Help this struggling atheist get over her desire to believe.
February 6, 2009 10:14 AM   Subscribe

After years of drifting along as a "spiritual but not religious" believer I am beginning to come to terms with the fact that I'm not actually a believer at all. I am an atheist with a lingering but unwanted desire to believe and it is making me miserable. Can you help me move past this?

I was raised in a nominally Christian home but left the church at thirteen. From that point on and up until a few years ago I believed and took comfort in the idea that there was something larger than myself--a greater power that I could turn to in prayer in times of need--but never belonged to any organized religious group. When asked I would refer to myself as "spiritual but not religious." While I didn't belong to any particular group I definitely believed and had faith. Faith that at one point I thought was unshakeable. While this was fulfilling in some respects, over the years, due to many events big and small, I have moved further and further away from belief. In the last two years or so I have slowly started to realize that in my heart of hearts I don't believe at all anymore. In some ways this is a relief and even a little exciting. But I am also feeling a deep sense of loss and hurt not only because I feel as if I have wasted a good deal of my time on something that wasn't true but also because I can't let go of the desire to believe. I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world. I feel like I'm giving up the last remaining connection I have to deeper mysteries and that loss hurts me even though I now realize that those mysteries which captivated me for so long are likely not real at all. I took great comfort in my faith and being stripped of it leaves me feeling vulnerable and lonely.

I basically feel like I am stuck between belief and non-belief and I can't move in either direction. If I discard it all and move on to a more materialistic view of the universe I am losing something that has been a big part of my life for a long time but I can no longer pretend that I believe when I don't.

I want to move past this desire to have faith. I don't wish to return to religion. I would be deluding myself if I did. I just want to know how to get rid of the leftover trappings of religious belief. I want to turn this around so that instead of leaving religion behind I am moving towards something better, clearer and more rational. I'm just not sure how to do that. I don't personally know very many atheists and the few that I do were never religious to begin with so I don't know how common these feelings are.

I am looking for advice or anecdotes from formerly religious atheists or agnostics who have found themselves in a similar situation. Did you feel a sense of loss when you "deconverted"? Did it pass? Has your life improved since you moved away from religion? How has it improved? Do you ever feel as if you are missing out on something (either spiritually or culturally) because you are not religious? Are there any books out there that deal with this issue? Am I always going to feel this confused?
posted by lysistrata to Religion & Philosophy (77 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
I think its very possible to be a Buddhist and an atheist at the same time. Some would disagree.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:29 AM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

I don't have much to add, having never had faith. But:

"I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world. I feel like I'm giving up the last remaining connection I have to deeper mysteries and that loss hurts me even though I now realize that those mysteries which captivated me for so long are likely not real at all."

I find the world even more mysterious and full of wonder because it was not designed. I recently went to the Seattle Aquariam (which is brilliant) and was constantly amazed. I couldn't help but feel that the huge variety of crazy cool fish would be so much less interesting if I thought they had been put together by some guy who got bored and started doodling with some crayons.

This may not be good advice, I don't know, but try going for a walk, and looking at nature, and how incredible it all is when it wasn't designed. Then think about how liberating it is to have a life for yourself, that isn't decided by some man with a plan.

I dunno, that's my best two cents.
posted by latentflip at 10:31 AM on February 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

I think its very possible to be a Buddhist and an atheist at the same time. Some would disagree.

Buddhists don't believe in deities, so yes, being Buddhist is technically being atheist.
posted by InsanePenguin at 10:32 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

But I am also feeling a deep sense of loss and hurt not only because I feel as if I have wasted a good deal of my time on something that wasn't true...

I was religious once. At least, I believed there was a Christian god and I was supposed to pray to him and I did. I am today sometimes embarrassed about ever believing such ridiculous things, way past the age when I should have stopped. But at the same time I don't regret that time at all, because as a side effect I do know a lot about the religious experience and my own onetime religion and its history... and that's not useless knowledge. Especially considering how much of our society is built on its history. I probably read and enjoy the Bible more now than when I was an actual Christian, and I don't mean in some shallow sarcastic way. It's a whole bunch of fascinating and important books that are like prisms into our world and society. I wouldn't wish to not know it or not have read it, right?

So while this only addresses part of your question, I think it's a good starting point: the time spent traveling from any A to B is not "wasted". It's necessary.

If you just start out at point B, you haven't really gone anywhere, learned anything, or lived.
posted by rokusan at 10:33 AM on February 6, 2009 [14 favorites]

First off, good on ya. I hope you can find what you need to stay with it.

This is just some off the top of my head kind of ideas:

- Is it necessary to believe in something supernatural to assuage your (very normal and human) need for faith? Can take faith in your fellow humans, your family and friends?

- If you are drawn to the compelling narrative and history of your former religious tradition but don't want all the baggage that comes with it the history of religion (from a secular point of view) makes for a very interesting subject of inquiry. I find that the more I learn about (for example) the people and times involved in the creation of Christianity the more I feel for them as real people but the less I want to believe in their creeds.
posted by Riemann at 10:34 AM on February 6, 2009

If you've never read any Joseph Campbell, please check him out. A good place to start is The Power of Myth - it's an interview he had with Bill Moyers and is very straightforward. Campbell was one of the people that helped me understand that spirituality doesn't require religion.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 10:35 AM on February 6, 2009

It sounds like you've consciously avoided the "G"-word in your post, and for good reason. Faith is not always best framed in those terms, and if you find yourself moving away from the ideas you learned earlier in your life, don't be upset or surprised.

If you want to self identify as an atheist then you should, but that does not preclude having faith of some kind. A desire for faith does not necessarily lead to religion as you understand (and reject) it.

Instead of focusing on what you don't believe in any more, focus on what you still do believe in -- things like love and human kindness are good places to start, and don't require a higher power to inspire.

I believed and took comfort in the idea that there was something larger than myself

There still is. It's called the universe. You're still here, and things are still wonderfully massive and awe-inspiringly incomprehensible.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:36 AM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]

It's hard to come to terms with the idea that when you die, nothing else happens, that there's no angel protecting you, that your life is subject to Nature and Randomness.

I miss the community of church, and I miss the singing. You can join a UU church. They're quite friendly to non-believers.

In the long run, I don't have a choice. I don't believe there's a God, and I'm not going to start believing, just so I can feel better. I can use my intellect to assess the available moral codes, and base my actions accordingly. And I can sing in the car.
posted by theora55 at 10:38 AM on February 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

I am also with latentflip re predestination and wonder.

In my own experience, wonder came from losing religion, in fact.

And I have noticed I am not alone, there. I know many believers who (seem to me to) simply give up and stop thinking about the amazing complexity and beauty and sheer crazy luck that's everywhere in nature. It's as if their whole contemplation comes down to a cursory "That's pretty. God made it, so it works. What else is there to say?"

On the other hand, I know many athiests/agnostics who are deeply in love with the living universe and the ridiculous improbable complexity of it all. In fact, just accepting the crazy improbability of everything we know and have is a source of great wonder right there.

So there is at least as much wonder out there in the universe, I think, whether it was created or just-happened. In some ways, just-happened is even more wondrous.
posted by rokusan at 10:39 AM on February 6, 2009 [13 favorites]

First off, welcome.

Second, don't feel like you've wasted so much time being (even nominally) a believer. It's a sunk cost, butyou need not be fettered by it. The new you starts now. A good traveler has no set plans and is not intent upon arriving anywhere.

Some of the most "Christlike" people I know are nonbelievers, and some of the biggest assholes I know are modern-day Pharisees.
posted by notsnot at 10:41 AM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Go take a walk in nature. I'm an atheist; the world is beautiful.
posted by kldickson at 10:41 AM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

I want to chime in to say what others above have said. I too have never believed in any god or religion. But I do admire those with true belief, and have been where you have been in desiring that feeling. But I have to remind myself to believe in what I have always believed in: Love and compassion, as cheesy as it sounds. What makes me get up in the morning is the love I feel for my family and friends and humanity as a whole. And that is what you leave after you die- the love that you have given that can be passed on. I have faith in that, and that makes me believe in something better. So believe in yourself and the love you can give.
posted by greta simone at 10:44 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was formerly a very religious Evangelical. Left the church at about 16. It's a loss, even if it's a loss of something you want or need to be rid of.

I feel my life improved a lot when I moved away from religious belief. Off the top of my head, these two come to mind: I no longer fear for the souls of the nonbelievers I care about and I feel more empowered to think about morality without feeling guilty that I don't agree with scripture. When I was religious, I was so worried about everyone's salvation and about how I could live with myself, knowing my non-believing friends were hellbound. I was also disturbed by the implications of some of my church's moral teachings (a woman whose husband beats her can't divorce him? really?) but felt like I couldn't disagree with supposedly Bible-based teachings.

All of the above is the result of my own imperfect relationship to Christianity and some of the imperfect teachings I received at church; being a Christian does not necessarily mean being judgmental or blindly, unthinkingly following someone else's interpretation of the Bible. For me, being an Evangelical Christian just didn't work: I didn't have enough faith in God to move into another, more liberal Protestant tradition--I needed the "certainty" my church taught in order to have any belief at all. It was dysfunctional and bad for my soul. Once I realized I couldn't go on as an Evangelical, I realized my belief in God was mostly gone. I miss feeling like God is with me all the time, and I miss having a church community, but overall I am content.

Sara Vowell has a comment towards the end of this interview on Fresh Air when Terry Gross asks her about her feelings after she left her family's Pentacostal tradition and if she feels like something is missing. She says, basically, that something is missing, and can never be replaced, and she will always feel that loss, but that leaving the religion was something she nevertheless does not regret and in fact had to do. That's more or less how I feel.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:45 AM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

You can retain your sense of wonder even as you lose your credulous superstitions.

