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Alternative to God?
May 6, 2012 7:09 PM   Subscribe

What if you don't believe in God anymore? What then?

Most of my life I believed in God, which always brought me great comfort during difficult times. Many years ago, I really started to question my belief and have been at the point of pretty much non-belief for at least five years. Though I would probably label myself as more agnostic than atheist.

I'm going through some hard times recently and also went through a bad patch a year or two ago. Antidepressants help, but what has been hardest for me is not having that source of comfort and peace that I was able to rely upon when I was much younger. For those of you who have been or are in a similar situation, where or in what do you find comfort and hope? I would say the majority of my friends are religious or spiritual and their stock answer to people with difficulties is - "pray!" or "God will see you through this" or somesuch. While I deeply respect their belief, this is not the most helpful advice for me. I do like to keep lots of good quotes that inspire me which I read again and again; but it's not really the same as the more deep spiritual feeling that I can rely and trust totally upon something else. Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me. Can this feeling ever be replicated? What can I do to help guide myself through difficult times? I've tried to "act as if" there is a God (since I am in the camp that thinks we can never really know) but it seems empty and fraudulent. I would love any advice or experiences you could share, thanks.
posted by triggerfinger to Religion & Philosophy (63 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
Think of yourself as a free agent with the ability to decide how your own life will unfold and make it happen. I find it much more comforting to realize I have complete control of my life rather than trust that some other entity will decide for me.
posted by Lobster Garden at 7:15 PM on May 6, 2012 [14 favorites]


Personally, I found my lack of faith to be liberating. No more wondering why God's plan is screwing me. There was no more wondering what I did wrong, why I deserved it, why my prayers weren't answered, etc. Everything that happens in my life is the result of the actions I've taken prior to this moment, with a healthy amount of randomness thrown in.

Life is not a dress rehearsal for something else.
posted by COD at 7:18 PM on May 6, 2012 [76 favorites]


Meditation and contemplation seem helpful to you, and I don't think there's any reason to reject those things. You don't necessarily have to be directing your prayer at a higher power to pray. There's a lot of truth in the chicken-soup-for-the-soul type advice that says things like "reflect upon your blessings" and "think positive thoughts" and "imagine the outcomes you want," all that kind of stuff. Actually sitting down in a quiet place and thinking of all the good things you're working on and trying to bring to pass can be very helpful.

Heck, you could do it in a church/temple/mosque if you wanted. Lots of lapsed Catholics, for example, enter Catholic churches during non-mass hours to find peace in the pews.

You don't have to believe in mystical energy flows or chakras to be soothed and comforted by a yoga routine.

You also may want to try addressing "prayer" as if it's a conversation with yourself from the future, once you're past the rough patch. Ask yourself for the strength and calm you need. Ask yourself for comfort and confirmation that your current trials are worth it.

Good luck!
posted by kavasa at 7:29 PM on May 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


Try reading some existentialism.

Basically, you have to embrace the freedom that atheism gives you to define the meaning and purpose of your own life. Only you can answer the question of why you are here. No one else is going to do it for you.
posted by empath at 7:31 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, mindfulness
posted by empath at 7:33 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was raised in a religious home but never believed in God. As an adult I identify as an atheist.

For me, my source of hope has always been other people. People can be awful, but they can also be unbelievably good. Watch a movie like Schindler's List, read about A. Philip Randolph, who was an atheist and Martin Luther King Jr.'s right hand (or one of them, anyway) in the civil rights movement. I could sit you down and talk to you for hours about the goodness that bubbled up among the people I was around in New York during the days and weeks and months after 9/11. I could give you a long list of reading to do -- Alain de Boton's Religion for Atheists, Marcus Aurelius's meditations, Joseph Campbell's explorations of myth and how necessary these stories are to our understanding of the world, De Rerum Natura. Religious people are also often good--but focus on the goodness that they do, not their motivation. Goodness is a choice, and the more you learn about those choices, the more secure you'll feel that goodness comes from humans, not God.

As for the need to pray--don't pray if you think it'll be a lie. But cultivate some other introspective behavior to help you settle your mind and make decisions. Meditation is wonderful for this. It's a practice of clearing the mind. In a time of distress, concentrate on counting your breaths, your heartbeats, and if other thoughts come in to your mind, gently push them away. After some practice, you'll find that the mental clarity really empowers you to make whatever decision you are confronting.
posted by elizeh at 7:34 PM on May 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Your concept of God might be an issue. If you are looking for a savior to come down and help that won't work. If you decided to not believe in God then you have to find the courage within yourself. Firm self faith. That also means that all things in the universe are chaos and random and there is not one entity that controls it. So basically you have control or some control over this "chaos" or that happens to you.

In my experience that is not true. There is a middle ground between an all encompassing God and no God at all. I call it the Truth that exists in life. And that truth is Buddhism. I wont go into details and "preach" here but you are welcome to read this book if you like -it is a collection of experiences that others have gone through and overcome.
posted by pakora1 at 7:34 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


If God exists as a presence to me in any meaningful way, it is in my ability to look back tenderly and sympathetically (and sometimes even severely) on past versions of myself from earlier in life, now possessing knowledge that they did not have at the time. In looking forward to that sympathy or redemption or judgment from my future self, I feel comfort.

I am not a believer in anything structured, but I do believe that rest, peace, and understanding come at the end of our natural lives, and based on personal experiences I believe that momentum carries something forward or outward into the universe after our death, in a way that we can't possibly comprehend now.

Imagine yourself an embryo, knowing only the world of the womb, with no chance of ever being able to comprehend what might lie beyond it. I believe that what awaits us after life is similar to that. Ultimately I think there are no limits on the ability of awareness to grow and change, and I consider my life here to be just one in a series of gestation periods, leading toward what I can't even begin to fathom.

Simply get by in life the best you can. Grow naturally, vigorously, tentatively -- but grow, and keep growing in ways large or small.
posted by hermitosis at 7:39 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." - Angel, S2.

This line, written by Joss Whedon and delivered by David Boreanaz as the ensouled vampire Angel, is a pretty brilliant summation of the philosophy that I, a clinically depressed atheist, find most useful in my life.

I believe there is no God. No afterlife. No eternal reward. All we have is this life. And what we do with this life means everything.

Do not long for comfort from some external source. Provide comfort, peace and love to others. Be helpful and kind to strangers. Volunteer your time or money or expertise to make a difference, any difference.

Engage yourself in this life. It's pretty much the hardest thing to do for someone with depression. I know from experience. But I also know it's absolutely the single best thing you can do to find that sense of connection and universal love that some folks find in religion.
posted by ronofthedead at 7:41 PM on May 6, 2012 [17 favorites]


Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm.

Well the thing is, that's imaginary. If you want to avoid harm, you better be on the look-out for it and make wise choices when facing it. If you do get harmed, you can usually make it through and be smarter for it afterward. Making mistakes is how you learn. Embrace it.

With practice and experience, you can depend on yourself. This gets easier over time.

You can also have a real live non-imaginary support network in your life. As you are more and more honest with yourself, you may find yourself seeking fewer friends who say "god will see you through this" and more friends who say "you're strong and you'll be OK, and if you need me I'll help."

Sometimes I think back to being a kid and how some people say they'd go back if they could. I never would. I love being an adult, with the full autonomy and responsibility that come along with it. Similarly I do not want "faith" back now that I've lived in the real live non-supernatural world.

