A friend once asked me whether or not my life is better now that I no longer believe in invisible spirits or the supernatural. My answer is that it’s a mixed bag. On the negative side, I must say that the reactions of people who liked me better when I still had faith have been at times very strong. While this is no place to go into details, there have been some harsh social consequences for my loss of faith. If you crave the approval of people (and you live where I live), I wouldn’t recommend atheism for you.
But once you rule out how some people have treated me because of my unbelief, I have to say that (when I am not working too much) I am enjoying life in a way that I haven’t enjoyed it in a long time. So to answer my friend’s question, here is a list of the things which my turn to atheism has brought me. Not everyone will necessarily experience the same things I did, but these are the benefits that I see I personally have derived from this development:
1. Peace of mind. As a person who likes to try to understand the world around me, I have found that this perspective fits so much better with the world I see than the religious perspective ever did, and that brings a tangible sense of satisfaction for me. Every week, every month, I find things seem to get clearer and clearer to me. Things just make a whole lot more sense to me now. Julia Sweeney said it perfectly when she said, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.”
2. A rediscovery of a love of learning. For me personally, I found that the loss of my religious beliefs opened me up to a really big universe of fascinating and intriguing realities. I realize that faith and learning coexist in some people’s minds better than others, but more often than not they are in great tension with one another…and at times diametrically opposed to one another. My change of mind energized my dormant scientific side, and as a consequence I find that almost daily I learn something new which amazes me and further stimulates my love of learning about the world around me.
3. The ability to accept people I formerly judged. Religious belief taught me, for example, to judge gay men for being attracted to other men. It taught me that something is wrong with these men. I now count several of them as my friends. I have found that losing my religion has opened me up to a much wider range of people because I do not have a 2,000 year old book telling me how I should see the world. I think I’m a better person for this change of mind.
4. Less judgement towards myself…for some things. Just as a loss of religion has made me more accepting of others, I am getting better at accepting myself, with certain caveats. I do not let myself off the hook for things I consider unhealthy, or unkind, or inconsiderate of others. There are good, non-religious reasons to work to eliminate those kinds of behaviors in life. I will not, for example let myself off the hook for being dishonest towards people I love, nor will I excuse substandard work in my professional life. But there are quite a few things which religious belief taught me I should feel guilty about, and I don’t have to shoulder that anymore. This brings an improved quality of life, IMO. I will not consider it wicked, for example, to have “thought crimes” such as wanting something I don’t have or savoring the attractiveness of a Sports Illustrated cover model. Religion puts many layers of guilt on us for things which are perfectly natural, and the resulting manipulation is powerful. But I’m done with that now :-)
5. I give credit where credit is due…both to others and to myself. Like the preceding two, I think this makes me a healthier person than before. If someone does something good, I do not thank God for it. I thank the person who actually did it. They deserve credit for the things that they do. Doctors, for example, must get really tired of hearing people give God credit when their surgical/medical skills and learning are what saved a person’s life. My daily life isn’t so dramatic as that, mind you, but it’s analogous. The other side of this is that when I do something right, I allow myself to take credit for it . This, thanks to my evangelical upbringing, is much harder to do. I found that the Christian faith discouraged me from acknowledging positive things about myself so that I ended up with a terrible self image. I still suffer from that because I learned self-loathing so very well. But it’s getting better, little by little. I had to leave the Christian faith for that to happen.
5. Getting Sunday mornings back. Of course, it extends beyond that…once you consider how much of a person’s life can be spent investing in things like prayer, worship, Bible study, witnessing/growing membership, or attending conferences which teach you how to do all these things more effectively, you realize just how much of your life you get back.
6. Better health. I realize good health and spiritual commitment don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for me personally a shift in beliefs brought a shift in priorities such that my physical health became more important to me. Now I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life, and this significantly affects the quality of my life.
7. (Okay so this one was very personal, so I had to edit it out for blogging purposes. But it was REALLY good ;-)
8. Friends who are more fun. And the parties are way better. Even simple conversation is more entertaining, honestly. I know this may sound petty, but I’m just telling you what my experience is. When group A is dominated by a long list of things you’re not supposed to say, think, or feel, and group B doesn’t have that list, you can guess which group is gonna be more fun to be with. And again, I find it easier now to be friends with a wider range of people.
9. More realistic expectations about life. I no longer believe that I am special or that a ubiquitous, all-powerful paternal figure is orchestrating events around me for my benefit (or for the benefit of anything or anyone, really). So I act accordingly. And I find that I don’t get let down by things not going “the way they were supposed to.” I take responsibility for those things I can control, and I don’t look for a savior to come and rescue me. Again, I think I am a better person for it.
10. A greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Once you realize this life is the only one you’re gonna get, you learn to appreciate each day in a way you never could when you believed there would be trillions more in your future. I found that a belief in eternity only lowered my evaluation of daily life and it cheapened life, in a way. But once you realize this one short life is all you’re gonna get, you will find it easier to throw yourself into what you do, knowing that you need to make the most of it that you can. You won’t minimize the suffering of others (or of yourself) by saying that life will get better after you die. You might even be more motivated to be an agent of change in the world once you realize someone’s not going to come in and magically reboot the whole thing one day. It’s up to us to make the most of it that we can, and I find that a disbelief in the supernatural has helped me to do that.
What things could you add to this list? How has a turn to atheism benefitted your life? I’d like to know.