Frankly, G-d isn't that wonderful. I mean, read your Bible: he's a vengeful and thoughtless old man who will kill His most loyal follower's whole family to settle a bet (Job), kills kids who tease bald guys, advocates killing gays, and commands genocide. And He's boring too: after one week of creation, he basically sits around and offers vague and conflicting oracles through other peoples' mouths.

Contrast that with the universe He didn't create: stars that in a dying burst give up more energy that our sun has produced since the universe began, the dance of unwinding DNA that allows a cell to produce a daughter cell, the billions of years of evolution that has produced so many wondrous and complex ways of turning sunlight into life by grabbing an electron here and some carbon there, the way that that ubiquitous carbon can be formed into hexagons and chains to make soft graphite or hard diamonds or human beings.

In every speck of dust, in every drop of water, in every cell and every species, there is a fascinating story, a great depth to be plumbed -- and get it all makes sense, it all fits together, it is simple and right and obvious and at the same time complex and baroque and rococo and almost unfathomable.

And sometimes it results in bits of carbon that, having painfully built up strategies over three billion years, can look out at this universe and look back into themselves, and see wonder with no need for ghosts or airy-fairy souls. You're one of those lucky bits of carbon that have, through the play and the suffering of a billion trillion ancestors -- your ancestors, human and primate and mammal and fish and slug and sea sponge --, that have won the toss of the dice and can wonder at all this teeming, pointless, procreating, profligate life.

Understanding -- derided as "reductionism" -- doesn't reduce the wonder, it makes it all the more wonderful, seemingly improbable, that a tapestry of chemicals can regard itself and its universe. "What a piece of work is man!" -- and woman, and all of it created not by some archetypal angry grandpa sky ghost, but by billions of years of trial and error and birth and death.

And you have, in terms of the life of the universe, an eye-blink, a may-fly's time, to do it. So get you head out of the cant and mummery of theism, and open your eyes to the wonder that is you and the universe you are a part of is. That's more than enough to believe in and wonder at. Look to the skies and wonder -- and then do your best to understand.
posted by orthogonality at 10:49 AM on February 6, 2009 [68 favorites]

Read, "The Will to Believe" by William James.
posted by availablelight at 10:52 AM on February 6, 2009

I was raised in a religious household and my father is a second career pastor. I tend not to bring up my personal faith, but I am a nonbeliever. Unlike your though a higher power has never resonated with me. I've never believed. No idea why not. I had near perfect attendance at church until I got to college.

Don't look at the time spent believing as wasted. There is a lot to admire with religion, and I tend to respect this. There's community, art, drama, ritual, stories, and lessons worth learning. Jesus was actually a pretty cool guy.

If it makes you feel any better you still have faith. Now you believe there is no higher power. Since it's impossible to prove either way.

I had a similar journey to yours though. It didn't occur to me that I could be fine without religion, so I sought out something that did resonate. I went to shaker and quaker meetings, temple, buddhist meetings, Christian Science, whatever the Muslims call their "church," and many I name it, I tried it. Ironically, the military made this real easy. They make accommodations for people's beliefs, and would bus you to whatever faith you professed (on base or off), so I went along with anyone that had a religion other than what I knew. Surprisingly, I did manage to avoid Scientology entirely.

My best friend attended Catholic school, so I was even an altar boy once or twice even though I was raised Lutheran.

At some point, like you I gave up.

So while I never "lost my faith" I can understand what you're going through. The hardest part of this for me wasn't the absence of a god in my life, but rather relating to people/family that do, and finding a girlfriend that I was compatible with. I was dumped once because I wouldn't consider converting to Vatican 1 Catholicism (masses still told in Latin, etc.). But this is part of growing up. I've learned how to not take offense, how to be polite around the religious, etc.

I used to believe I was agnostic, but then I got converted. Hah! I consider myself a full blown atheist. Or more accurately, like House MD, I consider myself an atheist on "Easter and Christmas, the rest of the year it doesn't matter."

As to coming to terms with it, well, it's a loss. You mourn it and move on. Just like if you lost a loved one or a job. or you wallow in the loss and become unhealthy. I'd suggest moving on. To do this you will need to find things to replace what you valued in your religion. Find another community. Find other rituals, whatever you're missing.

I think there are a lot more non-believers out there than get credited. I think a lot of people profess to a faith they lack. I know I did for a long time, and it was nice to no longer have to live a lie. So know you're not alone in this.

It's not a self help book, but rather science fiction, but my favorite portrayal of an atheist was in the book "Shards of Honor," by Bujold. I don't remember hardly anything from that book, but still pick it up time to time to read a passage where a man is talking to a priest. The man is dying, and says something about taking comfort from his atheism, and refers to it as a "simple faith" that has brought comfort to him.

And I am drawing a total blank, but there was a book out in the last two years that I am sure will get referenced here. It's a case against religion, has a silver cover, and I know the author gets mentioned a lot on the blue. Anyway, I read much of that a while back, and it helped me articulate to myself why I don't believe. I thought it was a bit meaner than it needed to be, but I still liked it. Anyone?

When I was in high school, and my father was attending seminary, he was given the assignment of writing a statement of belief. I found great irony in that he was asked to do a rewrite (he passed on his second try). Anyway, I decided to write a statement of non-belief, and articulate why I didn't believe. It's harder than you would think. It's an emotional and intellectual exercise, but will also help you come to terms with what you believe now. I'd give it a go.

Hope you figure things out.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:53 AM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Buddhists don't believe in deities, so yes, being Buddhist is technically being atheist.

correct, although I would change that to "creator deity," as some Buddhists do believe in "lesser" deities. but you certainly don't have to believe in any at all (cf zen).
posted by desjardins at 10:55 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world.

This is not necessary at all.

I'm agnostic. I've said this on here before, but I derive a strong sense of wonder from the world (particularly the natural world) through this thought process: it was highly statistically unlikely that the Earth was going to come into being, and that humanity would evolve to exist. It was even more statistically unlikely, given all the variables, that your parents would have met, and had sex at just the right time for you to exist. You could have been someone else. You could have been no one. Being you, you could have died young, or faced incredibly hardships that would have precluded your sitting around and ruminating over existential matters.

But you're here, despite the overwhelming odds against your being here. If your life is anything like mine, then you probably view your existence as, overall, a Good Thing. Whenever I'm happy--outside, in the sun, seeing how beautiful the world is around me, with people I care about, making love or being loved--I can't help but think, "Damn, existence is amazing. I'm so glad I'm here." This isn't about God, or gods, or a higher power. It's about statistics, and how unlikely it was that I would have been able to experience anything at all, much less something good. This is logical, but it's still both joyful and humbling.

I just want to know how to get rid of the leftover trappings of religious belief.

If you're trying to be rational, go a little easier on yourself. Humans are cultural creatures, and animals of habit. You've been raised to think certain ways, and likely reflexively participate in rituals in which you don't believe. Maybe those rituals, or even the vestigial though processes left over, even feel good. That's okay. I was raised interreligiously--I still celebrate Christmas with a tree and presents, even though I don't believe in Jesus; I still light the Friday night Shabbos candles with my mother, even though I don't logically think some God commanded us to rest. These acts are part of my personal history and upbringing, as well as part of the larger cultural context that I exist in. Whenever you start to beat yourself up over that, remind yourself that you're an animal, and one that's been conditioned and raised to act and think in certain ways, and that it's okay. It doesn't make you a failure as an atheist or anything. I mean, that's one of the good things about atheism, isn't it? It's much harder to fail at non-belief than it is to fail at any one narrow definition of religious belief.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:00 AM on February 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

When I was a child, I loved church. The Methodist church was the focal point of my
social life, and UMYF was the high point of my week. I thought the Men's group
was filled with the greatest guys one could ever be associated with, and I loved to
spend weekends fixing things up in the church building, doing repairs, selling
donuts after the service and singing in the choir. I even thought for a while of
going into the ministry. But through it all, I knew for sure and was completely
comfortable with the fact that I didn't believe a word of the superstition part of

I now go to a UU church in the Boston area. It fulfills a lot of what I wanted from
a community, and the people are really interesting and talented. For example,
the guy who used to teach my son's sunday school is a choreographer for
the Cantata Singers, used to dance the lead in Black Nativity, and is the head of
the Pediatrics Department at Children's Hospital. It's hard to imagine more
multi-talented people around. The ministers, who are both very spiritual and
kind of mystics, are very tolerant of my inability to understand them, and I try
to be understanding of their beliefs, though it hasn't seemed to have sunk in
to my brain yet. It all seems to work out.

Try the Unitarians.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 11:02 AM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

Maybe this will help. Julia Sweeney (of SNL fame) talks about Letting Go of God. See expert free at TED conference, or try to catch the This American Life cast.
posted by slyrabbit at 11:05 AM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was never religious, but I was required to go to church every Sunday and to Catholic class once a week until I was 18. Remember that, no matter what people try to tell you, being non-religious does not make you a bad person, less moral etc. I would argue that most of the atheists I know are more kind, moral and all around "good" than most of the religious people I know.

I do like tradition, ceremony and all of that though. I have gone to a Hindu satsang at a yoga center and been able to fully appreciate it for the signing and ceremony without being Hindu. I think you can find a lot of places like that where you could go every once in a while when you feel a need to connect. Most places are very welcoming and it fills a sense of... something... for me while I also providing me an insight into other cultures.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:06 AM on February 6, 2009

Could this be about somethng beyond religion? Organized faith conveniently gives it's adherents a purpose: to worship for the expressed end of an afterlife. Without that, purpose - yes, purpose, in every Avenue Q, hokey way - is less easily realized. But when you create one, or discover one, it'll be that much more authentic.