You'll be OK. Welcome to the real world -- a lot of us like it here.
posted by fritley at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


I have come to believe that people who say "god will see you through this" or "jesus loves you" or whatever are abdicating their responsibility to actually help you through your hard time, or actually treat you lovingly. So if your friends only can offer someone else's support or love, then you may find it's time to befriend some people who actually offer their own support to you and their own love to you.
posted by headnsouth at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2012 [46 favorites]


My comfort comes from so many things: A recognition of the wonderful people in my life, of the opportunities and choices I have from a coincidence of birth ( intelligent, Australian, born in the era I am) and this recent one which works surprisingly well - when I have doubt, from whether I've done a good enough job or turned the iron off or can navigate a confusing transport system, I say "Trust yourself" which is shorthand for "You've coped with everything up to now, and done some pretty cool stuff, this won't be any different".

Sometimes when everything is hard, I try to put it in perspective, and remind myself I wouldn't appreciate the good times so much if there weren't tough times to contrast against. I try to appreciate the opportunity to experience experiences, emotions, circumstances.

Some things I've heard that have helped - my son once said to me, he'd never kill himself because things will eventually get better, sometimes you just have to wait it out. Oprah once described her eventual meeting with her deity, describing her life (and I liked it so much it works even without a deity) as "What a ride/blast!"

Sometimes this relentless jollification and sunniness doesn't work, and I feel guilty for not coping with shit things when most other people in the world have it so much worse - hell, i have food, and a home, and free medical care, and a kitty and people who love me, what have I got to complain about? And then I say, well, I'm allowed to feel my feelings. That's okay.

Without a god, I'm still grateful that I ended up who I am and with who I have and what I have. Without a god, I can still trust that things will work out okay, because they often do (and if they don't, that's okay too, it's all part of the rollercoast ref: Steve Martin Parenthood).

And letting go (forgetting about letting god), that's a really good thing to do too. Sometimes my mind chews away at a problem like I'm eating my own arm off. That's only useful if my arm is stuck under a rock, which it hasn't been. If you can figure a way to occasionally do a Scarlett O'Hara and say, well, I'll think about it tomorrow, that's good.
posted by b33j at 8:03 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the feeling of comfort you got from religion, what about religious music? Either familiar music from your own tradition, or sacred choral music from just about any point from the middle ages forward. Just because you don't believe it doesn't mean it can't move you, and it's music that was written to inspire feelings of comfort, awe, hope, etc. Listen to (or sing!) it in a language you don't understand if you find the words make you feel strange/distracted. I'm not religious any more, but I still love and sing the styles of choral music I learned growing up.

Was praying or believing *in a group* important to you? A practice that happens in a group (yoga comes to mind) might be another idea.
posted by heyforfour at 8:11 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


When working through a similar process, I took great comfort in 1 Corinthians 13. There's a lot of truth there that doesn't depend on a theistic god for its validity. So much so that it suggested, to me at least, a way forward that maintained a relationship with the traditions of my birth without obligating me to affirm things I was beginning to find absurd.
posted by R. Schlock at 8:18 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


but what has been hardest for me is not having that source of comfort and peace that I was able to rely upon when I was much younger.

It's part of you, it's still there, you can still draw on it for comfort, and you can call it whatever you want.

Best thing about agnosticism is that you can work with whatever brings you joy and comfort and insight, and no-one can tell you that you're doing it wrong.
posted by desuetude at 8:22 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I grew up in a secular household, and while many friends and extended family members tried at various points in our lives to bring us to Christ, Christianity never took. Like yourself, I consider myself an agnostic, not an atheist. But for whatever reason, my family and I find ourselves drawn to Buddhism in recent years, and while organized religion is still not for me, I frequently refer to the Four Noble Truths to regain perspective. To me, Buddhist philosophy is more about understanding human nature, which brought me more comfort than I'd imagined as I grow older.
posted by peripathetic at 8:23 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's part of you, it's still there, you can still draw on it for comfort, and you can call it whatever you want.

This. All the beauty and peace and goodness is still there in yourself and in the world and you can draw comfort from that.
posted by fshgrl at 8:24 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let me strongly recommend Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God. If nothing else, it may give you a few laughs and remind you that you are far from alone in making this transition.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:27 PM on May 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Can this feeling ever be replicated?

No, it can't. Coming to terms with freedom and your own agency, as others have suggested, is a good idea, but it's not going to give you that kind of comfort. So I'd stop looking for that- it's like a recovering heroin addict asking if anything else gives you the same feeling. It's not going to happen, and you need to accept that your life has changed.

What you should keep in mind is that, no matter what you are going through, a lot of people have gone through the same and a lot of them made it. Now that you're not waiting around for some fake god to come and make everything better, you have the power to change your life. That's the best shot you're ever going to get.
posted by spaltavian at 8:28 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


...that source of comfort and peace that I was able to rely upon when I was much younger. ... the more deep spiritual feeling that I can rely and trust totally upon something else. Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm.

I quoted this because from my experience there's quite a difference in perspective between this and the humanistic self-determination perspectives from comments that've arisen so far. For me, control over chaos is not comforting, but terrifying: it's an enormous responsibility.

There's a keen similarity between your faith in God and my atheist use of faith. I've realised there is an ideological hurdle to jump, but I think it's possible to work through. (Background: I'm a strong-atheist Buddhist who grew up culturally Christian, but never grasped faith in God. Faith turned out to still be important to me post-atheist-'conversion' because of having to deal with a lot of rocky mental health and suicide crises.)

When you turn yourself over to God, all these are factors:
1. God has greater power than you
2. God has divine knowledge, which is greater than human knowledge
3. God is at least broadly benevolent
4. God is omnipresent and will always accept you

So in submitting in faith, you are
1. acknowledging your own powerlessness (you don't have to struggle to make everything alright, you don't control the universe, so you couldn't if you tried)
2. dropping the idea that you definitely know what's right and/or true (God works in mysterious ways)
3. trusting that nothing bad will happen at least for this moment and probably in your immediate and more distant future (God is not going to punish you; if you're suffering, then it probably has a God-intended meaning and things are going to turn out alright, whatever happens; you'll learn how to deal with it because 3.)
4. trusting that God will always be there to turn to.

There is research that links personal conceptions of God very strongly with personal experiences of one's parents - harsh parents are correlated with belief in a punishing God, distant parents with children who find faith difficult, etc. This might, if you like, help you conceive of what you once called 'God' as a consistent set of patterns and expectations that still plays a major role in your life regardless of its correlation with some unprovable divinity. This is definitely how I use it.

Buddhism shines like a clear light for me because of how deconstructive it is about all experience, most importantly the self. Essentially, suffering is unimportant. But as a spiritual(!) practice I still think it rests on the God-machine: that experience of faith in submitting to something that's bigger, more important and more powerful than you are. (Metaphysical point: no self exists, so obviously everything is bigger, more important and more powerful than you are.)

This is why AA works too.

