew up in a conservative Christian home and was home schooled using a number of Christian textbooks in an overall Christian community, until I went to public school my senior year of high school. I then went to public universities for the rest of my education, still believing off and on in god: sometimes a god that cared, sometimes a god that didn’t. But I believed and did what I had been taught my whole life, no matter where I was in my thoughts about god. I now work at a Christian college, which pays the bills.

Right now I’m pretty angry about spending my life and time trying to not be human so god would love me, since that’s the only measure of worth that mattered. Don’t lust. Don’t lie. Always put others before your own needs and desires, and always be humble towards others because you are not your own. Don’t question because doubt is a sin. Don’t criticize the church, but make it better. It was like it didn’t matter what you did, you were doomed anyway for something. I’m mad that I spent so much time repressing my very humanity to fit into some mold that makes no sense, and what’s more, that it seemed like the only option.

When does the anger at wasting your time and energy go away? Should it go away? How do you let go in a non-religious context? I’m tired of being angry about this, especially since it’s over, but I can’t seem to stop.

Thanks for reading,
Roberta

Dear Roberta,

Since you are not fully done with the process of “losing your religion,” you are in transition from your old way to a new way of seeing things. So you will probably have a great deal of conflicting and confusing thoughts and feelings. I think if you accept the fact that for a while you’re going to be feeling mixed up, paradoxically, your mind may settle down sooner than if you resent it and fight the confusion.

I’ve noticed that many people who are in the early stages of letting go of their religion often have sadness or grief for the loss of the guiding structure and the comforting reassurances that religion and belief in gods can offer. Often people with strong personalities, for whom strength and toughness is important will not express their sadness directly. Instead, they will shift the emotional energy of their sadness into a feeling that is more acceptable to them, anger.

So one thing to do would be to look into yourself, and see if sadness or grief are the root of your anger, and if so, give yourself permission to feel and express those emotions directly. If you experience any bottled-up feelings without translating them into a substitute feeling, you’ll get through them faster and more thoroughly.

However, you may also have straightforward anger, the anger of someone who has been tricked or duped into wasting time and energy on a false pursuit. It needs to be said here that anger is not intrinsically a bad thing. It’s a legitimate human emotion like all the others. What can be bad is negative things we might do either to others or to ourselves because of our anger. The irony of your situation is that now you’re continuing to waste time and energy being angry at having wasted time and energy, etc, etc.

So how do you get out of that hall of mirrors?

Don’t fight it, transmute it.

You listed a few religious injunctions that were a constant source of repression and frustration for you. Turn them into to a positive, from an authoritarian rule that subdued you to something more like a humanist goal or guideline that validates you.

So take: “…spending my life and time trying to not be human so god would love me, since that’s the only measure of worth that mattered.”

And transmute it to:

Accept and embrace your humanness, flaws and all, so that you can be more empathic, compassionate, forgiving and loving to other humans, because while not the only measure of worth, your loving kindness toward others is one that matters a great deal.

Next one: “Don’t lust.” Change that to:

Lust and desire are not intrinsically evil, but what we do about them may be constructive or destructive, and you can learn wisdom from how it turns out. Go ahead and lust for the wonderful person or thing, but avoid lusting just for its own sake. That would be a circular process, a kind of addiction.

Then there’s: “Don’t lie.” Instead, try:

Love the truth. Keep it your friend. The truth is a terrible enemy to have, because it never gives up trying to get out. Once in a while you’re going to walk away from your friend and lie because you’re human. Just don’t lie to yourself about how it wasn’t a lie. That way it won’t become circular inside you, growing stronger and more habitual. Find your friend again, and start anew.

Then take: “Always put others before your own needs and desires.” Change it to:

Be mindful of everyone’s needs and desires as best you can, and try to fulfill your own without interfering with those of others. Having your own needs satisfied, desires become less important. Without so much inner conflict, you’ll probably find that you have an unexpected surplus, and you can share it with others.

Next one: “Always be humble towards others because you are not your own.” Change that to:

Always look for the harmony, the commonality, the bond between you and others. Then notions about are you better than, worse than, higher than, lower than, more or less worthy than, become irrelevant and fade away from your relationships. You do this precisely because you are definitely your own, and are fully responsible for your own conduct.

