Converting from atheism to religion
November 13, 2014 1:49 PM   Subscribe

I've been basically a lifelong atheist, but a small part of me is extremely tempted by some of the more comforting aspects of various religions (such as the idea of an afterlife). But the logical part of me just can't bring myself to seriously believe in things for which there is no evidence. I am interested in hearing stories of people who have gone from being firmly atheist to accepting religion later in life, and how they were able to do so without cognitive dissonance.

I am not trying to be disrespectful of anyone's faith and culture. I am trying to find out how to reconcile my atheist identity with my desire to be comforted in the face of (what I perceive as) the random brutality and uncertainty of a universe governed by the unfeeling laws of physics rather than some higher being with a plan.
posted by Librarypt to Religion & Philosophy (34 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Might want to read some of the stuff on atheism in AA or 12 step programs. There's a lot of musing on the nature of the higher power being, tautologically, that thing which when we behave as though it exists helps us to do what we want to do.

Also worth talking to some Unitarian Universalists (more intellectual), Unity (very feel-y), or United Church of Christ: Many of those folks are atheists who are looking for some of the personal sense that ritual and participation in a community can offer.
posted by straw at 1:54 PM on November 13, 2014

A close friend of mine converted from being a life-long atheist to being very religious.

In his case, he became interested in religion after experiencing a tragic loss -- the death of his daughter. He dealt with this by talking to people. He talked to his wife who is very religious. He talked to his friends. He talked to a priest. He went to a church and talked to people (this is how I met him). He showed up at Bible study and talked to people. He talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. He's still talking about it.

My point is, he dealt with his feelings of cognitive dissonance by dealing with them the same way he deals with other issues or problems. For him that meant talking. He talked about his thoughts and feelings very openly and publicly, and ultimately decided for religion -- not because of its comforts, but because he felt and thought that it is real.

Talking is not for everyone, not all of us process things that way, but I do think that there is merit to the idea that it is more useful to struggle with issues of faith within a religious community. Struggling with them alone is a bit like trying to learn calculus on your own -- sure you can do that, but it's a lot harder. In my experience, a lot of atheists seem to have the idea that everyone in church is easily, comfortably, unquestioningly, unwaveringly faithful. But for many people it is an ongoing struggle, and many religious people are quite open about that struggle.
posted by OrangeDisk at 2:06 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

While it's a phrase oft-touted by Christian fundamentalists, you are mistaken to think all people of faith believe we are living out a plan. I mean, most thinking people would be hard pressed not to acknowledge that if we are, it's a pretty shitty plan for huge percentages of the planet.

Also note that religions including Buddhism have faith systems that explicitly reject the notion of a creator deity.

My broad point is that you may wish to challenge your own assumptions about faith. It need not conflict with science. And in fact, many prominent Christian thinkers in Science are also Nobel Prize winners.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:08 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have an Episcopalian friend who is totally atheistic but has engrossed himself in liturgy since high school. He's always been very academic, and was essentially a classicist in college. He had aspirations of going to divinity school at a prestigious institution. He goes to mass almost daily, and knows the ins and outs of the "rules" (I don't know the real word for it) of what defines Episcopalean faith and practice.

I think this is fairly, if not very, common among some of the more Catholic christian sects. I don't know if you'd have a problem just walking in the front door and telling the priest (or whatever?) exactly what you've asked here.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:10 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe try Buddhism? In general, Buddha is not considered to be God, but rather, enlightened. I don't know all that much, honestly, but that is a great deal of what makes it an ok religion for me. One achieves solace in the teachings of the Buddha, the community and the search for wisdom. Perhaps it might be good to look outside the Judeo-Christian traditions.
posted by k8oglyph at 2:15 PM on November 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

My father passed away a little over a year ago. He was a powerful person in my life, someone I admired who always had faith in me.

Although I remain atheist, the experience has made me a lot more accepting of religion than I had been since leaving the church some 20+ years ago. I spent a lot of time with friends and family who were not outwardly religious became more outspoken and relied their faith as a way to help carry them through. I have a greater appreciation for the comfort my loved ones were able to find through their faith and its value to them. It made me realize that we're all looking for answers, and the answers that give us a sense of peace are different for everyone, even if they are the same religion, and that's OK.