So to reformulate the above in atheist terms:
1. works by itself. You are only human.
2. Human stories are fallible. You're sometimes wrong. Perspectives differ. Everything is subject to change. (If I'm desperate and in a mental hellhole, I want to go to someone and have them tell me things can change and I'm going to be alright. It's taken practice, but now I know if I can hear and trust that from someone else, I can hear and trust it from myself.)
3. The cosmos has no intent, so it can't punish you. Yes, it can't teach you anything either; but whatever you learned from God, you learned through dealing with life and the shit it throws at you. You're also not dead yet, which is pretty good going.
4. You can't be rejected by the universe/nothingness. Even if you're feeling deep loneliness or emptiness, you're still there to witness it. See mindfulness.

The process for godless faith works in the same way as faith in God. The experience of faith doesn't require proof of God - this is how it is for theists and atheists alike! God is not really part of the process.

The mental pretzel moment from your position is in working with the fact that when you practise this faith, you have to turn yourself over to nothing rather than something.

You expressed it yourself: the key moment is in the letting go. You trust that God will guide you: it's in that action of trusting that things happen and you feel something very like guidance and support. It'll be a practical training and there'll probably be doubt, like any way of learning to have faith. But I've lived it for long enough (and avoided dying in the process) to be able to say that yes, it definitely works.

(Buddhist footnote if that rings a bell: start with the Four Noble Truths and go from there. But you can certainly live without them, if the key points - nothing really matters in the end - click.)

(Atheist footnote: talking about 'the universe' carries a risk of reifying it in a very God-like way, which I try not to do. But honestly, for practical success, I don't care if you do reify it, really. Go for it, if it works for you.)

posted by lokta at 8:30 PM on May 6, 2012 [22 favorites]


Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me

It would be comforting, but if there is no God to guide or protect you, then it is a false comfort, is it not? So, to find comfort you will have to look around you. Friends, family, our culture, and your own actions.

spaltavian puts it pretty well.
posted by JHarris at 8:32 PM on May 6, 2012


(NB there were four responses when I typed 'so far' - thread has changed direction since!)
posted by lokta at 8:33 PM on May 6, 2012


One way to look at life: Things rarely are 100% good or a 100% bad. I've found some very shitty or not-so-nice things that have occurred to me actually had benefits later on.

I guess whatever happens to me, I feel like somewhere down the line it can be used to make my life a better, richer, and deeper experience. So I guess I have some hope in the idea that life is many shades of grey, and what crappy stuff happens now may be exactly what I needed to experience for the future.

A simple example: I got sick and had to stop working on a project. This led to me trying a different creative field and finding that I enjoy it about 1000% more than the previous one. Without having gotten sick, chances are I would have never, ever found the new creative field, and been miserable and struggling in the old one for who knows how many years.

I guess what I'm saying is that life has a funny way of unfolding. Try to be grateful for what you've got now. And when shit hits the fan, in the back of your mind try to remember that as humans, we can't always see the full effects of something we deem "bad". There might be something very good down the road.

I've also linked to this before, but I think this is a really great Ted Talk. Though it has to do more with productivity and happiness, I think it has a wider sphere of application than that.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 8:36 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me. Can this feeling ever be replicated?

To me, it is apparent that there is a principle of growth and healing in the universe. Forests burn and then regenerate; emotional and physical wounds heal with time; every day the sun comes up after the darkness of night; animals nurture and care for their young in a way that looks to me like love. Even people who would argue against this evidence are doing so because they are following that same principle -- that tendency for humans to orient themselves (though imperfectly) towards more truth, wholeness and clarity. I find this principle very trustworthy and yes, comforting. This trust does not involve giving up agency; on the contrary, I see it evidence that I too am part of this principle and that it is natural for me to participate in it.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:36 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, I'm going through a similar time, am not a believer, and have really been inspired by this thought:

There is some kind of energy from whence the universe comes. Organized religion deems this force "God."
1) You don't need to understand what this force is. You don't need to label it.
2) You are not separate from the universe. It made you. You're a part of it.
3) This means, in turn, that you are not separate from God/the universe/whatever, even if you don't believe in A GOD. The external "God" you're used to turning to in times of trouble is actually yourself, and every person and creature you relate to. Also, the moments that challenge you and question your belief in God/the universe come from the same source as the moments that affirm you. Heck, in asking this question on MetaFilter, you're talking to God/the universe/whatever. When you forget that everyone and everything is connected -- when you feel that you're looking for a solution outside yourself and other people -- that's when it's hard to cope.

Joseph Campbell talks about this much more eloquently in "The Power of Myth." Hope this helps. I know it kind of sounds hippy-dippy.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:40 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Substitute "The Universe" for "God". Then, look up at the stars.

Worked for me.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:57 PM on May 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


where or in what do you find comfort and hope?

i don't. whether the outcome of your current situation is good enough for you to see it as OK, eventually we will all die and that will be the end of us existing. so, try to make the best of it while you're here. obviously, the details are complicated. regardless of the choices you make some things are out of your control, and that's just how it IS.
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:09 PM on May 6, 2012


but it's not really the same as the more deep spiritual feeling that I can rely and trust totally upon something else. Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm.

It sounds like you have had this spiritual experience, why not go with this as is?

This quote from Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, was inspiring to me,A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss -- Victor Frankl
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:42 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." -- Carl Sagan
posted by benzenedream at 9:47 PM on May 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


When you used to turn things over to God, what you were doing was basically saying, "I can't handle this and have to put it aside and let whatever is going to happen happen." Back then you thought that whatever was going to happen was God's plan, or that's how you'd justify it afterwards.

Now you don't think there is anybody at the wheel, and you look back and realize there never was a God's plan for you. So all those times you were turning it over to God, what you were really doing was just deciding to live in the now, come what may, and to move forward. You were letting go of the idea that you were in control. Guess what, you're not! That is to say there are plenty of things you're in control of and plenty you are not.

Life is a series of curveballs. Maybe you'll get hit by a car tomorrow or find out you have cancer or get laid off. You don't know. And you can't control those things. And sometimes bad stuff happens and all you can do is ride it out. That's all you were doing before, and you got through those things. You can do the same thing now. It's a relaxing of the idea that we're in control, a letting go, and in a way, acknowledging that there's a possibility that things could turn out badly. Because that's the truth of it. And then it's moving on.

The reason that we, in my hypothesis, invented gods in the first place was to try to understand the chaos around us and find order in it. It was to answer questions that were too uncomfortable to be left unanswered. Why are we here? What does this all mean? Is there any purpose to any of this? If not, what a random pointless waste, right? Why bother doing anything if it means nothing and we just die and our lives didn't matter, right? Better to imagine that we were put here for a reason and that this all does have purpose and that it therefore does matter whether we get out of bed in the morning.

Even if we have to squint and strain and guess to imagine how this seemingly random string of ups and downs in life is part of some kind of coherent supernatural plan for us that makes life worth living, that's better than the alternative, a situation in which we never get an answer and die not knowing whether our entire life had any significance. That's too hard with everything else we have to deal with. Thus the self delusion. And as long as we're inventing a magic, invisible, omnipotent aggrandized projection of ourselves, it can also be conveniently used as a placeholder to explain things like the weather and crop yields and illness and death and whatnot, at least until science catches up and can shoulder a heavier and heavier load. Then we retire God part by part as we figure things out for ourselves.

So the point of all of this is to say that God was always an attempt to gain a sense of control and comfort by inventing answers to questions we couldn't answer, to plug giant holes so the mystery of them didn't gnaw at us so, to give us assurance that they would be answered someday. But if there was never any God, then we were always doing it ourselves and no answers from on high were ever forthcoming.

