Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’ve been an atheist for about 15 years. Before that I was a fervent born-again spirit-filled Christian for most of my life, to the point of quitting high school to attend Bible School in lieu of getting a secular college education. I was able to break away from the church and superstition when I moved to California with my husband and he suggested we stop going to church after we were unable to find one where we felt at home. Now we are considering a move to the Bible Belt and I am afraid I could get sucked back into my previous Jesus-addiction. I never wanted to stop believing, and in fact I was terrified of backsliding. But now that I’m an unbeliever, I don’t want to start again. Any advice?
What an interesting question. Religion has long been called the “opiate of the masses,” and because of my background in addiction counseling I’ve used the analogy myself. Religion has an intoxicating tendency to cloud one’s thinking, its ability to tranquilize fears and produce euphoria is in a way addicting, and the painful mourning process that some people go through when their faith finally collapses is analogous to withdrawal symptoms from drugs.
But I never thought of it in terms of having a relapse.
Your former religion gave you emotional and social benefits:
- It reassured you that death is not the end of you.
- It reassured you that a parent figure loves you and is protecting you.
- It gave you a sense of meaning or purpose.
- It made you feel important both in the cosmos and in your community.
- It gave you guidelines to follow. Many things were already decided for you.
- It gave you easy, pat answers for tough questions and complex dilemmas.
- It gave you external forgiveness for your screw-ups.
- It gave you the comfort and confidence of being in the majority.
- It gave you social approval and affirmation.
- It gave you a group you could draw upon for practical help.
- It gave you fun things to do with people who were like you.
During the last 15 years you may have found alternatives for some of those things, and you may have simply grown to no longer need or want some of those things, but if any of them remain either unfulfilled or unresolved, then I can understand that you might think it will be tempting to go back to your old religion in that environment.
There’s just one little question.
Do you still believe in God? If you do, then you can have all those benefits back again quickly. It’ll be like riding a bicycle. If you do not still believe, then the inner emotional benefits will not work at all unless you can profoundly compartmentalize your mind to avoid the cognitive dissonance. The social benefits will be very uncomfortable because you’ll know you’re being hypocritical and phony.
I can only go by your letter, and so forgive me if my interpretation is off. You couldn’t find a church that you liked in California. It sounds more like you simply drifted away from religion, rather than you assertively “broke away.” Just not thinking about god belief much any more is not necessarily being free of it. Is it really gone, or did you just forget about it and it’s somewhere in the attic gathering dust? Did you ever make a deliberate, thorough search of your mind, and conclude that you definitely have no more belief in gods?
You said that you never wanted to stop believing. I don’t think many, if any believers want to stop believing, even when they’re in the process of stopping. I don’t think we deliberately choose to stop believing. What we choose to do is to open our eyes and look at the reality around us and inside of us instead of just listening to our preachers and parents. “Skeptic” means a person who looks, who insists on seeing. When what we see doesn’t match what we have been told, a crisis begins. Our belief system begins to crack and crumble. It starts slowly, then accelerates. It can be painful yet soothing, scary yet encouraging, confusing yet clarifying, sorrowful yet joyful all at the same time. This daunting emotional upheaval is perhaps why many people who drift away from religion don’t deliberately sit down and carefully survey their minds.
If you haven’t gone through that meticulous self examination, I suggest that you do. Whether you still believe or not, knowing your own mind clearly and openly, without any obscuring compartments will greatly reduce your confusion, conflict, and anxiety. When Socrates was asked what is most important to know, he said “To know thyself.”
If you find that you’re still a believer, then in the Bible belt you can enjoy being a fish back in water. If you have some belief but you are conflicted, then honestly, patiently, and gently, without any harshness toward yourself, examine each tiny part and accept or reject each one until you have finally cleared away all your contradicting ideas. Believer or non-believer, strive to have a consistency of mind that comes from exploring yourself rather than avoiding yourself.
However, if you are sure that your mind contains no god belief then I don’t think you are someone so easily swayed that you could be mesmerized back into it. I wonder if the anxiety you’re feeling is not about getting “sucked back into your Jesus addiction,” but instead is really about being uncomfortable socially while living in that part of the country. Religion is much more woven into every social venue there than in California, and to have a social life at all, you may have to do quite a lot of tongue biting, equivocating, and straight-out lying for self preservation.
I don’t know what the reason is for you and your husband to be considering this move to the Bible belt. If it’s about having work, in this economy that can be a very compelling reason. But look at the overall picture of your lives. Consider all your needs including the economic, familial, social, intellectual, emotional, creative, and self-expressive needs. Will some of those very important needs suffer badly if you make this move? Would some other solution fulfill all your needs in a more balanced manner?
With your eyes open, your minds clear, and your hearts in harmony, I think that you and your husband will find your way.