I realize that's little consolation, but in truth, we don't find a reason to live except by actually living-that is, being an actual person, acting in accordance to certain principles of virtue and decency.

Letting go of the belief in a god doesn't mean letting go of hope- in the world, or your potential as a person.
posted by trotter at 11:10 AM on February 6, 2009

Like you, I have moved across the spectrum of faith. From my Southern Baptist roots, to Paganism in college, to a form of "mehAgnostic", and finally to fully Atheist. Throughout that time I never felt I lost my will to believe, in fact as I've gotten further from faith, my ability to believe has gotten stronger. Now, though instead of believing in god or gods, I believe in myself and those around me. I believe that what I am, and who I am are not some form of destiny, but totally my choice. I do what I feel is right, based on some inner spectrum of right and wrong and not because something or someone outside myself tells me it's right.

Really, once you get past that feeling of loss, it's actually quite freeing. All that matters in this world is what we do, here and now. What comes later is of no concern and therefore everything is far, far more important and beautiful. People are kind because they can be, not because God made them be that way. Good things and bad things happen, and all that matters is our response. I'll admit, I miss that feeling of specialness that came from believing in a god or gods that loved me, but as time has gone by, I've realized that the special feeling was just me. I'm not special, I'm just like everyone else, and that makes all that I do matter more.
posted by teleri025 at 11:11 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Examine more closely your desire to have faith. Probe around in it, until you find
out why you desire to have faith. Is it for the approval of your family?
Is it for the promise of punishment for the wicked and rewards for the faithful? Is it for
the reassurance of a higher purpose for the universe? Is it for relief from oblivion?
Is it for the reduction of uncertainty? None of the above?

Or you can look at Christianity from a different viewpoint. What aspects of the practice
of Christianity have you adopted, and which do you reject? Which aspects are the
result of 1950 years of bureaucracy and power-hunger, and which aspects of it are
inspired by a worthwhile philosophy? How will these aspects inform your future

I'm an increasingly skeptical agnostic, raised Catholic. I left intentionally at the end of
my Confirmation training, by deliberate choice. The zeal of both theists and atheists
bothers and baffles me.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:14 AM on February 6, 2009

Like you I was very religious and later on in life found that I wasnt happy with the teachings or somehow they didnt make sense to me. I was so confused with my feelings in regards to religion and the way I should act and behave in the world that I enrolled in a philosophy program especifically to tackle this issue. I am not religious anymore nor I attend any churches but these are the arguments I came up that make me take this stand:

1) The only reason for there to be a God is for there to be a solid explanation for human beings, Earth and the Universe as a whole to be here. It is incredibly disconcerting to believe that we just came out of nothing and somehow became "logical" and "sentient" beings. While it is also possible that we came from really nothing as scientists explain, there is a possibility that there is a Deity that created us all (but as to who created him/her is another issue).

2) In the case that there is a God or higher being, it is clear that this higher being does not interfere with human affairs because otherwise there would not have been extinct dinosaurs, slaves, wars, babies that die minutes after being born, etc. If God does interfere (and helps one person as opposed to helping another, regardless of a higher plan) then God in the way religious people think about him is not worthy of being praised much less live a life after his rules. So to sum it up if he is a fair God he doesnt interfere with our affairs and we are free to do whatever we want, if he is unfair then I dont care much for him and I am free to do whatever I want regardless of the outcome (because it would be unfair regardless)

3) Finally since a God who probably does not interfere put may have put us here, and then gave us no instructions on how to live our lifes, it is in the best interest of each and every human being to pursue their happiness in anyway they see fit. Some may have to go to church and some like you and I can just be "good" people that do whatever we have to do to make us happy. Any God who creates lower beings in order to have him "praise" him 24/7 is too egocentric and once again not someone I would care much for.

So to sum it up, I dont allow myself to think whether there is a God or not because things would be pretty much the way they are now. I just concentrate in the pursuit of happiness while not being harmful to other humans.

Finally I have to say yes, I feel much better as a human being and a person once I stopped being religious.
posted by The1andonly at 11:16 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) recorded a great "This I Believe" segment on moving beyond atheism to belief in the wonder of everyday experiences like love and jell-o. Sounds like this may be the focus you might be looking for. Using your faculties for "belief" to reconnect with the world around you.
posted by rosebengal at 11:17 AM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

It's hard to come to terms with the idea that when you die, nothing else happens.

This has to be the hardest thing. This is the reason, I imagine, for the sayings about no atheists in foxholes, and a man in a crisis, and so on.

At that level, I think that need for something to believe, that god-shaped hole in our consciousness, is really biological. It's the survival instinct extended to our psychological idea of self. When it comes right down to it, our bodies want to live, and if we can't live anymore, we will even force ourselves to believe that we're not really dying, we won't really die, there will be something else.... and so on.

We call it faith, I know, but I think of it more like a sort of coping mechanism, a psychological circuit breaker, wired into us animals. When there's nothing left, it gives us "God" and "Heaven" as a last-ditch desperate attempt to cling to, so we don't have to think about or accept or try to deal with with being... well, with not being. Nobody can even imagine themselves as a dead body. Instead, we instinctively imagine ourselves as some sort of floating ghost-spirit-thing... the "real us"... looking at our body.

Just two more cents.
posted by rokusan at 11:18 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

lysistrata: Are there any books out there that deal with this issue?

James Joyce, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, pages 281 through 292, starting with "They turned to the left and walked on as before." You describe an ancient problem; this is probably the best I've found on it.
posted by koeselitz at 11:20 AM on February 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'm not an atheist, but I'm pretty much as far as a person can get from being a Christian. I still have moments and spells though, when I recall the faith I felt during my teenage years when I was in the fold, and they are very confusing.

I attribute those moments to a longing to exist in a world with clear boundaries, a dichotomy of good and evil that whittles the world down to a manageable size. Living on the threshold of mystery and uncertainty is very challenging, crushing at times. But it also means that I am solely responsible for keeping the meaning from draining out of my world, for constantly renewing my purpose and justifying my own presence in the universe. At times this becomes effortless, and I begin to realize that "grace" as religious people describe it isn't dependent on faith -- it unfolds in us naturally, as long as we provide room for it.

Once you occupy it, the unknown can no longer be truly 100% unknown anymore, which brings small, nourishing reassurances. However, being able to accept that it will never be 100% known either is an obstacle that not everyone can overcome. Carving out your own relationship with these obscure principles is hard work, but as far as I can tell, every mere iota of effort a person puts into that labor allows their heart to rest a little easier and helps them find peace in this world. And that, I think, is all that matters.
posted by hermitosis at 11:20 AM on February 6, 2009 [6 favorites]

I think it's important to consider the possibility that many atheists -- particularly in the modern-day resurgence of politicized atheism -- are still fundamentally trapped in the conceptual framework of religion, and that going from being religious to believing in "atheism plus a sense of wonder" isn't necessarily the most fruitful path to take. That's how it seems to me.

Read some non-dualist philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita, even pop-New Age, eg. Eckhart Tolle) and you may arrive at a sense that the theism-atheism wars profoundly miss the point. I can't express this well (and in my defense, I think it's probably kind of inexpressible by definition). But there is something awfully similar about believing in a God, on one hand, and investing your energies in going around insisting on the falsity of a belief in God, on the other hand. The wonder, surely, has to do with whatever "it" is in which all this beliefs arise.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:21 AM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

Did you feel a sense of loss when you "deconverted"?

For me it was just like when I figured out there was no Santa Clause. For a while I felt smart, like I knew some big secret. As a kid I told anyone who would listen the truth about “Santa” and I did the same thing as an adult for a while when it came to religion and got pretty much the same reaction.

Has your life improved since you moved away from religion?

It hasn’t changed one way or another, really, other than I get to sleep in on Sunday. Conversations with religious folks are different, of course. One thing you have to do is accept “I don’t know” as an answer you can live with. I don’t know what happens when I die. I don’t know how the universe was created. I don’t know how life was created. Here’s a secret though: a lot of people who have faith also don’t know the answers. A lot of them don’t actually believe their own religion. Ask a bunch of Catholics if they reallly believe that cracker and grape juice are turning into the body and blood of Christ before their very eyes.

Do you ever feel as if you are missing out on something (either spiritually or culturally) because you are not religious?

I sometimes think it would be nice to have the unshakable faith of my mom. She knows what’s going to happen when she dies and she’s looking forward to eternal salvation. While I might also know (worm food), I have a hard time grasping that whole non-existence thing. Reminding myself of my non-existence a mere 40 years ago doesn’t seem to help. I’m not scared of it or anything, I just have a hard time grasping it.

Am I always going to feel this confused?

Probably. I think it’s just part of being alive, no matter what you believe or don’t believe. With the exception of folks like my mom who know they’ve picked the right religion, a lot of folks out there are confused about it all. I predict it’ll be this way for a long, long time, if not forever. We’re never going to have all the answers and every answer we do have just leads to more questions.

Hopefully one day you’ll accept your choice. I see no need to believe in any religion. I see no evidence, none of it makes any sense at all to me. I’m happy with the choice I made. I sometimes amuse myself thinking “what If I’m wrong?” but then I remember that the pope could also be wrong about his choice and I laugh when I think of the pope down in the scientology version of hell going “OMG! WTF?”

Be prepared for some folks to pity you. They’ll pray for you. Just smile and nod. I think all us atheists who had a religious upbringing go through a bitter phase where we feel like the world owes us for lying to us. Then we become arrogant and openly wonder how anyone could be so stupid as to believe in any of that. My feeling on that now is that it’s hardwired into a lot of people’s brains and if it works for them, so be it. Good for them. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Try to respect everyone’s choice. Set an example for the religious folks and be tolerant. Don’t become one of those atheists who screams every time someone blesses them when they sneeze.