I know that brings us back to the gist of your question, an alternative to that comfort and assurance and promise of answers, but the answer is yourself. There is nothing else. It was always you and that's always all there was getting you through those hard times when you thought it was God. So you're already stronger and more capable than you think.

Let go of the idea that you are in control of everything, acknowledge that you're specifically powerless to change some things, bad things, things that hurt you. Stay strong and work on what you can. Endure the rest with patience and acceptance because that's all there is. You might notice that those are the same elements you'll find in the serenity prayer. They're true even if you cut the word God out of it, especially if you cut the word God out of it.

God is a crutch. It's an imaginary parent figure that you imagine protects you like a parent, controls you like a parent, has all the answers like a parent, makes all the decisions for you like a parent, supports you like a parent, loves you unconditionally like a parent, soothes and comforts you like a parent, and will make all the plans and take care of everything for you like a parent (read: so you don't have to). But you're not a child anymore. You have to grow up and realize that you're the parent now and it's your job to do all of those things for yourself because there isn't anyone else.

There was nobody in charge of your parents when you were a kid and now you've graduated into that position. Your parents wandered out into the uncharted wilderness with no guidebook and they figured out how to make do because there was no other option. They got stung and bitten and scratched and bruised and hurt, but along the way they learned to be self sufficient out there, to handle everything that needed to be handled. That's you now, spiritually.

It's sad to let go of the idea that daddy is watching over you and will always protect and comfort you. It's a loss of innocence, the irretrievable passing of a season, the death of childhood. And there isn't a balm for it, only a callus, so don't look for relief or release. It's harder to go out there and make it on your own rather than having someone to fall back on who will provide for your needs, but leaving home and standing on your own two feet is how you become your own person, how you grow into the full version of yourself. Growth is pain and pain is growth but the end result is the finished work, not the lump of raw material you started out as. It's better despite all of the scraping and sanding and chiseling and hammering it takes to create it.

So take that pain, toughen up, and let it shape you. Draw strength and comfort and support from those who love you and and set aside that which you can't control. Focus on the now and move forward with the less than satisfying knowledge that you're the only one at the wheel and that your fate is a combination of your decisions and the random happenstance of life. You want a cookie but now that you're grown you get onions. They're bitter at first, but your maturing palate will come to appreciate them in time.
posted by Askr at 10:15 PM on May 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


I gave up on the big ineffable plan as part of the bundle of supernatural stuff I reject. Once I accepted the whole "I am made of meat, and when my meat goes, I go", I had to contend with the ephemerality of myself and the people I love and the monumental irrelevance of our individual existences.

The way I suck up the depressing implications of my beliefsis that I look at the ocean and I look at the sea and I remember that for all that I'm no more important than a speck of dust or a viral particle, neither am I less important than a red supergiant or an elephant or Julius Caesar or a redwood tree. Everything dies. Universes die. My meat's ephemerality doesn't mean I'm any more or less remarkable than something that lives a billion years. I can't tell whether my meat's consciousness is all that special - for all I know, a galaxy thinks - but we organic beings might be all there is, in this neighborhood anyway.

So I accept that coincidence and luck are as close to a Plan as there is, that anything more than that is pareidolia. I really got lucky, though - my particular atoms and molecules configured in a way that meant I got to be me, this set of organized properties within my meat identified itself as me and I got to go on the big ride! My meat gives my consciousness senses that tell me I'm part of the universe, I have opposable thumbs, I have this brain and nervous system that let me interact and learn, and, sure, I have only maybe another 40 to 60 years to be conscious in my meat, at most and if my luck holds, but how great is this?

And it won't hurt me to be gone. It'll probably hurt a lot while I'm losing myself, and I already know it hurts a ton to lose others, but afterwards? There is no afterwards. There's no me to be left to hurt, to miss myself. The fear of losing myself is illusory. The fear of losing others is real, but we all live with that, even the people who deal in afterlives - they have to imagine a way their love will survive, they have to decide whether it's safe to change or whether they have to freeze in order to keep that love, they're in the worst long-distance relationship ever. So we all deal with missing the people we lose, and that pain is bearable even when it feels like it's not.

Even in the face of all my tiny irrelevance, I stay motivated to do the things I do by remembering that this is the only shot I get at the ride. No time for agonizing, there's books to read and flowers to smell and, okay, that toilet's not going to clean itself, but I can enjoy my coffee first. That's what I find comforting. As extremely terrible Canadian band Trooper put it, "We're here for a good time, not a long time, so have a good time, the sun can't shine every day."
posted by gingerest at 10:35 PM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me. Can this feeling ever be replicated?
Well look, the truth is, maybe not? I mean, if someone told you that you had cancer, you would be happier if you didn't believe them right?

Part of being an atheist means realizing that the things that would make you happy if they were true are not the same things as the things that are actually true.

I read about a debate between Rick Warren, who's a high-profile evangelical christian, and Richard Dawkins (I think) - One thing he said was that he'd never seen a "happy" Atheist. Now, obviously there's a bit of a selection bias here. There's a good chance Rick Warren says things that piss off atheists, and thus make them seem unhappy. Plus how does he even really know?

But other then that, I thought to myself who want's to be happy all the time? Isn't it better to feel the full range of emotions (when appropriate of course)?

Of course, if you're only feeling sadness and depression, that's obviously not good either.

As far as what, specifically you can do to feel better, I don't know - each person is different.

One thing to consider is that you may, in fact be "grieving" for your concept of god. If you had a parent, or close friend that you could confide in and trusted and helped you out when you needed it, you would feel terrible if they simply disappeared. Anyway, hopefully you'll get over
posted by delmoi at 11:22 PM on May 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Here to second mindfulness and Buddhism. It's gotten me through some pretty hard times. That, and the Tao Te Ching.

If you just want to talk to someone, try going to a Quaker Church or Unitarian. I went to Quaker school with many an atheist who, for some reason unknown to me, attended church. (I think there was a metafilter article on this -- possibly from NPR.) Quakers are extremely accepting in my experience and very humble.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 11:37 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Funny you mention NPR, because I was just about to post a link to this story they did just last week about a minister who recently became an atheist. The OP might find comfort in her account, although being such a prominent figure in her community, she's had to endure a lot of backlash.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:27 AM on May 7, 2012


I think this is what TheSecretDecoderRing meant to link too.
posted by delmoi at 1:00 AM on May 7, 2012


Whoops, thanks. Copy-and-paste didn't work there. Clearly a higher power wanted it that way.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:17 AM on May 7, 2012


not having that source of comfort and peace that I was able to rely upon

I find that comfort and peace often comes from my surroundings and my mental state rather than from my beliefs. When it's missing, I can reclaim it by

- eating well and on a regular schedule
- getting enough sleep
- getting plenty of exercise
- doing things to look after myself, such as having a long bath
- making sure my life is in order, my finances are in a good state, and my house is tidy

It's also partly a matter of self-confidence, for me: if I'm happy that I can handle whatever life is likely to throw at me, then I'll have that happy sense of inner peace. Mainly this comes from things like knowing where the torch is for a power cut, knowing how to change a tyre, having the phone number of a good plumber, and this kind of terribly prosaic stuff. I don't need a God to make it all work out; I can rely on myself.
posted by emilyw at 2:02 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.
posted by pmb at 4:01 AM on May 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Maybe I'm reading too much into your question, but it seems like you're really asking something like "how does a person (who grew into atheism intellectually) respond to the black dog at the door, when she's been reflexively relying on God?"