The next injunction is: “Don’t question because doubt is a sin.” Transmute that to:

Question everything, BUT when you get a better answer to your question, hold it very lightly in your hand. Don’t grip it, or you’ll become trapped by your new certainty. Certainty is the beginning of a fossilized mind. Like truth, make friends with doubt. It protects you from arrogance and ruthlessness. The worst things are done by those who do not permit themselves doubt.

Finally there’s: “Don’t criticize the church, but make it better.” You’re not really part of the church any more, but that one can apply to your life in general:

Some people criticize others just for the sake of feeling superior. If your intention is to actually effect a better situation, then your criticism will be accompanied by a clear suggestion for improving what is deficient. Always try to include a solution when you complain about a problem. The same idea applies when you look into yourself. Spend no time harshly criticizing yourself. That usually makes you less likely to change for the better, not more. Punishment is not a remedy. Fix the problem, not the blame.

Roberta, I’m confident that your anger will fade away in time, simply because you want it to. You’re not defending or justifying it, you’re just giving us an explanation for it. Some people nurture and cherish their anger, polishing it to a fine luster like a golden prize. It becomes their treasure and their prison after the original cause is long dead. Consider my ideas if any make sense for you; they might speed things up, but the most important thing is to focus on the here and now, and how you are continuing to build a more positive life. Keep going. It does get easier.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Cheryl

    I am 52 and still have some anger – and a lot of regret – about my religious past. I wasted my youth in church where I was constantly abused verbally and emotionally. I learned to hate others there and still have a problem with intolerance. I attended a christian college which was great as my best friend there was gay and I began to realize the total stupidity of religion. It took me another 10 years of experimenting with alternative beliefs before I finally let go of all that nonsense and could just be.

    I fully regret my past involvement as it caused me to give up learning in certain scientific fields that had always fascinated me. I made choices based on religion that denied me the full experiences of life. I missed out on so much because of that.

    Of all the mistakes I’ve made in life, my religious past is the biggest and my deepest regret. The anger still lingers and will always be a part of me as a reminder of how far I’ve come.

  • Roxane

    I never cease to be astonished and moved by Richard’s thoughtful and well-constructed answers.

  • http://www.nutzak.org/ hnutzak

    Cheryl,

    I could almost have written your response myself. I’m still discovering ways in which my religious upbringing denied me some of life’s experiences. I try not to be angry with my family, but it isn’t easy. I tell myself that my parents were and are naive and misled. Their parents, too. But I wonder why I am able to see through the lies of religion and rise above it when the rest of my family cannot? Why are my eyes and mind open while they are blind?
    Looking back now, I’m not sure I ever really believed in the family religion, but I certainly tried. I don’t know whether that was mostly due to the fear that was pounded into me, or out of a need to belong, to have support from family and community.

    I’m trying not “to waste time and energy being angry at having wasted time and energy” but I feel ill equipped, having been raised in an environment where the solution to difficult philosophical issues such as this was to pray. Pray, and then bury all the feelings that arise when those prayers go unanswered.

    “So one thing to do would be to look into yourself, and see if sadness or grief are the root of your anger, and if so, give yourself permission to feel and express those emotions directly.”

    You mean, blog about it? That could be a catharsis.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I loved Richards answer. I would only add that the one thing I do like about the Christian message is the idea of not being self-absorbed. Regrettably, this good idea has been warped within Christianity to mean all sorts of unhealthy things (like denying your true feelings concerning sensuality, abdicating yourself to others in authority, and ironically a preoccupation with eternal perfection)… But I still like the core message of selflessness once it has been un-entangled from religion. For me, part of selflessness is that I accept that I’m not perfect and I forgive myself for not being perfect in the past. If I had been duped by someone or something in the past then I get mad about it for a while…but because I realize that I am not perfect (and don’t live in a perfect world) I eventually forgive myself for being duped and forgive the people or things that duped me. You can be “born again” with attitude without any of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Part of this is letting go of anger. Feel it, let it flow through you, but then let it flow out. Your past wasn’t wasted. It made you the person you are right now. Accept your past and look forward to the future. I know it is easier said than done, but once you are able to do it, you will have made the mental readjustments that will serve you well in life.

  • Marshall

    “Certainty is the beginning of a fossilized mind”

    I love it!