Some folks will try to argue that being an atheist is still believing in something so because you’re an atheist you have faith and that’s a form of religion. No amount of arguing or examples of invisible blue doggies or flying spaghetti monsters will convince them. Just say “whatever” and move on.

I want to turn this around so that instead of leaving religion behind I am moving towards something better

Start accepting that the world is what you see and nobody deserves to be discriminated against or killed because of their faith or lack of it. Be a good person because you should be a good person, not just because you’re afraid of going to hell. Start exploring the wonders of the universe knowing it wasn’t built by some intelligent designer but it just happened on its own. Think of the craziness of that.

For me the universe became a lot more interesting once I realized it isn’t some part of some huge plan. I don’t have to wonder why I was “put” on this Earth. I just was. Randomness and time. It still makes me wonder, just in a different way. It’s awesome. It’s bigger than Jesus.
posted by bondcliff at 11:24 AM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

And I am drawing a total blank, but there was a book out in the last two years that I am sure will get referenced here. It's a case against religion, has a silver cover, and I know the author gets mentioned a lot on the blue. Anyway, I read much of that a while back, and it helped me articulate to myself why I don't believe. I thought it was a bit meaner than it needed to be, but I still liked it. Anyone?

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:27 AM on February 6, 2009

Oddly enough, this silly comic says it all much better than I can. That sense of desire for belief -- at least for me over these last couple years -- has not gone away. But I do try to harness it and use it to think deeply about the world and my place in it.

The world felt much simpler to me afterwards, without having to live this whole metaphysical existence superimposed on my day to day life. But it's also been much, much more challenging trying to determine a good set of axioms to base my morality on, wrestling with questions of free will, and so on.

>I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world. I feel like I'm giving up the last remaining connection I have to deeper mysteries

I don't understand this part. My wonder at the world has not changed at all, and the mysteries to me are much deeper (and perhaps untractable...). I mean, you can't ponder the mystery of how a "higher power" interacts with the world anymore, but you can definitely wonder where it all came from, for instance.
posted by losvedir at 11:28 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Philosophical (as opposed to religious) Buddhism is worth checking out.

Siddhartha Gautama was an exceptionally insightful man, and was in fact quite notable for his lack of delusions of grandeur. One of the most important parts of Buddhism for me is that the original teachings were never considered to be infallible -- in fact, a recurring message was "I've thought this through and this is what I worked out, YMMV."

You might want to give a looksee to The Four Noble Truths and the The Eightfold Path.

I've never found it necessary to look beyond those actually. I fully expect to spend the rest of my life grappling with them in one way or another.
posted by tkolar at 11:30 AM on February 6, 2009

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins is a book you'd probably appreciate now. It's not a polemic like The God Delusion, it's more...well, read the reviews at the link.
posted by K.P. at 11:35 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

One note from my own experience: people always forget that in Nietzsche's context, the madman who declares that "God is dead" is laughed at by atheists and the religious alike. You need to know that if you've seen the grand design of the church evaporate, you won't find a grand design elsewhere that won't do the same unless you look closely at what's around you, take carefully what you can from it, and build it yourself.
posted by koeselitz at 11:37 AM on February 6, 2009

Yeah, I'm with latentflip etc. on this, the world is a million times more full of wonder, and infinitely more mysterious *because* there is no daddy figure in in charge telling you what the rules are and what's of value. That doesn't mean there is no order, or that somehow everything is meaningless, but it does put you in the role of being responsible for your own life. It's funny, I almost feel sorry for believers (at least those who are more devout and fundamentalist) because I think they're the one who have the two dimensional boring answers and miss out on a deeper richer wonder of the miracle of life on our planet.

Check out Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" the whole thing, (the TED talk video is too short, ending at step you need). See The God Who Wasn't There. Go to a Planetarium show. Watch Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief and the BBC Planet Earth series. Go to Joshua Tree and drop acid, or go to a jungle and watch the monkeys. And if you find yourself depressed, spend less time with the grim, earnest type atheists (Dawkins, I'm looking at you!), and more time with the happy funny ones.

I think you have a huge adventure ahead of you.
posted by tula at 11:42 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world.

Not at all. I am an atheist who grew up as an active and believing Jew. More than anything I miss the community as a specific culture in which I grew up but as for missing out on the wonder of the every day, I recommend some of Neil Degrasse Tyson who can put a beautiful word to nature and the shocking beauty of science.

I enjoyed the God Delusion but it is a little on the brutal side.

Also, there is great hope and joy in being a non-believer. I do not put the care of myself or my world into anyone else's hands and this gives me a great deal of comfort, especially when we as humans do something great.

I hope you find joy in figuring things out.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:43 AM on February 6, 2009

I was raised Catholic and started losing my faith in high school. It was pretty painful and sometimes I still want to believe that there is something bigger or something else, something after I die. It would be nice to take such comfort in that. Maybe I'll find faith again; I'm kind of dating a wonderful woman who would love it if I did. But while I try to be open minded I think I just might not have it in me to believe.

So I consider myself an atheist now, even though that in and of itself can be such a loaded term. I find the "God can't exist" segment of atheism just as much of a leap of faith as "God must exist."

What has helped me in a way was realizing that the term atheist is significantly incomplete. So I like the term post-religious. No longer believing in God doesn't somehow magically make that earlier part of my life disappear. It's not going to do so for you, either.

It's also helped realizing that just because God might not exist in any larger sense doesn't mean He (or She!) isn't real for those who do have faith. The human mind is both very good at anthropomorphizing just about anything and at creating strong relationships with things that don't exist in that larger sense. Think of the attachment a person might feel for their car or computer or guitar. Think of the relationships you have with the characters in your favorite book. It's not really a stretch, even for us unbelievers, to accept that people can have have a fully real and completely internalized relationship with God, a God that cares for them and is personally interested in their welfare, and that solely exists in their minds.

And one final note before I stop so as to avoid writing an essay: These are things a lot of people struggle with their whole lives. I'm beginning to think I might be one of them.
posted by 6550 at 11:45 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've never been religious, but I have the same desire for the numinous in my life. If I weren't an atheist, I'd probably be a priest.

The lucky thing is, there are mysterious and fundamental things about our reality that are at the very edge of our ability to comprehend. It's part of what drives my interest in things like philosophy of mind and logic--they're efforts to understand some of the very most basic, least understood parts of existence that sit at the edge of our ability to conceive. The hard problem presents the toughest paradox in all of human experience, in my opinion. Objectively, it seems that the actual mysteries of our universe are much chewier, even more worthy of awe, than the ones provided by religions. Whether they're subjectively quite as satisfying varies from person to person, and of course they require more studying, but I highly recommend it.

But beyond a desire to learn about the "deep structure" of reality, another important thing people look for in religion is a sense of oneness with the universe, of overwhelming joy, internal silence, etc.--any number of related states of mind, in intense peaks or pervading our lives at a lower level, that we find highly significant and enriching. Eastern religions have done an incredible job of developing techniques that are good at inducing these states. Meditation has the wonderful advantage that, unlike prayer, you can practice it without holding the underlying beliefs of the traditions that invented it--and what's more, it's so much more effective than prayer. I love this article by Sam Harris (both a militant atheist and an extremely committed "spiritual" seeker in this sense of the term), which explores this idea. The last chapter of his incredible book The End of Faith presents the same sort of ideas at greater length. So, assuming this is also an aspect you feel you're losing, I couldn't recommend more for you to pick up some kind of meditation regime. Actually, as a fond (if lapsing) practitioner, I'll recommend it either way.

Another thing people look for from spirituality, just to complete what I think are the three major things that are lumped together under that term, is a sense of fundamental meaning in the world--not a meaning we assign, but a meaning that is inherent in the world that we can just experience, be it ethical or aesthetic or whatever. On this one matter, there is no good answer. You have to bite the bullet and accept that value is something we create for ourselves, and gradually become accustomed to that. Of course, libraries full of material on emotionally overcoming this challenge has been written by people who smoke a lot and wear berets, but in the end it seems to come down to "grin and bear it." One small consolation is that even spiritual people have this same problem, thanks to the Euthyphro dilemma.

Hope some of that was useful to you, and good luck. With commitment, it's possible to build a "spiritual" life that's more enriching than any religious one.
posted by abcde at 11:50 AM on February 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

I didn't become an atheist until I was into my first pastorate. In retrospect, there were plenty of signs that I was headed that direction, but a few months after accepting a position preaching for a small church in Houston, Texas, a lot of what had been happening under the surface in my thinking began rising to the top. I began thinking of myself as a "freelance monotheist," borrowing a phrase from Karen Armstrong, and then as an agnostic, and then atheist. Being an atheist preacher with a sense of integrity is a difficult thing. I wanted to just resign, but a sudden departure would have been overly hurtful for that little church. So I made a plan to transition out after a year. In the meantime, I did my best to say only things that I believed were factually true (Well, according to Matthew 25, Jesus said "x"), knowing that the congregation would make more of that than I did. That probably wasn't a good option, but I still think it was the best one, all things considered.

Your post really resonates with me, because I spent a lot of time wishing that I could be ignorant enough to believe again. It had brought me such joy and purpose. I was really kind of annoyed that I had read myself out of faith. Most of all, I wanted to be content again--either as a committed atheist or as a believer. Too much of my heart was in faith, too much of my brain was in atheism. Being a unified person seemed out of grasp. I considered creating some sort of "unbaptism" ceremony to mark a definitive departure, but I couldn't come up with one that seemed satisfying. (Jump out of a pool and dry off as quickly as possible, while repeatedly yelling "I renounce Jesus!"?)

