Letting go of God: Help me deal with my atheism and the five stages of grief. I'm in the fourth stage now.
November 18, 2009 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Please give advice on how to accept my atheism, let go of God and the need for one, how to get over the fourth stage of grief/letting go (depression), and how to find my passion for life again!

Hello, hivemind.

I'm from a totally Bible-banging family (Creationists, End Timers, warped-Republicans, sexist, homophobic and a little racist). I haven't been a Christian for going on six years now, ever since I read the Bible all the way through and decided it was a total piece of junk filled with violence and hatred toward other faiths, women, etc. I know I don't believe in the Christian God, or, it seems, any religion or philosophy akin to it (no, not even Buddhism), as I have read many religious texts, apologetics and more besides and just don't feel there's any evidence for any of it. Simply put, I appear to be an atheist...at least as far as labels go.

The unfortunate thing is that I'm not handling this too well, and it has recently occurred to me that I have been going through what can best be identified as the five stages of grief, which just annoys me to no end! (I'd just like to get on with my life!) The whole not believing in God/gods thing has really been like a death in the family, so to speak...it's frustrating and painful. I'm specifically not having what I would consider healthy reactions to my lack of faith, which is a major reason that I've chosen to post this, rather than just rely on the great advice that I could find in similar questions from the past.

Maybe I should first talk about the five stages.

For one year, I was in denial. Even though I didn't believe in God, I continued to say that I did and tried to push through. I came up with lots of excuses as to why my doubts were happening. I read a lot of Christian apologetics that I didn't agree with in that time, in an attempt to act like things were okay with me and the Big Aggressive Creator in the Sky. I even avoided competing ideas. I prayed lots. I lived as closely to the Bible as I could, without totally ripping myself of my own thoughts regarding ethics and morality.

That didn't work, and I ended up getting angry. I was angry at the concept of God, angry that I couldn't seem to believe in it and angry that I had believed in what I felt was myth. I was angry at my family for bringing me up in extremism, as well as at all the borderline-abusive things they did in God's name, all the things they kept me from, because they were "of the devil". I was angry that I couldn't have lived "normally, like most people", in either moderate faith or no faith. In a weird sort of way, I was even angry that I was having to think about any of it. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to go back to the blind faith I'd had or bypass all of it, but I was angry that the issue had cropped up. I read everything I could get my hands on at this time, be it scientific or religious. I feel like I read more during this time than any other time of my life. I wanted to learn, so I could actually form my own opinions.

Another six months to a year passed, and bargaining began. I tried to live some form of very mild Christianity to agnosticism (Jesus was a good man; the Bible's a good "moral" text), thinking, "If I just do this, it will be the best of both worlds. I won't have any more problems. Things can work out this way." The idea was that I could still keep up with a religious community, be everyone's friend, etc. The reality, however, was that I began to identify less and less with Christians/Christianity/more religious people on the whole, with only a few exceptions, and that more of my friends slowly but surely ended up being agnostic, all the way to militant atheists. Not trying to step on any Mefi toes, but to be honest, the agnostics/atheists in my life were the only ones who didn't seem to be insecure, lying jerks most of the time, so it seems almost inevitable that things turned out the way they did. (Big disclaimer!!: I know this does not represent all Christians, just my experiences with some of them. I still even have some Christian friends, but not many.) I didn't go searching for my "heathen" friends, but we found each other. We gravitated toward one another, as our core philosophies were now similar. I also found/find myself annoyed by most religious people these days, but I never say/do anything regarding that. I try to accept where possible and be silent, when I feel myself unable. I married a mild-mannered, sugar-sweet atheist guy. My watered-down Christianity turned to full-blown agnosticism around the time I met him, as a result of all these experiences and changes.

I was happy with my agnosticism for a year, to year and a half, but recently I've noticed, as far as labels go, I am more of an atheist. To this very moment, though, I've not said aloud to anyone, not even my husband, that I actually consider myself an atheist. I don't know why the label means as much as it does, other than I know that if religious people dislike me now as an unbeliever, many will hate me as an atheist, even if that's what I most closely identify with... I guess I can't help but not want people to not hate me, even if they're extremist whack jobs. The label means a lot to me, too, though, because I'm really tired of lying about how I feel and think.

This seems to have put me in the fourth stage of grief, depression. I feel sad that I can't buy into the comforting stories I once did, sad that I can't agree with my family as far as faith goes, sad that I'm not accepted by tons of religious people (including family) when they find out I'm an unbeliever (even when I am accepting toward them), sad that I no longer believe in life after death or guiding forces in the universe. I think we are here, we die, and that's it, and that notion depresses me. I don't think there's any evidence to the contrary, however, so I'm bound to it...whether I like it or not. I know we can't know what happens "on the other side", but I highly doubt it's anything spectacular. I highly doubt it's anything at all.

I want to get to the fifth stage of grief, where I accept myself and the death of my religion and faith, but it just seems so impossible at this stage. As said, some of my reactions to my own atheism aren't healthy. For instance, I have lost my passion for a lot of life, which is bad for me in more ways than one, considering I am a professional artist and writer and need to feel and create accordingly. I miss my sense of wonder. I feel wonder at the universe, but it's a head-wonder, not a heart-wonder, like I felt with spirituality. I'll agree with Carl Sagan and my fellow atheists and agnostics that it's amazing to think about how statistically unlikely it is that I'm here, that the planet works the way it does, etc. I'll agree that, because of all these things and my finite time here on earth, I should value every second I have and live it to the fullest, without apology...

But I can't seem to...

I am amazed by the world, but that doesn't drive me. In fact, it's all the opposite. It makes me feel like there's no point. Amazement is just part of it, but it doesn't particularly mean much. I realize that, without "something behind everything", it doesn't matter one iota (speaking from a selfish perspective here) whether I build great things or just sit on my couch and rot, whether I live to be 100 or die tomorrow. It will matter to some, but not to many, and not for long. It's like, what am I trying to prove to anyone or to myself now? How on earth does any of it matter if it's just this tiny bit of time I have? I'd like to help people, and while I realize that while I do touch some people's lives, and that does make me happy, the odds are against my helping a significant number of people in my lifetime, try as I might, so it all feels a little hopeless and pointless still. Death depresses me immensely, and rather than living my life more fully as a result, I just have ended up somewhat stagnant...blahed and mehed out.

Please note that I'm actually not depressed in other areas of my life, just this one. But it does...influence...the other areas, from a foundational perspective, so it definitely needs to be seen to. I think it's affecting more, too, as time goes by. I appreciate the concept of life, but I don't really feel compelled to do much with it now, without the notion of some sort of equilibrium in the universe (carried out by a creator, karma, whatever). I mean, I do what I need to and try my best, but I'm not striving toward things like I once was. Without a reason behind things, so much stuff in the world seems overwhelmingly random and unfair and out of my control. (I think this is one of the reasons there are so many moderate Christians, even. People keep some idea of God, just so they can pray about the things they can't control, to comfort themselves.) I can't even pray about any of it, though, and I think the concept of sending good thoughts toward it all is just as silly. I've tried giving myself rituals, but it just doesn't work. I always feel silly.