I've just found it really comforting to find we all have so much in common.
posted by mochapickle at 2:18 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I find comfort in the idea that energy can't be created or destroyed, only transformed. The atoms that make me me will continue on after I'm dead, just like they existed before I was born. In that sense, there is an after, just not an afterlife. Yes, heat death will eventually do something to the Universe as we know it, but that's for such a long time away that I can't wrap my head around how big a number it is.

Another thing I find useful is to try to get a sense of awe, a sense of my own smallness. I was raised Catholic, and one main thing I got from it was that God was this huge, terrifying, omniscient, all-powerful being. That might have had an effect on my attitudes, but when I'm in actual awe of something, it's almost like a religious experience.
posted by Solomon at 2:24 PM on November 13, 2014 [10 favorites]

I was an atheist until roughly age 20. It occurred to me that there was a sort of irreducible complexity to the world (I was thinking that phrase long before it became popular). A former girlfriend gave me a booklet containing the Gospel of John. Christ revealed to me in that text that He knows my heart better than I do. I have been a believer ever since. I like to think that I am not religious, and indeed, you do not NEED to be religious to be saved by grace through faith in Christ.
posted by brownrd at 2:29 PM on November 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

I sort of went through this process...I wouldn't exactly call my younger self an athiest, but certainly agnostic with a healthy dose of very bad experiences with religion that left me not feeling very sympathetic toward churches/religion. I ended up attending a United Church of Christ congregation, and have found my church to be deeply meaningful and an enormous source of strength. There are definitely people who would describe themselves as athiest or agnostic in our church, although I would not say that about myself anymore. I found small groups to be the best place to think about/talk about/work through various issues around faith. You might find a liberal-type church (UCC, Unitarian Universalist, etc.) that has small groups to be a good place to explore some of these issues.

I don't think there's a set one-size-fits-all answer as to how people reconcile these things, but I think talking it through with others can be very illuminating. In my case, it's been mostly about a recognition that while science can tell us many useful things, there are also deep mysteries in the world that can't be boiled down to an equation...things like love, faith, spiritual experiences, beauty. Ultimately, it's my belief that there are some things in the universe that humans simply cannot comprehend, and that's actually a really humbling and meaningful thing, to accept that there are things out there I could never fully know or define but that I could in some way connect with. I choose to encounter and engage with those deep mysteries through the Christian church, although I believe there are many ways to access it.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:41 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

What an awesome question!

It *sounds* like what you're saying is that because there is no evidence for God (and so on) that one cannot seriously believe in it, yet you perceive value in the belief you see others having and you (rationally) want a piece of that pie. It further sounds like you are considering trying to "believe" in God (and so on) in order to eat that pie, and are trying to figure out how to do that while "knowing" that the pie isn't actually there at all.

If we were real-life friends I would encourage you to do some reading.

Off the top of my head, Kierkegaard and Pascal might be good places to start. Kierkegaard in particular dealt with a lot of the stuff that it sounds like you're wrestling with. You might also dig Ken Wilbur's "A Brief History of Everything". I think it's speaking into the wider issues you're wrestling with, and because he's much more into Siddhartha than Yeshua, he might feel more trustworthy. (I dunno, that's just a guess)

Religion and spirituality in general do not have to mean checking your brain at the door, even though a lot of people on both sides of the subject seem to think the exact opposite. Western science has had incredible, subject-defining contributions from brilliant minds who were motivated by their desire to understand the world their God had made, and in addition possibly understand that God better in the process.

In fact, there is a lot of writing out there in which very smart people, who live in a world of facts and structure, are constantly wrestling with the question of God, particularly because their experience seems to suggest a reality beyond that which the scientific method is capable of defining.

I'm probably not really answering your question, and I realize that. You seem to be asking how (so to speak) you can be an adult, but still allow yourself to be comforted by a nightlight. A lot of people have a hard time with living in a world where the nightlight is just a necessary symbol or talisman, and I think that's what you're struggling with here.

And that's why I'm recommending (in addition to the suggestions above) that you go and find people who are or were pretty sharp cookies and, when they were confronted with the comfort of God and the afterlife (and so on), demanded to know if it was real or not, and weren't satisfied by the cold "reality" of naturalism or the understanding of spirituality as being emptily comforting, but still necessary or desirable. There is a third way of looking at things-- that maybe those things speak to so many of us across space and time because at the core there *is* something real that we're pursuing and hungry for, and it isn't just a desire to create a story out of our experience or satisfying neural structures that fell haphazardly into place because we evolved this way.