The rest is a long, long story. The short version is that I eventually realized that what I was moving away from wasn't Christianity per se, but a particularly benighted form of it that I realized was untenable. I started learning about other approaches to the faith, and I started reading books from people with a more thoughtful and gracious stance than I had encountered before. I wound up moving from being a Billy Graham kind of Christian to an Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard kind of Christian with atheism as a necessary stop in-between. Theologically, if I had to label myself, I'd say I'm post-liberal, but only other theology geeks know what that means. I don't believe that the Bible is inerrant or historically accurate, but I do believe in a God that defined himself in Jesus. And even if I'm wrong about that, I decided the best choice for me was to define myself within a Christian tradition and struggle with it from the inside. If there isn't a God, that doesn't change the fact that a lot of poor people have been fed, a lot of sick people have been encouraged, and a lot of lonely people have found companionship because of what I'm doing.

But I think there is a God, and it's a shame that popular Christianity in America took such a wrong turn that it drives away anyone with a modicum of thoughtfulness.

It's maybe not what would help you, but people like the aforementioned Lamott and Dillard helped me get a vision for a kind of Christianity that made sense to me. Smart Christian writers like N.T. Wright were useful, too. And I guess it was Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds that first showed me how to believe with integrity again.

I wish you peace and contentment. I spent a long time in a sort of twilight realm, and it's much more fulfilling being firmly in one place or another.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:50 AM on February 6, 2009 [45 favorites]

I just want to thank everyone for all the thought-provoking and warm responses I've received so far. I've been given a lot to think about.

To clarify some things: Christianity isn't the religion I have turned away from. I haven't been Christian since I left the Baptist church when I was a kid. I was more a panentheistic sort of pagan for most of my life. I tended to view the natural world as sacred and as manifestation of the divine and within and around it a connected web of experience that comforted me. I did conceive of and relate to deity but not in as concrete and well-defined a manner as most monotheists do.

I think it is giving up that sense of sacred connection (and, I'll admit, the idea of there being nothing beyond death) that scared me but I am beginning to see that I can still feel connected without having to believe that the connection is supernatural. I also feel a strange sort of jealousy for those who DO believe or have had religious epiphanies/experiences that strenghten their faith. Jealousy and a little bit of anger--why didn't I experience these things when I prayed so long and so hard for answers? These are some of the things that began to turn me away from believing.

I'm still digesting everything you have written and I'll probably be marking some best answers that speak most specifically to my situation but I want you all to know that every answer in this thread so far is, honestly, a best answer.

Too much of my heart was in faith, too much of my brain was in atheism. Being a unified person seemed out of grasp.

Pater Aletheias, you summed up what I'm feeling perfectly. That is exactly where I am right now.
posted by lysistrata at 11:57 AM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I always felt there was something "funny" about what I was being taught. I went through a period around ages 11 when I felt very pained about my conflicted feelings. Much as you are right now. Except, being a child, I thought there might be something wrong with me. I used to pray about it. I used to get anxiety stomach pains when I had to attend my weekly religion classes. I suppose it was also a fear of disappointing my family by not being like them.

Then eventually I just sort of realized that was the source of my confusion. There wasn't anything wrong with me; I could live and enjoy the world and reject this funny business I'd been taught. It takes a lot of strength to reject the crutch of religion. It feels strange at first because it's scary and you may have "what if" questions. But you have to follow your heart.

I feel like I'm giving up the last remaining connection I have to deeper mysteries

Not at all. What's more mysterious than the chaos that resulted in what's all around us?

If I discard it all and move on to a more materialistic view of the universe

Materialistic? Not at all. Not everything has an explanation. There's intense mystery in life. In human interaction. In emotion. In the beautiful world.

Being an atheist doesn't mean you have to reject spirituality. I find it in a very organic way. When I was in college, I read the Tao Te Ching and realized that the basic beliefs in Taoism were in line with how I live my life. (I don't call myself a Taoist or anything though)

Basically, just moving on and listening to myself was the step I needed. Otherwise, I would've been feeling anxious and guilty. You may be coming into this later in the game than I did, but the initial feeling is similar. And it's probable that the relief will be too.

At this point in my life, I don't ever really think about religion. I don't miss it. It never really crosses my mind unless it's in an intellectual capacity (for writing or in conversation).
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:57 AM on February 6, 2009

latentflip has it. Darwin's finches are a wonder because they're not designed that way.
I was 19 when I went through this. I think most nonbelievers deal with it at some point; it's a consequence of living in a largely religious society.
When it was happening to me, I happened upon an old Bloom County cartoon (which I have since been unable to find) that helped a lot. I'm generally not in favor of describing comic strips, especially ones from long-ago memory, but here goes: Opus (actually, I couldn't swear it was Opus, but I digress) is sitting around doing nothing, with a doofy grin on his face. Someone asks why and he responds by quoting some philosopher (possibly, even probably fictional). The quotation is something to the effect that, given the infinitesimal odds of our galaxy existing, the even smaller odds of our solar system existing, the even tinier odds of our planet existing, the even more ridiculous odds of life as we know it springing into being, the even more minuscule odds of our species existing as such and even developing the reasoning capacity to think about the odds of this nonsense, not to mention the odds against each person's specific existence (would you be you if you had been conceived on another day, etc.), it is all but unbelievable that any of us can do anything at all besides sitting around and grinning like an idiot.
Mostly, though, it comes one little realization at a time. Don't let it get you down. It's hard to explain the beauty to someone who can only think of not believing in god as a hole in their life. To me, it's what makes wonder possible.
posted by willpie at 12:00 PM on February 6, 2009

You've accepted that you're an Atheist. The sadness and disappointment you feel will now lessen over time. It's like growing up again, in a sense.

I used to desperately want to believe in magic when I was a kid and wanted nothing more than for Gandalf to knock on my door and take me off on a magical journey. The world felt dull and colourless and without mystery when I moved on, but eventually I grew out of that. The same thing happened with religion when I was young.

I eventually found a renewed sense of wonder with an interest in nature and travel. We have our own far away lands and strange beasts, and there are still many things about the universe and our world that scientists don't know.
posted by Relic at 12:03 PM on February 6, 2009

But I am also feeling a deep sense of loss and hurt not only because I feel as if I have wasted a good deal of my time on something that wasn't true...

I wasted a good deal of the '80s wearing bad clothes and having bad hair; all you can do is let that time go and live for today and tomorrow.

One thing I find different between me and many religious people I know is that I waste a lot less time. Not believing in an afterlife, I have no choice but to accept that every second I live on earth is another second that's gone forever. The End Of Everything comes closer every day.

So I try to live a full life. I don't put off that vacation, or learning to scuba dive, or experiencing the Grand Canyon, or volunteering at the local animal shelter. I also don't get into arguments with friends and family, or get mad at the guy who cuts me off in traffic, or drink so much that I forget what happened -- that would all be a waste.

Once you believe that this life is your only opportunity -- and it isn't followed by forgiveness or paradise or anything else -- you really appreciate the wonder of everything around you, and the beautiful insignificance of yourself.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:04 PM on February 6, 2009 [8 favorites]

You need to read some Carl Sagan. His books are full of joyful wonder at how incredible the universe is. My recommendation would be to read The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

Trust me, belief in a deity isn't needed to feel a profound sense of awe and wonder.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:05 PM on February 6, 2009

I was in your shoes once. I was a devout christian. Not just a run of the mill christian, but a true believer. Someone with an unshakable faith that there was a benevolent God, and I was lucky enough to have a special relationship with him.

It was....wonderful. The phrase of true believer has acquired bad connotation nowadays, but it truly was a wonderful experience. I have been in both sides of the fence of this issue, and I think it's fair to say that people who have never believed have no idea how powerful and wonderful this experience is.

But then, like you, I drifted away. And was a highly disconcerting time for me. And why wouldn't it be? My world view just collapsed. The one thing that I valued most, more than anything in life, had lost its meaning.
If we're talking about a person - if there is someone that you truly love, someone that you value more than anything, and you have to leave this person for whatever reason, feeling a little loss is normal. And in a way, this is bigger than a person. This is an idea. An ideal. THE meaning in life.

So how do you deal with that? The same way you deal with any loss. YMMV but chances are you'll have to go through the 5 stages of grief. No easy way out of there.
The silver lining is that - yes, it will pass. Time heals all wounds.

Has your life improved since you moved away from religion? How has it improved? Do you ever feel as if you are missing out on something (either spiritually or culturally) because you are not religious?

Improved? No...just different. There are parts of it that I miss, and there are parts of the life right now that I like better. This is the classic case of a fork in the road thing. Where ever you are, you will always feel like there is something you miss on the path you didn't take. That's not a religion issue - that's life.
posted by 7life at 12:14 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it yet, just perused it in the bookstore, but the book The Atheist's Way might be helpful to understand how you can find meaning in your life without religious faith.

I also second the recommendations above of Carl Sagan, and Darwin himself is a beautiful writer.
posted by matildaben at 12:20 PM on February 6, 2009

I can only answer this through anecdote—ultimately, I think faith is subjective, so all anyone can do is talk about their own experience.

I was raised in a variety of faiths, attending services from Baptist to Catholic, Baha'i to Unitarian Universalist. I always believed in God, and still do. But the way I think about God has changed wildly since I was a kid.

I don't believe in a personal, intercessionary God. I do believe in the ability, even the compulsion, of humans to create and ascribe meaning. I believe in a universe where the laws of physics are coherent and consistent. I believe in cause and effect. I believe in things I will never see, places I will never be, people I will never meet. Those are foundational; I couldn't believe in much else if I didn't believe in them.

