Discussion: what do believers lose when they lose their faith, and how do we reassure them about it?

Exactly what it says on the tin: I want your input on what believers lose when they lose their faith, and how we can reassure them about it. I want to say right off that there are some things that no one has to lose to deconversion, like happiness. If a believer is afraid of losing their faith because they think all atheists are unhappy, the solution is to introduce them to some happy atheists. But there are some things believers really will have to give up in deconverting.

For example: belief in an afterlife. Specific teachings on the afterlife often aren’t all that comforting, what with the “screw up and go to Hell” line, but other variations get around this, through universalism (“everyone goes to Heaven!”) or eternal security (true Christians know for sure that God won’t let them fall away from the faith). Or: the belief that God will never let things get too bad on Earth. In many cases, we can tell believers that giving up these beliefs won’t be as bad as they think, but some believers are still pretty strongly attached to them.

So what do we tell believers in that position? And what are other examples of things like this, things believers really truly do have to give up when they deconvert?


  • Calligraphy

    I think you’d have to be dealing with an exceedingly mature person in order to broach the subject of giving up the–admittedly comforting–notion of an afterlife. I know it was one of the main worriers for me, initially. You can tell them that life is relatively long for humans, or that you won’t care about being dead once you’re actually dead.

  • Azuma Hazuki

    All I gave up was a bunch of horrible, vile, blasphemous (if there actually is a God) religious baggage. I am so grateful to have left the stinking mess of the Abrahamic religions behind. Now if only the rest of the world would hurry up and catch up so we can start working on sustainability before it’s too late…

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Leaving behind the conviction that the Super Ultimate Everything has a spotlight always focused on you must be pretty hard, though somewhat offset by the realization that what you do alone or within your own mind really does stay private.

    But outgrowing the always-judging, always-forgiving imaginary Daddy/playmate has to involve very persistent internal dissonance.

  • Beth

    For many people coming from families with a strong religious bent, giving up belief may literally involve giving up their family. They might be disowned and/or unable to visit younger siblings or cousins they were close with. Libby Anne’s recent post on anonomous blogging talks about this.

    The only reassurance I can think of for them is to tell them that they may not be accurately assessing their families reaction. Many homosexuals have the same concern, but often discover after coming out that it was no surprise to their family and their relatives are willing to accept them as they are.

    Unfortunately, for some people, this expectation of rejection is an accurate assessment of their families reaction.

  • Katkinkate

    They give up: their delusion that they are the centre of the universe and the reason for its existence; the surety that they are right and everyone else is wrong; the privileged position (at least in their own minds) of being a child of the creator of the universe and the future position in the Kingdom of God, thus better than others who aren’t, even if they won’t admit it out loud; the small limited vision of the universe that is made for them and friendly to them, rather than the huge uncaring expanse that is the real multiverse; a relationship that even though it’s with an imaginary character can still feel very real and important; social links to others they once shared their beliefs with, even if the deconvert is willing to stay friends many people will see their deconversion as a personal attack and will shun or attack them.

  • Brad

    Wow, this is likely to be quite a list. I’ll word it in the first person, since I’m in the middle of this transition:

    * I’m losing the promise of ultimate relief from my earthly pain and trials
    * I’m losing the promise of eternal reward
    * I’m losing the satisfaction of knowing that all injustices will someday be righted
    * I’m losing the promise of someday reuniting with my friends and family, both those who have “gone ahead”, and those still here
    * I’m losing the hope that I will one day be able to ask God “why?” and know the answers to all life’s mysteries
    * I’m losing my dream of being able to fly unhindered through the universe, exploring the mysteries of the stars I can only see as a tiny pinpoint through my backyard telescope
    * I’m losing the hope that someday all the evil in this world will be wiped out, and replaced by a new perfect creation, with no sorrow, no dying, and no fear
    * I’m losing the promise that I’ll be rewarded for all my years of faithful Christian service

    * I’m losing the hope of knowing that “everything will work out in the end”
    * I’m losing the confidence that God has a plan for my life, and is guiding me through it, even when I don’t see him.
    * I’m losing the hope that my earthly troubles are for some better ultimate purpose
    * I’m losing the hope that my daily prayers, both small and large, are heard and answered
    * I’m losing the confidence that God is actually comforting those that need him the most
    * I’m losing the confidence that God helps everything work out for the best, even if we don’t understand it
    * I’m losing the feeling that I’m actually connecting with God during prayer and worship
    * I’m losing the confidence of knowing that I can always find a scripture to encourage me and give me guidance
    * I’m losing confidence in my entire worldview (politics, social issues, etc.). I’ll have to start over from scratch, and re-evaluate nearly everything I believe.