You DANCE DANCE DANCE.

All you've got are the ripples you make.

Religion(s) usually suggest that you guide yourself through difficult times by getting right with $_savior/principle/Old_One/frame_of_reference.

Which is pretty solid advice, if you ignore the whole $_savior/principle/Old_One/frame_of_reference mindfuckery. What about just trying to GET RIGHT?

Step back. Are you giving the people in your life what they deserve? (That question has two edges forming a sharp point.)

Step forward. Did you do something today to make tomorrow better? Maybe it was ultimately inconsequential, but given the inevitable heat death of the sun, so is everything. A little thing. A clean sink. Donating blood. A cat reduced to drooling hair pudding by expert skritches. Do, make, say, or think. Or maybe things are poised, and the thing to do to get right is nothing at all.

Trust yourself to make those decisions, and to live with the consequences.

Just say to yourself, "Self, I am NOT RIGHT. What's it gonna take for me to get right?"

Then LISTEN and ACT.

And do that enough, you're DANCING.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:28 AM on May 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


You're probably familiar with the serenity prayer, right? God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

The thing is, it doesn't need to be a prayer. You don't need God to grant you any of those things. You're like Dorothy with her ruby slippers--you've had that power inside yourself all along.

The "thing outside myself" that I look to for comfort and encouragement is the fact that people everywhere, every minute, are dealing with tragedy and triumphing over adversity.
posted by drlith at 4:54 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Look at everything in the world. That's the default for the universe. No deity was needed to create it, it's just how it is. Not a big cold emptiness, but instead planets and stars; life! Even the cycle of life and death helps the system, by freeing up resources for the next generation. That's what you trust and put faith in. No, nothing is guiding the process, but it's like a tsunami or hurricane. It's so big it can't be budged, and it's headed in the right direction. Do you fight the current, or embrace it? That's the hard part. We have to suspend our desires to embrace the current, and work to position ourselves so we won't be harmed by it.
posted by jwells at 5:08 AM on May 7, 2012


As a child, when you needed to be taken care of, you had your parents. Then you grow up and can do what your parents could do, but you still miss the feeling that there's someone who can handle everything. Well, in part, it was an illusion, and in part it wasn't. Your parents could handle things but not all the things, but you didn't know that. You miss that illusion.

There are many ways to have illusions. E.g. drugs and alcohol, reading a novel, watching a movie, thinking the narrative of your life makes sense. What's more, it turns out there are also "bad" illusions that make us feel worse. In the end, we see as through a glass darkly. Most of the time we're not paying attention and caught up in some story that affects our mood. It's nice to have one to turn to that would be guaranteed to make one feel better. If the standard ones supplied by your culture don't work for you, you need to create your own. People above have suggested several that work for them, but you need your own, and that's a life long R&D project.

I grew up as an atheist but now "believe in God." I also "believe" in model dependent realism as put forth in Steven Hawkins' The Grand Design. The God model, properly understood, works for me and isn't contradicted by the data. It's really just a user-friendly interface on the universe. Others think they are using a "better" interface, but they usually think they aren't using an interface at all. A good user interface works that way. It doesn't get in the way of what you're trying to do. They don't notice their interface so it's working for them. You need to find one that comforts you. It has to fit you. It could be a hand-me-down, or store bought, or you can make it yourself if you are good at things like that. The mental models of a glass half full & half empty describe the same data and people choose between them based on other than the facts. When you need comfort, what model are you using that is making you feel that need? Because, believe me, you are using one. You might be choosing it because you want to think of yourself as a "realist" or because you want to be in control or maybe just out of habit. Know thyself.

Also, feeling need isn't necessarily a bad thing to be somehow chased away. It connects us with others. In general, whatever you're feeling at a given time, has something to recommend it. Accept it if you can't change it. This is the model that works for me, and I've tried many.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:18 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's our job to make heaven here on earth, or at least try.
posted by lalochezia at 5:27 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I will turn it over to a much much smarter man than me. Albert Einstein.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.
( Albert Einstein - The Merging of Spirit and Science)

I have also found Taoist philosophy not at all contradictory to any religious or non religious beliefs and very good at helping me through hard times. I suppose roughly it is very similar to the idea of letting God take control of things but it is more a way to let go of trying to control everything and letting things happen. I so over simplify it and badly, but it might be an area of philosophy you might find useful to look into. This is my personal take on it and how it's helped me.
posted by wwax at 5:34 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have never particularly believed in God (though I tried), so I come from a very different perspective. But I find *not* believing in the supernatural (including God) to be very comforting in its own way; to me (and I recognize that this is not 100% logical) if the natural is all there is, then there is some hope that we might be able to learn about "it" (the universe? life? everything?) while if there are supernatural forces at work, everything I think I know about the universe has the potential to be turned on its head for no reason.

As for "turning it over to God," the closest thing I have is just thinking "in 100, or 1,000, or 10,000 years time, this will not matter." Which I can see as being pretty hollow-seeming compared to believing that God will take care of you, but which is kind of a shorthand for me for thinking, "the universe can take care of itself, and I can't really screw anything up that badly."
posted by mskyle at 5:48 AM on May 7, 2012


I think there are several reasons prayer has turned out to be a successful social meme for almost every culture. It helps with the following:

-Setting priorities: what is important to you? what do you want to focus on?
-Tweaking your perspective: the practice usually calls for thinking of others, determining what you can do to be helpful, etc
-Solution finding: all that time spent thinking on the major issues in your life often causes you to arrive at solutions. When I was religions, the solution felt "delivered," and sometimes it still feels this way, but now I attribute it to my mind working things out in the background.

I recommend keeping a journal if you find that you have any difficulty starting up with meditation or mindfulness practices. I also like to describe my "religion" now as being compartmentalization. I have spent a lot of time trying to train myself to create a box in my anxious little brain where I can put things that I need to stop obsessively worrying about. Once they are in there, I have to move on and do something productive. It helps.

Wishing you the best of luck with this, you obviously have lots of sympathy and support around here.
posted by skrozidile at 6:15 AM on May 7, 2012


Seconding DANCE DANCE DANCE, nth-ing Buddhism (a horribly misleading term, coined by Anglo-Indian archaeologists who assumed any religion must be analogous to Christianity, according to this guy), perhaps especially Zen or Stephen Batchelor's type of Theravadan practice (which Batchelor argues is what Gautama Shakyamuni originally recommended).

As Durkheim pointed out in 1912: lots of religions don't have gods, and practice, not belief, is what makes it efficacious and good for morale.

Zen foregrounds formal yet streamlined ceremony, silently Being Here Now, and realizing that everything is fundamentally ok. (Also, of course, practical activity.) US groups are rife with ex-believers, especially ex-Christians.

Zen or Theravadan traditions both facilitate mindfulness practice, which is highly recommended for mild depression, and for going through horrible patches. Mindfulness is definitely good stuff for creating/noticing comfort, peace, and trust. Mindfulness includes acceptance (in the sense of: the opposite of denial) and works best paired with non-judgmental compassion for yourself and others -- Theravadan traditions elaborate specific exercises for cultivating this state.

