Ask Richard: Do I Really Need To Be An Atheist?

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

Dear Richard,

I have a complicated issue and I was hoping that you could offer some insight so I can make an informed decision. I am an “on-the-fence” atheist, but I don’t want to be atheist. I turned towards atheism several months ago, but before that I had some personal spiritual beliefs I’ve been believing for some time now. Ever since I began exploring atheism, I’ve become really depressed about letting go of my old beliefs. I didn’t follow any religion… I just had some beliefs of mine that were more of comfort beliefs than anything else, but they did make me feel better at times. After giving it some thought, I asked myself if I really needed to be atheist because I don’t really have any good reasons to become one. I am not fanatical about my personal spiritual beliefs, and I rarely share my feelings about them. If I became an atheist, it’d be just about the same. My main concern however is that I just feel awful since moving towards atheism. Is it okay for me to have my own, personal spiritual beliefs if they’re helping me in the end? Thanks.

—Benjamin

Dear Benjamin,

It’s okay for you to have whatever beliefs you have. There is neither a “need” for you to be an atheist, nor a “need” for you to be a theist or anything else. Follow whatever works for you and whatever is true for you. If your beliefs give you comfort and if they make sense for you, then keep them.

However, I think the conflict you’re having is that your beliefs give you comfort, but they no longer make sense for you.

Forgive me for analyzing you through your letter. I cannot know for certain without a careful back-and-forth interview with you, so I can only offer my initial impressions, which could be inaccurate.

As a former therapist, I must stop here to respond to your mention of “becoming really depressed.” Clinical depression, rather than sadness or grief can be very dangerous. If you think you are depressed, if you have feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of death, please talk to a doctor immediately. Your safety is paramount, beyond any other issue here. You deserve to be able to sort out your new views, your old beliefs, and to live a happy and satisfying life.

You haven’t detailed what your comforting spiritual beliefs are, but the ones I have most often heard described are those about an afterlife, those about something that gives a sense of order to what can seem like a chaotic universe, and those about something that will give guidance or protection in a daunting situation.

Whatever they may be, you sound like you don’t actually believe your beliefs; you’re just keeping them around as comforting thoughts. You talk about them as if they’re outside of you, and you’re looking at them in a detached way. You do not sound like you have a strong inner conviction that they’re correct and true. Comfort and reassurance are important and legitimate human needs, but the comfort and reassurance of a belief vanish when one realizes that it is not true. It becomes only a wished-for memory. Then those needs have to be fulfilled in new ways.

You say you’re an “on-the-fence” atheist, but I think your ambivalence is not between disbelieving and believing. I think it’s between disbelieving and wishing you still believed.

I think the fence that you’re sitting on is a difficult place of transition that many atheists reading your letter will recognize from their own experience. Very often there is a lag time between a person’s intellectual realization that they no longer believe in something, and their emotional acceptance that it is gone. People often experience this stage of conflict between their head and their heart as feelings of grief, regret, and loss. What you are describing sounds like this. The mourning period can last for weeks, months, or less often for years, but most people pass through it and emerge resolved and more comfortable on the far side.

I think the best way to progress through this process is to talk about it frequently with trusted friends who have been through it themselves. There’s nothing specific that I can point to in your letter, but I get a vague inkling that you are wrestling with this struggle all by yourself. If that is correct, I urge you to reach out and find people with similar views. You’ll immediately discover the relief that comes from knowing that you’re not the only one who thinks and feels whatever you do, and you’ll probably find very practical suggestions as well as encouragement and companionship. You’ll find that this is a good new source for the comfort and reassurance that the old beliefs used to give you.

There’s a chance that my analysis is not correct. If you are not going through the grief period, if whatever are your personal spiritual beliefs help you as you say they do, if they give you comfort and they make sense for you, then as I said at the beginning, keep them.

Do you “need” to be an atheist? No. You need only to be true to yourself. True to your mind, and true to your heart. Completely, thoroughly, courageously true.

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.