Talk to some priests or pastors that seem cool. In any city there will be some who "get it". They may not share their own struggle with you (they have them though. Woof!), but they might be able to point you in the direction of other people, alive or dead, who have wrestled with the core mystery of an experience and desire that can't be defined but refuses to be explained away. That sounds a lot cooler than swallowing the blue pill, honestly, and that's why I hope you look into it.

I can't help you with your question though (so why is he posting?!): how to swallow the kool-aid and learn to love the bomb (we're mixxing all those metaphors and references up and there's no going back). If that's what you really want in the end, I do hope someone else here can help you do it.
posted by Poppa Bear at 3:05 PM on November 13, 2014 [16 favorites]

I'm an apathetic atheist, but I still find a lot meaning and value in the stories religions tell. Ignore deities for the moment, and start with the stories. What do they tell you? What meaning and value do you get from them? Religion is a story we tell ourselves, same as any other story, and it doesn't have to be objectively, factually true to give comfort and have meaning. For me, it's like I know the myth of Hades and Persephone is not the "real" explanation for the change of seasons, and that the Greek gods and goddesses have no existence beyond the one we give them. But there are a lot of other things I get from that story, and there are a lot of other things it has taught me.

There are a lot of different ways we derive meaning from the universe. Science and religion are two of them, and they don't need to be incompatible. In that sense, I agree with Solomon's comment above. I derive a lot of comfort and awe from the certainties and even unknowns of the physical universe. Our atoms were part of stars long before they were ever part of us, and maybe they'll be part of stars again eons from now.
posted by yasaman at 3:15 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Must you be a theist? Buddhism is very comforting and is generally considered to be non-theistic. As another poster pointed out, Buddha is not a "god" and The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path have actual practical applications in every day life. In one Buddhist tradition, instead of a heavenly afterlife as described in Abrahamic religions, there is the concept of rebirth and nirvana, which is not precisely reincarnation. It's very difficult to describe because of difficulties in translation. As I understand it (after lots of reading and head-scratching), there is no immutable/immortal soul that is born and reborn--instead there are pieces and parts that exist between lives. There is another tradition that has more of the "pure land" view of the afterlife that would be more familiar to theists.

Anyway, I strongly encourage you to look into Buddhism. I've suffered from mental illness and physical illness quite a lot in my lifetime, and I've found it very frustrating to feel victimized by life's circumstances. I'm not a very good practitioner of Buddhism, but I've found much of my reading to be very comforting in a way that feels "true" and is in line with my more logical/analytical/scientific way of thinking.
posted by xyzzy at 3:52 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

my desire to be comforted in the face of (what I perceive as) the random brutality and uncertainty of a universe governed by the unfeeling laws of physics rather than some higher being with a plan.

There are atheist or non-religious answers to the question of comfort and support that might be worth exploring. And then there are ways of understanding "religion" that differ from the predominant ones in our society.

For a non-religious perspective, I've found Carl Sagan's work in Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World to afford a sense of comfort by describing how we can bring meaning to a universe that has no inherent meaning.

Likewise, the lifestance of Humanism offers approaches to these questions; I suggest reviewing the short Humanism and Its Aspirations to see if it responds to the questions you have.

For non-traditional religion, you may want to explore religious Humanism in the Unitarian tradition or Ethical Culture as described by Felix Adler. Both (in some versions) draw on Emersonian trascendentalism which might connect with the appeal of afterlife.

The Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association describes religious Humanism, and on that topic I'd recommend William Murry's Becoming More Fully Human. Going back in history a little bit, I'd recommend Earl Cook's chapter in Humanist Sermons, which I find to be a powerful, moving answer to the question of meaning in an unthinking, uncaring cosmos.
posted by audi alteram partem at 4:06 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I went from believing in a conservative religion for years, to atheist for years, to interested in liberal religion and dabbling in a few different ones. That first shift felt like swallowing the red pill. But the second shift has been barely perceptible in terms of any changes in my personal philosophy.

