A friend once asked me if I gained anything of value when I lost my faith. I wrote him a reply that I later decided to publish. Evidently a lot of people identified with what I wrote because TIME Magazine picked up that piece and republished it on their site as well.
But there are many things that you lose as well.
Things You CAN Get Back
Some things that you lose can be gained back again through other means. For example, when I expatriated from my religion I lost an entire set of friends and had to start over rebuilding my social life from scratch. That can be done, and frankly I feel like I have more friends now than I did before, even if most of them do live in #$@&%! Egypt or something* and I have to board a plane to actually see them face-to-face. But you can always make new friends.
Incidentally, those original friends I lost didn’t all disconnect from me intentionally. Surely some of them did for fear of contamination, perhaps worrying that my skepticism would rub off on them. Some probably disconnected as a punishment, inflicting a “severe mercy” upon me in hopes that the social losses would goad me back into the fold. But most of them simply fell away because of increasing dissimilarity. When your whole life is built around your faith, and around your church, you just don’t have as much to talk about around people who aren’t in that camp. I guess you could gripe about your favorite sportsball team losing yet another game, but beyond banalities you’re just not going to have a deep and abiding connection.
When leaving your religion, you also lose a well-organized support structure along with all the resources it provides. My old church has kids’ activities, youth events, marriage seminars, divorce classes, aerobics classes, finance classes, knitting circles, prayer groups, and on and on the list goes. When you’re sick or in the hospital there are people who visit you. When you’re bedridden or you lose a close family member someone will likely show up at your door with a casserole and an offer to mow your yard. If you’re a business person, you have a ready network of connections available through belonging to a local church.
To be sure, all of these things are benefits which you can gain through means other than belonging to a faith tradition. But membership in a religious community makes all of that much easier than it would be otherwise, and that’s doubly so if you live in a highly religious region of the country.
Recently in a meeting of freethinkers far removed from the Deep South, a man wondered aloud why humanists need to belong to a group of any kind (ironically he was asking this question to a group he helped organize). One woman in the group elucidated that in relatively secularized areas, non-theists have little trouble finding groups and subcultures of every type with which they can connect. Nonbelievers in the Bible Belt and the Midwest, however, may find that each social group into which they try to integrate themselves is so heavily laced with religious culture that they can scarcely find a place to fit in. For some, they face overt ostracism and marginalization simply because they don’t take their kids to church.
Having said all that, with enough work and conscious effort a person or family can find places to plug in, even if most of their most important relationships become virtual friendships out of sheer necessity. It can be done.
Things You DON’T Get Back
There are some things, however, that you won’t get back. There are some things religion delivers which a naturalistic worldview cannot provide. I’ll name three, and if you think of any more I’d like you to add them in the comments.
1) Belief in an afterlife. Toward the end of your life it can be soothing to believe that death isn’t the end for you. And while it’s not true that there are no atheists in foxholes, it can still be a source of great courage to believe that a posthumous reward awaits those who live and die with honor. Granted, as witnesses of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centers will tell you, belief in posthumous reward can just as easily lead people to do things that are despicable as it can things that are honorable. But religion can skew your view of what is “honorable” in the first place, which goes to show how subjective and culturally conditioned this benefit really is.
Likewise when you lose someone you love, it can be a great comfort to believe that you will see them again one day after you die. When Christians pass away, their friends and family comfort each other by saying “They’re in a better place now.” On the other hand, when deconverts “come out” about their loss of faith to loved ones, one of the first complaints they will receive is: “So are you saying you don’t believe I’ll ever see (so-and-so) again?” They are intrinsically offended by your lack of belief because whether you like it or not, it implies they are wrong about their belief, and that’s upsetting to them. Personally, I don’t see much use in taking away from someone a comforting belief, especially when their loss was traumatic and deeply painful and there was nothing they could do to avoid the loss. But openly admitting you don’t believe in an afterlife unavoidably evokes this reaction.
2) Belief in supernatural justice. Sometimes bad people get away with doing bad things. And when I say “sometimes” I mean “a lot of the time.” Some people’s misconduct is small and non-criminal; others actually break the law and still get away with what they did. In my world people complain about burglars and drug dealers but seldom realize that bankers and pharmaceutical executives are just as prone to criminality—and on a much larger scale—or that they are ten times more likely to get away scot-free. Our society privileges white-collar criminals because those are the ones funding the lawmakers’ campaigns and family vacations. But I digress.