  • Glasofruix

    The nice thing about being an atheist is that you don’t have to give a shit about skydaddy and whatnot, you have absolutely no obligations. No churchgoing, no stupid meetings, no people telling you what to do according to some old fairytale book of magic unicorns, you do what you think is relevant. In fact, every one of us has his own reasons/theories about our atheism, nobody forced us.

    • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

       LOL, right. No obligations at all.

      *looks at stack of bills and tax documents*

      • Anonymous

        Haha, I was going to say the same thing! No obligations! Ha, none except the bills in the mail, the law of the land, and the obligation to be good to other people….

      • Glasofruix

        No obligations as in “go to church, live by skydaddy’s rules”

  • Justin Miyundees

    Beliefs can be comforting – I’m a math teacher and I’ve seen a lot of students hand in answers they believed were correct.  However being correct is even better.  

    For instance, 3 ≠ 1 no matter how many ways you contort the notion of “the trinity” so believing 3 = 1 may be comforting, but it doesn’t make it so.  

    Believing the sun went around the earth, believing demons caused the plague, believing prayer will cure grandma – all comforting because perplexity is not.  But choosing a easy quick answer simply to provide yourself solace is (according to Freud) “patently infantile” and it certainly doesn’t one’s answer true no matter how much it is believed.

    “The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living in to-day, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.”  

    So, yeah – that is depressing, but it’s not your fault – it’s “the great majority of mortals”.

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t like deciding your citizenship here. There’s no legal requirement to determine if you’re an atheist, deist, Pastafarian, or even some word you made up. You can call yourself whatever you want and in the end it’s only a label to help others determine your position. What’s going on in your head won’t be altered by such labels.

  • Mrs. B.

    Benjamin

    I think you would be amazed at what some atheists believe or want to believe. I want to believe that the death of our physical body is when our consciousness is set free to do and know everything that was impossible as a physical being. I don’t believe in gods or angels or satan or hell or heaven, but my belief/wish gives me some comfort when I think of death – my own or anyone else’s.  Is there any rational reason to believe what I do? None. In fact, every scientific molecule in my body is appalled that I can hang on to this completely illogical mechanism. But, there you go.

    Will I ever let go of this belief? Probably not.  I will die with hope – looking forward, if you will, to my next adventure. Once I die I’ll either be having the time of my life or I’ll be dead and won’t know the difference.

    The most important thing is that Richard was spot-on about determining the cause of your depression. I know sometimes I use the term depressed to cover a broad range of feelings including just being bummed out over something. If you are truly depressed do please see your doctor.

  • Anonymous

    Though I’m anything from an expert on religious/spiritual beliefs, having never held any, I would tentatively anticipate that anyone with enough self-awareness to understand that the sole and only reason they wish to keep a belief is for it’s comfort has gone too far into reason to really ever go back.

    Nowhere in the letter is any indication that you have any illusions about the truth of your beliefs. I would expect that if you did think there was any factual merit to them, you would have mentioned that. I’m afraid you’ll find that once you’ve looked behind the curtain, there’s no real going back to true belief. I feel for your pain at having the illusion broken, but unless forcing them back is something you absolutely require for psychological survival, broken it will stay and the only path is forward.

    You say you’re “exploring atheism” and find dispair. I’d like to tell you that you should keep exploring and you’ll find that atheism, or rather the wider skepticism, can provide you with joy and meaning all on it’s own. Though it lacks the notion of an afterlife, it is wonderfully empowering to know that you, and no one else, is the true owner of your destiny. It’s a joyous thing to realize that questions can have answers based in evidence, and that these answers are not flismy things that require careful mental gymnastics to maintain, but solid ideas that can withstand challenges. The world is hardly cold and lacking in mystery and awe. Hell, there’s so damn much we don’t understand yet about the Universe it’s dizzying. The Universe provides enough beauty and astonishment that it is beyond what any single human could consume in their lifetime. More than enough. Our cup runneth over, as it were ;)

    • http://www.facebook.com/anique.vanberne Anique Van Berne

      This power over your own destiny can be daunting too. It might be that someone exploring atheism needs some time to accept the fact that there is no heavenly parent to pick up the pieces when you mess up or to protect you when things get tough. This can feel very lonely and scary. (Like being ‘orphaned’ from religion.)
      What is important to realise is that being in charge of your own destiny also means you get to ask for help (from other humans) when you need it.

