Ask Richard: Atheist Worries She’ll Go Back to Religion

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard.

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?

Thanks!
Rita

Dear Rita,

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Shelley P.

    I also recommend that if she and her husband come back to the bible belt, to get involved with the closest skeptical group they can find. In St Louis, MO for example, there is a rather nice sized group of nonbelievers who get together often for different things, along with a nice ethical society building for gatherings and talks, along with Unitarian churches which may help provide that connection she may want, without religion trying to creep back in. Also, there is a huge skeptical convention in Springfield MO, which may help to keep her…well for lack of a better term here…grounded in nonbelief. All belts have holes in them, if she has to move back to the bible belt, I’d recommend she place herself near to one of the holes, where us nonbelievers reside. :)

  • Allecher

    I would also suggest checking for a Meetup group in the area you are moving to. Most of the medium to large cities in the bible belt have freethinker or skeptic groups that you could join to have a social network.

  • Rita

    Richard, thanks for the feedback.

    Oh, it’s interesting to me. LOL. I did got through a meticulous self-examination and came to my unbelief (separately and after I left the church) after a long, heart wrenching period of reading everything I could get my hands on. For the years I was in the church, I read nothing but the Bible and Christian-themed books, plus some fiction.

    After I stopped going to church, I read about science, philosophy, history… you name it. I had to leave the church first and get away from the voluntary weekly self-brainwashing sessions. And it completely blew my mind open. I don’t even believe in a noncoporeal soul any more, never mind a god, but I believed so fervently in the past and had such a profound change in my deconversion, that I can’t stop myself from wondering if such a turnaround could happen again.

    Most of my old friends and many of my family members are born again Christians but we have, after a long period of not being in touch, found a way to get along anyway. I don’t try to convince them their beliefs in supernatural experiences and beings are wrong and they don’t try to get me to “come back to the Lord” (although I am fairly certain many of them praying for that to happen). I wonder what it will be like with me to live close enough to see them more frequently, and for us to spend more time together.

    I’m definitely still interested in “spirituality” but as a way to explore human consciousness and my own mental and emotional experiences, not as anything supernatural.

    Life is an adventure, that’s for sure!

  • cass_m

    Moving to a new place can be intimidating at any age. I left a city and job I loved to move to a small conservative town with my spouse. I had neither children nor religion to help me find a social group and was unable to find work. It’s a hard place to be in; keep the communication channels open with your husband and keep in touch with old friends through the internet while you build a social network in your new home. Hope your move is fairly uneventful.

  • http://bornagainyesterday.com Justin

    I totally identify with this.

    A Christian most of my life, most of my family deeply involved with church, it has been occasionally tempting to just go back and pretend. Then I’d be more fully accepted by my family and peers.

    Not just with Christianity, actually. Almost all of my peers (I’m an arts guy) are deep into superstition of various flavors, not merely Christianity. It’s difficult, when surrounded by everything from ghosts to “manifesting” desires to the more traditionally accepted superstitions, to remain aloof.

    Speaking out is respected to a certain extent, so we won’t necessarily be shunned if we’re clear about our beliefs. But we want to fit in. How do we do that if we reject the fundamental beliefs of the tribe? It’s tempting to just pretend.

    As an atheist ex-christian in Tulsa, Oklahoma my suggestion is, in the Bible Belt, keep your atheist blogoshpere close and your local atheist group closer. You’ll be ok.

  • Miko

    That isn’t what Marx meant by “opiate of the masses.” He was suggesting that it dulled peoples’ minds so that they wouldn’t object to social ills caused by the state and the capitalists, not that it was addictive.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Rita,

    Sometimes at first when you “go back” as in a high-school reunion, people tend to act just like they were when they were previously all together. But that is just for temporary occasional get-together. If you are moving back there, you can take a longer view and see the place with different eyes than before with the benefit of added perspective. With this new perspective, hopefully, you can find a way to “fit in” while maintaining your new-found awareness. It would be good, as others have suggested, to seek out other non-believers to start to form a support-group. We are social animals, after all.

    Jeff

  • Claudia

    I’ll echo what other commenters said. You seem (from the letter and the comment) to be pretty firm in your atheism. You have examined reality, found no evidence for deities and landed in atheism. You aren’t “nonaffiliated” or a “none” like the millions of Americans that don’t identify with a religion but may believe in a god or “in a something” or “personal spirituality” (in the supernatural sense). You are a thoughtful atheist (the best kind!) that firmly understands the reasons for being one.

    So I’m guessing that, save for very traumatic incidents that would render you neurologically or psychologically damaged, the chances of you going holly-roller are close to nill. What I do understand is the fear that when living in such a church-centered environment, you will find that the only way to relate to others is through religion, and hence you may find yourself back in the closet, one you’re really good at occupying given your past experience.

    So make a determination, now, ahead of time, to proactively seek out communities not centered on the church. Absolutely seek out a skeptics group. They can be a rock, and also guide you to atheist-friendly places and activities. Find groups of people who share your hobbies, or even explore a new hobby or take courses at a local community college or cultural center. Unless you’re in a itty-bitty small town, there will be options outside the church BUT they have to be sought out. The default way of getting a social circle there is church, and as you know fundamentalists are well trained to invite particularly newcomers eager to make friends into their churches. Get out ahead of that game. Good luck!