So, hivemind, I guess what I want to know, after all my heathen rambling, is how do I peacefully come to accept my lack of faith and not having a god in the world? How do I regain passion for life, despite feeling everything is off balance without a godly figure? I've tried listening and reading some things, like Julia Sweeney's personal story, and while helpful and something I could identify well with, it's never gotten me over the hump. I'd appreciate personal advice, recommendations of what to read/listen to/do...anything, really.

Throw-away email: atheistic.blues@gmail.com

Thanks, guys and gals.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Keep as busy as possible. Improve the lives of others as much as you can (volunteer work and/or fundraising at seniors' homes, animal shelters and the like). Know that there are countless others like you out here. Be your own god, claim ownership of your life proudly and make all you can of it.
posted by fish tick at 9:13 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Letting go of the mythology of heaven and "eternal life," and accepting that this was the only life I'll get and it could end any minute, really put things into perspective for me as a teenager. As I get older (37 now) I find that I'm increasingly passionate about making my short stay among the living worthwhile, and especially, enjoyable for myself and those I care about. It's a great miracle of chance and chaos that you're here -- have fun with it.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Western religion emphasizes love as the highest virtue because it genuinely is good for us, psychologically and socially and personally. Whether you express it with your husband, your family, your friends, your community, to strangers a world away, love is something that needs to be practiced. It doesn't fall into your life, and that's what took me a while to really grok. There's a Stephen Crane poem that I'm fond of to this effect:

“A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation”

I found that reading Camus and Sartre (specifically the Myth of Sisyphus and Nausea) and exploring existentialism helped me learn more how to feel excited and fulfilled in my life. The burden of freedom and the absence of god are events to mourn when they are replacing previous beliefs, and it takes time and habituation to replace those habits of thinking with different approaches.

"There's no point" means that the future is open and ours to create. There has never been a point, and we have created beautiful art, heartbreaking songs, and continually learned how to treat ourselves better as a species. History is rife with mistakes, but few people truly contend that we have not improved ourselves in the course of our existence.
posted by Lifeson at 9:27 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Well, grief doesn't really work like that. In a way, you never stop grieving. Nobody goes through all those stages (or in that particular order), it's more of a framework for understanding how people approach loss. A good analogy was found in a book I read featuring stories and advice from other women who lost their mothers at a young age: grief comes in waves. There's the initial wave, and every so often, there's another one. Waves when you approach a milestone and your mother isn't there to celebrate with you, when you reach the age your mother was when she first became sick or passed away, and so forth.
posted by autoclavicle at 9:28 AM on November 18, 2009

People think that atheists are totally void of hope, and depressed and sad, because they have no meaning to their lives without a god/god-purpose. I can't imagine anything further from the truth--if this time on this planet is the only time you have to really live and love and enjoy and better the things around you and make meaning, isn't that the most inspiring and beautiful thing you could experience? Doesn't it make you want to take advantage of every breath and every moment? (OK, yes, sometimes I do just sit around and play video games and don't do a damn thing to affect anything else in the rest of the world. But I enjoy it like crazy and appreciate its value to recharge my energy when it is depleted from work and the rest of the everyday.) I personally feel intensely connected to the value of my life, and the lives of others, because of my belief that this is the only one I'll get. It's been a journey.

What if the things you do to help others don't change the world on a grand scale, but they change the entire world of that one person you helped? I like to take the "quality, not quantity" approach there. Invest yourself into experiencing your life completely, whether you're sitting on your couch or feeding someone who doesn't have food.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:29 AM on November 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

Not sure if this is going to be helpful, but here's some stuff that gives me wonderment (besides science and math, which you mentioned already):

1. Great old movies, especially when shown in a theater, where you can be fully absorbed.
2. Music--not just listening, but also playing; learning how it's done. Understanding the nuts and bolts of how music is constructed doesn't strip away the magic, it deepens the experience. It's amazing to know exactly what the artist is doing but to still feel the impact--it's like watching a magician, and knowing how all the tricks are done, but still believing.
3. Mundane stuff like good food, enjoyable routines, traditions. Wallace Shawn gives a great explanation of this in My Dinner With Andre (his part starts around 4:20).
posted by equalpants at 9:34 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Something you say about yourself gives me pause:

Simply put, I appear to be an atheist...at least as far as labels go.

I appreciate your struggle -- these kinds of questions are never easy because they are so very intimate - but I can't help but wonder how much of the difficulty you may be having could be a result of your trying to fit a label. You know? "Ah, I must be an atheist -- well, atheists all do X, Y, Z, and think A, B, C. But I don't think that way -- I think A, B, G. Agggggh! What's wrong with me? Why doesn't it feel right to think A, B, C?"

Our brains aren't always wired quite so neatly. Perhaps, on some subtle level, you're trying to force yourself into believing something or not believing something because you think that "now that I'm atheist, this is what I'm supposed to be like," and that may be part of what's causing this.

I would maybe step away from defining what to LABEL yourself, and simply acknowledge what it is you do and don't believe, at this moment in time -- and accept it for whatever it is. You believe the Bible is faulty - great. You don't really see much evidence for a supreme being -- great, you know that about yourself. You feel upset about some parts of your faith that you lost out on -- contemplate whether letting them go is for the best, and ultimately if they are, lean on the fact that you also know THAT about yourself.

Basically, try to focus on what you believe as an individual, without trying to figure out what to label it. You may find that you actually aren't atheist at all -- or agnostic or anything else, really. I took this same route when I left Catholicism -- and today, for the life of me I couldn't tell you what label I SHOULD use for my faith path. However, I also don't really CARE what label I should use, because faith is such a personal thing.

I realize this is a tangent on your question, but what you said about "labels" just struck me for some reason and I had a hunch this may be influencing things.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:35 AM on November 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Much of what you have written resonates immensely with me: committed Christian moving into doubt and anger but unable to let go. I've spent 20 years being nominally Christian and praying sometimes but I realised inside that I was kidding myself. A couple of years ago, I read Dawkins's book "The God Delusion" (which I initially thought was too confrontational, almost comically so given the title) but I found myself unable to disagree with any of it. The response from theists was, to say the least, disappointing as well. I was thoroughly depressed for months, all my illusions stripped away.

I don't know what to say. I got back on an even keel by taking several months off work and concentrating (for the first time in decades, in my life really) on doing what I wanted to. My wife was very supportive. I spent a lot of time making cut glass ornaments and taking photographs, and didn't worry about working until I wanted to again.

I still have trouble with the idea there is (afaict) no higher purpose, no eternal life, etc, but I figure it doesn't matter as much as we might imagine. A painting is still beautiful even when you're aware it's just blobs of paint; life is still meaningful even when it's founded on extraordinary randomness. I don't care. I get on with loving those that love me, and trying to enjoy the amazing one-off that is my limited time on earth.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 9:36 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are needs that religion is very good at fulfilling--communal sense of belonging, intense emotional outlet, sense of peace/safety/assurance in the knowledge of why you are on earth, etc. You may never find exact replacements for meeting those needs as an atheist. Making peace with your atheism is about at least partly about making peace with the loss of religion's benefits. That "God-shaped hole in your heart" that some Christians talk about? It may well be there, and it's ok to leave it empty.