  • Bill

    A wonderful answer from Richard. In my case, I was sent to a fundamentalist Christian school for several years; my parents were not particularly religious, but rather my mother seemed to be trying to stifle my intellectual development. Ironically, she had been a school teacher, and was well aware of how poor of an education I was receiving– for 4.5 years, I was assigned no great books to read (no books at all besides the “Christ-centered” “packets of Accelerated Christian Education”, really), and I really regret losing those formative years to a piss-poor education.

    25 years later I’m finally processing the feelings and trying to identify and modify self-destructive patterns, while trying not to harbor too much anger toward my aging and basically good, if deluded, parents.

    On the bright side, that school turned me into an atheist by age 14.

  • http://facebook.com/chad.cassady Chad Cassady

    Man, this one was perfect. I’m going through my “angry atheist” phase to the MAX right now. I am so angry. I’m struggling with feelings of hate, intolerance, bitterness, you name it. I came out as an atheist to my Jehovah’s Witness family last year, and they’ve been way better about it than most would be, but that’s because they’ve already been through it with my big sister, who REALLY had to take the heat. :(

    And I’m lucky to have family that doesn’t put me through the wringer over this, but it’s still so infuriating! The damage done from being religious is so insidious, and far-reaching. I’ll be cleaning up my psyche for years, man.

    But I know that it’s just a phase, and that keeps me going. I keep in mind that I’ve let go of religion precisely to become a better person, and being all angry and spiteful all the time doesn’t serve that purpose, does it? So we just gotta process those emotions and keep living the best life we can.

    Your answer really reinforces that positive perspective. Thanks for answering this question in particular, and for answering it so well.

    :)

    Chad

  • Silent Service

    Wonderfully said, Richard. Roberta’s letter expresses a lot of my anger and pain over knowing that I can never come out to my entire family as bisexual or atheist. The years of trying very hard to be something that I’m not just to keep the peace when I visit home wears me down more and more each year. I’m lucky that my wife is the most wonderful and understanding person on Earth (to me). She loves me as I am and helps me to deal with the closed minds in my family when we visit. I hope Roberta has somebody just as understanding about her faith and belief.

  • Luther

    I am 64. Every month or so, I learn something new that I wish I had learned much earlier. Or I relearn something I wish I kept in mind. We all have things in our past that we wish we had done differently. Religion is only one possible area. As they supposedly say in Scandinavia:

    Too soon old, und too late smart

    Just be pleased that you learned something and live what is left of your live fully. Many people never truly live at all.

    Or as Werner Erhard said:

    …be willing to have been that way and to see that the fear of being a failure is a lot less important that the unique opportunity I have to make a difference

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Good response, and I realize this is one small point, but me being me, I have to say something:

    Go ahead and lust for the wonderful person or thing, but avoid lusting just for its own sake. That would be a circular process, a kind of addiction.

    Whoa. Slow down. In fact, slam on the brakes.

    What is wrong with lusting just for its own sake?

    I totally agree that lusting for a particular person is a wonderful thing. But lusting for its own sake — i.e., loving and valuing sexuality for its own sake — can also be a wonderful thing. And I have serious problems when I see it being dissed.

  • http://www.redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    It gets easier with time. It really does. I’ve been where you are, and sometimes, I still am. But I am finding my sense of humor about it all lately, which for me means that healing really is upon me. It has taken me about two years, and that is average of what I see around the internet. Yeah, we miss out on a lot growing up in a cocoon of religion, but I see it now as part of the learning process. I will never get back my teenage and college years, but we’re still young, and there is plenty of time to catch up. And one good thing about being so sheltered is you’re never bored. You get to see for the first time movies and shows people have seen many. I’ve dragged my husband through the Terminator movies, X-Files, etc. And it’s like Christmas everyday! That’s what I do to cope–try to spin the negatives into positives. Life sucks for everyone in different ways, but that doesn’t mean it never gets better, even if it feels like it doesn’t.

  • my.totally.original.name

    I understand the anger you are feeling. My parents forced my sisters and I into homeschooling (Catholic), and because we live way out in the country, we are still suffering the effects of their religious beliefs. I don’t think we’ll be able to move on though until we escape the house, but that’s a different thing altogether.

    Know that it is hard, but you’ll get there. The anger you are feeling right now will dissipate – mine did, my sisters are still quite angry but they’re still in their teens – and with the anger leaving you’ll be able to think more clearly.

    Don’t give up. Don’t let your past kill your future.