Are there any works of fiction that you treasure? Does the fact that they're not literally true make them any less special or meaningful to you than nonfiction? Looking at religion through that lens of metaphor may help resolve the cognitive dissonance.

I recommend the On Being podcast as a way to hear a lot of sophisticated, sincere perspectives, sometimes from trained theologians but always made very accessible to people without that training.

I visited a lot of places of worship as part of my journey. At first I was shocked to hear clergy say stuff like "the Bible is a collection of writings by fallible human beings" and "I don't believe Jesus was literally resurrected" and "if you meet the Buddha, kill him" and "we don't offer any answers to life's big questions here; we can only live the questions together" And gradually that started to seem to me like what religion is about, and my more literal religious upbringing started to fade into the past.

Honestly, I don't think where you're at (seriously tempted by the comfort of an afterlife / unable to totally believe without evidence) is all that different from where most believers are at. Ultimately, it's a choice you make for yourself whether it feels right to call yourself an atheist with some hope for an afterlife, or a believer with a lot of doubts. It kind of boils down to the same thing philosophically, but identity, community, culture, and so on would affect how you choose to describe it.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 4:14 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am big on proof and do not believe in praying to any religion unless I see results in my life. Which is what happened when I practiced Nichiren Buddhism. I had always thought Buddhism to be a feel good kind of religion however I was surprised to see the depth of it when I read the ancient texts on it, things actually change (and not in some new agey way). You can read this book and explore here. Toughest part for me was what is called our own Human Revolution-which is overcoming our inner self doubts that serve as obstacles in our life. What you see around you is a manifestation of your own life condition. I saw that again and again and this religion gives you solid tools to change that. And proof is a given. You will see that in your life also.
posted by jellyjam at 4:22 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you might find it useful to read Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. I feel exactly what you're describing -- I was born (and born again!) Baptist, drifted into agnosticism, then into atheism by the time I was an adult. I also would find belief in an afterlife incredibly comforting, and wish like hell I could achieve it. This book, in which Lewis basically reasons himself into religion, came very very close to getting me there.

From Wikipedia: Lewis spends most of his defense of the Christian faith on an argument from morality, a point which persuaded him from atheism to Christianity. He bases his case on a moral law, a "rule about right and wrong" commonly known to all human beings, citing the example of Nazism; both Christians and atheists believed that Hitler's actions were morally wrong. On a more mundane level, it is generally accepted that stealing is violating this moral law. Lewis argues that the moral law is like the law of nature in that it was not contrived by humans. However, it is unlike natural laws in that it can be broken or ignored, and it is known intuitively, rather than through observation. After introducing the moral law, Lewis argues that thirst reflects the fact that people naturally need water, and there is no other substance which satisfies that need. Lewis points out that earthly experience does not satisfy the human craving for "joy" and that only God could fit the bill; humans cannot know to yearn for something if it does not exist.
posted by kythuen at 4:36 PM on November 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

Wow. A great question. I am an atheist, and very likely to remain that way, but I am also very respectful of the role religion plays in human life.

To cut a long story short, I would recommend reading the work of Karen Armstrong, especially her work on myth. Armstrong is an ex-nun who turned religious scholar and could now be considered an expert on a vast swathe of religions and their histories and practices.

Sorry, to throw such a long quote in now, but I really think it is super relevant to your 'quest' for meaning. I am just not sure that the solace you want is to be found in a surface engagement with religion. Rather, go a bit deeper, and you can be an atheist with perhaps the best of both worlds: Karen Armstrong, in her epic, pocket-sized title 'A Short History of Myth' to elaborate this point further:
Scientific logos and myth were becoming incompatible. Hitherto science had been conducted within a comprehensive mythology that explained its significance. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), a deeply religious man, was filled with horror when he contemplated the 'eternal silence' of the infinite universe opened up by modern science.

"When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as thought lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, now what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does no drive people to despair."

This type of alienation has also been part of the modern experience...

...Mythical thinking and practice had helped people to face the prospect of extinction and nothingness, and to come through it with a degree of acceptance. Without this discipline, it has been difficult for many to avoid despair. The Twentieth Century presented us with one nihilistic icon after another, and many of the extravagant hopes of modernity and the Enlightenment were shown to be false...