    * I’m losing my only current musical outlet, singing and playing an instrument. My love of music is an important part of who I am
    * I’m losing a close-knit bible study group
    * I’m losing the frequent potlucks (hmm, maybe this isn’t such a big loss… ;))

    * I fear the loss of all my Christian friends, nearly my entire social support structure
    * I fear being rejected by my very devout Christian extended family
    * I fear the strain on my relationships with my very devout wife and kids
    * I’m losing the “real meaning” of nearly all the year’s major holidays

    I’ve lost nearly 40 years of my life to a lie

    On the other hand:
    * I’m gaining the (uncomfortable) truth, rather than a comforting lie
    * I’m gaining 10+ hours per week of my life back
    * I’m gaining 10% of my income back
    * I’m gaining control over my own life and destiny
    * I’m gaining back a lot of shelf space from all my Christian literature :)

    For me, truth has always been the highest standard. I’ve just now been convinced that truth isn’t what I thought it was.

    • Dalillama

      As someone who was raised atheist, I have to admit that I don’t entirely understand many of the items on your list. One that struck me, though is that you said you were giving up music. Surely you know at least a few secular songs/tunes? If not, it wouldn’t take long to learn a few. Check your local Craigslist, I’m confident you can find a band that’s looking for a singer and a player of your instrument. If you’re a soloist, you can start looking for open mike nights at your local pubs and cafes. There’s no reason you have to give up your music if you don’t want to.

      • Brad

        Sure, I just meant that currently the church is where I satisfy my musical urges for singing/playing. I’ll probably be looking for a local community choir or vocal groups of some sort. On the plus side, I can probably find something even closer to my (classical) musical tastes than the (relatively modern) musical style currently at my church.

        • Dalillama

          I’m glad to hear it. I appreciate music, but I have virtually no musical ability myself, and I hate to see someone who has give it up.

    • josh

      Brad, that’s quite a list and I think it nicely sums up a lot of what appeals to people in religion. The last part, that you are giving up 40 years of your life as a lie, has to be a huge psychological factor. Part of what makes big religions so successful is the way they insinuate themselves into every part of the life of the devout. Thats why we end up with church every Sunday, grace at every meal, prayers to mecca every day, and ceremonies for every social occasion from birth to marriage to death. It builds up an identity and the more time, money and effort you have invested in it the harder it is to let yourself see or act on its flaws.

      Hopefully, you’ll find you don’t lose all connection to family and friends. Hofefully, you’ll be gaining new connections, a less circumscribed set of tastes, a less conflicted ethics, and the peace of accepting the world as it is, rather than a fantasy version that has to be continuously protected from critical incursion. That transition can be liberating, but the world-as-it-is is not gauranteed to be comforting like the fantasy one always promises. Good luck.

  • Sastra

    I didn’t give up religion; I gave up ‘spirituality.’ And I lost the vague sense that “everything happens for a reason” and that there were clues, signs, and hints on who I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do, and where I was supposed to go hidden in my daily life. I was not adrift, on my own. There was help: the cosmos was a friendly cosmos, and wanted me to become the best I could be.

    On the whole, it was a relief. I had thought I was really, really bad at interpreting and noticing these ‘signs’ — I only seemed to figure out what they were after the fact. I couldn’t use them to actually guide my choices.

    Coming out of being “transcendentally enlightened” allowed me to realize that nobody was good at reading the secret code. There is no secret code. We all do the best we can with what we’ve got; at least half of it is luck.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    I think Brad has it right. Non-believers tend to look at the religion as a set of beliefs, rather than a set of practices that become integral to the believer’s inner life. Prayer is a habit that relieves stress and puts problems into focus. Confession both lessens guilt, and helps correct problem behaviors. Communion ritualizes community. Religious social organizations are real community. The notion that god takes care of all things helps lessen the sharp edges of an uncaring universe.

    None of this has any bearing at all on what truth or dishonesty there is in religion. But non-believers make a mistake when they overlook the real ways that religion becomes a part of life for the religious.

  • Peter Tomich

    What have I given up since coming out (to myself)?

    25 Years of guilt, confusion and ignorance.

    Was it difficult? Yes. No! Maybe? What will be harder is letting those around me know. Some will say “I’m so happy for you!”. Some will weep. Some will pray. I love them all, and always will.

    And now it’s time to embrace reality!

  • rickyh

    I’m paraphrasing Sartre, but he said something like:

    “Life has no meaning – unless we give it one.”

    To be honest, I’m struggling with this a bit now. But my current thinking/feeling about not investing a lot in whether there is an afterlife, God, etc., goes more to what there is for me here and now, and why the above quote is guiding me.

    As the posts above imply, there’s no way to prove an immortal existence. And doing so, takes away from the one thing we do know: We have this life. I keep thinking of the future, where a world is populated by caring, kind folk, who share the planet’s resources fairly equally, and who encourage, reward and help each other toward individual and collective goals that improve the quality and value of life for all.

    Bringing that vision back to the present, I see us each creating that “kinder and gentler world” with every positive action we take. This vision doesn’t demand perfection, just a subtle but constant action, a choice mostly of doing what we all know deeply is for the good. And that brings me to another dimension of this new “non-theology” I feel – while there may not be a God outside, there is one within. I know it when I:

    -Cry when I see someone do something good
    -Feel joy when I see or hear of a new life that’s been created
    -Rage against inequity, cruelty, bigotry, etc.
    -Feel sadness at my own missed opportunities for helping

    There is a connection between us that values life at its core and will do almost anything to defend and protect it. This is not a manufactured state, it is a truth that is proven every moment of every day in every part of this planet. Why not make this our religion, our theology our spirituality? Does it matter whether a God created us or we created a God?

