Ask Richard: Atheist Beset by Family Illnesses Considers Joining a Church

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

Dear Richard,

I am an atheist, and have been since my teens. Although at times I struggled with my unbelief, mostly I just lived my life and didn’t worry about it too much. I have always tried to be a moral person, and have thought long and hard about values and ethics. Recently I have been overwhelmed with difficult problems in my life. My son has bipolar disorder, and my husband has MS. I am struggling with maintaining my own mental health with the enormity of the effect of these issues in my life.

My extended family members are very religious. They advise my to seek comfort in God, and I see how it helps them. I see it everywhere, in movies and news stories, of people finding solace, strength and comfort in their relationship with God. Right now, I am so overwhelmed I wish I did have belief. I belong to a humanist organization, but the focus of the group is having intellectual discussions about science and philosophy. There seems to be no counterpart in the atheist community to a loving, sheltering organization like a church during difficult times in life.

I am seeing a mental health professional, and it is extremely valuable to me. But it also feels somewhat like a commercial transaction – I have to limit my visits because of financial concerns, and my therapist is trying to make a living. I’m just about ready to give up and join a church.

Nicole

Dear Nicole,

Both bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis pose serious difficulties in their own ways for the persons with the afflictions as well as for the persons who help to take care of them. Your strong desire to help and care for your son and husband are very admirable and commendable. Challenges and responsibilities weigh on your shoulders, and worry and concern for them weigh on your heart. It is entirely legitimate and understandable for you to want some source of solace, strength, and comfort.

I have nothing invested in encouraging or discouraging you about joining a church. I’m only interested in whatever action will help you. However, going by what you’ve written here, I think that there are some built-in conflicts in your idea of joining a church that you should consider very carefully.

By joining a church, would you be hoping to find solace, strength and comfort in a relationship with God, or would you be hoping to find solace, strength and comfort in your relationship with people?

If you go there for the supportive human companionship, I think you’ll be uncomfortable if you don’t actually believe in God. That is, after all, the central reason why they’re gathering together, to mutually reaffirm and reinforce that belief, and you will be expected to participate in that. It sounds like your process of becoming an atheist was a very thoughtful and conscientious one. You struggled with it. Often after such a struggle is over, a person’s convictions are strong. Are you hoping that immersing yourself amidst believers will overcome your rational decision, and you’ll come to believe as they do?

You said that you have always tried to be a moral person, and you have thought long and hard about values and ethics, and I’m sure that that is true. Churches have a tendency to not only tell people to believe in God, but also tell people what their morals and values should be within narrow parameters. I’m wondering if any of your thoughtfully self-determined values and ethics would have to be compromised or even abandoned in order for you to fit in and participate with the church.

If you can resolve the belief question and the morals/values/ethics question, then joining a church might bring you two of the desired effects, solace and comfort, but will your physical and emotional strength to help your son and husband actually be increased?

There’s a popular notion that people “gain strength from each other,” but physical or emotional strength do not magically transfer from one person to another. Unless people are actually doing things to help you with your tasks to take care of your loved ones or other tasks that are difficult for you, then you are actually using only your own strength. If other people encourage you, cheer you on, tell you that they care about you, that kind of verbal support might result in your deciding to not give up, and to tap into one more reservoir of strength that you always had, but you didn’t realize you had. That’s not gaining strength from others; that’s reassessing your own strength.

Definitely continue seeing your mental health professional as much as you can afford, and accept that yes, it is a “commercial transaction,” and it is supposed to be. You pay him or her to help you to sort through your thoughts and feelings, and find where learned attitudes or beliefs get in your own way. While he or she probably cares about you personally, in counseling that has to be balanced with some objective detachment. If your counselor is too emotionally attached and identified with you, he or she will have the same blind spots that you have. A counselor is like a mirror to help you see things about yourself that are too close for you to see. For that to work, there has to be some distance between you and the mirror.

At the same time, it sounds like you feel alone in your struggle, and perhaps not appreciated or cared for. That is a legitimate human need as well. So you also need some good old-fashioned loving company. If your humanist group is too intellectual about science and philosophy, say so, and ask if anyone is interested in some supportive socializing as well. Atheist communities will become more loving and sheltering when their members make the need known and work together to respond to the need. Nurture some friendships there by inviting members to the meeting-after-the-meeting, where you can more informally share the human side of humanism, as in how things are going in your lives. Show that you care about them, and they’ll respond by caring about you.

