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