...Logos has in many ways transformed our lives for the better, but this has not been an unmitigated triumph. Our demythologised world is very comfortable for many of us who are fortunate enough to live in first-world countries, but it is not the earthly paradise predicted by Bacon and Locke. When we contemplate the dark epiphanies of the twentieth century, we see that modern anxiety is not simply the result of self-indulgent neurosis. We are facing something unprecedented. Our societies saw death as a transition to other modes of being. They did not nurture simplistic and vulgar ideas of an afterlife, but devised rites and myths that helped people to face the unspeakable. In no other culture would anybody settle down in the middle of a rite of passage or an initiation, with the horror unresolved. But this is what we have to do in the absence of a viable mythology. There is a moving and even heroic asceticism in the current rejection of myth. But purely linear, logical and historical modes of thought have debarred many of us from therapies and devices that have enabled men and women to draw on the full resources of their humanity in order to live the unacceptable.

We must disabuse ourselves of the nineteenth century fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought. We cannot completely recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education, and return to pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology. We are myth-making creatures and, during the twentieth century, we saw some very destructive modern myths... We cannot counter these bad myths with reason alone, because undiluted logos cannot deal with such deep-rooted, unexercised fears, desires and neuroses. That is the role of an ethically and spiritually informed mythology.
Good luck with your quest.
posted by 0bvious at 4:37 PM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Jen Fulwiler is a very rational, INT-y type who converted from atheism to Catholicism. She has a book (Something Other Than God) that gives the full story of her conversion, but there's a short version here.
posted by Bardolph at 5:04 PM on November 13, 2014

Also, heartily seconding C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, especially Chapter 4, which has a famously lucid step-by-step rundown of why rational belief in modern empirical science, the importance of evidence in structuring our beliefs about the material world, etc., needn't say anything one way or the other about our belief in the existence of a God.
posted by Bardolph at 5:19 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was raised Catholic, became a very staunch atheist in college, and then gradually returned to faith when I was 24 (a year after my mother passed).

I am 27 now and I still have doubts whether there is a Heaven or Hell, but every day I make the decision to renew and sustain my commitment to God. I made this choice because even though a part of me fears there's a possibility that it might all just be make-believe, I am convinced that what the New Testament teaches is the best way to live a truly meaningful life--loving my neighbor as I love myself, not centering my existence on worldly desires, trusting God's good will instead of my own.

I overcome cognitive dissonance by accepting that faith is a kind of surrender, and therefore demands deep humility. Blaise Pascal once said, "Reason's final step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things that are beyond it."

All my best to you and your journey.
posted by tackypink at 5:36 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

As a convert to atheism, I don't have any experiences to share about finding religion, so apologies in advance that my answer is not a direct answer to the actual question.

To me, it sounds like the root question is really this: to reconcile my atheist identity with my desire to be comforted in the face of (what I perceive as) the random brutality and uncertainty of a universe governed by the unfeeling laws of physics rather than some higher being with a plan.
That's a question I ask myself all the time. I think framing the choice as atheism versus religion can prevent us from seeing other answers.

For example, as an atheist I believe that the higher being is humanity itself, and the plan is not so much a plan as it is our species' natural inclination to survive and be shaped by evolution into better (or at least more superior) things. We've developed formal language, self-awareness, critical thought, all manner of adaptations that are strange and wonderful and enrich our interaction with the world, and I am optimistic and excited to see where we go from here.

This gives me comfort, and I am always refining and revisiting my perception on what it means (or if it should mean anything at all) to be alive in this reality.
posted by kyp at 5:50 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you might find it useful to read Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis.

It's also worth noting that Lewis himself grew up with Christianity as a background faith, but just didn't buy in, and as an adolescent decided he was an atheist. He was almost 30 when he transitioned back to theism and Christianity. You may want to pick up a biography, as well as looking into some of the works he authored.
posted by weston at 5:55 PM on November 13, 2014

Perhaps try spiritual practice, whether it be Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, Jewish Kabbalah practices, or something else.

Any authentic spiritual practice will, given consistency and time, allow you to directly experience the spiritual nature of reality.
posted by adgl at 7:17 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am trying to find out how to reconcile my atheist identity with my desire to be comforted in the face of (what I perceive as) the random brutality and uncertainty of a universe governed by the unfeeling laws of physics rather than some higher being with a plan.