  • prospera

    I can relate to the anger at having wasted so much time and effort on religion. Great advice, Richard.

    And I second what Jeff P said:

    Feel it, let it flow through you, but then let it flow out. Your past wasn’t wasted. It made you the person you are right now. Accept your past and look forward to the future. I know it is easier said than done, but once you are able to do it, you will have made the mental readjustments that will serve you well in life.

    I now see it as a learning experience — about myself and about the world.

  • Skepticat

    Like hnutzak, the biggest question I struggle with is why. Why did my parents teach me to be a slave to religion? Why did I see through all the lies and they did not? I’ve been angry with them for years because I assumed that since I could see through it, they could too. I always assumed that they just set me up.

    I’m slowly learning now that my parents aren’t perfect and I don’t have to be either. It’s taken almost 25 years of struggling with bipolar disorder and 5 suicide attempts to reach this point but I’m pushing through the other side and learning to forgive. Anger motivates some people to do better but for me it is a very bitter pill that has cost me dearly.

    Letting go of useless anger and learning to forgive takes time. You don’t have to accomplish it overnight. Sometimes just making up your mind to do it is enough to kickstart the process.

    I wish you all the best.

  • Alan McGowan

    I grew up in a small, very Christian town. Both me and my older sister were Allowed to choose our own religon, we choose to be Atheists. in her junior year of High school she was outed in history class by a stupid, (now ex), friend. She told us when she got home what happened. the whole class stood up and began cussing and shouting bible scripture at her. She was chased down the halls to the principles office were she had to stay until the sherrif picked her up and took her not home, but to the station for “inciting a riot”. she was driven back to our house and the sheriff told us what she said and claimed to be. We told him point blank that this is an Athiest home and if he and the town has issues with that they can take it up with the ACLU. Our neighbors weren’t so neighborly after that. we moved away a few years later and not a minute too soon. the point of this story? that in many places all over the world even in the USA religion is stronger than government, faith is stronger of patriatism. these people swear allegence to a jew who died 2000 years ago, even though most of them hate jews. they believe in a ridiculous genesis that has no proof but when you offer proof against thier genesis they deny it with avengence. in short these people are insane and need deprograming, not copitulation.

  • plutosdad

    At this point, besides all the helpful advice in dealing with these issues, I think it’s important to begin studying philosophy, studying how the bible was put together and changed, maybe even studying comparative religion (it helped de-mystify my own religion to see how everything else was similar).

    Whatever you believe, you want to believe because it is the most rational answer you can find. Some people “become atheists” out of anger, then years later go back to their religion after their anger goes away or after something bad happens, because they never really left theism. It was emotional but did not work on the logical aspects.

    That is a trap that is easy to fall into, so bolster your mind with study to keep yourself from falling into it.

  • Jennifer

    I’m totally with Cheryl. My religious upbringing and the years I wasted trying to conform are a source of constant pain and anger that I just can’t seem to let go. I know that it interferes with my ability to enjoy the present, yet I am still unable to get over it. Oh to be a bit more like Mr. Spock!

  • Carlie

    It gets better. It takes a long time, but it does get better. I spent a few years being white-hot angry about all in my life that religion had taken away from me, but then the anger started to fade and I was able to put it in more perspective. Religion DID keep me from doing some things that could have been hurtful. As flawed as it was, it also kept me mindful of others and their needs. There are a few little tiny nuggets I can pull out of those experiences. And I can look back on it and be glad that I got out at all; most of my family is still very fundamentalist, and in many ways it’s luck that I got out. I realized that I’m mostly mad at myself for buying into it for so long, even with the warning signs and glimmers of rationality I had all along I still clung to it for much longer than I should have. To get over that, I focused on how religion is set up to be self-protective in that way, and sort of have to marvel at how ingenious it is in heading off any sort of logical thought and questioning and doubt. It’s a very complex dupe, I had the bad luck of being born somewhere it’s the dominant cultural meme, I bought into it, and I eventually managed to break free.
    I guess my suggestion is to first focus on how good it is that you don’t think like that any more. After the pain isn’t so raw, then you might be able to salvage something of your past and be able to construct threads of how things you went through help you now, to see your past as something formative for what you are today even if it is wasted time from another perspective.

  • Jenni

    I’m sorry you’ve had such a difficult experience with religious people and institutions.