  • Cutencrunchy

    With just the peripheral sense of this persons situation I’d suggest they may be in the category of people who don’t think about it but feel like a shadow that something larger is there -  like the anonymity of AA a spirituality that’s more hinted at then focused on – it sounds to me like this person may be at a point for some reason of determining his status but not wanting to look into his shadows for fear of seeing nothing.  He may be looking for ‘permission’ to define himself without ‘owning’ or being part of any conclusions… further more it may be his very lack of a concrete and defined self that is lending itself to depression a free floating un-anchored self with no attractive harbor to land in -  and a terror of what landing in this harbor will mean.

  • george.w

    For a perspective on joyful atheism, I recommend “Redneck, Blue-collar Atheist” by Hank Fox. He’s as happy in atheism as a dog on a walk. A great contrast to the despair we’ve been told to expect by religious writers. But the surprising thing is that his transition to atheism wasn’t smooth at all.  It took him years to get the religion out of his head and he says to expect that if you have a religious background.

    That was in fact my experience.  A long time ago I was a Christian believer, and I invested a lot in that belief. It was not easy to get out but I am much happier without supernatural beliefs than I ever was with them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1049978119 Priscilla Evans

    It took me a long time to get from the religion I was brought up in to atheism.  I think I had the mistaken notion that I needed a “substitute” religion.  For a while I tried Wicca, at least the holidays had some basis in the natural observable world.  Perhaps the writer finds rituals comforting, and would enjoy exploring “wheel of the year” type rituals?

  • Xeon2000

    I would suggest that you don’t get caught up in some perceived definition of what it means to be an atheist.  Don’t force yourself to fit into a mold.  Strictly speaking, atheists don’t believe in god(s).  That’s it.  You will find that atheists can be quite different, holding vastly different political opinions, spiritual (or lack of) beliefs, etc. 

    Granted many tend to congregate here at blogs like this because of various shared interests… and you know what?  We don’t always agree on issues.

    You may or may not know as well that many flavors of Buddhists consider themselves to be atheists.  Many cultural Jewish people are atheists as well.  You also don’t need to be a skeptic to be an atheist.  I’m sure many atheists believe in Area 51 and alien abductions, Atlantis, etc.

    My main point is:  people who are atheists are not any one kind of person.  They are every possible kind of person you can imagine with ONE SINGLE caveat.  No god belief.  That’s it.

    • Georgina

      some quaker atheists too – appreciate and honour what Jesus said, but without all the mumbo-jumbo.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Benjamin – let me give you a sort of Buddhist perspective.  The Buddhist would tell you to abandon your beliefs.  Why?  Because beliefs are attachments to how your mind tells you the world is.  Atheism can be a belief system.  If you believe there are no gods you have made an assumption that you ultimately cannot support from available evidence.  Is it true?  Maybe.  Probably.  But really who really knows.

    The Buddhist would tell you that your suffering (i.e. the depression) is in indication of your attachments to your beliefs.  The thoughts that your beliefs may be “wrong” (another issue) and that you need to adopt another belief system is possibly the root of your depression.

    The alternative is simply to look inward try to see your beliefs and simply drop them.  I’ll give you an example.  I tend to believe that slow drivers should drive on the right side of the road.  There are even laws that say they should.  However, when I encounter some slow person in the left hand lane my belief will make me angry which ultimately causes me suffering. 

    In the end, don’t “be” anything.  Don’t be an atheist.  Don’t be a theist.  Don’t “be” a “spiritual person.”  Just go through life, wonder at the world and watch the theater that is reality.

    • Brian Macker

      All the available evidence is definitive on the fact that I don’t believe in gods. This makes me an atheist. It requires no assumptions and is pure knowledge of the self.