There are caregiver support groups for both MS and bipolar disorder caregivers. People who take care of their loved ones often neglect their own needs, and end up operating at less than their best performance, or even breaking down. Caregiver support groups can provide the practical wisdom of direct experience and also the empathy, caring, and understanding that will keep you out of despair, and drawing upon your reservoirs of strength. You’ll find some people there who are religious and some who are non-religious, but they will have the been-there-and-done-that expertise in both the pragmatic and emotional challenges that you are facing.

Here are some links to caregiver support websites and groups for both bipolar disorder and MS. Look through them to find what will best suit your needs.

Bipolar Disorder Caregiver Websites and Online Groups
MS Caregiver Websites and Online Groups

For face-to-face support and companionship, consider Meetup groups in your area:

Bipolar Disorder Caregiver Meetup Groups
MS Caregiver Meetup Groups

Consider carefully if you’re taking on more responsibility than is appropriate. Don’t burn yourself out. Involve your son and your husband in helping themselves and helping you to help them. I’m certain that they want to participate in interactive and mutual support, rather than merely being passive recipients of care from you. Give them tasks and responsibilities that directly help themselves, and tasks and responsibilities that directly help you. Give them permission to tell you when they think you’re neglecting your own needs, and respond to their suggestions for you to take some time to take care of yourself.

Nicole, whether you join a church or use secular resources such as the ones above, I hope that you find or create whatever you need to keep yourself strong and healthy for your own sake as well as for your family.

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.

  • Pedro Lemos

    I wish I had Richard´s ability to give advices…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2WHQR4PNMYIAKNVEJYBPPKBUFM Mistypaw

    There’s also the perk in a church of asking for financial help and free services. I have a friend who did that, though I find that morally questionable. But then, if they want to help people and decline to do so simply because you’re not Christian… well, that’s pretty morally questionable too.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Richard that you should seek support groups that serve people of your specific needs (bi-polar disorder and MS)… these groups will be more diverse in their spiritual beliefs (not locking you in) and more experienced and able to help you.

    If you are looking for spiritual guidance, but don’t want to create conflicts in your lack of belief in a supernatural power, I might suggest studying Buddhist philosophy.  More specifically, start with the Dalai Lama’s “Art of Happiness”.  This modern Buddhism helps you mentally prepare for suffering and challenge in life without requiring you to believe in anything faith-based (you can apply the lessons without believing in reincarnation).  I, like you, have found Humanist/Atheist groups a little too detached from mental and emotional health; and find Buddhism a great accompaniment to my atheism (backfilling the void of leaving my church community upbringing).  Modern Buddhist philosophy is being proven out with positive psychology and recent science, so you can be critical of it while absorbing its lessons.

    Most importantly, we are a tribal species… find a tribe to support you!

    • Adam Casto

      Agree completely. I found focusing on Impermanence to be particularly helpful after tossing away the notions of eternity and an afterlife. I can also attest to the benefits in cases such as this. My wife was diagnosed with MS almost a year ago after watching her father pass away from it about four years earlier. What made things even worse is that it was also at this time that we found out we would be unable to have kids. Practicing non-attachment was immensely helpful during this time as we found our lives drastically altered from the path we had thought/hoped they would take. 

  • Scooter

    Most of the members of the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend are atheists.  You get all the benefits of a church without the fairy tale requirement.  Better music too! 

    • rach

      *this* atheist seconds this comment. 
      unitarian universalism is WELL worth a check out. 

    • Ashlyn

      This is exactly what I was going to say, definitely check out your local UU congregation!

    • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

      I also belong to a UU church that’s very welcoming and atheist-friendly. That said, this can vary from place to place: some UU churches are very explicitly secular humanist, while others are more like liberal Christians. But you certainly have nothing to lose by checking out the one nearest you.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      And another vote for trying UU.  No need to recreate the type of social support you need if it’s already there in your community waiting for you.

    • ReadsInTrees

      To me, suggesting the UU would have been the first suggestion for the letter writer!