Firstly, your desire to be comforted in the face of an uncaring universe is a profoundly human thing, timeless and immortalised by Shakespeare, Beckett, Dickinson, Camus... know that you are united in your struggle with secular and spiritual people alike.

My take on the struggle is: all of us live in the midst of the great storm that is the universe. Lightning flashes and often it strikes us, leaving us in pain and sadness. But asking the stormclouds what you did to deserve it is going to yield only silence. To escape the storm, you have a few choices: you can kill yourself, for one. Or you can join a group of people and convince each other that the lightning strikes where it does for a reason. Or, finally, you can build a little shelter for yourself, with all the things that you love in it—literature, art, friends, family—you can accept that the storm is not going to stop, but you can make sure that when it does hit you, there are people there who will love you and take care of you, there are incredible works of humanity that you can take joy out of and take joy out of trying to contribute to, even, to replace the sadness and pain or at least dull it a little, and in the meantime you can look out the windows occasionally and marvel at the force of nature and the products of the laws of physics, from a safe space.
posted by president of the solipsist society at 7:29 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Staunch atheist turned agnostic here.

My transformation was onerous and involved a lot of uh, questionable methods ... but eventually I understood on a deep and fundamental level that our bodies and minds are LITERALLY comprised of stardust --- we ARE the universe itself.

I don't believe in heaven and hell or any continuation of our ego after death. And like you I trembled at such finality of our existence, a cosmic blip. However, I've always thought that we was a random product of our genes and environment. If you could turn back the clock, to return to your birth and run the grand experiment that is your life, you won't exist as you know yourself.

The ego is a product of this randomness. It's what lies underneath that matters --- the intangible transmission of human consciousness over time, driven by a powerful and mysterious force that compels us to form connections on a global scale. Take a look around, we're transmuting and creating new realities all the time --- through art and science and engineering.

We are the creators.

And I take great comfort in being a part of this great web of consciousness.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 8:32 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

A long time ago, I used to be an atheist. I changed when I debated the issues involved with a wise scholar over a long period of time. I realized that to me, consciousness -- awareness -- the light that allows us to know, experience, feel, and think -- could simply never, ever come from dead, lifeless, insentient matter, however fashionable it was to believe it could.

Regardless of how many atoms were arranged in however complex a configuration, it was simply gibberish that stuff as stiff and unaware as wood or steel could suddenly produce self-awareness -- that sense of "I know that I exist." To believe otherwise, I realized, was philosophical wishful thinking. Just as no combination of colors can ever assemble a sound, no combination of the unaware can ever transform into awareness; they are fundamentally incomparable.

If consciousness couldn't be explained as a transformation of dead matter, I found that it made much more sense to explain matter and the entire universe as a series of thoughts in consciousness (this is of course philosophical idealism). And if individual consciousnesses were all that there were in the universe, well -- what would you call the collective pool in which those minds floated, the space in which they were, that body of awareness and intelligence which produced all thinking things?

posted by shivohum at 9:14 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've always found an eternal afterlife (no matter how pleasant) to be a hellish idea. Even the thought of heaven being eternal sounds more like hell. I like that after death it will be like before I was born. I'll just not be, and I won't exist to worry about not being :) The only reason I've resisted the atheist / non-religious idea of non-existence is because religion poisoned my mind with the fear of hell. Never again will I believe in such a dangerous and harmful idea.

I've gone the other direction. Christianity to atheism. Almost not really as a choice, but just a matter of fact. In trying to strengthen my faith, I found that it couldn't answer any questions I had satisfactorily and that scientific explanations/data make far more sense. I also resent Christianity (and really any religion) that involves an idea of eternal suffering and negatively affects society for the most part (restriction of gay rights and women's rights, etc.- yes I know some Christians support these things, not trying to use a broad brush).

Faiths that don't involve deistic figures, I don't have as much of an issue with, unless they also negatively affect society. These types of faiths don't have such a grip on society as Christianity does in the US. Abrahamic religions really seem bound to wanting and obtaining power. Maybe it's because they tend to quickly become political, I don't know.

