By Dr. Sharon Sanders and Dr. Jan Faeri —
As we talked about in part 1 of this essay, all human beings have essential needs. Most of our needs we learn to meet on our own. Indeed, learning to fulfill your own needs is a major part of growing up.
However, there is one need that, by its very nature, must be filled by other people. That is the need to be loved. Parents and other caregivers, friends and other family members, and finally romantic partners all work to fulfill that social need.
In an effort to meet their need for love and belonging, people turn to friends, to pets, to cults, even to gangs. The more socially acceptable alternative is to join a religious group, and people do this in droves — seeking others of like mind, but often searching for a personal relationship with God.
Turning to a church to help fulfill the need to be loved breaks down into two categories: one, involvement with the church members and two, their own special relationship with God or Jesus (or any other deity).
As far as social support goes, joining a church can be somewhat successful in meeting the need to be loved at least partially. This is because the membership consists of people. Interactions with church members often fill a person’s daily life. I have read numerous accounts from ex-church members who detail the extent of their church involvement. Many have held positions within the church, and nearly all of them have related that most, if not all, of their activities were carried out exclusively with other church members.
As with family relationships and friendships, social involvement with other church members can only go so far, however. We do not want to minimize the importance of other kinds of relationships in our lives, however, many people experience a bleeding need to be loved deeply by one person, as in a romantic relationship. So, church membership, or devotion to any religion, often is only part of the story. The other part is the sublimation of an individual’s need to be loved by their own person into a desire for a personal and intimate relationship with God, Jesus, or whatever other deity in which they believe.
We know from our own experience, and from our direct knowledge of many others’ experience, that this attempt to connect in a special and personal way with God can take many years of devoted effort. Does it ultimately work? The short answer is no.
The need to be loved by another simply cannot be met all by oneself. It requires the participation of another. Since there is no God to be having a relationship with, anyone going this route has to make up, simply trust, or imagine that their deity loves them. In reality, they are still alone. It’s self-love, at best.
What happens when a person awakens to the knowledge that there is no God? What does a person feel when that sometimes lifelong belief in their relationship with God is gone? Jan says that for her it felt like she was adrift, alone, in a small lifeboat on a large ocean.
What can a person do when God is no longer an option for having someone to love them? Jan says first she got depressed. Then she had to face the hole, that gaping emptiness, and discover what was really required to meet the need to be loved by another. The depression and loneliness lasted for many years.
We realize that the emptiness, the loneliness, hurts so much that we become desperate. Desperation can lead to despair and even suicide. On a slightly less tragic note, desperation can cause us to settle for anyone who expresses an interest in us.
Not everyone finds the love they need. However, we hope that people will keep looking, will keep trying to find an actual human being who will love them and who they can and will love in return. And here we want to emphasize that it is your heart you need to follow, not your head. Never give up. Go to places that bring you pleasure or enjoyment. Do activities you love to do. Follow your interests. There you are more likely to meet compatible people, someone you can love, someone likely to love you.
Joyfully, we can report a happy ending to our story. We both went through all of this. In the end, we found each other.
If you are struggling with religion and want someone to talk to, the chatline is always open at recoveringfromreligion.org.
A directory of non-religious therapists is available at seculartherapy.org.