But I also believe that there are things that are so large, so strange, so alien, that my mind can't ever absorb them in their totality. I believe in both large and small infinities; just as I believe in an ultimately finite universe (ever expanding), I believe that it is so large as to be beyond all human comprehension except in the most abstract ways, and I don't discount the idea of other universes.

I believe in choice and free will, even as I recognize the serious arguments against them (both secular and religious). I believe in the mind and consciousness, and also believe that they are fundamentally limited.

I heard Carl Sagan once talking on NPR about what God might mean to him, and he said that if God was the laws of physics and the wonder of existence, then yes, he believed in God to that definition and no further. He stops a little short of where I do, but when I heard it, I thought, He gets it!

And why do I believe? Well, because, for want of a better description, I can feel it. I can feel God, the transcendent, the divine, the sublime, whatever, in beauty and in wonder and in the great vastness. (This is slightly different than being an agnostic, which I am because I don't believe that God can be known or proven—I could very well be entirely wrong about these God feelings.)

All of that's a bit of preface to the core answer that I want to share—Because I don't believe in God the way that most people do, I don't believe that God directly helps us, all He/"It" does is toss us all in together. Without a God that ensures justice, freedom, alleviation of suffering, I believe that it falls to us to do that work for the benefit of our fellow life here in the known universe. It's our job to do what we would want God to do were there the type of God that acted personally. Without that powerful subjective feeling at the core of my consciousness, I'd be an atheist. I don't think I'm losing out on anything by not being an atheist, but I'm not trying to convert you back toward agnosticism or whatever. It's just that I think, as an atheist, there's no reason to abandon all of the other beliefs you may have about what is good or what is right just because there's no ultimate force behind them. You create the metaphysical meaning that you operate under, so much as you want to. The lack of God doesn't mean that there's no compassion, no wonder, no justice or no freedom—only that it's up to you to ensure that they exist in your life, and up to you to decide that you want those feelings to extend to others. I think, bastardizing Sartre, that many people who believe in God act to remove their responsibility in those spheres—what does it matter if someone is oppressed in this life if they're free in the next? Now it's up to you to decide if it does matter, and if it does matter, what you will do about it. It's your responsibility. I don't think of that as cold, I think of it as largely freeing.
posted by klangklangston at 12:25 PM on February 6, 2009 [11 favorites]

Oops, the Harris article is actually here.
posted by abcde at 12:27 PM on February 6, 2009

I was raised atheist, so I missed the rejection-of-god phase of discovery, but I can empathize that I often envy the extreme togetherness of any activity relying on unshakeable faith with group, be it religion or sports team enthusiasm. I'm frustrated that standbys, like Unitarianism, never worked for me, nor did politics fill the void.

But I still use a lot of faith in day to day life, mostly centered on principles that I learned from my cultural upbringing. Specifically, I believe in the little things. My moral code involves being willing to help people track down their lost items, baking cupcakes for fencing tournaments, and making silly faces at babies when they cry in shopping malls until they stop. I do these things because I believe that I should live in the world I'd like to exist, not the world that I'm pretty certain exists in my more pessimistic moments, with a sort of faith that if enough people decide to do what I’m doing it’s a smoother life all round. I might be an omnivorous organism with altruism based on genetic survival and an intellect delivered entirely by chance in an uncaring universe, but if ‘now’ is all I have, at least I’m well equip to know that I’d better make the best of this short century of consciousness before I return to my place at the bottom of the food chain. That tends to be a less empty feeling way of thinking, at least for me.
posted by Phalene at 12:28 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you think science is devoid of spirituality, watch Tyson's talk at Beyond Belief (yt)
posted by theiconoclast31 at 12:28 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I come from a religious background (Catholic) and I am an atheist. I think that atheism comes in a few forms though. I do not believe in God, or a higher power yet at the same time I fully understand the need to do so. Some friends of mine who are atheists do not, they think that such a desire is irrational or even stupid. I disagree. In fact, I think that letting go of such things and the desire to berate people for believing is something is actually very liberating. I didn't feel truly free from religious indoctrination until I dropped the anger towards religious belief. In short, I find that the desire to believe in something is quite human and something that I understand even though I do not believe in this thing myself.
posted by ob at 12:46 PM on February 6, 2009

Please read Thoughts from a Sandwich.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:58 PM on February 6, 2009

In reference to the longing to believe in god(s), I think there is something to be said for praising Aphrodite as the Goddess of Love or Athena as the Goddess of Knowledge. Or whatever form your personal god(s) may take. As humans, we enjoy myths and relate to a knowable human form, but we can also recognize the "Goddess of Love" is an abstraction for the incredible mysteries and sometimes overwhelming power of love, compassion, attraction, and desire.

I don't believe in any one god, and lean toward a taoist/Buddhist/gnostic philosophy of life, I think all of the gods can be tremendously valuable. There is nothing wrong with deriving comfort from god(s) while not embracing them as actual beings.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 1:04 PM on February 6, 2009

"I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world. I feel like I'm giving up the last remaining connection I have to deeper mysteries and that loss hurts me even though I now realize that those mysteries which captivated me for so long are likely not real at all."

You don't need to disenchant the world. Think of it as giving up the fake mythical magic for the real magic:

There is absolutely room left for wonder and awe, not to mention love, joy, meaning, etc.

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." --A. Einstein
posted by zeek321 at 1:08 PM on February 6, 2009

But I am also feeling a deep sense of loss and hurt not only because I feel as if I have wasted a good deal of my time on something that wasn't true...

Whether it's religion or not, plenty of people waste years on stupid shit, like stupid relationships, stupid jobs, stupid habits. (And religion isn't even stupid shit. It has yielded some permanent value to you, even as you're letting go, which you'll realize in time.) Give it time and give yourself a break. You've just realized there's a whole new world out there, and some people never do.
posted by zeek321 at 1:13 PM on February 6, 2009

I went through a period of wanting to believe, but I really never did at all.

One of the things that I have come to understand is that it is possible to be moral, to have wonder about the world, and to do all the things religious people do (other than pray, clearly) within the framework of their belief when I have no belief. It's not blowing in the wind with no direction. It's traveling straight and true along the road that I make for myself, based on the things that I believe, many of which are based in cultural norms (killing other people is not OK, for example). I agree with ob above - I don't need to think that religion is inherently stupid or wrong, but it is not right for ME, and that's okay. I have no existential fear of death. I am not bothered by the idea of being dead and there being nothing afterward. It doesn't change anything about how I live my life. After awhile, it just recedes into the background - I don't need to tell everyone I am an atheist and I don't need to disparage people for going to church. I am free and happy to just BE. And that's enough for me.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:13 PM on February 6, 2009

I want to turn this around so that instead of leaving religion behind I am moving towards something better, clearer and more rational.

The thing is, I think, a loss of faith really does involve the loss of something, but paradoxically it is a loss we can experience as a gain. To understand what this is we need to consider the paradoxical nature of faith itself, that is of belief with out evidence: the promise that if only we can take that leap into the void great returns will follow—love, eternal life, the gateway to the deeper mysteries of life.If only we give up on needing to know then we will know, we will have certainty in life.

But what of our life without faith? What of our experience of that life when we had it? When I had faith I underwent something that I described as, ans felt as, a spiritual experience. What should I make of it now? Should I deny it? Rationalize it away? I Don't think so. For what has changed, is not the experience itself, which was real enough, but the stories I tell about it. What I once told myself was spiritual, I now experience as human, as experience itself, the same as it ever was, and there is nothing to say I will not experience again, however profoundly different that experience might be in the light of what I now believe . This I think, points up one of the contradictions in the claims of spirituality: the claim to know the unknowable. The act of trying to trap, in a meaning that is external to it, something that properly lies beyond language. For me that act of coming to a place outside religion I can live with has come through something akin to Wittgenstein's view of philosophy asnot something to answer questions but clear up the confusions that give rise to them ("Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language").

What are we left with outside the framework of religion? Well nothing. But nothing to be afraid of if you will excuse the pun. Consider the argument that is sometimes made that religion and god are necessary, because without them there would be no basis for morality. But what if there is no god, will morality disappear? Of course not. If god does not exist, there has never been a god, but we can not say that therefore morality has never existed. Rather we should see the need to believe that there must be an a priori basis for morality as a confusion that has arisen in the way we talk about god. Certainly, perhaps, without a belief in god we are left without an absolute prior structure for morality but what of it? It has not stopped us creating one after the fact, and I would argue do we really need one. For if we do not have that structure that morality must come from elsewhere and there is only one place it could have come from —us. Morality, i would argue, is an act of empathy and imagination, not an imposed structure but from what the consequences of an action might feel like.

So where does this leave us? Somewhere clearer and more rational? perhaps not. For sure where it leaves us might be somewhere messy, contradictory and difficult at times, but precisely because life is messy, contradictory and difficult at times. The loss of faith is an absolute loss, but after it we are left with something like life as it is (and always was) and while we have to give up the notion that we will ever truly know it, that is perhaps the greatest thing we can ever gain. To be human is to be confronted with ambiguity and contradiction wherever we turn, but only because that is a reflection of life as we live it, and I can think of nothing better than to embrace it in all its messiness and dive head long into it.
posted by tallus at 2:13 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a story where a Hindu saint, one of the Bhakti poets, pays a visit to a powerful magician and religious leader of another sect. Through various asceticisms, the magician says to the saint, and prayers and sacrifices, I have become invincible. He invites the saint (I don't remember weather it was a man or a woman) to attempt to strike him with a sword. The saint does, and the sword ricochets off the magician's body; he is impenetrable. The saint says to the magician, now try me, and hands the magician the sword. The magician brings the sword down on the saint, and the sword passes through the saint as if he wasn't there. The magician realizes he was doing everything wrong and becomes a follower of the saint.