Also, you don't need to label yourself. You don't have to believe in any form of religion, and you don't have to name your un-belief "atheism." I think sometimes, for some people, saying "I am an atheist" sets up a sort of defiant attitude of "I don't believe in any god and that's really important to me." I find that depressing, personally (anyone for whom it works and provides satisfaction, that's great for you). I don't believe in any god, and it's not very important to me at all. The less importance I give it in my life, the happier I am--and the less I find myself seeking replacements for the satisfying aspects of religion that I no longer have access to.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:42 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can make the case that most believers are essentially disconnected from the world. Their longing for the "pay off" (whatever that might be) blinds them to the moment, which is pretty sad, all things considered.

Zen (which is not atheism, but is closer than most religions) insists that the only truth is right now -- the past is memory and the future is a fantasy. This might be one way to get beyond your grief at the lack of a god -- set aside time to simply sit and observe the world. Yeah, you could do the whole "staring at a wall" thing, but you could also just sit anywhere, think about nothing, and just observe the world. Don't analyze, don't speculate. When thoughts rise up, don't push them down but don't encourage them, either. Just try to see the moment in as uncluttered a way as possible. It takes some practice, but it is very peaceful and energizing. It might also stand in for the "church time" you may be missing -- the habit of communion. It's worth a try, and it has improved my mood.

At any rate, good luck!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:44 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

This seems to have put me in the fourth stage of grief, depression. I feel sad that I can't buy into the comforting stories I once did, sad that I can't agree with my family as far as faith goes, sad that I'm not accepted by tons of religious people (including family) when they find out I'm an unbeliever (even when I am accepting toward them), sad that I no longer believe in life after death or guiding forces in the universe.

Watch Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" -- or read it, or listen to it on an audiotape, whichever. Nothing has ever made it clearer to me, how important the stories we're raised with are -- and how they're important to everyone, despite the wild difference in culture, religion and dogma. You can have those stories without the religion. They are still valid and comforting.

As far as the grief you feel about the lack of acceptance you feel from religious people, I believe that this will come with time as you settle more into the belief system you have created for yourself instead of the one that was essentially chosen for you. Right now you want the validation of your beliefs, because that is something that people who observe and adhere to organized religion do for eachother -- they help eachother through their moments of doubt. Since the beliefs you hold close to are essentially yours alone, it feels a little lonely and scary. I think the more friends you make who are like minded and open minded, the more comfortable you will feel, and you will stop caring that you can't agree with religious people. Very religious folks are also unaccepted in various parts of society, so you can, when you feel more comfortable with your own outlook, find very common ground with them.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:45 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think I can relate to you.

I was raised Catholic. Mass every Thursday and Saturday, catechism, confirmation, altar boy, the whole nine yards. My parents would have been ecstatic if I were to join the church as many of my other relatives had done.

But I knew from the time I was about 12 years old that I didn't believe in god. None of the church's teachings made any sense, the bible didn't make any sense, and it all seemed very wrong.

This led to several battles with my parents over confirmation and church attendance - we reached an agreement that for the sake of my grandparents I would go C&E and occasional sundays and my parents wouldn't give me grief over it.

So, one Easter when I was 19, after I was living on my own for a while. I skipped mass. And I felt like I was doing something very very wrong. I felt dirty and weird about it - like at any moment, god was going to punish me with lightbolts and hellfire. I thought then (and now) that it was a strange reaction to have. But really if you think about it, you've been conditioned your whole life to do something - breaking that is hard.

Anyway, after that I did a lot of thinking about the universe and my place in it, trying to figure out the meaning of life and find the point. And the truth is, as you've surmised, that there isn't much point to life. You are a tiny speck, on a tiny speck hurtling through the middle of infinity - and in the galactic sense you aren't even around that long. That is a very hard truth to accept. (in particular, I had trouble with not existing after I die. It seemed weird to me, since I didn't exist before I was born, and that wasn't bothersome, so why should my death be a big deal ? But yeah, I had a hard time with that concept, too.)

But there is a flaw there. As pointless and worthless as life is in some galactic sense, it is still very locally meaningful. You matter, most of all to you, but also to the context in which you exist. That context could not exist without you, and so you therefore have meaning.

It took the birth of my son for me to fully wrap my head around that, and it was sort of an aHa! moment.

I'm sort of clumsy in what I am trying to say, but I hope you get my drift.

A meaningful life doesn't have to mean being rich, or famous or anything. I am pretty happy with my life thus far and I wake every day knowing that I am living a better life than 99.9% of the humans that have thus far ever lived. God didn't give that to me - I won the lottery! I try every day to be the best human I can, and help others live the best lives they can, too.

We're all in this together, and noone gets out a alive.

So, to answer your question - You do it slowly, and it is a process. It took me a few years to fully get there - and now to go to church seems very foreign and weird (and stupid and pointless, too). And I suppose for you, it will be the same. I wish that I could offer advice of the "read this, do that" type, but it seems to me that this journey is an incredibly personal and subjective one. The best I can offer is encouragement and my story and the fervent hope that it helps. It's not going to happen overnight, but it will happen.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:49 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'd also add to my previous comment--my husband calls himself an atheist and is most comfortable with that label. It doesn't evoke negative emotional baggage for him. I think that, as someone who used to be a member of a religious group that routinely sets itself up against atheists, trying to disprove or debate atheism as a means of persuading people to convert, there's just too much baggage in the label. If I called myself an atheist, I'd feel like I was entering a lifelong debate with my former fellow Christians. I don't want that, it sounds exhausting and tedious.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:50 AM on November 18, 2009

I realize that, without "something behind everything", it doesn't matter one iota (speaking from a selfish perspective here) whether I build great things or just sit on my couch and rot, whether I live to be 100 or die tomorrow. It will matter to some, but not to many, and not for long.

Surely, you've known someone who has changed your life immeasurably for the better. This may be your parents, the guy who pulled you from that burning car, or the teacher who encouranged you to make use of your talents. I bet you wouldn't say that their contribution meant nothing.

I promise that I'm not getting all hippie on you here, but both the love and hate you express tends to propagate through society, starting with the people you interact with every day. No, really - there has
been behavioral research showing that this phenomenon exists.

Furthermore, your life choices, like quitting smoking, or losing weight make it more more likely that your peers will do the same.

As James Fowler puts it (as quoted in the above link):
"Everyone always tells me that this research is so depressing and that it means we don't have free will. But I think they're forgetting to look at the flipside. Because of social networks, your actions aren't just having an impact on what you do, or on what your friends do, but on thousands of other people too. So if I go home and I make an effort to be in a good mood, I'm not just making my wife happy, or my children happy. I'm also making the friends of my children happy. My choices have a ripple effect."
Now go out and start some ripples.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:58 AM on November 18, 2009 [6 favorites]

McKee: Well, I’m an atheist as well, and there is a longstanding tradition of pessimistic philosophy that takes the position that the order we see in the universe is not there, there’s constant randomness, and the mind imposes order on that reality. But what the greatest pessimists, like Nietzsche and Sartre and others have also said, is that what a human being must therefore do, and what a human being can in fact do, is create order out of their little corner of the universe."
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 10:06 AM on November 18, 2009

Seconding Joseph Campbell. Really anything written by him is fascinating. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live By, the previously mentioned The Power of Myth, etc. I was already an atheist when I first read his work, but he really changed how I view religion.
posted by Durin's Bane at 10:10 AM on November 18, 2009

In an oblique way, I came here to say something along the same lines as Fuzzy Monster. You've defined atheism in negative terms—which isn't surprising, as the basic meaning of the word is negative. Try defining it for yourself in positive terms.

