By Joe Omundson, Ex-Communications editor —
I know your inbox is full of messages about Coronavirus. (If you haven’t already heard, these are the CDC’s recommendations for how to protect yourself and slow the spread of the virus.)
What I want to talk about is the emotional aspect of life during a pandemic, and specifically how it interacts with religion.
Many of us have lost the emotional foundation that religion gave us in times of crisis; the certainty of the knowledge that everything will be OK. This might be the first time we’re facing such fear and uncertainty without that coping mechanism.
So how are we to manage the anxiety we might feel?
First I’d like to share this video by Dr. Darrel Ray, president of Recovering from Religion. He offers a helpful psychological analysis of the situation and some advice for maintaining your mental health.
(If you found this video helpful, Dr. Ray also spoke with Atheists United Los Angeles and further expanded on these topics here.)
What if I need the security of religion?
Some of you, especially those who were deeply religious or who left religion recently, might feel an irresistible pull back to religion — even if you think it’s irrational and know that there are alternative ways to cope. I have seen people express this feeling in ex-Christian groups.
That makes sense to me. When I was 15 and had an open heart surgery, the promise of heaven was the only thing that gave me peace about the idea that I might not survive. I didn’t know any other ways to deal with that fear. My beliefs helped me stay calm.
Maybe thinking about God and heaven gives you the feeling of reassurance that you’re craving. Maybe in order to feel fully engaged with your support system of religious friends, family, and community, it’s easier to go along with them and adopt certain religious practices again.
Though many of you likely feel that religion is no longer a good fit, we understand this may not be the choice others make. We are here for those who need us, no matter where they fall on the belief spectrum, and we will continue to be here for those who rejoin faith communities and find that they need us again down the road.
People matter more than beliefs. We are here to support you when you need us, regardless of what you believe.
What if I’m tempted to go back, but I know it would be bad for me?
I’m sure there are also some of you who are actively resisting the pull toward religion because you feel that it will ultimately be a less healthy option for you. Maybe you’re looking for ways to deal with fear and uncertainty inside a completely new worldview.
I’d like to share some thoughts that a friend sent to me. I thought they were beautiful and insightful, and may be of use to you as well.
I read an article about COVID-19 yesterday that was the very definition of scaremongering. Instead of a balanced reassurance and caution, it basically said “you will probably get it” and “even the mild cases are not really mild and cause permanent damage to the lungs” and “it will turn into pneumonia”.
After reading that article, combined with the president locking down travel to Europe and my mom saying she had spoken to medical professionals who were predicting 100,000 deaths in the UK in the next two weeks, my mind officially pressed the big, red panic button.
Having suffered with panic disorder in the past and successfully defused it with therapy and self-talk, I have a lot of tools under my belt in dealing with extreme anxiety. My panic response was muted and didn’t turn into a panic attack; I only thought that I must meditate and get some sleep. When scary thoughts come at night I find reassurance in the saying, ‘Don’t believe what you tell yourself at nighttime.’ And then I promptly fell to sleep.
However, before I got into bed, I felt the reality of death closer than I’ve perhaps ever felt it. Hopefully my family isn’t touched by the virus, but I felt very aware of all the people getting it, and those who will die because of this new virus that wasn’t a threat last year. It was a sobering thought. It made me ask myself again, this time as an agnostic atheist, “What is the purpose of all this?” And, “What would I do spiritually speaking if my life were seriously threatened by this illness?”
Christians and other religious types love to say the trite phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes” — which is simply not true. Yes, lots of people do turn to the concept of god in times of finality, but not everyone. In this pressing situation, I consider: would I fall to that phrase?
For me, a return to spiritual belief falls into two categories. Would I return to the Christian religion? Or would I appeal to a divine, controlling force that I surely deep down believe exists? I don’t think the first one is a serious option, though in moments of fear I do realize that we hedge our bets. I left my religion based on copious amounts of research and analysis — to go back to a belief system that I consider thoroughly debunked in pretty much every way would be unlikely. Not possible authentically. If I did, it would be from sheer emotion and zero logic, like an adult returning to the security blanket they had as a child. I know Christianity better than any other religion, so of course it would be my default.
I think it’s more likely that I would turn to the idea of a “controlling force” because I have no idea if anything lies beyond death on this planet. I don’t tend to believe in life beyond death, but I certainly don’t pretend to know like the religious do. I am very aware that existence is astonishingly more complex than anyone can fathom. The idea that something unpleasant lies beyond this life (I’m not talking about human-conceived “hell”) does occasionally concern me. Usually I am able to move on from the thought, knowing that none of us is able to know or control anything about that. I find some comfort in the solidarity.
Having had some distance from my old religion for two years now, I’m beginning to see it more and more clearly. It looks odd now, reading the words of Christians asking their god to protect them from the virus, knowing well that natural disasters such as plagues, disease, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes have never spared religious groups, or certain types of people like heterosexuals or religiously conservative states and countries. No matter how hard they pray, or what stories are written imagining it. It is all about contact transmission, flood zones or living on fault lines. It now seems strange and pointless to my mind to pray for protection when these things always run their course, taking as many lives as the odds dictate.
We lack clarity in our own situations, and the ability to be honest with ourselves is usually hard won with much acquiesce, bravery and abandoning bias. As far as I can tell, in the most frightening situations, I would probably speak this in my mind (call it a prayer if you want):
“I don’t know if there’s anything out there. No human can be expected to know. All I know is that I value truth above stories, no matter how comforting they are. I have tried to live my life with honesty, humility and to help others. I trust that if there is anything truly all-powerful and all-good out there, this will be enough for it to do as it will.”
Due to the randomness and self-directing nature of life, I believe that there isn’t a higher force in control at all. The second-most-likely option seems to be that it is neither omnipotent nor all-benevolent, in which case the outlook is bleak for everyone, even the religious. It feels rather masochistic to believe there is something bad in control of everything.
Christians of course say that it doesn’t matter how good or honest you are — if you’re not washed in the blood of the sacrifice (Jesus) then god cannot forgive you for the things you did wrong. This is heavy with assumptions and interpretations about life as the most intelligent species on earth, and one must believe all their premises of labeling and meanings in order for this sentence to even make any sense. It is theology built on older theology and mythology built on older mythology, from cultures that have spread across much of the globe.
Is any of it true? I personally don’t think so. I trace the evolution of various, primitively bloody mythologies and theologies, and see how they came to be enshrined in Christendom culture. It does, however, provide a great deal of comfort and security to many, to believe that they can control their fates. I completely understand that, and can see how it benefits many and forces many to behave in nicer ways. In times of great fear I find myself reluctant to try to pull that security blanket away from anyone.
I have come to a place in my life where I no longer need my security blanket, material or otherwise, and I plan to meet whatever fear lies ahead (Coronavirus or otherwise) with total honesty and openhandedness.
We are all having the experience of human life together. We all do helpful, harmful, constructive and destructive things, and we will all die — the same as with all of nature. This much is certainly true.
(If you enjoyed my friend’s thought process, you can find more of their articles here.)
The chatline is always open at recoveringfromreligion.org.
A directory of non-religious therapists is available at seculartherapy.org.