Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I have not been an Atheist for long, just a few years. To give a little history, I was raised in a very loving Southern Baptist home. I was very serious about my relationship with god, it was to me (as I’m sure it is to most Christians) a very special and personal relationship. It was not until college that I really began to question all that I had believed for so long. After a very difficult journey I now know that god does not exist.
When I was a Christian my understanding and practice of prayer was more conversational than formal. Over the years this conversational prayer became seamlessly entwined in my life. It was as if I never stopped praying. I believed that all of my thoughts were prayers, or rather one continuous conversation with god. This, even then I understood, was very therapeutic. I also kept a prayer journal, which I wrote in constantly. In doing so, I could organize my thoughts and feelings, and in a way, counsel myself, though at the time I felt it was the holy spirit and not myself. I now realize that it was all my own doing. I was solving my problems, not god.
Even knowing that what I was really doing all along was talking/thinking to myself both in my ceaseless prayer and journal, I can’t seem to continue doing it knowing that there is no one but myself listening. Being able to give up my problems to god made them easier to deal with. Since I’ve been an Atheist I have felt something missing that I gave up when I ceased to believe in god, and I know now that it is prayer. I have tried many times to do the same thing, but knowingly talk to myself or write in a journal not addressed to god, but I cannot seem to do so as freely as I had done before. Even writing this email to you is easier because I know there is someone on the receiving end. How can I overcome this barrier that holds me back?
I think the barrier that you need to overcome is the one that seems to be separating you from other people.
I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that you’re completely socially isolated, but I want to take the opportunity to talk about isolation.
Your letter describes various ways that you have used to sort things out, but none of them involved other people. You talked to what you thought was a god, and now you talk to yourself. You wrote a journal to what you thought was a god, and now you write it to yourself. The only mention of another human being is in your second-to-last sentence, when you said that it’s easier to write your email knowing that I’m on the receiving end.
It’s easier because you need people to be on the receiving end, not just yourself. You need friends who can listen, understand, care, and give you their feedback, and then in turn you can listen, understand, care, and give feedback to them.
This distance, the essential other-ness between you and other people is an important and useful thing. If you want to use a mirror to see yourself clearly, you must have the mirror some distance away from you. If it’s right up close, touching your face, you cannot see anything about yourself clearly. From their stepped-back vantage point, other people can provide a reflection, a view of you that you could never see when looking just within yourself.
It can be hard work to articulate your thoughts and feelings to another so that they can accurately understand you, but that very process forces you to clarify your thoughts and feelings to yourself as well. But unlike the prayers or journal, the other person’s reflection and response comes back enriched with their own unique point of view, and you can see possibilities that you missed in your blind spots. Even their difficulty in understanding a fine point is useful information to you.
As Robert Burns said in “To a Louse”
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!
It’s best to have a balance between introversion and extroversion. Extremes of either can stifle our personal development. Some people are too turned within because it’s a way to avoid the risks and tensions of interacting with other people. In the other extreme, some people are constantly interacting with others because it distracts them from facing something uncomfortable inside themselves. The only way to stop these handicapping fears from within and fears from without is to face them, listen to their stories, understand their causes, forgive ourselves for having those fears, and then resolve to change their causes with new specific behaviors. In order to think and feel differently, we must live differently.
Atheists frequently have difficulty with social isolation. Often they come from backgrounds where their main social resource has been their religious community. As their belief gradually disintegrates, they pull back, either physically isolating, or reducing their intimacy with family and friends, for fear of revealing their unbelief. We get good at anything we do for a long time. Atheists often have to be withdrawn for so long that it becomes a habit, and even after their social situation is less restrictive, they sometimes continue to isolate. Being alone in a crowd can sometimes be more painfully lonely than being physically alone, but we are creatures of habit both good and bad.
This is different from solitude, which is a welcome and soothing aloneness, and different people have varying levels of need for its comfort. Just avoid extremes. If it is used it too much it can become more about avoidance.
One of the questions that believers often ask of atheists is “Without God, to whom do you turn in times of difficulty?” The answer is usually that we turn to other people. A frequent believer’s response to that is “People will let you down, but God/Jesus won’t.”
Yes, sometimes people let us down. Welcome to life on Earth. The fact that people can let us down makes the times when they don’t so beautiful, so healing, and so validating. If they were incapable of letting us down, their caring and help would have little significance, and we would have little appreciation. The help would be only exterior, and would have no interior benefit.
So Kaitlyn, If you haven’t already, develop at least two trusting friendships where you can safely share with them the kinds of things that you would write in your journal, and in return, be a “journal” that is just as open and accepting of them. It can take some time to find and nurture such friendships, so it will take patience, effort, and a little risk. It is essential to most people’s emotional health, so it’s worth getting past whatever hesitance, shyness, or apprehension you may have. If one prospective friend disappoints you, don’t give up, try another.
This is one of the most beautiful things that human beings do, and it is one of the main things that make us human. To listen, understand, care, and respond, back and forth, over and over. To be always “other,” yet constantly coming closer to being one.