Also, don't be ashamed of it or embarrassed by it. Don't withhold it from your husband.

Death doesn't depress me so much as it scares the hell out of me. Life is all we've got. When you find yourself stagnating, pick some task or goal and at least go through the motions of pursuing it, even if you don't feel like your heart is in it. You might find that you develop enthusiasm along the way.
posted by adamrice at 10:19 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

[Note: this is the best MeFi post I've ever read. Thank you.]

We atheists must come to terms with the fact that people are animals. That means that we have animal urges. We feel pleasure; we feel pain; we lust; we get lonely; we pair bond; we get angry; we get jealous; we laugh; we cry; we get hungry; we want power; we help others; we act selfishly; we sing...

This may be impossible for you to see right now (and, granted, it's impossible for many people to see), but, as an atheist, I consider myself much more like a religious person (even a fundamentalist) than unlike one. Why? Because our differing views on God are much more on a surface level than the fact that we're both animals.

What does a Christian want? He wants to belong to something; so do I; he wants ritual; so do I; he wants beauty; so do I; he wants a way to cheat death; so do I; he wants purpose; so do I; he wants structure; so do I...

He may think he wants those things because he's a child of God, whereas I believe he wants those things because that's the Human Condition.

So spend a lot of time talking to people about these things. I've reached a point where knowing if someone is a believer or an atheist is pretty boring to me. It tells me just one thing about that person -- whether or not he believes in God. I'd rather discuss the finer-grained stuff: what sort of rituals are in that person's life? What sort of beauty? How does he try to cheat death? etc.

Try to get out of a me vs. them mentality. It's fine for you to be angry with people in your past who have acted badly. But know that they acted that way due to animal desires -- not because they are religious. They did bad things because they were angry, jealous, fearful, etc.

Read novels, watch plays and watch movies. Why can I watch Kind Lear and identify with people totally unlike me from 500 years ago? Because they aren't totally unlike me. They are VERY like me.

Make a list of all the things religion gave you (work on it for a long time and be sure you list everything). Your list will probably include many of the things I mentioned above (ritual, belonging, purpose, etc.)

Your job now is to find ways to fulfill those needs without religion. The many happy atheists in the world are proof that it can be done. I can't tell you how to do it, because the way I fulfill my needs is personal to me and probably won't work for you. But do strive to fulfill all of them. Get very specific. If there's a need you can't figure out how to fill, start asking for advice. Don't ask, "What should I do now that I'm an atheist?" Ask "How should I satisfy my need for ritual?" (or whatever).

Here's the WRONG way of looking at it: I have a need for purpose. But since I don't believe in God, there can't be a purpose. So I guess I have to live without fulfilling that need. NO! If you have a need for purpose than you MUST fulfill that need.

I realize that, without "something behind everything", it doesn't matter one iota (speaking from a selfish perspective here) whether I build great things or just sit on my couch and rot, whether I live to be 100 or die tomorrow. It will matter to some, but not to many, and not for long.

Try not to equate value with a length of time.

My theatre company just performed 14 performances of a play. Now it's over and no one can ever see it again. Is it worthless? Is a birthday party worthless because once it's over it's over? Is it worthless when your husband kisses you because that kiss only affects one person -- and at for just a fraction of a second?

Worth isn't about duration? It's about DEPTH! How deep does the experience make you think and -- more important -- feel?

Worth isn't about "how many people." If ONE person gets "depth" from it, it's deeply valuable! If I save a child from getting him by a car, is my act worthless because I didn't save 100 children?

In fact, I would say that duration has nothing to do with worth. Beethoven's 9th Symphony does not have value because it has endured for so long. In fact, it has no value when no one happens to be listening to it or actively thinking about it. It becomes valuable only IN THE MOMENT when a listener listens to it.
posted by grumblebee at 10:21 AM on November 18, 2009 [15 favorites]

Perhaps you're trying too hard to be an atheist... You read the Christian bible and didn't like it. There's nothing wrong with that, but that doesn't mean that there might not be *a* god if not the capital G God from that Bible, nor does it mean there's no afterlife.

I am not a Christian but call myself agnostic. Shakespeare set it best, "There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy" While I'm certainly no fan of "Intelligent Design" or any of that BS, I am not so arrogant as to think that there COULDN'T be something more than this life.

Or it could be. Only one way to find out and I'm in no hurry to get there :)

Your journey will be a long and personal one, but I think it's important to draw a distinction between Christian doctrine and true atheism. Nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially about any organized religion who's goals will always be their own self-betterment (money, power, etc). But that doesn't mean you have to quit cold turkey and renounce everything you ever believed. You CAN cherry-pick.
posted by arniec at 10:22 AM on November 18, 2009

Aw. I've been through this. I think you really have to find what works for you, but I remember the casting around for something to believe in and thinking there was no real point anymore. At the time, I was also going through a lot of uncertainty about my sexuality, so I guess my sadness about losing my faith was tempered by no longer thinking I was going to hell because I no longer believed in hell. That was a plus.

What snapped me out of my funk was reading the earlier books of Richard Dawkins (when he was primarily a science writer who happened to be an atheist rather than the other way round) as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach. Dawkins seems obvious - he helped me reframe my "lack of belief" in God as finally "truly believing" in the awesome power of science and probability. This sort of transformed my head-wonder back to heart-wonder, as you put it.

GEB less so, and it's harder to explain what function it served for me just from the perspective of the book itself. However, once you read his much later book I am a Strange Loop it makes a little more sense why GEB helped me so much. The whole thesis of GEB proposes, without being really explicit about it, essentially a secular analog to the religious notion of the soul. This analogy to the soul can be ascribed not only to humans, but in lesser degrees to all sorts of things, up to and including algorithms (this in particular was huge for me, for personal reasons that probably won't apply to you). I know this sounds weird, but it came as a great comfort to me at the time. I am a Strange Loop goes on to make this analogy explicit - it seems Hofstadter himself didn't really see what he was doing with GEB or came to understand it in different terms as he matured. Or maybe he did but didn't express it as well as he wanted to.

GEB isn't for everyone. There's a lot of math in it, and some people hate math. There are also a lot of storytelling gimmicks which I found delightful but might be annoying to you. I think most anyone could pick up IaaSL and understand it, but I have no idea whether you'll get the same consolation from it as I did from GEB (when I read GEB, IaaSL wasn't out yet).

I'd like to add that while these guys helped me get past the depression, I didn't create a coherent direction or moral framework for myself until I read existentialist fiction in college. Highly recommended.

On preview, I'm seeing that many people have read books that helped them, which were not my books. This is not at all surprising :)

I think what this comes down to is, there's nothing that's going to help everyone. These things helped me in particular to really understand the scope and depth of what I was saying when I said I didn't believe in any deity, and to understand also that this doesn't have to be a sad thing - it can be an expression of personal power, and it can be an expression of your commitment to the people and ideas you find important for your own reasons. Maybe think of this as the ultimate DIY project...you've just had a lot of structure ripped from your life. It's now your task to seek out ideas and communities, in all kinds of unlikely places, to replace that structure. To me, once I started on the road and started reading, this was a tremendously rewarding task, and one that I continue to work on all the time. In a way, this is just like being religious, except that there's nobody to tell you that the ideas that happen to resonate with you are wrong or bad. They're just ideas, and they'll bring you joy and direction, or you can just take the book back to the library and go read something else.