      I don’t know why you think it is a negative to have negative feelings about negative situations. It can be perfectly healthy. What is unhealthy is to be happy with evil.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3ZYREGKDG5E7DECMA7U3Z7N3ZE Bob Down

    Benjamin probably forgot to say his prayers one night, and decided that he had lapsed into atheism. Now he’s back with his fellow believers trying to impress them with scary stories about the cold, hard, life of the atheist.

    This letter is not Benjamin talking about his difficulties with atheism, it is Benjamin taking pot shots at the atheists; saying they are doomed to remain depressed and uncomfortable for as long as they continue to deny god’s existence.

    • Anonymous

      That is an exceptionally uncharitable reading. Just because atheists are unfairly characterized as depressed and hopeless by theists does not mean that new atheists don’t ever suffer initially. A cursory study of the subject reveals that many former theists describe going through great pain at first, especially when it came to letting go of the idea of life after death. However they usually describe coming out the other end happier and better for their journey.

      Benjamin sounds nothing like your typical theist. He explicitly says he follows no religion, but simply had some spiritual beliefs that gave him comfort. Those are not the words of a person embedded in an organized religious community he might want to impress. He sounds like a brand new atheist who, like many, is unsure even of what the word really means. As someone who called herself an agnostic from about age 12 to the time I picked up The God Delusion and realized I was wrong about the definition of atheism, I can relate.

      • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

        I still feel pain at the idea of no afterlife. I have yet to find any thought or philosophy that mitigates that. If I think of it too closely, I do sometimes feel hopeless, and I’ve been an atheist for years. That Benjamin would be dealing with this when he’s just starting with atheism? Not in the least surprising.

        • Brian Macker

          Try thinking about how utterly monotonous eternity would become. There is only a finite number of thins we humans can do and you’d have to repeat each of those an infinite number of times. Why not let someone else experience them for you? Someone who hasn’t done it a quadrillion times in the past.

          • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

            How does that work for you? Because it doesn’t seem useful to me. First, because even the things I’m aware of being able to experience cannot all be experienced (even just once) in a single lifetime, so I will never reach the point of boredom you suggest. Second, because of the things I’ve already experienced, there are many that I enjoyed enough that I would like to do them again. And again. And again. Third, have you ever done something repeatedly, got tired of it, stopped doing it, and then some time later (maybe a lot later), came back to that thing and enjoyed it all over again? Because I certainly have. Eternity would give a great deal of opportunity for that. 

            Would even point three stop working eventually? Maybe. But I’ll never know. And that’s also painful. 

            I could make some other points showing why your thought hasn’t worked for me (you are not the first to suggest it), but I’ll refrain. I don’t want to convince you you’re wrong right now. If that thought does help you deal with mortality, then great. I will still advocate for research into life-extension, and even immortality if possible. I will also continue to advocate for a right to die, even for immortals. If life really got that boring after a few thousand years, I’d want the option to choose death.
            But I do appreciate the attempt on your part to offer a thought that would ease my mind on death. I am forced to accept it as an inevitability, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elizabeth-Masters-Hiatt/1089954620 Elizabeth Masters Hiatt

    I have so much compassion for where you are. I have been there, and to a certain degree still am. Much of my identity was tied to being a Christian. My grandfather was a minister, my parents met at a Christian college, my earliest memories were at the seminary that my dad was attending, and some of my favorite activities involved religion. My family is rather complicated, and by the time I was in high school my parents were divorced and my mom no longer attended church (although I would still say that she’s a Christian) but I was faithfully there at the crack of dawn every Sunday morning. I even drug my boyfriend with me, and went to mass with him and his mom. 

    Realizing that it didn’t make sense was a slow, painful process for me. I think it started in my early teens, but I tried to rationalize it away. First, I thought maybe I was just a really liberal Christian, then I thought maybe I wasn’t an organized religion kind of Christian, and finally I thought maybe I was just “spiritual.” I fought the idea that I didn’t believe anything for quite a while. I think a combination of things pushed me over, but even after I was whiling to admit to myself that it’s all a bunch of crap I still clung to my old religion. I miss things like the comforting repetition, the hymns, and most importantly the community. Even now, I have strange reactions to hearing hymns. They make me feel comforted and annoyed all at the same time. I yearn for what I once had, but I know that it was based on lies. 