  • Dubliner

    That is an excellent summary of the ‘positives’ of religion Richard. They are why I am not comfortable being aggressive about my atheism. I see no harm really in people availing of such ‘comforts’ especially if they go for the a la carte approach leaving the negatives behind. (This approach being fairly common in my country – Ireland). In fact I find that the just by being open about being non religious it gets religious people questioning, without the need for ‘evangelising’.I saw this in action recently when an elderly uncle who was a staunch Catholic all his life discovered at a family wedding recently that his nieces and nephews were non believers. Within a few weeks he was phoning to say he no longer believed in God. It was as though he gave himself permission to question when he realised others had also done so. So even at 80 years of age simple example can be sufficient to promote rational thinking.

  • doglovingirl

    I’ll continue the echos. :-) Once your eyes are open, it seems unlikely you could close them again. Once you don’t believe in a god (and see that there’s no evidence to believe in one), I can’t imagine how you would start believing again.

    I think you’ll be okay. Just be careful who you are “out” to: the bible-belt isn’t always a particularly atheist-friendly place.

  • Dubliner

    doglovingirl

    As long as people are cautious surely the bible belt will continue as is? Shouldn’t atheists take a leaf out of the lgbt book and come out of the closet so that those who currently fear and despise atheists will be forced to recognise we don’t have horns and a forked tail?

  • Rita

    I’ve got to agree with Dubliner. This is SO not me: “you may have to do quite a lot of tongue biting, equivocating, and straight-out lying for self preservation.”

    I’ve had great discussions with my born-again friends and family members over the past few years and I lived in the Bible Belt before. I’m not afraid of coming out or being honest about not going to church or being a “good Christian.”

    I know there are assholes everywhere, but I’m really not worried about being discriminated against or even persecuted for being an atheist. It makes me sad that some people feel they have to hide in this way.

  • http://deanroberts.net Dean Roberts

    Loving all the atheist ‘evangelism’, if you can attach that word to whatever is going on here…

    But in all honesty, this is something ‘Rita’ has to work out for herself. And if she decides that Jesus is worth too much to ever let go, then so be it. Of course, I would say that – I’m a Christian…

    And from the letter alone, it doesn’t seem as if she’s so comfortable with being an atheist.

    http://deanroberts.net – my blog which explores all these sorts of things :)

  • Dubliner

    @ Rita.

    It is sad and I’m convinced largely unnecessary. I read about the bible belt on the net all the time and it does seem like a scary place in some ways for atheists. Damon Fowler comes to mind. On the other hand twenty years ago I knew no other atheists in Ireland – we were a dogmatically catholic country. Now few people are that way inclined. Most are what we call ‘a la carte’ catholics and non believers are common enough even if most are ‘apathetics’ as opposed to atheists. :) So massive social change can happen in a short space of time once people don’t allow fear to keep them subjugated. If a vulnerable teenager can do it, adults don’t have much of an excuse.

  • Hugh

    Interesting… just the other day I saw an article arguing that atheists never doubt their atheism, therefore they are more dogmatic than believers. Anyway, good luck, Rita!

  • HamsterWheel

    I know what you mean, Rita. I’m concerned that I might start believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny again. All those presents and candy used to make me so happy when I was a child. I never wanted to stop believing, and I’m worried that next Christmas I might end up going to the mall and sitting on Santa’s lap and asking him for a big-screen TV. Are you sure you’re an atheist?

  • Mark

    Personally we need all the thinkers we can get out here. I wouldn’t look at moving as an intimidation, but as chance to hold your head up high and help support the movement of open mindedness. I live in Missouri, my friends and family are Christian but my Jesus eating dinosaur shines on brightly as a sign of hope to many. =P

  • Heidi

    @Dean Roberts: No, you can’t call it that. I mean you can, but it’s not accurate.

    And judging by her replies, she already has worked it out for herself.

    Rita: I did got through a meticulous self-examination and came to my unbelief (separately and after I left the church) after a long, heart wrenching period of reading everything I could get my hands on.

    Rita: I’m really not worried about being discriminated against or even persecuted for being an atheist. It makes me sad that some people feel they have to hide in this way.

    It’s always best to look at all the evidence before assessing a situation.

    @Rita: Good luck. It sounds like you’ll be fine.

  • FormerThumper

    Rita, I am apostate and I also live in the bible belt. I was raised pentacostal, was a baptist for a while and then Plymouth Brethren. I was very die hard and eventually left. Let me put your mind at ease, living in the bible belt puts me face to face with brainwashed, closed minded individuals daily. Nothing could reassure me of my atheistic stance more than that.

  • Rastaman

    You either believe in God…or you don’t. Rita, if you are truly conflicted on this issue, I suggest you “keep” God, and “lose” religion. Any and all religion.