    • Kristen White

      That was the first thing that occurred to me as well. I’m a member of a UU church and about half of the congregation is atheist or agnostic, and most of the rest believe in more of a transcendentalist idea of unity rather than a dude in the sky. It’s perfect for me. If you’d told me five years ago I would be an active churchgoer I would have wondered what happened to make me go insane. It’s a great community. We take care of each other and work together, and the sermons are about ethics and ideas, not doctrine. 

  • Sinz

    I wish there were groups within the atheist community that provided the comfort and shelter of a church without all the god stuff.  There are a lot of us out here who feel cut off in a sense…and who would greatly benefit from the social aspects of such meeting places.  

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    “If your humanist group is too intellectual about science and philosophy, say so, and ask if anyone is interested in some supportive socializing as well.”

    I think a common problem for humanist/atheist groups is that they are very similar to an undergraduate philosophy club meeting. I’ve only had three meetings of our local atheist group, but the topics for discussion have been more around issues like parenting, family, charitable endeavors (we donate food to a local food pantry) rather than discussing Wittengenstein and playing backgammon.  

  • mikespeir

    I would probably say,  If you believe in the Christian God, join a church and quit kidding yourself that you don’t.  If not, don’t do it.  But, yes, I like Richard’s advice.

  • Renshia

    I was a christian for a number of years. One of the reasons for my change of beliefs was the amount of hypocrisy and lies that were the foundation of every church I was in. The  constant deception  that all was perfect, god is great, I am bubbling with happiness in jesus crap. When you met these people in their separate worlds, they were all just as miserable and fucked up as anyone else.

    Where does this illusion of wonderful community within the church come from. Are there, really, any ex christians here that feel like they have left behind a wonderful and fantastic relationship once quitting church? If it was all love and harmony, what need would there have been to question any of it?

    Community does not come from buildings, groups, religions or organizations, it comes from people. Want a feeling of community and support. Build one, help your neighbour, Help a stranger, Talk to someone and take the time to listen, invite people over for a meal. It is through effort and action, that communities are built, not by being associated with any particular group.

    And religion is the worst place to find people of action, unless of course you count the useless act of prayer, action. Not that there aren’t people who actively help within the chruch, there are a few. Mostly they’re spread so thin they are barely any help at all.

    So I think we need to work on dispelling this illusion that the church offers some wonderful community that is special to religion. It doesn’t. They act that way to outsiders. They make all kinds of promises. It’s all milk and honey in the beginning, but is soon sours. When you realize all it is, is keeping up appearances to not let people see how messed up things really are.

    If you want to be part of a caring loving helpful community, be that community. Be caring, be loving, be helpful. That is how we can be part of that community. It is a lie and an illusion you can just join one.

    • MJ

      I wholeheartedly agree and was about to say the same thing. True community was very rare in my 20+ years of church attendance.

  • Onamission5

    In addition to support groups, I suggest that Nicole also look into respite services which could assist her in getting a break from being a care giver 24/7.  Many such organizations run on donations, not fees, or have a sliding scale. Nobody should have to struggle alone if they don’t have to.

  • Blanc_Slate

    A school counselor and an atheist who lost a child in California had a similar problem. She created her own group in response  and got other in a same position invested in erecting the project. I read this in an article a couple months back on google news (atheist section). 

  • Aaron Scoggin

    It’s so messed up how society views those that have struggles mentally (don’t we all?). If they’re an atheist, or some other religion, people will say it’s because they don’t believe in anything, so that’s why they’re mentally troubled. If they’re a Christian, they’ll say, “Oh, we all go through struggles sometimes, just trust in the LORD!” Like the only way to be mentally and emotionally well is to believe what they believe. It’s just amazing.

    • Miss_Beara

      Ugh.

      I had a friend who scoffed at the fact that i went to therapy as a teenager due to severe depression and anxiety. She went on and on how she never went to therapy because she had faith in “her Father.” :-P  

  • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

    If I needed support a church is the last place I’d go. Most likely I’d be told I was suffering because I didn’t have God in my life, and because I was living a life of sin, yadda yadda yadda.  Then I’d be given a bunch of highly conditional “love” paired with tons of proselytizing.

    Richard’s right.  There are plenty of support groups for people with physical illnesses/disabilities and mental health needs, and for caregivers.   There are also respite care services and home health care aids that can come in and give primary caregivers a break when things are getting to be too much.

  • Mediamouse

    As a non-believer, I also looked at finding a church for the community and support. I found the Unitarian Universalists to be an interesting choice. 


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