For those of us among the newly deconverted, recognizing and accepting our unbeliefs can be painful at first. I found my own letting go of religion difficult, initially accompanied by a deep sense of loss, and I do not believe that I’m unique in this regard.
I think that for many of us without the benefit of secular intellectual and emotional support, there may be a residue of belief, or at least an initial sense of something ‘missing’ and a sense of being tossed about in a vast ocean no longer driven by meaning, purpose, or human centrality, much less our personal centrality.
No matter how it’s phrased, there’s a question that gets asked, “Without a god to help me, what do I do now?” More liberal theists describe hell, not in the crude, visceral, gut-wrenching horror of a fiery place of torture, but something more subtle, what I would think more frightening altogether; an eternal separation from the divine and those who walk with it, including all those whom they knew and loved in life — forever apart, forever isolated.
The ultimate solitary confinement.
To me, that sounds very much like what those of us who lose our religion go through initially. I envy those who were raised in secular families, who never had to experience the sense of emptiness when belief wanes and finally disappears altogether. Atheism in many ex-believers requires a certain tough-mindedness and committed integrity to sustain, and doesn’t always last, No True Scotsman arguments notwithstanding.
What made it disturbing was that I was simultaneously feeling as if relieved of a great weight, all while wondering what my still-devout relations would say if they knew.
I found myself saying, “Maybe I don’t really need anyone to watch me in wakefulness or sleep. Maybe I’m better off without a god, but let’s not tell too many people about it, not just yet. They don’t need to know.”
I’m personally ashamed of my lack of courage then, and I offer no excuse.
At the time, I had little in the way of a secular support network, or a broad reading of secular authors, indeed little acquaintance with atheism or skepticism even as they were then.
I felt adrift, alone, an atheist in a sea of potentially hostile theists, and for a time, I drifted from one religious or spiritual idea … reading up on them, though not practicing any, looking for a ‘new’ path that might possibly fit my needs, and little did I know that none of them would make the grade, none of them would prove suitable, none of them could in any way ‘fit.’
It was soon clear I had to look outside religious and spiritual traditions to find meaning, and it was afterward I discovered that the source I would discover lay outside parochial theological musings or New Age beliefs altogether, and within our species’ secular intellectual heritage — the arts, ethics, the sciences, history, philosophy, logic, rhetoric – things I had thought less of as a churchgoer, though I’ve always had a love of science as a child.
A powerful influence on me during the years of my waning faith was my exposure to secular writers, starting with Isaac Asimov’s SF and non-fiction books.
Without religion to impose purpose and meaning upon me, I was free to discover my own, indeed, I had no choice but to, since the religious ideas where no longer credible.
As a churchgoer, I passively allowed others to give me direction, but as an atheist and skeptic, I can find my own, and the seeming emptiness that religion once vacated has been replaced with the more robust heritage of and allegiance to my species as a whole, not the tribal bigotries of faith, doctrine, or dogma.
What I lost as a former theist has been recompensed many times over to something far better and richer by comparison, making a life of religion seem shallow, unsatisfactory and inauthentic to me now.
I don’t think I would have it any other way.