If you'd prefer a secular-medical context, search for MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) programs in your area (they're often run out of local hospitals).

Good luck! Memail me if you'd like more specific directions/reassurances.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:05 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


While sometimes stupid, the folks over on Reddit in the subreddit r/atheism would gladly welcome you and could offer you some assistance on what to do next.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:07 AM on May 7, 2012


As was said above, religion is about abdicating authority. When the "higher power" calls the shots, you either spend your life as a supplicant (i.e., Orthodox Judiasm and Islam, and Pentacostalism) or celebrate the laissez-faire life that God gave you here on earth and become a sanctimonious capitalist (i.e., the Joel Osteen/megachurch crowd.)

Your agnosticism is teaching you to take responsibility for your own actions and beliefs, which is hard, often unfruitful work. You will have to work for comfort since it's no longer automatic. But it is so worth it.
posted by moammargaret at 7:15 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


One alternative to God may be a different concept of God than the one you stopped believing in. I spent 15 years vacillating between atheism and agnosticism before returning to Christianity early last year, and the thing that got me started back was that I missed prayer so much.

Reading Marcus Borg's books helped me a lot in re-conceptualizing God. He thinks of God not as a punitive father-figure that lives "out there" somewhere, and more of the life force of the universe that we live in, and who "lives" in us and in everything in the universe. Personifying this force as God (and you can imagine him/her however you want) just makes it easier to relate to.

MB has a way of making this non-traditional Christianity feel relevant and worthwhile as a spiritual practice as it strips away a lot of the harsher and less believable aspects of traditional Christianity.

Good books to start with are: The God We Never Knew, The Heart of Christianity, and then pretty much anything else he's ever written. Rob Bell's Love Wins is also good if you're put off by the concept of heaven and hell. His beliefs seem compatible with Borgs' on some level.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People delves into this "different concept" of God and how it relates to suffering. I have only just started this book so I don't have a first-hand recommendation, but it has excellent reviews on Amazon.

If you've ever found church to be a comfort but are put off by the conservative, judgemental and anti-intellectual direction that some churches espouse, consider trying an Episcopal church. Many are very progressive and "reason" is one of the three pillars on which the Anglican faith is based. Some parishes are more progressive than others... you may have to shop around a little to find the type of church you want. Unlike the hellfire-and-damnation churches I grew up in, my new church is worship-focused and the sermons are uplifting and inspiring.

If you had told me two years ago that I'd return to being a Christian, I'd have scoffed in your face. And I certainly would not have imagined that I'd be as happy as I am with my church and my "new improved" faith in God. Just wanted to throw that out there as an option to consider as you search for something to comfort and sustain you.

Another direction you can go is non-religious Buddhism. It's the philosophy of life stuff without the religious trappings. Buddhism Without Beliefs is really good for learning how to apply Buddhist principles in a non-spiritual way.

Also, I am a big fan of the serenity prayer as drlith mentions above, and like he/she says, you can ignore the God part if it doesn't work for you, and just use the principles as a way of coping with life. The key for me is to not just say it, but to actually sit down and look at my problems in that light: what are the things I can change, and what steps can I take to start changing them? What is not within my power to change and I need to let go of trying to control?
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:23 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me. Can this feeling ever be replicated? What can I do to help guide myself through difficult times? I've tried to "act as if" there is a God (since I am in the camp that thinks we can never really know) but it seems empty and fraudulent. I would love any advice or experiences you could share, thanks.

Wow, it sounds like you've been through a lot. I commend you for trying to restore your faith in both humanity and God.

On replicating the feeling, I think it's really important to work hard at loving yourself first. I've had a good experience with giving myself a lot of positive, mental encouragement. I know that whenever I feel like my world is crashing all around me, quietly telling myself every so often that I'm brave, strong, and a young woman destined to make a real impact on the world; that if I let the small things get me down, the world would never be able to benefit from all the wonderful things I have, can, and will do. I've found that the more I tell myself that everything will work out in the end, the faster I'm able to return to the race of life.

Sometimes things don't go according to the perfect plan you had, people you love die, your heart gets broken for the first time, and bad things happen to otherwise good people. Everyone has setbacks and has failed at least once or twice. I've found, though, that the difference between people who achieve true greatness and the people who remain on autopilot is the former's ability to brush their shoulders off, stay optimistic, and try harder next time. The race of life is long and in the end, it's only with yourself. Maybe it would help you to see God as an entity and religion as an enterprise designed to help strengthen your moral compass; not as some kind of bearded genie in the clouds with a predestined map of your life. You and you alone are responsible for your success and contentment and there's nothing God or your loved ones can do to help you cherish yourself and your talents. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think any religion preaches that all of your inner strength, hopes, and desires should be in God's hands. If your self esteem rests solely in an external source you can't prove exists, you're going to find that the feelings of worthlessness you describe above are going to worsen as your problems shift from being child's play to OMG REAL ADULT SH*T.

That said, I've always felt that all people are capable of having faith in themselves and that obstacles are designed to be overcome. You can do this. (Also, my favorite pickmeup songs: don't worry baby and be happy.)
posted by lotusmish at 8:10 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Personally, I take comfort in the loneliness. It reminds me that I am beholden only to myself and to those I choose. But when it gets to be a more painful reminder, I find reading poetry to be soothing. Especially poetry with religious themes or poetry that has similar cadences to the hymns and verses that others might take comfort in. John Donne's Holy Sonnets really work for me, since I can tune out the "holy" part and be awed and comforted by the power of his words. e.e. cummings's poem "my father moved through dooms of love" is also fantastic.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 8:11 AM on May 7, 2012


You might also find yourself comforted and uplifted by some of the music in this thread: Songs for a Better Future. I have found music with a positive message to be enormously comforting at times.

Another idea is to look into New Age spiritual practices, or something like Wicca. These can offer alternatives to traditional prayer, such as spellwork, cleansing rituals, candleburning, etc. One of the principles of spellcasting is that you do the ritual with intention in hopes of influencing the outcome on a quantum level, then you are supposed to let it go and not dwell on the issue any more, trusting the universe for the outcome. Whether or not you believe that spellcasting has any power, just doing the ritual symbolically can work as a trigger for the letting go at the end.

Sometimes when there is something out of your control just doing something feels better than stewing about it.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:45 AM on May 7, 2012


...more deep spiritual feeling that I can rely and trust totally upon something else. Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me. Can this feeling ever be replicated?

I can't be sure, but it seems like you're missing a sort of subjective, experiential "feeling" of God or God's presence or something that is tangible. This type of subjective experience of God is encouraged and common in many charismatic sects of Christianity, for example (and if you aren't/weren't a Christian, what follows may not be much help).

But if you're starting from there--and, again, I can't tell from your question--you're already doing it wrong. You're presuming that an intangible being must not exist if that being does not manifest itself in some way in your material, tangible "reality." You're already starting off by denying "half" (okay, not exactly quantifiable) of reality when you insist upon presupposing a feeling or emotion or an experience of God as proof/confirmation of God's existence. When you make that presupposition or assumption about reality, the ONLY logical step is to be an atheist, not an agnostic: if only material things exist, God, being immaterial and immeasurable, verifiably does not exist and there ought to be no doubt about it. This is why, when the spiritual well in the life of a modern man goes dry, there are two paths he can take: if he has a flawed philosophy/theology to begin with, he becomes an atheist; if he doesn't accept that initial premise of "feeling" God, then he shrugs and prays some more and moves on until the drought of emotion is over.