Will these injustices ever be repaid? Will the wicked suffer for their transgressions? Religion says “yes.” Irreligion says “Well, maybe. Possibly not.” Surely the notion of karma is rooted in something realistic. They say what goes around comes around, and on the whole I think that’s right. In most settings, how you treat others will determine how you get treated. Call that a sociological interpretation of Jesus’ words “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” That advice works even for those who don’t believe in divine retribution. But believers in supernatural justice have even greater assurance that, when life isn’t fair, it’s all gonna get worked out in the end. People who don’t believe in divine retribution or spiritual karma? Not so much. Sometimes you just have to witness wrongdoing and accept the harsh reality that there are times the powerful just win no matter what you do, and no matter if what they did was kind, or ethical, or nothing of the sort. “It just is what it is.”3) Belief that everything happens for a reason. This one comes up more than anything else for me. When I was a kid I used to imagine my whole life was a movie. I remember hopping on my bike and riding down the street to visit a friend and imagining the whole scene as it would appear in a movie. As I turned down the road at the end of my driveway, the camera panned up and captured a longer shot of my street, like the establishing shot at the beginning of a movie. As I pedaled my way down the street I could even hear the score in my head (almost certainly composed by John Williams because who else would do it in the mid-1980’s?). I would then imagine that every scene that unfolded over the next few hours had been scripted out, designed to teach the protagonist (that’s me) some life lesson or else just to entertain.
When I “got saved” as a teenager I dove headlong into intensive Bible study and quickly learned that the writers of that book had a similar view of divine sovereignty. Mind you it’s not consistent…earlier writers didn’t seem to have the fully developed tri-omni concept of God (omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent). There’s even one line in the earlier parts of the Old Testament that indicated Yahweh couldn’t defeat some of the bigger armies “because they had chariots of iron” (read it for yourself here), as if that should be a limitation for an all-powerful deity. But over time the biblical view came to be one of complete and utter divine control. Jesus once said that even the cheapest sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground apart from God’s will, and the apostle Paul argued that everything that happens follows a divine plan.
I should add here that many Christians no longer hold to this notion of sovereignty. Not everyone is a Calvinist; not everyone is as committed as they are to sticking to what the Bible says no matter how primitive the symbolism or how much it violates modern human sensibilities. This is why I often call Reformed evangelical thinking “gentrified barbarism.” But again I digress. A greater majority of Christians believe in a more complex interaction between “what God wants” and “what actually happens.” Usually they speak in terms of God allowing things to happen as if that somehow absolves him from responsibility when a tsunami hits or when a crazed lunatic shoots up a movie theater. But really that shouldn’t make any difference because those same people believe that God could stop any one of those things from happening if he really wanted to, so it’s kind of a moot point, isn’t it?
What almost all kinds of Christian believe is that some level of divine orchestration goes into the inner workings of the universe and of their own personal lives. That brings a level of comfort which I don’t think non-theists like myself can duplicate. I’m just being honest. In my world, sometimes things just happen and there’s not much rhyme or reason to it. That’s not how I would prefer to think, I’ll admit. It was nice to believe that everything happens for a reason. But I no longer think that’s the case, and that removes a favorite coping mechanism which my faith once gave me, and now I no longer have.
It’s Not Just the Opiate of the Masses
Karl Marx famously argued that religion placates the lower classes, keeping them docile in the face of social and economic inequity by assuring them they will be richly rewarded when they get to heaven. That may very well be, but I’ve seen it used just as often by privileged people as a warm blanket of comfort in the face of an unfavorable turn of circumstances. See, prosperous people face hardships too. They may be on a different scale, and they may have far more resources at their disposal to help mitigate their suffering (don’t get me started), but they have their own pain and losses just like anybody else. And where do they turn when things get tough? They turn to their faith, which tells them God is working everything for the best.
It’s a lovely idea. Really, it is. But of course it doesn’t make an idea true just because it makes you feel good. Belief is a powerful thing, and inaccurate beliefs can still yield powerful results (see the aforementioned attack on the World Trade Centers for the dark side of that reality). On the upside, belief in an afterlife, in divine justice, and in supernatural providence can bring real psychological benefits to those who hold to them. I won’t deny it. But that’s not enough to enable me to believe in them again now that I don’t, although I wouldn’t be an honest writer if I didn’t admit that the loss is real, and that it must be dealt with.
So what do you say about these things? Can you add to this list? What did you once have that you lost upon leaving your faith? And more importantly for moving forward, how have you learned to cope with the loss of it? What if anything did you find that replaced these coping mechanisms when you lost your religion?
* Re: The Egypt joke. It occurs to me that growing up we used to say something was in #$@&%! Egypt if it was ridiculously far away from us. Funny how the internet shrinks the world, though, because now it’s altogether possible that I have friends who are actually in Egypt. In fact, I know right of the top of my head I can name friends with whom I interact and who live in Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Not sure about Egypt yet, but I’ll bet if I asked there would be at least somebody.