    I don’t know if I have anything useful to advise, other than the knowledge that some of us understand how hard it is. I think once you admit that it’s not real, you can never really go back. I feel a twinge when I go to church with family members, but I just can’t gloss over the fact that in the end, I just don’t believe. It makes me sad. I’m not sure if I would choose blissful ignorance, but I kind of wish that my faith had been placed in something solid that wouldn’t turn out to be smoke and mirrors.  

    • shawn

      I came to this website looking for some reassurance that it is normal for the depression to kick in right when you start transitioning. The worst part is telling the loved ones, they feel so betrayed.

  • Goergina

    Is it possible that you have been taught that “atheists” are bad, criminal, perverse and nasty people?
    Even tho’ you know this is not true, you are a little worried about what you might do if the restraints of a ‘Big Father’ are removed?
    Or are you just worried about the label? 

    Eschew Superstition.

  • Ione

    This sounds very similar to what I went through. I had spiritual beliefs and rituals which I felt comforted me, and for a long while was torn between them and my increasing intellectual pull towards atheism.

    What ultimately snapped me out of this dilemma was coming across Nietzche’s quote, “‘Faith’ means not wanting to know what is true.” It suddenly was clear that the spiritual beliefs I was clinging to weren’t really comforting me at all, but causing me a nearly constant low-level of anxiety, because on some level I knew they were simply things I had made up because they sounded nice. I wanted to know what was true.

    Discarding my magical thinking actually left me with a much more complete and happy outlook; which I would still call ‘spiritual’ in a metaphorical, emotional sense. And I found I only needed to discard the aspects which involved baseless assumption and vain dependence on nonexistent beings. The best part, the wonder at the natural universe, was strengthened. And the ritual, undertaken purely for the sake of its own meditative beauty, was much more fulfilling without expecting it to be more than that.

  • Anonymous

    If you know the beliefs make no sense but choose to “believe” them or really just force yourself to tell yourself they’re true merely for comfort, you may as well tell yourself “disease doesn’t exist” for the comfort of now having to worry about you or your loved ones getting ill and dying.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003293001320 Diana Winters

    Since when did becoming an atheist require any effort whatsoever? We are born that way.

    • Brian Macker

      He’s going to have to figure out a new basis for his ethics. That’s takes some effort. Especially when others have done all your moral thinking for you your entire life.

  • marc

    “If I became an atheist, it’d be just about the same.” 
    This is the number one reason why I’m an atheist. I realized that whether I believed in god or not, my day-to-day behavior was not going to change. I was still going to get up in the morning, go to work, have fun on the weekends with friends and family, and try to treat people as decently as I could, be them friend, family, enemy or stranger. “Do unto others” as the christians say. And that’s all there was to it. 

  • Carla

    Benjamin, I feel your pain. I am in the same place right now. Although I’ve been “transitioning” for a while, I’ve mostly been ignoring the atheist thoughts because, quite frankly, they were scary. It was scary to believe that there was no god ordering the universe, and it was scary to believe that he would punish me if I were wrong. But atheism also just felt wrong. There are many parts to the feeling: I was raised with Christian beliefs (including the guilt), I was reluctant to believe in the randomness of life, and being Christian just feels good. It’s blind, and warm, and it’s comfortable. And that’s exactly why I’m forcing myself out of it. Because, not matter how good a belief feels, I can’t follow it just to feel good. I respect my self too much to do that. I still catch myself praying, and I still get sad when I realize that I can’t pray to something I don’t believe in. But I accept that. I say my prayer, then I acknowledge that there’s no one to hear me. And it makes me a little sad. But that’s ok. 

  • Roame

     When I was 8-11 years old, I used to cry all the time because i was afraid of my death 60 years later, without anybody to comfort me. I did it myself, and I did exactly what you are doing right now. Sort of my own religion. Hard to believe in, but I can distract myself always.