I really feel for you...I remember all these stages so well. Memail me if you want to talk.
posted by crinklebat at 10:30 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anon, there are so many things I would like to say to you, way more than I have the time to write down here. I am not religious at all, but I have gotten to a place where I am at peace with the big questions. Please feel free to MeMail me if you'd like.

You sound like you've had your fill of books at the moment, but if not, I really recommend you read Conversations with God by Neil Donald Walsh. For me, it was the beginning of looking at the concept of God very differently from what is traditionally taught. I think if your reason for not believing in God is that you just can't believe in a God that would allow all this crap to happen, or a God that is vengeful, or even a God that picks and chooses prayers to answer, or a God that would even want the kind of followers he's got, or a God that teaches that any of us (female, black, gay, whatever) is worth less than another - then this book is for you.
posted by widdershins at 10:37 AM on November 18, 2009

I would read Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism ASAP to make you feel better. There is a point, Sartre argues, and not believing in God actually suggests that people have MORE reason to be caring and generally responsible in society, not less. For a lot of believers, for others no to have faith literally means that one CANNOT be good - Sartre will make you feel better about that because he counters that attitude so effectively. There may be some vestiges of that in your current feelings.

As well I just want to reassure you that just because you're not Christian any more doesn't have to be that laden with heavy meaning. You can still celebrate Christmas (wait for the arguments about this one) if you like, and cook a ham or lamb at Easter, and say an occasional prayer to be polite at family gatherings. I love going to Catholic mass from time to time (in French in particular it's awesome) though obviously I don't take communion (never having been Catholic nor being a believer currently). Just because certain things have a certain meaning for others doesn't mean you can't participate (to some degree, and likely quite rarely) from time to time in YOUR OWN WAY.

A very significant amount of Christian ceremony and ritual is also very much part of the secular history (both practical and philosophical) of North America. Because you don't believe in the nominal Christian background for much of this ceremony doesn't in any way mean that you have to reject it all out-of-hand. Hopefully knowing that and meditating on it can help you relax a bit. For me - I can't wait to go to Notre Dame Basilica here in Montreal at Chrismas to watch Handel's Messiah performed, and I see NO contradiction between my atheism and that desire.

A lot of people lately have put a lot of weight on what it means to be atheist, and that you must reject things, and symbols of things. I strongly disagree with this - and in fact for people like you that may in fact weigh you down and make your ability to relax and just move on with your life even more difficult than it already is.

Everyone is different, but for me, my atheism means that I simply don't think much about all of this stuff on a day-to-day basis.
posted by mikel at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2009

I followed a similar path: I tried hard to believe, read the bible cover to cover, now don't believe. Played keyboards in church while not believing in the faith I was helping people to celebrate. Came clean to my mother (devout) long after. Thought gloomy nihilistic thoughts, listened to Marilyn Manson (I was young, and they are awesome live).

My thoughts after realising that focusing on NOT being something was weird and non-useful: 1) I'll try to make the future better - it's a better kind of immortality. 2) I'll try to make the present better, be a positive part of the world for those that I affect.

Ultimately I superseded both of those with the aim to really live this one life I have. Both of the things above matter (a lot) to me, but I have this general sense of joy which incorporates them both, as well as lots of other stuff.

Concrete suggestions - get in touch with nature. Nobody created the Milky Way, but it's still there when you look up on a dark, dark night. A gift with no giver - does that not match any miracle in scripture? Stay in touch with art. Is Bach's St. John's Passion any less beautiful for being a work of fiction? Make sure that you are in touch with people, that you are engaged. When you have those deep moments of existential despair, it's good to have people around who are genuinely glad to have you around.

The world is beautiful, you owe it to yourself to love the time you have in it.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was raised Catholic but stopped believing when I was pretty young. It took me years to get over a lot of the emotions and issues raised by being a non-believer. I call myself an atheist because I do not believe that there is a God. I do however believe in transcendence. What I mean by that is that there are certain things that can elevate us beyond ourselves in the hear and now. As a professional musician, I naturally turn to music, but there are many other things in life that can make one have that sense of transcendence.

Lastly, and in the spirit of the above (pun not really intended), I'm rather enjoying this at the moment.
posted by ob at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2009

I recommend Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, for an example of authentic post-Christian spiritual wonder and striving without religious dogma or New Age claptrap.
posted by goethean at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2009

There are some great answers in this thread, and, at the risk of being redundant, I'd like to echo some of the sentiments that resonated with me and give my own input.

Just cause you busted out of the Christian box doesn't mean you have to hop into the atheist box. Dealing with the death of your faith can be extremely trying, but you don't have to replace your identification with Christianity with identification with atheism. I don't understand why so many atheists feel the need to actively identify as such. I guess it's understandable that many people want some sort of label based on their faith or lack thereof, but it seems silly to me to make a religion out of eschewing religion.

The totality of existence is a difficult thing to conceive, and I think humans' notions of God spring from the struggle to reconcile the differences between what we perceive and what we suppose. It is more challenging to forge your own path through life and make decisions about how to reconcile these inconsistencies than it is to accept someone else's pre-packaged plan for doing so, but it's ultimately more fulfilling.

I like to think of 'God' as the constant flux of the universe. I choose to believe in harmony, and while I know that harmony and discord are themselves in constant flux, my life is made better by faith in the notion that there exists, if only for an instant every once in a great while, a sense of ultimate balance.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

See that big stack of books over there? The one with the Bible and all the apologetics and the Christian thinkers and all?

Toss 'em out. You don't have to worry about any of that stuff ever again. You are FREE.

Now, freedom is kinda scary. It's easier to work from a map, even a bad map. But now you're in a place where you don't have a map.


Your choices are your own. Your decisions are your own. Your joy and your struggle and your story is being built by you, every day, every moment, with every action.

Isn't it great?

Now when you feel guilt, you'll know it's really for something left undone or done badly, rather than for breaking a silly rule in an old book. You can start listening to yourself honestly! You can treat people as individuals, instead of as types! You can make the changes you want to make, because you have agency!

You're FREE! It's awesome! It's exhilarating! Enjoy it!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:55 AM on November 18, 2009

I felt like you did once, and if it's any consolation, time did all the work for me. After a while of telling myself, "Stop being sad, you'll never get these moments back," it eventually started working and I was able to really let go of all the comforting delusions I used to have. I quit fearing my own death.

Then I had a long stretch of time where I would think about people close to me dying and never seeing them again, and that was really horrifying. I just let myself think about it, and cry about it; trying to avoid the feelings is unhelpful, I think. I reminded myself that all the time I spend mourning people before they die is time I could have spent enjoying them while they're here. I tell myself I will be sad when they die, and that will be okay, but not to waste time now on negative feelings.

It took a while for the "head-wonder" at the universe to become "heart-wonder" for me, too. It certainly wasn't that way for me when I was in the state you're in right now, though, and I think that's normal. The past couple weeks my husband and I have been working our way through Planet Earth and it's like continual pangs of heart-wonder for me, though. It's incredible to me the things that exist, even in insane conditions; life itself seems both fragile and persistent, and it's inspiring. In that same vein, it's incredible to me that the universe exists, instead of nothing. It's way more comforting to me to think that we got to this point without anyone looking out for us; when I thought someone had been I wondered why so many things are so messed up, but now that I no longer think that it's incredible to me how many things aren't messed up.