It's a story I've been thinking about a lot, and I think it can mean many things, but the point I'm trying to make with it here is that you shouldn't turn to stone; you shouldn't trap yourself or feel trapped or withdraw into yourself or try to convince yourself of anything. If it's what you want, allow yourself to be an atheist. Allow yourself to allow yourself to be an atheist. And so on.

"Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?"

Just feel whatever pain you feel and when you stop feeling it let it go.
posted by Rinku at 2:33 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I know I'm very late to the party, but I did want to toss this in: I firmly believe that being an atheist requires as much faith as being a religious person. An atheist chooses to believe that there is no prime mover/creator, yet has absolutely zero evidence of it. Agnosticism, on the other hand, is much more, to me, about accepting a lack of knowledge. It's something you might look into.

And, speaking as a (very) lapsed Jew, I keenly feel the loss of the spiritual community. Whether it's the communal meal structure of the holidays (specifically Passover), or the shared history (I struggle, very hard, with the idea that, in terms of Passover, I am the son who uses "you" instead of "we" to ask his question, and as such the solution is to deny him a place in the family, since he denies he is a part of it). The story of struggle is key to Judaism, and, well, I feel, even as I am being sympathetic, even as I feel the same pain as another Jew in seeing films, or reading books based on the holocaust, as if my grief is not welcome or needed because I have rejected the religion.

In other words, by rejecting the religion, I have inadvertently cut myself off from the community that surrounds it. It is a gaping hole in my life that even 18 years later, I still feel. It aches inside of me, and to some extent it always will. I have thought of attending a seder, but it would be as a participant in a ritual I don't believe in, and even if I were welcome (and, adding to the feeling of pain, I most certainly would be welcome), it would ring false to me.

This is the price you pay when you leave the religious community that you were raised in. Many people can't handle the loneliness involved in it, just as many people can't handle the leap of faith a person must make to reject what they have been raised to view as Truth. It's hard, it can be very, very lonely, but it's what you chose to believe, and following through on your convictions can make you a stronger person. In some ways, it might help to join other, secular groups, where you can get back that sense of community/shared purpose.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:40 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

There is something that "lives on" after your death, and it is the memories that people have of you when you're gone. The afterlife is what you've made, created, shared, etc. that lingers when you, yourself, are gone. So long as people know you had a hand in it, a part of you lives on. At least, that's how I deal with the 'atheist in a foxhole' thing. I don't believe in an afterlife, or ghosts, or spirits hanging around. But I do think often of people who have died before me, and share stories of them, so they are not forgotten. Because that's all we've got, in the end. How other people see us.

I too describe myself as 'pantheist' in terms of the universe is god, is the sacred and divine. But as I comprehend it, it is in no way a belief in a deity that actually designed the world, or needs worship or prayer, or cares about who I am and what I do. It is, as you've put it, a sense of wonder about the world, awe in what it is. For me, to say god is in a flower isn't to say that I believe there is a spirit inhabiting the flower that makes it what it is; it is the awe of how the petals formed and the perfume wafting out to attract insects to help pollinate it...that nature is beautiful because it is functional.

I guess I still use the terms 'god' and 'divine' and 'sacred' because I lack other vocabulary to explain myself to friends and family who are still "believers". They understand the sense of awe I feel looking at a mountain and contemplating how it was created and all the experiences of the world that went into shaping it (the pushing of the plates, the erosin of wind and water, the effect of plant and animal life), if I term it divine. It is divine. Just not in a god(s)-made-it-this-way sense.

Perhaps I should get better vocabulary, but it works for me, and I am content. I remember the realization during my Catholic Confirmation that I did not believe in what I was saying, that had never really believed in it, that I just approached the stories of God and Jesus as, well, stories, no more true than those of Zeus or Odin. It took a long time to not to come to terms with what I believed, though recognizing it took some doing, but to find a way of explaining it to people. I relished that seeking, that journey. I learned a great deal of the history of Christianity and the beliefs of many other religions, on the way, and gained an appreciation for the philosphy and ideas behind them. I grew stronger with my own sense of self and belief and the wonder that is the universe. The seeking is the growing.

In the end, though, the label is not what really matters. Atheist, agnostic, pantheistic, etc etc. Its just a short hand to connect with other people who likely (but not necessarily) believe or feel the same way. What matters is how comfortable you are with what you believe and understand and appreciate and seek to know more about, in regards to the world. Once you have that down, you can use whatever label you feel is most appropriate.
posted by sandraregina at 2:41 PM on February 6, 2009

I feel as if I am going to have to give up my sense of wonder at the world. I feel like I'm giving up the last remaining connection I have to deeper mysteries ... I am looking for advice or anecdotes from formerly religious atheists or agnostics who have found themselves in a similar situation. ... Do you ever feel as if you are missing out on something (either spiritually or culturally) because you are not religious? Are there any books out there that deal with this issue?

This is EXACTLY what Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great is about. Read Chapter 1 -- he talks about having a sense of wonder about the universe without religion. He was raised Christian.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:06 PM on February 6, 2009

I was more a panentheistic sort of pagan for most of my life.

*raises hand*

i went from being a very half-hearted Christian into many years of feminist paganism, so i think i get this.

Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark has a passage in it somewhere where i think she talks about how it isn't so much about a literal belief in gods and goddesses, but more an understanding of these as personifications of things that we, in our "child-minds", need sometimes to help us get grounded. or something like that. when at the time i was reading it, i was sort of beyond paganism as a belief so much as in "the energy behind a ritual is a literally magical thing", to more of seeing ritual as a way to help me connect with my child-mind, the one that can use "pretending" as a way to get into a certain state of mind. my problem was that i was continually finding a lot of pagan ritual to be "silly."

anyway, although i haven't felt a need to pull out a full ritual for myself, i can still recognize that we as humans have a sort of Campbell-esque need sometimes to act-out/theatricalize profound things to think about it differently. i could imagine a time in the future when i might want to ritualize something. i don't need to believe in magick to believe in the miracle of (as has been mentioned many times above) life itself. it's *amazing* to me that we exist, and that we truly *are* all connected by the electrical and atomic energy that has coalesced to create everything we see around us, including ourselves. i can recognize that a tree and a section of earth has its own character and fascinatingly infinite existences within it, without needing to feel that there's some sort of human-personified identity to it. the alien-ness of things in our world, while they are profoundly connected to us, is paganism taken to its fullest, i think. i don't have to believe in fairies to think the forest is magical.

i watched Journey to the Edge of the Universe recently. just thinking about the creative infinity that is out there leaves me breathless with awe.

this connects, for me, with death... i walk a couple of very old cemeteries frequently. to me, this is the ultimate in seeing the banality of human death (the digging, the hole, the pile of dirt, the stone deteriorating) and recognizing truly and deeply that it happens to everyone. to me, it is not depressing at all, but more of an understanding of how brief, how important each moment is... but juxtaposed with a sense of how idiotic it is to obsess over so much of what we obsess over. back to the earth we go. we become a tree and dirt and a frog and cattails and we feed whatever creatures squirm their way to our corpse. i think that's inexpressibly cool.

(and yes, i'm thinking about getting on the cemetery board to encourage them to at least allow or even encourage green burial in my community. it's ironic to me that the older the grave, the more likely they were buried without all the chemicals and sealed indestructible coffins.)

i would say that zen buddhism works as a sort of resting place for me. atheistic, stripped down of all the "mumbo-jumbo" into a place where it makes sense to sit still for awhile, to truly listen to what's going on inside and outside.
posted by RedEmma at 4:47 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was raised atheist and was never comfortable with it. I always felt as you feel now, from the time I was a very small child. I remember lying awake at night, seven years old, thinking about my consciousness snuffed out like a candle, terrified and feeling like everything was meaningless. I began praying and searching for a spiritual path at a very young age. I was never drawn to Christianity because I saw it as very literal and I was turned off to its rigid exclusivity (the only "right" path).

I now consider myself an agnostic with metaphysical leanings. I have had many spiritual experiences, which I'd be happy to share if you want to MeMail me. They run the gamut from a "oneness with nature" to weird phenomena I rarely discuss lest I be labeled a freak.

My experiences don't fit into a religion, but they keep me from the hopelessness I felt as an atheist. I think it's quite possible that there are still wonders and mysteries that can never be explained by natural means and I actually hope that is true.

As others have said, many things that can be explained by natural means are no less thrilling than those that can't. The intricate workings of the natural world are stunning.

I'd like to recommend the works of Alan Watts and Pema Chodron, two Western Buddhists whose writings have brought me a sense of peace. If you don't like being an atheist, you don't have to be one. I find agnosticism to be more of a position of humility and openness. I've met many atheists (like those in my family) who are arrogant and actually say people of faith or even those who are just "spiritual" are weak and stupid. I think some people just tend to lean more toward spirituality than others and it's about openness and wanting a sense of connection and peace.

I also know many people of various faiths, including Christianity, who seem incredibly together and serene, violating the stereotypes I was raised with. They're smart, strong people whose faith enriches their lives. They would tell you they are living proof that there is a God, Higher Power, or whatever they want to call it. If you know people like this, I'd recommend hanging out with them. I would also suggest you stay away from rigid thinkers, whether atheist or religious. Hope that helps.
posted by xenophile at 5:34 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Rinku beat me to it. I was actually kind of surprised to hear you talking about what you would "have" to think or believe now. For me that was kind of the point of atheism. (Of course, like you, I'm a pretty bad one. I have a probably lifelong Brandonist streak.) I'm really sorry you're going through such unpleasantness along with this. I'm glad I saw so many other responses saying they felt the same way once, because I just assumed it didn't work that way. For me it was a completely uncomplicated relief. So I may not know what I'm talking about, but I can't imagine you'd never find a way out of this state.