  • doglovingirl

    @Dubliner: Actually, I agree with you. :-) The more people who are “out” in the bible-belt, the better. But each person has to decide for themselves if/when/how etc. There could very well be unpleasant consequences. I just wanted Rita to … I don’t know, be cautious and thoughtful about the whole thing. She sounds like that kind of person, though. :-)

  • http://godconfusion.blogspot.com/ Xanthe Wyse

    Interesting letter. My guess is people often stay/return to religion to gain acceptance from family and to have a social group. I’d find it too painful to keep going along and pretending to be something I’m not.

  • rule_the_night

    @Rita- Where are you moving to in the Bible Belt?

    Living in Nowhere, Mississippi will be completely different then living in Atlanta, Austin, or Miami. Most big cities in the South, like anywhere else, are very liberal and will have plenty of atheist groups to join and socialize with.

    I don’t know where you’re moving, but you may be over thinking this. I lived in Atlanta for five years and never had any problems.

  • http://www.theholyatheist.com Chris

    Great advice but just like addition, you have to take yourself out of the environment or its much harder to quit.

    Be strong Rita!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Freedom-from-the-Known/109639562395148 Ron

    Rita,
    What most attracted my eyes was your sentences “we were unable to find one where we felt at home”. indeed, finding a place where it feels like home is precious. I would say this is the main issue, more than believing/identifying with one religious or another. When I read some of the answers here it almost feels like atheism is a new totalitaric religious, fighting other believes and it feels uncomfortable. as if we forgot that it’s about freedom of choice, everyday, everytime.

    Hearing one’s fears and feelings is an extraordinary jewel.

    So you have the choice to either visit the church or not, and to either be aware of your fears of loosing control and be ‘jesus addicted’ again.
    but if you choose everytime, you have control! this is a great opportunity to look at that fear in the eyes and learn about yourself. maybe that fear exists in other areas in your life as well?! looks to me like you can turn the arrows of fear into flowers of growth and love.
    Trust yourself, your consciousness, your awareness that you can choose good.

  • Memurphey

    I struggled with the same issue.  After leaving the church for over a year, I suddenly missed the community, the ritual, candles, pretty pictures (Roman Catholic).  So, I went back… for a little while…but ended up feeling like a hypocrite.  For me the question of the existence of “God” is not as important as the question of religion. Do I really want to be any part of organized religion, with its poisonous lies and all the division, hatred, fear, guilt, and  harm it causes?  Belief in a Higher Power can be very difficult to let go of when we have been indoctrinated with it, but organized religion can be easier to break away from, and is in my  opinion, the most important step for the future of humanity. 

  • Saint

    When Christ came to Earth 2000 years ago and yes Jesus was a real person who walked this Earth believe or not, He didn’t come to set up a religion but His church. He came in love to seek and save the lost, to pay the death penalty for our rebellion against God so we would not be lost and go to Hell, then Jesus conquered death by rising up on the third day giving believers a way to be forgiven of their crimes against God by faith and inheriting eternal life in Heaven. That is the essence of the Gospel message. Christianity is not a religion but supposed to be a love relationship.  I believe simply because of all the good things God has done in my life.  All the answers to prayer done in faith. 

    God is good and He is good all the time. It is natural to have doubts even Thomas doubted Jesus being raised from the dead until he saw him. Thomas carried the Gospel message to the far east and suffered martyrdom for it. I have witnessed so many healing miracles, deliverance miracles and even people being raised from the dead.  Heaven is real and Hell is just as a real of a place. There is a battle raging for the souls of men between God and His holy angels and that of the fallen rebellious angels led by Satan. That is why you see so much good and evil in the world. There is a natural world and then an unseen invisible world. Much like the air you breath, you can’t see it but you know it exist because you breath it in and out to live. Only when it get’s cold out do you actually see your breath. It is the same with the unseen spirit realm. I have sensed both peace and unrest in my heart along with great joy accompanied by uncontrolled laughter. I have experienced also a great weeping as I was worshiping God followed by a sense of peace and being so clean in my heart. I just encourage anyone out there to know that  Jesus lives and loves you. If you call upon the name of the Lord you will be saved. Ask God to reveal himself to you and since He loves you, He will. Admit that you are a sinner as we all have lied, stolen, lusted, hated, cursed, envied, been greedy, selfish, not loved God like we should even denying His existence despite the fact that all of creation displays that there was a Creator in the same way when you look at a building you know that there was a builder. We all need forgiveness and grace.  God will create in you a clean heart and fill you with His Holy Spirit and give you the fruit of the spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness and self control. God is supernatural. Watch Sid Roth’s TV show It’s Supernatural http://www.sidroth.org The Bible is also a supernatural book and every prophecy given in it so far as been true and come to pass. The rebirth of Israel in 1948 and the retaking of Jerusalem in 1967 fulfilled Bible prophecy. Mark Hitchcock is an expert on bible prophecy and has written a couple of books on the topic. The Amazing Claims of Bible Prophecy is a good  read. 1 Peter 1:20-21 2 Peter 1:20-21
    New Living Translation (NLT)20 Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding,[a] 21 or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.Footnotes:2 Peter 1:20 Or is a matter of one’s own interpretation.


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