It's utterly expected not to "feel" God in our lives. He knows this. It's why, in the beginning, he was wandering around the garden with us; it's why the central event of human history was his coming to earth again, giving us a little "boost" in that feeling department.

Lastly, as a modern, subjective man, I find it helpful to focus not on the objective other, on God, and whether or not he exists, but to focus on--surprise!--myself. Do I exist? Do I have a soul? It's easy to say God doesn't exist; but I find those two questions a little harder to get around.
posted by resurrexit at 8:52 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know, at some point I just realized that prayer was essentially a coping mechanism. There are things we can't control, and it's comforting to think these have a purpose, or that we can somehow control them after all.

Personally my philosophy about these events boils down to "what happens, happens." I accept that there are some things I can change (after thinking through to see if there IS something about it I can change), and work to make my world the best it can be in the constrains of those laws. To contrast, my wife and in-laws (who range from pantheism to agnosticism) "put things out to the universe" which works for them. Their sort of positive visualization is a powerful tool because it scratches the same instinctual itch as prayer AND primes you to actually notice a beginning of a workable solution. Since the only intelligent agency in the equation is you, the ultimate responsibility goes to you.

Also, while you might not get the same feeling of "comfort" without a god, you CAN get the same feeling of awe and peace, and that goes a long way. Astronomy is great for this, and so is just any activity where you are outside and paying attention to the world outside of yourself. Believe it or not, I get a big spiritual rush when I'm fishing or hunting, because both activities force you to concentrate on something other than your thoughts. Activities like hiking (if you're paying attention and not just walking in a different setting) or wildlife photography would probably give you the same opportunity.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:00 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I more or less believe in God, and I have consciously decided to count myself among the Christians. But I don't really do the whole died for our sins thing; I'm more in the Jesus-as-Gandhi-type camp.

However, I do go to a very wonderful church. I mostly do this because I get paid to be a soloist, but I've come to regard the people as my friends and family. Over many sermons, I've decided that the people make the difference for me. Church is a time to take a breather and get ready for the week. Mostly, it's a place where everyone in the room is focused on one thing: good thoughts and intentions about their relationships with each other and the world.

That kind of concentrated goodness is definitely not the kind of thing that every church or religion has. But it's very powerful to know that regardless of what or how you believe, other people care about you, and they will accept whatever you bring to the table.

So for me, God is about a spirit. I think there's such a thing as a spirit that doesn't come from God (or a god). It's the collective expression of people. Churches are simply there to filter it in a certain way. Meditation, Unitarian churches, guided hikes, lists of literary or scientific canon... there are many ways to get there. It just might take a little creativity.
posted by Madamina at 9:37 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me

Suppose you "turned things over to God" or "let go and let God" in the past and things worked out. You now grasp there is no God, or at least, no God that makes any difference (gods that are identified with the good that is, in a very real sense, within us all; or with the universe; or any other gods which don't cause you to anticipate the world being any different are gods which make no difference in this sense). But this didn't become true at the moment you realised it, it has always been true! God did not in fact guide you or keep you from harm in the past, and you survived anyway.
What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
- Eugene Gendlin
Can this feeling ever be replicated? What can I do to help guide myself through difficult times? I've tried to "act as if" there is a God (since I am in the camp that thinks we can never really know) but it seems empty and fraudulent.

When I was a child, I thought that my parents could make it all right and that nothing could truly harm me. It seems like your concept of God was a bit like that. Other people have suggested you can come to a kind of acceptance of the world as it is, a thread which seems common to the Buddhism and existentialism that people have been mentioning. In the real world, what hope there is must be tentative rather than sure, but I don't see why that means there must be no hope.

There are plenty of de-conversion stories on the web where people similar feelings to yours: depending on how much you'd invested in your beliefs, it can be very unsettling to lose them. Maybe reading some of those stories would help.

But, as Gendlin says, the world is as it as always been, and you survived it before. At the end of my de-conversion story, there's a longer quote along similar lines: there is no abyss.
posted by pw201 at 9:48 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe you've simply explored the wrong religion. From my perspective, most western religions were illogical and discouraged intellectual inquiry. I was an atheist for a good protion of my life and then read the Tao Te Ching while taking a "philosophy of religion" class. It was very surprising to me to find a religion that 1) does not claim to have all the answers, 2) does not proselytize, and 3) does not directly contradict science or common sense.

This is not to say that Taoism is necessarily for you - there are many belief systems out there, and it seems premature to write them all off based solely on your experience with one of them. Instead of trying to mesh your beliefs into a particular religion, you might have more luck finding a religion which meshes with your beliefs.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:50 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can this feeling ever be replicated?

Nope. Not entirely.

Giving up gods is like growing up and realizing your parents won't and can't always save you.

Or maybe being an agnostic is like moving out of your childhood home but always with the emergency option of moving back in if things go bad; you can't see yourself ever going back, but when times are tough your mother's spare room starts to look pretty inviting. Whereas being an atheist is like after your parents have died and the house has been sold and you have just a few pictures and a remembered phone number that you can't call anymore.

Or maybe that's not right either.

In any case, you're not on your own. You have other fallible people to count on. When enough of us gather, you can leap into the mass, levitate on our open palms, and surf the human sea. It just takes a little faith.
posted by pracowity at 9:59 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm an atheist. When I start getting worked up about things that happen to me, I start thinking about systems over which I have no control, but which nevertheless seem to run just fine of their own accord.

For example, sometimes it's cool to think about space. There are nebula out there that are creating stars, planets, and whole other worlds. All this happens on a scale that's so enormous it's difficult for our (ahem, my) tiny brains to conceptualize the distances and sizes involved. And it's happening all the time, has been happening for millions of years, and will continue to happen for millions of years into the future.

Also, more locally: nature. Put a seed in the ground, it rains, the sun shines, it grows into a new plant. From a seed! It somehow knew what to do! DNA!!!!!

I think the key difference between what some religious folk would say about those examples and what I would say lays bare the whole point of the mental exercise. I imagine religious folk to take those examples and say, "See, God is at work here." I take the examples and say, "See? My problems are pretty insignificant when compared with the vastness of all existence. Or: See? Life continues in one form or another even when I feel like my world is shutting down." For me these are both incredibly comforting thoughts.

I don't know if this helps you at all... it's just what I think about when I start feeling lost/overwhelmed/down. I wish you well!
posted by Temeraria at 10:28 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am in a similar situation. Grew up in a religious family (mom only, dad didn't practice). Now, I'm agnostic. To paraphrase an article that recently ran in the NYT, my only certainty is uncertainty.

Mindfulness helps. A good therapist really helps (I see a psychiatrist who is trained in psychotherapy as well). Getting into nature and just sitting and listening helps. Sometimes I sit in empty churches (and I didn't grow up in a church-based religion) not because of the religious aspect but because it is so quiet and often beautiful. And there is something about being in a space that is often filled with people who do believe, like I can let them do that part for me. Sometimes I go through the steps of praying and say the prayers from my early life when I was still a believer. I don't worry about it being empty or false; it's the ritual that is comforting, not the belief.