I think that there are mysteries of the mind and the universe that we maybe will never be able to explain. As Sam Harris does, I call these mysteries and experiences "spiritual" since it's the best descriptor despite its connotations.

Buddhism has a lot to say about the mind that science just hasn't been able to put into words the way Buddhism has. A lot of it makes sense. So I like reading/studying about it, and practicing meditation, but I avoid the supernatural parts for which there is no evidence (re-incarnation, etc.) I don't see them as necessarily harmful unless one gives up on this life because he/she is assured of the next. I also don't support some sects that believe that women cannot achieve equal status as a fellow "monk/nun/etc"

If I ever were to be religious again it would certainly be some non-Abrahamic (and likely Buddhist) path, or just a personal acknowledgement that "maybe I'm wrong and there is some kind of higher power, but if there is, I choose to believe that this higher power respects my decision to not believe in it since I have no evidence of it". If some kind of heaven exists, and some kind of higher power exists (both unlikely, and both I do not believe), I would expect whatever higher power it is to be benevolent enough to ensure that every human goes there.
posted by kup0 at 9:52 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a tenured philosophy professor. I decided that my life would be better if I were a Christian again. So I took Pascal's advice and started acting like a Christian. I started going to church and going through the motions to see if I wound up believing again. And I did. And I'm glad I did. I am now a liberal Episcopalian. Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:53 PM on November 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here I thought I had a great idea for you - to refer you to C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity - I thought I'd be the only one. Uh-huh. I spent many years angry with any God who would allow such terrible things to happen to good people and wouldn't tolerate anyone quoting scriptures or religious platitudes to me, asking me if I'd been "saved," or inviting me to church. Aack - no, thank you.

After a number of years of this I finally began to search through religious material to see if any of it had anything of substance or if it was all as inane as it seemed. Someone recommended Mere Christianity and I read it and it set me back on my heels a bit; it's more geared toward thinking than toward faith - or at least it fit my needs for logic and reason as opposed to woo-hoo or what appeared to me to be people talking themselves into something just so they'd have something to believe in (and a church to go to for socializing as much as for anything else). I read then about C.S. Lewis himself, looking for holes in the fabric, and found that he was pretty much just what he was - very intelligent, very wise, humble, bookish, and strong in his faith but not petty and judgmental.

I opened my mind a little and kept it open, throughout MY next chapter, which was a test: A Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, little woman who lived all of her life as though Jesus lived next door to her and she could just call him over for coffee whenever she wanted a little help around the place or a little advice. Eleven years I lived near this incredible woman and I consider those some of the most beautiful years of my life, although my initial visits with this lady had me convinced she was delusional and mad as a hatter. During my friendship with her I went through an emotional trauma that - seriously - might have killed me had it not been for Barbara's Jesus - so.

Many more years have gone by now and I'm not a Bible thumper, Barbara's with her Jesus, I'm definitely no athiest, no "Christian" (as in church-affiliated Christian), I lean Buddhist but haven't studied it in depth, I'm convinced that energy is energy and it can change form but cannot be destroyed, I have a pretty solid belief in some form of reincarnation, and I know for certain that there are some things we're not going to know or master because they're the BIG things that make all the universes run, make matter matter, etc. Science is full of old and new material and it changes as we learn more, but it's not incompatible with a higher power having initiated it all or even with that higher power being involved at some level in our individual "soul/essence/energy/psyche" or whatever one might name it. I'm convinced that death is not the end of our existence.

I'm comfortable believing as I do now but I still read a lot and like to study differing viewpoints, but the point is that I broke my reluctance to step into the water in the first place when I read C. S. Lewis. It tickles me to see so many others refer to his book(s) and I'd recommend him highly. Good luck to you - I've enjoyed the meandering along, checking things out as I go and I hope you do, too.
posted by aryma at 12:42 AM on November 14, 2014

I'd recommend reading Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl before turning to religion. It sounds like what you need is a way to impose a sense of purpose on existence, which has no inherent meaning.
posted by starbreaker at 7:22 AM on November 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all wonderful answers and have given me a lot to think about. I will definitely do a lot of reading. I have actually read "Man's Search for Meaning" before and found it uplifting at the time, but that was a while ago and perhaps I need to revisit it.