It was also inspiring to me the moment it really hit me that I can find meaning in anything I want. I don't mean that in the sense of ability to do so, which I never doubted, but permission to do so, from myself. There are a long list of silly things that people will try to make you feel bad about liking, and there are a lot of people in the world that will try to make you feel weird for being emotionally-moved by something simple. It's very easy to try and live life in such a way that those people leave you alone. But when you know there's nothing after this, you're disinclined to turn yourself away from anything you find beautiful and meaningful. When those people start in, instead of thinking maybe they're right, maybe you're weird, you start to feel pity and some sadness for how few beautiful moments they'll have experienced when they die.
posted by Nattie at 12:12 PM on November 18, 2009

I have no idea what I believe. It changes constantly. What I do know is I will not know in a way that satisfies the 'scientific' me. When I have discomfort with trying to figure things out, I just go with what is there. What is there is the now. I always think of the monks creating the sand mandalas. They spend countless hours creating beauty, then just sweep it away. I see life like that. And I get that just because it is, or is not, forever, it has nothing to do with the beauty we create in life. I try to see that temporary beauty is just as important as permanent beauty.

I look at it this way so I remember that a temporary life is just as important as a permanent (heaven, etc.) one. If I am here then gone, or if I go on to something else after I die, has nothing to do with the full and rich life I create now. It gives me some breathing room. Also it gives me more power to create my life for myself.

Just an additional perspective...
posted by Vaike at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2009


Sound System

Sound system gonna bring me back up
One thing that I can depend on
Try to describe to the limit of my ability:
It's there for a second
Then it's given up what it used to be
Contained in music somehow more than just sound
This inspiration coming and twisting things around
Because you always know that it's gonna have to go
You always know that you'll be back in the cold.
Point of departure sublimated in a song
Its always coming to give me that hope for just a second
Then it's gone, but!

Static pulse inside of music bringing us escape.
Its always temporary, changing nothing in its wake...
Just a second where we're leaving all this shit behind
Just a second but its leaving just this much in mind:
To resist despair, that second makes you see
To resist despair, because you can't change everything
To resist despair, in this world is what it is to be free
posted by Methylviolet at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think I had a similar experience to yours, though my family is not as fundamentalist as yours seems to be. For me, the depressing times were the times when I had stopped going to church and stopped giving much thought to religion, but I still identified in some ways as Christian. I still thought I should be living by Christian principles, and so my moral choices often left me feeling inexplicably guilty or wrong.

I remember reading the God Delusion, and somewhere near the beginning Dawkins relates the story of a woman who had taken a long time giving up her beliefs and feeling comfortable in her atheism. In the end her reason was "I didn't know I could." That was an ah-ha moment for me. The freedom of an atheistic lifestyle was never an option in my mind. I never thought to just say, "Well, I'm done with all this hand-wringing now. Whee!" My life, your life, the universe at large, none of these things have predefined narratives. We are free to make our own choices about who we are and what we want to accomplish. All that being said, here are some things which have helped me in my acclimation to this worldview:

1) Friends. Sounds simple, but it's not. I would recommend telling your husband exactly how you feel, for a start. Given that he feels the same, he can be a fantastic source of support. Also, find local secular/atheist groups and hang out with them. Yes, some people will still be asses (welcome to the human race) but they'll all be interested in dealing with the world as it is. Go to MetaFilter meetups. :)

2) Scientific interests. After I read the God Delusion, I read some of Dawkins' other books. The Selfish Gene, the Blind Watchmaker. I didn't really have a big interest in biology during school, but these books so elegantly explain the power of evolution that I find myself experiencing "heart-wonder", as you say, even reading them again now. Go to a science conference. When the speaker makes a joke about creationism and the whole room laughs, it will be WEIRD. To think that there are all these people who think like you do. But it'll get less weird as time goes on.

You say: I realize that, without "something behind everything", it doesn't matter one iota (speaking from a selfish perspective here) whether I build great things or just sit on my couch and rot, whether I live to be 100 or die tomorrow.

And I get that. It is, in a sense, true. What do you with your ~80 years on earth means next to nothing in the grand history of existence. But take that statement and look at it from the other way around. What you do here matters immensely. This is the only chance we get. And you might be the person who helps someone have a better life. Your art might communicate so clearly to someone that they decide to change for the better. Every day is a day where you have the opportunity to make the world a better place. That's all very wishy-washy optimistic, but it's also true. If we don't help our fellow humans, no one will do it for us.

Finally, remember to have fun. Eat good food, drink good beer. Go see live music. Go see live theater. Stay up too late talking about politics. The world is a crazy and wonderful place to live in.
posted by lholladay at 12:41 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed reading your post. Where you are isn't good, but I've been somewhere similar and it just feels good to know you're out there. There's lots of us! And things change.

Firstly you say you doubt that there's life after death and you find no evidence to the contrary. I suggest you have no evidence at all either way and that your feelings are just as unjustified as those of someone who suspects there is life after death. You have an equal amount of evidence. Zero. If you think people of faith are arrogant and misguided for claiming to know the ultimate truth of the universe, watch out for that glass house of yours. So one option is to just let it be unresolved and unanswered. You really don't have to take a position on something when there's no reason to. That's uncomfortable at first, but you'll find balance after a while, like learning to ride a bike. That unknowingness is a muscle you can cultivate and develop, a kind of mature patience to see you all the way to the end in calm peace. When you die, either something more will happen or nothing will. I think that actually makes for a good reason to look forward to death as an event itself, not the ending of events. You really can't lose. If nothing happens and you expire like a burned out light bulb, then you cease to exist and there's nothing left to perceive that it sucks that nothing happened. If something happens, you get the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, which is awesome. Well it would suck if it were hell, but that sounds pretty silly and inefficient. I guess all of that is sort of an argument for agnosticism, but what I'm really after is to encourage you to let go of unsupported certainties that only hurt you. The afterlife issue really isn't something you need to resolve right now, even more so since you can't.

In regard to your "Why am I here? Why even bother?" angst, I completely know what you mean. I think this is another opportunity, though, to leave a question unanswered. If religion is a cork originally invented to shove into uncomfortably empty spots in our understanding of the world, and you've decided religion is not for you, consider getting to know those holes for what they are and just letting them be. It's kind of an exercise in accepting your limits as a speck on a pebble in the infinite void of space. It's OK if you can't figure it all out! The reason religion is so comforting is that it has an explanation for most things. It's a convenient framework through which to understand existence, to order the universe, even if it's arbitrary and made up. It's an anchor and a point of reference for everything else in what would otherwise be an empty space where everything is simply relative (hey... that sounds familiar). Without it, you're now facing naked reality, and reality is simply unexplained. Nobody knows the answers to the big questions. It's simplistic to say, but where I ended up was that it simply doesn't matter why I'm here. I'm here. And I can sit around and do nothing or kill myself or do something. It's like in Shawshank Redemption - "Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'."