I also try to look at the bad patches (when I'm in them) and find where the good parts are hidden. And not in a counting my blessings or looking on the bright side way, but just reflecting and taking stock and remembering other bad times that I've gone through and pulled out of.

I sit quietly and I breathe. If you can make yourself very still, you can find comfort.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 12:12 PM on May 7, 2012


The thing with being an atheist is that you have shed one of the most ancient and pernicious delusions mankind is vulnerable to. You have. Be proud of that.

Clinging to the idea of a nurturing, caring deity is childish. It's primitive. It really is. It has become more and more inexcusable with every passing decade and with every passing discovery we make about our universe and ourselves. Intelligent theists will bend over backwards and run in ever-decreasing theological circles (and circular arguments) in order to try to fool themselves this is not so, but they are only fooling themselves. You have seen through that nonsense. Be proud of that.

The urge to believe in god is, at root, spiritual cowardice. It is driven by the need for human comfort and reassurance in the face of unimaginable immensity. It is in no sense a reasonable explanation for the reality we see through our pitiful little glass, darkly. Intelligent believers know this, deep down, but they lack the courage to face up to the implications and the existentialist vertigo that can accompany them. You have seen through this lack of courage, but you still feel it. That will pass.

When I first became an atheist - at the age of 14 - I felt very much like you. I was scared. I felt bleakness, emptiness, fear, sadness. I missed being able to pray and to actually feel like it might accomplish something. But then I thought. Deeply. I kept thinking. I realised that there was a sort of stoic grandeur in simply accepting reality for what it appeared to be. I realised that the ancient notions of eternal life, paradise and so on were just the most pathetic, pitiful sort of wishful thinking. I realised that any form of eternal existence in which our consciousness remained even approximately related to our temporal selves would necessarily be a living hell, no matter what form it took. And if it took a form so far removed from temporal consciousness that eternity became tolerable, then we would necessarily be so far removed from what we now are as to be unrecognisable.

There is a stock atheist response to the fear of death, of oblivion: were you afraid or in distress before you were born? Then why worry about returning to that state? This is easy to say, but less easy to actually feel, to grasp, to know. But if you think about it hard enough you will see that it is true, and that our temporary existence is a truly marvellous thing; a narrow band of light shining between infinitely wide black drapes. We get to look through that bright gap. We're lucky!

This feeling of "turning things over to god" is something that we should aspire to grow out of, because it is an abdication of responsibility and the embracing of intellectual cowardice. It is the desperate clutching of a moth-eaten old security blanket. It is a refusal to grow up and face reality as an adult, with courage. Religion is bad for many reasons, and this is one: it encourages this sort of craven, infantile thinking as a way of coping with the stresses and vicissitudes of life. Can it be replicated now you are an atheist? No. Is there something you can rely on and trust totally? No. But then there never was, was there? Could you rely on god totally? Did he never let you down? How about the millions who starve and suffer and die every day? Could they rely on god? How about the people in the Twin Towers on 9/11? Could they rely on god? Would he never let them down?

This is delusional thinking. Good Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Zoroastrians suffer and die just like the rest of us. Prayer is nothing but that dog-eared, useless security blanket. Why hanker after something so worthless? Throw it out with the trash and celebrate your independence. Be proud of it.

We are on our own,and we must make our own purpose and seek our own comfort and happiness. And we must deal with our inevitable failures to achieve these things like adults. And this is a good thing. You are moving out of an ancient, savage shadow. Be proud of that. Celebrate it. Celebrate this brief, autonomous life. Use it. Take pleasure in what it is, not in idle, impossible fantasy.

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

- Richard Dawkins

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.

- Bertrand Russell
posted by Decani at 1:52 PM on May 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Wow, thank you all so much for all of your thoughtful answers. I apologize for taking so long to get back on here to reply, but I've been out of town most of the week.

A few of my thoughts on your responses:

Maybe I'm reading too much into your question, but it seems like you're really asking something like "how does a person (who grew into atheism intellectually) respond to the black dog at the door, when she's been reflexively relying on God?"

This is exactly it. I kind of stopped believing in God in college, a little over ten years ago. Since then, for the most part, I've learned how to be self-reliant and try to live my life to be a good person and do good things here and now. Over that period, I've had several bouts with depression, which makes me feel weaker or more vulnerable, if that makes sense. I don't feel strong enough to rely upon myself and that's when I feel really lost. Meditation, mindfulness and some aspects of Buddhism have helped, but I've been kind of applying it, or practicing it in a disorganized manner. That probably doesn't matter, but the God thing became more of a knee jerk reaction, having been raised on it.

I love all the suggestions on here for reading/watching. I've read a lot of stuff kind of related to this topic - I've read Frankl, Aurelius, Kahlil Gibran and some Buddhism stuff, but I haven't looked at the Tao Te Ching, Buddhism Without Beliefs or Letting Go Of God. I will have a look at all of those.

I love this:

There is some kind of energy from whence the universe comes. Organized religion deems this force "God."
1) You don't need to understand what this force is. You don't need to label it.
2) You are not separate from the universe. It made you. You're a part of it.
3) This means, in turn, that you are not separate from God/the universe/whatever, even if you don't believe in A GOD. The external "God" you're used to turning to in times of trouble is actually yourself, and every person and creature you relate to.

The mental pretzel moment from your position is in working with the fact that when you practise this faith, you have to turn yourself over to nothing rather than something.

You expressed it yourself: the key moment is in the letting go. You trust that God will guide you: it's in that action of trusting that things happen and you feel something very like guidance and support.


The following is the mindset I have taken over the past ten years or so....not God, but kind of an energy in the universe:

He thinks of God not as a punitive father-figure that lives "out there" somewhere, and more of the life force of the universe that we live in, and who "lives" in us and in everything in the universe.

Decani said this:

Is there something you can rely on and trust totally? No. But then there never was, was there? Could you rely on god totally? Did he never let you down? How about the millions who starve and suffer and die every day? Could they rely on god? How about the people in the Twin Towers on 9/11? Could they rely on god? Would he never let them down?


Which leads (in my thinking) to the following theme, which several people have mentioned. If there never was a God, it was me then and it's me now; it's always been me:

- Now you don't think there is anybody at the wheel, and you look back and realize there never was a God's plan for you. So all those times you were turning it over to God, what you were really doing was just deciding to live in the now, come what may, and to move forward. You were letting go of the idea that you were in control. Guess what, you're not! That is to say there are plenty of things you're in control of and plenty you are not.

- You're like Dorothy with her ruby slippers--you've had that power inside yourself all along.

- It's part of you, it's still there, you can still draw on it for comfort, and you can call it whatever you want.

The following two comments, I think, sum up what is most important. I've known these things all along...I guess I just forget sometimes:

Draw strength and comfort and support from those who love you and and set aside that which you can't control.

Do not long for comfort from some external source. Provide comfort, peace and love to others. Be helpful and kind to strangers. Volunteer your time or money or expertise to make a difference, any difference.

Thank you so much for all of your thoughts and comments. They have helped me immeasurably - I've read over all of them several times already.

In any case, you're not on your own. You have other fallible people to count on. When enough of us gather, you can leap into the mass, levitate on our open palms, and surf the human sea. It just takes a little faith.


This is beautiful, thank you.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:18 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


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