It *sounds* like what you're saying is that because there is no evidence for God (and so on) that one cannot seriously believe in it, yet you perceive value in the belief you see others having and you (rationally) want a piece of that pie. It further sounds like you are considering trying to "believe" in God (and so on) in order to eat that pie, and are trying to figure out how to do that while "knowing" that the pie isn't actually there at all.

This is it exactly.
posted by Librarypt at 8:18 AM on November 14, 2014

I've been sort of back on forth on faith stuff for a long, long time. I was raised a Christian; spent several years in my 20's as an atheist; became a Christian again, (although much more liberal than my childhood faith); and I've been slowly working out what it means to be an inherently skeptical person of faith ever since.

Anyway, a lot of religious stuff is silly, stupid, childish, or actively harmful. But there's this deep thread through religious history of wise, contemplative, thoughtful, balanced people. People who care for others, make the world a better place, become at peace with themselves. A lot of them say, and I have no reason to doubt it, that it was God/faith/religion that helped them be that way. Hope that something better is coming, somehow, someday is part of that.

For me, it helps to think of Christianity as more a way of life than a belief system. It's a culture, or a series of related sub-cultures. It's a way of being. Routines of prayer, contemplation, study, and good deeds in a community of supportive people is a good thing. It makes my life better. I am finally, in my forties, starting to let go of the idea that I have to be able to prove it is all true, in some set of perfect evidences on paper. Faith-life is helpful for me. I need the moral exemplars it gives me. I am a better person because of the practices I am learning. And it gives me language to describe experiences that transcend rationality. Maybe there are other vocabularies--Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish--that work just as well, but it is the Christian lexicon that I have learned.

There's no hard and fast evidence for God. A lot of what we observe is active evidence against a fundamentalist type of God. But when you dive into spiritual practice, I think you often begin to feel that there something there, some presence gives a sense of peace and strength.

I think ultimately it is one of those things that you need to just try. It really doesn't work to sit at home and try to sketch out a way that you can begin to become religious without cognitive dissonance. That's kind of like sitting in my living room trying to figure out how I can walk through a forest I've never seen without tripping on something. You just have to venture out and gradually learn the safe places to step. I guess it starts with an act of faith, which is fitting.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:31 AM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would suggest reading about near-death experiences and the research Ian Stevenson has done on reincarnation, from cases of young children spontaneously remembering details of past lives that actually matched up to real biographical data from unrelated people. Don't just dismiss it out of hand, carefully investigate and read what researchers have observed about these phenomena. It might be difficult to find information about NDEs that doesn't have a spiritual or religious angle behind it; you could check out (Near Death Experience Research Foundation).

This may not change you into a religious person but it will definitely expand your worldview. Or bring up a lot of compelling questions, at the least. I personally think the evidence is strong enough to suggest that the materialistic perspective dominant in science now is not the entire picture. I would just try to approach this kind of information without bias and decide for yourself what it means to you.
posted by cosmicbeast at 8:45 AM on November 14, 2014

I'm late to the party, sorry about that, but I'd like to add a suggestion or two. I was an atheist for 20+ years who with my husband decided, for the sake of our children, to come back to the Catholic church. I came back as an atheist, but I read and watched videos and tried to learn about the religion and the faith as much as I could. And I talked to people who were deeply religious Christians and asked them the really basic questions. Search out people around you (on Facebook is where I found a couple old high school friends) and begin talking to them, asking them. Try to find out about the religion without being combative.

Also, look up Intelligent Design. All the information in this theory blew me away, especially the extremely complex DNA process that looks like something we humans would have created, but better, and the many constants in the universe that are finely tuned for our life. This kind of evidence of a Mind who made the universe really won me over. I have no doubt now that there is a God, a Creator of this universe and of us.

And, go to church, every week. Try out different denominations, but I would suggest the Catholic church. There is a scholarly-ness and level of intellectualism that you will not find anywhere else. It seriously impressed me, and I was in the university for 8+ years and thought myself very educated as an atheist. Read the Popes' writings (Pope Benedict's work especially) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Read C. S. Lewis; Mere Christianity is a great place to start.

I wouldn't push yourself too fast, but try and learn all you can in an open-mind manner.

Most faith comes to us when we are open to it; things are happening around us all the time, but you have to be ready to see and accept them.
posted by minx at 8:32 AM on October 31, 2015

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