I was Baptist for a long time, then some ill-defined form of spirituality where I worried about my energy a lot. (That lasted about six months. But they were an emotionally intense six months.) I came out of it all thinking that your beliefs are less about what you think is true and more about what you need.

Yes, for a long time I read a lot of things on the theme of The Case For/Against X (because Quiet Spiritual Scholars were almost as respected as Rockstars for Jesus, which I couldn't pull off). And I slowly learned a lot that made it less unthinkable to abandon particular ideas. But no treatise on earth could have convinced me to leave the faith. Later, nothing on earth could make me voluntarily subject myself to the violent spiritual nausea that resulted from believing myself to be the Beethoven the Saint Bernard of the cosmos. I literally couldn't do it. My brain had grown a gag reflex. So I couldn't maintain the intellectual belief that that was a bad thing, because it would only lead to the same feelings I had blocked out. It all fell apart.

I used my newfound freedom to sit in the dark and try to leave my body. It didn't happen. I wondered if it was even possible, if I was avoiding personal responsibility by thinking it might not be possible... In the end it was the same pattern.

Anyway. The point is, I learned that you need what you need, and you can't just will things about yourself away so you can fit more neatly into a box-- even a self-selected box. So to return to your question: How can you possibly lose the things you're afraid of losing, like your sense of wonder and connection, if you don't want to? I bet you couldn't beat that out of yourself if you tried. You'll just find a way to base them on something else. I know it's your personal history, and probably your community, and it all seems huge. But I want to address the sense of helplessness I detect in your writing. Maybe you don't trust yourself very much because hey, look what you were wrong about. Maybe you think holding onto "irrational" things is not just unfitting but might actually lose you all the good of your discovery. Sorry for the psychoanalysis, and I'm glad you've gotten the reassurance from others you were looking for, but I hope you know it's more than possible, it's inevitable, to meet your own mental/emotional/spiritual needs no matter what external sources have to say about it.

Big hugs.
posted by jinjo at 5:35 PM on February 6, 2009

Many years ago while riding a bicycle I was struck by a pickup truck. Since the driver was coming fast and not looking in my direction, in that instant I was certain that I would be killed.

The sensation I had was one of total peace and relaxation. I did not mind dying and had no regret of anything. Above all I sensed that someone waited for me.

I think that here is a basic truth that trancends what we call logic.
posted by joe_d at 5:54 PM on February 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

I found myself in a similar situation about a year ago; I started a group blog with a few other people I knew were in similar situations, and though it hasn't been updated for a while the writing and dialoguing with others was definitely part of the process for me.

I'd tell the details of my story but it echoes what a number of others have said more clearly; suffice to say you're not alone in what you're experiencing and how it is affecting you. I've talked to friends before about the longing -- occasional longing, at least -- to return to what can seem in retrospect like a simpler, more naive and less burdensome time. The wish to un-know things, and all that. But I remember why I came out of it, too, and that's a reminder that it was not sweetness and light.

I think sometimes that there must be a growing number of 'cultural Christians' who understand and accept the ritual and the connection in the community they grew up in but don't feel the need to accept the metaphysics...
posted by verb at 5:56 PM on February 6, 2009

Has your life improved since you moved away from religion?

Yes, definitely. At first I felt the same loss that you do now, but with time it faded. I discovered a sense of urgency - I now make sure to tell people I love them frequently, I changed careers, I've made bold financial decisions, and have done more work for the poor and the environment than I managed during my religious years. My life is fuller and more interesting now, even if it's got less certainty in it. And I'm much happier, in nearly every way.

And it's all because of the day I realised that when we die, that's it. There's no afterlife where I can reunite with my loved ones, to tell them I didn't mean what I said during that last argument before I got hit by a bus, or whatever. There's no reincarnation to give me a second chance at being happy with my life. There's no heavenly payoff for people living in crappy war-torn countries, and there's no-one to clean up after us if we trash this planet. This sounds brutal, but honestly, it makes you realise that you do matter to the world, and that you, and not some impersonal fate, are in charge of your own happiness.

As Terry Pratchett says in Mort, "There is no justice. There's just us." Or as Stanley Kubrick said, "However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." The universe might be indifferent to living things, but in my opinion that's all the more reason for us to stick together! So every day I try to make our world a little better in some way, and to connect with other people, or with nature.
posted by harriet vane at 12:22 AM on February 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

I did a post on metafilter a few years ago about non-theist spirituality that you might find helpful.
posted by bigmusic at 11:48 AM on February 7, 2009

Because you asked for anecdotes... I was raised Fundamental Southern Baptist. Girls who wore pants "going to Hell", boys with long hair "going to Hell", rock and roll music "going to Hell". Kneel and let us check your dress isn't an inch above your knees. Kneel and let us check that your hair doesn't cover your ears.

Mom fucked the preacher dude, split up two churches and got my half sister and years of small religious town hell.

My uncle, a Presbytarian minister got the gist of things. (he went in to service so he could run an orphanage back in the days) sat me down and told me that the whole supreme deity thing wouldn't work for me, said to go eastern religions... much more logical and philosophical, as you can probably tell, I ended up a bit Zen and I have a bit of local gods vs omnipotent creator thing going on. Mostly atheist, still have a bit of a problem with monotheistic sky gods.

Took uncles advice and took a bunch of religion classes in college. Still get pissed off at old friends who do the "God will save you", but enjoy a multitude of religious like thoughts.

Silly as it sounds, I worship "Eris, goddess of Discord and Chaos". And I have local gods of the roads of home and mountains. Not that I really really believe in any of them.

Sit quietly doing nothing. Everything in the world that isn't hung up on some belief is doing that.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:52 PM on February 7, 2009

Ghidorah's comment resonates with me. Except that I was always the wise child. Always caught up in the details, never examining the fundamental assumptions. As the wise child, I also bore the burden of my family's expectations of being the good child, the one who in some way would redeem the family's hopes and expectations.

As this decade began, I felt the immense loss of belief and faith. At some level, faith is the ability to trust in your parents and your community. When you lose faith, it seems to imply that you have cut yourself off from that community. You can also feel like a failure for not being able to fulfill the hopes of those who love you. And perhaps your losing this means that your loved ones feel that you are lost, and are the ones who actually sever the bonds.

I don't think that the choice is between belief and community versus non-belief and separation. I think community can be part of both.

There are many facets to religion. Wonder for the magnificence of the universe is part of it, yes. There is also the simple fact that each of us is part of humanity, and we all share something with each other. Coming together in a community, of whatever kind, of all kinds, is part of the religious experience.

I guess that makes me a humanist. In practice, I'm sort of an agnostic Buddhist Taoist who happens to follow Jewish religious practice. I'm also trying to raise ethical children, so what I emphasize in our tradition is the importance of community, respect for all humanity, wonder for nature and the process of evolution and a sense of responsibilty for the condition of the world. And I read them a lot of books about mythology, so at some point they will probably realize for themselves that traditions are myths agreed upon and they will have to discover things for themselves.
posted by Araucaria at 1:18 PM on February 7, 2009

You might find Karen Armstrong's books helpful, especially A history of God. The books do a good job of thoroughly examining Christianity without exhibiting hostility towards it.
posted by rjs at 4:29 AM on February 8, 2009

I wouldn't spend too much time considering whether you are an atheist, agnostic or a "true believer" in any particular faith. The "spiritual tug" you experienced is not unlike what I had in my thirties. I believe this is a fairly common phenomenon and one that should always be explored. My experience in connecting to the ineffable was a staged process and I discovered truth in many great spiritual leaders and thinkers of the past. These eclectic readings provided over time a stronger conviction that there is more to existence, than just "physical world." However, even though I have returned to the Roman Catholic religion of my youth (a "religious practice", as Araucaria's commented) I can say that I have maintained broad interest in all traditions, and value all of them equally. You don't need a label - ou can simply be a human being discovering and experiencing reality at it's various levels.

I read works from varous religious traditions - Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Bahai, etc. Find the commonalities. Huston Smith's Religions of the World s a great overview and place to start understanding these traditions. But I alway rely on the great traditional works for deeper inspiration - I especially like the Hassidic Martin Buber's "I and Thou" and his other works.
posted by billinsandiego at 5:37 PM on February 23, 2009

^ Buddhists don't believe in deities, so yes, being Buddhist is technically being atheist.

I do not think that this is true, not universally nor even in general. If you read stuff about Buddhism by the Dalai Lama he talks about all kinds of deities.

To the OP, in case she happens by this long-extinguished thread, as an atheist who was never religious I've got this to say: I don't think there's anything wrong with being religious and indeed as you suggest in the post I feel like I've missed out on some things culturally by not being religious or socially a member of a church or temple community.

But my opinion is that feeling as though you're missing out spiritually, and feeling the desire to believe you speak of, stems from what one believed in as a child. And I would personally say that if it's a struggle to try to disbelieve what you believed in as a child, don't bother - find some way to integrate those beliefs into your adult self. IMO anything beyond solipsism is a leap of faith and your average atheist versus your average Christian aren't even really very different in the amount of stuff they accept on faith.

I think that the important thing no matter what you believe - whether you're an adherent to any particular religion or an atheist - is that you be aware of and identify when those beliefs are serving deep psychological purposes for you. If Christian, is it because you need to feel that someone, somewhere out there (Jesus) loves you unconditionally and forgives you all your trespasses and failures? If atheist, is holding that position a symbol for believing that you're extremely rational or intelligent and hence can count yourself as superior to a big chunk of the population, people who aren't atheists? I think that why you believe is a much more important thing to work out than what you believe.
posted by XMLicious at 5:48 AM on August 3, 2009

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