You're right that it's very unlikely that much or even anything you do in your life will last or matter in the long term. That's OK, you won't be here to perceive that anyway. But things do matter in the short term. Your fellow people matter. You matter. Even if you think nothing matters, that still feels bad, as you've described to us here, and you wouldn't be asking this question if how you feel right now didn't matter. So let your own wellbeing and happiness and that of others be your reason for being. You dismissed Buddhism, but one thing it's good for is helping you be here now, in the present, the only thing you've ever got. You don't have to have anything to do with Buddhism, but in a world in which you don't see long term meaning or even medium term meaning, taking care of the right now seems much more appealing and worthwhile and justified. You don't have to think about long term success or doing big things or what anyone will think about any of that. You can just be here now and make now the best it can be. You have that choice and can optimize the present in a way that makes you and others feel good, which, as we determined, does matter. And you can do that every moment until you die. (and possibly afterwards!)

One last possibly comforting thought and possible way to help yourself be in the present is that in two years, five, ten, fifty, you will not feel exactly as you do now. Part of feeling this way is wondering if you will feel this way for the rest of your life. It may take time, but you won't. Your worldview and mindset are different now than they were last year and in high school and at age 6. They'll be different in the future. It's OK to be where you are right now.
posted by kookoobirdz at 2:24 PM on November 18, 2009

One other thing, in regard to your thought about how you can't make enough of a difference to enough people for it to be worth anything, I'm reminded of this wonderful old chestnut:

"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

It's an illusion to think that you will be the one person to move the world in the big historical way that you could finally feel meant something. That implies that you seek a degree of control of the world that you just don't have. The good news is that you don't have to be that magical hero person. You can just do what you can with what you've got and start wherever you are. Other people will be doing the same thing elsewhere. The ocean is made of raindrops.
posted by kookoobirdz at 3:03 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know exactly what you mean.

I had obsessive-compulsive disorder as a child. OCD can be succinctly described as an omnipresent, looming specter of Something Horrible, and one's flailing attempts to stifle it. I was haunted by the specter of God not existing.

I was four when I realized what it meant to die. I remember sobbing in the bathroom, petrified, while my mom smoothed my hair and calmed me down with words of Jesus, heaven, faith, eternal love. From then on, the terror never left me, but I clung to my mother's promise of a benevolent father figure who would protect my family and me. I began to reassure myself with the words, "If God is real..." "If God is real, my mother will not get in a car accident and die. If God is real, the plane I am on will not crash. Note that I had to be reasonably confident about God being real for these affirmations to be effective.

Over time, though, the focus of the reassurances became as much about my safety as about God's existence. The feared event did not occur, therefore, God exists. Eventually, I began using "If God is real" with predictions more mundane - "If God is real, we will make this stoplight." "If God is real, I will run the mile in under 10 minutes today" - and more certain. "If God is real, it is now 10:14 PM on the West Coast of the United States." Finally, I would just say: "If God is real, my name is Danielle. If God is real, my name is Danielle."

I won't go into how I lost my faith, but it's similar to the way you did. And I am baffled at people who seem so cavalier about it: "Yeah, I got over that crap when I was six. Welcome with reality, sheeple!" I often say that there's a God-shaped void inside of me. By the time I began to acknowledge my doubts, God had become for me essentially just the faith that eventually, everything would be okay - that the universe loved me and was looking out for me. That's an awful thing to lose. It's traumatic. It's facing death, truly facing death, for the first time. Those who can stare into the abyss without it looking back have stronger constitutions than I do.

And yes, it can be motivating, but I also find it paralyzing. If I don't call my mom in over a week, I'm wracked with guilt, because we're now a week closer to her death date (or mine for that matter) and if I screw up I don't get to make it up to her later. All of our actions or non-actions are so fraught with finality. It's overwhelming.

But in the end, what's true is true whether we like it or not. I find some comfort in a buddhist-ish concept called radical acceptance: sadness, loss, and grief are inevitable - suffering is caused by our attempts at denial, and facing reality will bring us more peace in the long run. Basically, the truth will set you free.

Life is a tragedy - it always ends in death. We have been blessed with the bittersweet opportunity to live, act, be conscious, even if it's for a brief amount of time - and then, we have to return to the earth we came from. The other option is to have never lived at all - would that really be better?

Walt Whitman called death, "the key, the word of the sweetest song and all songs." He also said this:

O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities fill'd with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light--of the objects mean--of the struggle ever renew'd;
Of the poor results of all--of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest--with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring--What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here--that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

posted by granted at 3:05 PM on November 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

I would recommend the music videos A Glorious Dawn and We Are All Connected. They convey such a sense of wonder and awe about this universe. They've been a large part of my decision to learn quantum mechanics - to really understand what's going on at the most basic level of reality. So many days of mine have been brightened by them, whether I am listening to them or just replaying them in my mind.

I thnk in some sense, science and math can fill the role that God fills for many religious people. They definitely do for me. You might enjoy delving a bit deeper too.

My life situation is not all that different from yours, OP. But I just sort of view it as slightly sad for them, like someone who has travelled abroad might think about someone who has never left their hometown. It doesn't really bother me, and I love coming home to see them very much. Thankfully they are not as sexist, etc., but there are still big differences in the way we see things. It doesn't have to be a problem, they're still my family and I'm stilll their brother or son.

And you know what? I recently found out that one of my siblings has become atheist.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 4:21 PM on November 18, 2009

I second Fuzzy Monster -- read some Nietzsche, specifically Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This book is about your life, right now: it's about how human beings can and must create their own meaning for their lives, even after admitting that God is dead.

I suspect that The Three Metamorphoses may seem as familiar to you as "the five stages of grief"... you've been the camel who patiently accepted all that Christianity and your family would ask of you, and you've been the lion who destroyed all of those false values you once held so dear. The meaning and passion you seek will come in the child stage, through creation and the love of yourself and your own values. The Spirit Of Gravity is another chapter which may have some meaning for you.

If the above links spark your interest, I'd suggest looking through the various translations at the bookstore. They vary quite a bit (most of the modern ones are much less King James Bible-y than the Thomas Common translation I linked to above -- Kaufmann is a good one, and Hollingdale is even better, in my eyes), and it's worth it to find one which speaks to you...
posted by vorfeed at 4:59 PM on November 18, 2009

Atheism isn't (or really should not be, even though some people treat it as such) a religion. It is the acceptance that life is what it is, and that there was no flying spaghetti monster that created it.

Ahh, but the lack of meaning. Look at it like this. Nobody knows what the meaning is. The religious choose to believe their traditions are the one true answer. But that is simply self-delusion. (Not saying that in a negative way, but that's what it is. There's no proof, only belief, and belief without proof is a form of delusion.)

So, the answer pretty much is that you have to come to terms with the fact that there is no answer. Life just is. Anyone who says it's anything more is selling you something.