    If we need immortality, know that we have it as we invest in the next generation that carries our experiences on. If we need comfort, take it from the fact that if we live in compassion, we will never be alone. And if we need love, then we must first create it.

  • Gordon

    I gave up on guilt that my conscience consistently over-ruled my religion’s teachings. I gave up on the fear of death. I gave up on lying to children.

    I lost nothing of value.

  • grumpyoldfart

    In many cases, we can tell believers that giving up these beliefs won’t be as bad as they think, but some believers are still pretty strongly attached to them.

    So what do we tell believers in that position?

    Tell them that while the truth may be hurting them right now, the lies they perpetuated against the unbelievers were also hurtful.

    Remind them that they spent most of their lives regarding unbelievers as immoral, hellbound, and the cause of all evil, most wars, and many natural disasters – and then remind them that any discomfort they feel upon leaving their religion is their own silly fault for being so gullible in the first place.

    If they don’t like it, they can lump it.

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  • Bruce Gorton

    A partial list off the top of my head:

    You will lose your moral certainty and come to realise that what you used to call God guiding your decisions was your platonic conception of yourself – and was never really perfect.

    You will lose the ability to hurt others and say it was the morally right thing to do, because God commanded it.

    You will lose the comfort of martyrdom. When others mistreat you it will not signify God testing you, or your moral greatness, but simply that they are mistreating you.

    You may lose close relationships and friendships in places that surprise you. Atheism has a way of showing up who your friends really are – even more than poverty does.

    You will lose the ability to say “But we are on the same side” when someone you normally agree with thinks you are wrong.

    Most atheists are apostates, they didn’t keep silent about their disagreement with religion even though they often knew it could wreck their family lives, they will not keep silent about their disagreements with you.

    At the same time you will lose the obligation to think of yourself as being on someone’s side – you will be free to criticise right back.

    You will lose the ability to say sorry to your imaginary friend rather than to the person you wronged, and you will lose the excuses that come with your inherent ‘sinful nature.’

    At the same time, you will lose the shame religion to push into you for being born.

    You will lose a few of the shackles that tell you not to read that, or watch that, or listen to that person.

    You will lose a few of the shackles that tell you not to say that, or create that, or feel that, or talk to that person.

    You will lose your sense of importance in the grand scheme of things because there is no grand scheme of things, but you will gain the self respect you never realised you lacked as you recognise you are your own person and not property.

  • Sammus

    Picking up on rturpin’s comment on Brad’s remarkable list: rturpin points out that atheists can focus too much on religious beliefs and risk missing out on the pervasiveness of practices.

    There’s another issue too – the community of people that one worships with. That community will be fully or partially lost to the apostate and might even turn hostile – that could feel like a big loss.

    And becoming an atheist does not automatically bring a new circle of friends as there is no association that one joins, unless one chooses to do so.

    Of course, losing those old co-religionists might be a good thing – but it will probably feel like a loss nevertheless!

  • Tex

    My wife and I were talking about our belief (she still believes in something vaguely of the model of what the Abrahamic god is “supposed to be”) and she said she found it comforting to that everyone gets judged in the end and those who hurt others get punished. So I guess the comforting belief in a fair judgment of everyone when they die is something some people may have a hard time giving up.

  • http://www.meddlingkids.org Big Ugly Jim

    What I gave up when I lost my faith was certainty.

    I was raised knowing full well that God had a plan for me. I was going to do amazing things because I was a really smart kid, and God doesn’t give you these gifts if you don’t have some kind of plan. It didn’t occur to me at the time of my fall from grace, but the thought was chilling when I encountered it. If there was no God, then there was no plan, and I would have to figure this all out on my own.

    I also knew that there were absolutes of right and wrong. I think I saw through that fairly early on in the glaringly large sense of killing in a time of war, but as a believer it was a lot easier to know whether I was doing right or wrong.

    The last certainty off the top of my head is that I would be going to heaven. I was a good person, and obviously God liked me (and had that plan and all) so I knew I’d get to go to heaven and live forever. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I knew it would be good. When I fell, I had to figure out for myself what my life would mean.

    But y’know what? All three of those certainties were holding me back.

    God’s plan meant I didn’t have to take ownership of my life, and knowing that there isn’t one means that I can be who I want to be. That’s incredibly empowering.

    The lack of moral absolutes meant I figure out what being a good person really mean. In the past, I had done a lot of wrong things thinking I was doing right. Now I have to actually think about my decisions and figure out how they would impact myself and others. There are decisions I have made since falling that I would never have thought right before, but which were absolutely the right thing to do.

    The loss of heaven meant a new richness of life. It’s tied to the first point, but I know that the life I have now is one based on the choices I make. It will only be as good or as bad as I make it, and it only lasts a short, short time, so I had best enjoy it while I can. One day I will be dead and that will be the end of me for all eternity. I don’t know what day that will be, and I know that waiting around for good things isn’t going to bring them, so I owe it to myself to cherish the life I have left.

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