Or, look at it this way: god is a concept. He stands for the creative force in the universe, whatever that something is that makes stuff want to combine with other stuff and eventually after a lot of combining, turns into a squirrel. You can believe that such a force exists and call it god without having to buy into any religiousness. You don't have to give up the idea that there is something kinda neat about the universe just because you don't think Religion X has all the answers.
posted by gjc at 5:32 PM on November 18, 2009

Guess I'll put in my two cents worth here. I used to think of myself as an atheist, or at least tried the concept on for size. I would have reactions similar to yours....what a meaningless universe, how can this life be so unhinged with no defining morality, spirit or overarching purpose.
I then realized my concepts of both God and atheism were themselves mental constructs that I was using to beat myself up with.
From there, I suppose I created a thesis that went, spirit is everywhere in the universe. Whether you call it the laws of physical reality, your internal chemistry, or the beauty of nature, you have only to step outside and look into the night sky to experience it.
I can't buy into a being that can act outside the laws of the physical universe, therefore no god. Nor can I buy into a set of rules designed to constrain my mind and behavior based on the commands of this illusory being.
What I can do is be open to experiencing the amazing reality of this physical universe, as best I can comprehend it, and the beauty of nature all around and which I am a tiny subset of.
The grandeur of our stage overwhelms any religious text ever conceived.
posted by diode at 11:37 PM on November 18, 2009

Not much to add that hasn't already been said other than you should visit Leaving Christianity, a site that helped me in a journey similar to your own.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:54 PM on November 18, 2009

Well I'm a Christian so my perspective on most of this is, well, irrelevant... but I'm a husband and on that level I'd say, I don't see how acceptance can come if you aren't willing to say what you're feeling to the person closest to you. So try telling your husband you've realized you're pretty much an atheist and its bumming you out. It might be a good start. It might also be worthwhile to consider whether you are mired in sense of meaning that is rooted in your particular background of religion (fundamentalist/orthodox Judeo-Christianity). You might want to work some on the ideas of what really makes things meaningful. And I really don't hate you all. Hang in there.
posted by nanojath at 12:03 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

It took me a while to realize I am an atheist (raised Catholic, stopped going to church >35 years ago). But since I was out of the "religion world", it wasn't too much of a shock, just a realization that, "Oh. So that's what I am."

One thing that really helped put things into perspective for me was something I had heard from Matt Dillahunty (president of the Atheist Community of Austin). To paraphrase... I care that my beliefs are true. Therefore, I want to believe as many true things, and as few false things as possible.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 11:44 AM on November 19, 2009

Maybe it's not an either/or, believe or not believe? Maybe you can go deeper?

-- St. Irenaeus said "The glory of God is man fully alive." Can you embrace God by simply being a Good Human Being? What does that mean in practice?
-- God gives his name to Moses in Exodus, saying to tell them that "I AM" has sent you." What kind of being wants to be called "I AM?" Theologian Paul Tillich said that "God is not A being, but being itself." The Book of Acts describes God as "in whom we live and move and have our being." Can you embrace God by just Being?
-- In 1 John 4:16, is says, "God is Love." What if you took that literally? Ah, what if we Christians all took that literally!
-- My Church's doctrine of the Holy Trinity decscribes a mutual loving relationship between three persons in mutual selfless giving, making up one God. In essence, God is a special kind of relationship -- Self-sacrificing Love, total Gift of Self. Not a man in the sky, but family, community, relationship.

But that's only if you want to worry about having a "God" concept to hang onto. Throw the word "God" out of the above and you still have a great recipe for purpose, meaning, and existence = Love others, be fully human, be your true self, transcend your own ego, give selflessly, seek justice for the poor and marginalized.

So forget about "God" and throw yourself into that. If that works for you. I believe it would work just fine for God. He does not want our rituals and sacrifices so much as our obedience to His commandment to show love and compassion.

In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus bases the final judgement, goats or sheep, heaven or hell, not based on church attendance or tithing or prayer, but on whether you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick or imprisoned, whether you showed mercy and comapssion. Love in practice. That's the real litmus test.

I know a whole lot of atheists personally who are among the Sheep, whether they want to be thought of that way or not. I just smile to myself when I think about what gifts they are and how I appreciate their contributions to the Kindgom of God. But when I tell them how much they inspire me, I use secular terms. You could be, probably are, one of those people.
posted by cross_impact at 12:03 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

The most recent episode of the This I Believe podcast (http://thisibelieve.org/podcasts/) had a great essay on not believing in god by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller). I thought it packed a lot of depth in a six minute segment. It might help with your struggle.
posted by chitchcock at 2:04 PM on November 19, 2009

Because you said you were a professional artist, and because you are concerned about how nothing matters because there isn't enough time or reach for you to have an impact...

It might be helpful to look into the concept of wabi sabi as an artistic concept. It's about the beauty/truth of impermanence and imperfection, among other things. It can have sad connotations, but for me as an atheist it's also about the importance of witnessing beauty now because it may not be around for long. Autumn leaves falling from a tree will never happen in exactly the same way twice, and it's beautiful every time, and it'd be a shame to have that beauty unnoticed. I'm not a very good artist, so don't rely on my explanation, though!
posted by harriet vane at 6:18 AM on November 20, 2009

I consider myself an atheist but I don't consider it important to be an atheist nor do I have any desire for other people to be atheists. I don't consider it a more rational or superior position to religion or less formal aspects of faith and spirituality. I'm basically an atheist by default.

The way BitterOldPunk says above You're FREE!... I do not think that atheism frees you from any of the aspects of the human condition that motivate people to seek religion and I think that those are heavier chains than anything that is unique or particular to religion.

It seems to me that to rationally get anything beyond solipsism, to function in the world at all, it's necessary to hold to many things that are fictions or at least no more certain than much of what religious people may hold to.

So I would say that if you're having trouble letting go of God, just don't let go. Better to just let go of any desire at all to relate your personal life to Truth, whether that Truth is really atheism and something approximating materialism or is really some universe with a God-like being in it. If you believed in God as a child I think that He, fictive as He may be, is probably integral to your psyche and extirpating Him is likely more trouble than it's worth - it can't in practicality get you materially closer to the Truth. Construct some trimmed-down theism that works for you, or perhaps some doublethink that allows you to be both an atheist and believe in some version of God at the same time, and get on with your life. It's just what people do and if you were to rigorously scrutinize the logic of daily behavior I think you'd discover that you already are and everyone else already is operating with some similar constructions.

(Maybe you've already found that to be so, and that's what's got you down. But it's not as bad as it sounds. Aren't there some things that viscerally, it doesn't matter whether they're real or not? Take kicking puppies, for example. Even if you found or reasoned out that any objection to kicking puppies is "false" - that there is no chain of logic that can establish a connection to an objectively real reason not to kick puppies - would you ever really feel that bad about stopping someone from kicking puppies? Naw, it wouldn't matter. What you need is more things like that, things that you can get behind viscerally, a line in the sand that you won't mind staking out no matter what buffeting you might take there from logic and rationality or any other force that affects you.)

Truth with a capital T that gets down to the foundations of reality where we could know whether we have free will and whether God exists, and what the Hell He would want to have to do with us if He even existed, and whether quantum physics actually makes any fucking sense or is just a veneer over some other underlying physics, be it simpler or more complicated and weird - that kind of Truth is a fun mental toy to play with, like doing Sudoku or a Rubik's Cube or something, and it's good exercise. But it just is not what our lives are based upon. And it's our lives that are the really great things, the stuff to revel in, the things we can value in and of themselves because we already know they're a good story and a bit of sparkle and glitter and melodrama, which is what we want them to be. Truth, even if we could hold it in our hands, would be tasteless and scentless and drab; it would be the toy, broken, its joints frozen and set in stone. And because in its nature the desire and search for Truth can be no more than a wild goose chase and a hall of mirrors, paradoxically it is the most illusory thing there is.

P.S. Mentioning quantum physics makes for a somewhat dissonant example since of course it's possible that in the future there may be some scientific disproof of quantum physics. But whatever model might succeed it people of that era will just be wondering what will knock that down, ya know what I mean.
posted by XMLicious at 3:11 PM on June 10, 2010

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