Wednesday, 14 December 2011

What It Feels Like

For me, the single most surprising thing, about becoming an atheist, is how it feels.  Simply put, I have never felt more at peace with myself.  Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, by this, but I really am.  I think this peaceful feeling is pretty common among new unbelievers, actually.  I hear a lot of (other) former Christians say things like "life makes more sense now", and I think this is basically what they mean.

Surely, part of it has to do with the simple reduction in cognitive dissonance.  After the questions begin, and one begins to learn about the serious problems with Christianity's core truth claims (such as the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, or Jesus as God), it creates a very uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach.  This is mostly because your intellect goes to war with your emotions, and it does so with or without your permission. What I had wanted (and expected), when I first started out on this investigation, was to deepen my experience of God. What I got, instead, were more and more questions, followed by doubts and, ultimately, complete disbelief.  During that middle period though, when you know you're doubting but are still unwilling to say that you don't believe, there is a tremendous amount of inner turmoil.  (I'll be writing more about this turmoil in my next post.)

Having said that, I think there is an additional factor at play here.  My feeling now is that Christians are, essentially, thinking from within the confines of a pre-determined bubble. "Deluded" seems to be the current word of choice, for atheists (when speaking about the religious), perhaps because "brainwashed" unfairly suggests nefarious intent.  But the funny thing about a brainwashed person is that they do not know they are brainwashed.  It's only after coming out of the "delusion", or the "brainwashing", that it becomes clear to them, in retrospect.  So, do I think I was "brainwashed", as a Christian?  Well, yeah, kind of.  But the people who "brainwashed" me really believed it too!  Probably a better, and more accurate, word is indoctrinated.  I certainly don't have everything figured out today either (who does?) but all I know is I'm thinking much more clearly than I used to.

A few weeks ago I ran across the following photo, at the Unreasonable Faith blog, and it generated some interesting discussion.  The caption read "This is what becoming an atheist feels like...".

There were a few who took objection to the photo; claiming, for example, that it was "elitist" and "arrogant".  One commenter said that it implied atheists think of themselves as "part of an illuminated minority that knows better".  I'm actually very sensitive to this critique and, more generally, to the view that many atheists give off an elitist vibe.  I don't always agree (that this person or that person is arrogant or elitist) but, regardless, I can certainly understand where the criticism is coming from.  On the other hand, I think the photo is partly trying to capture an emotion, and in that sense it represents perfectly how I felt upon leaving Christianity.  If I were still a Christian I would probably say that the photo "ministered to me"; this is Christian-speak for "it touched my emotions, and I'm pretty sure the Holy Spirit had something to do with it".

Speaking personally, I would much rather someone just tell me what they truly think.  Straight up. No punches pulled.  If you believe I'm "brainwashed", "dead wrong", "deluded", "deceived by the devil", or whatever, I'm o.k. with hearing it that way.  I won't take offense.  And I will actually (gasp!) consider what you have said with a (double gasp!) open mind.  I'll also expect you to stick around long enough for a conversation about it.  "The problem" comes in, I think, when we express our legitimate disagreements in a disrespectful tone.  But, of course, you would expect a guy who calls himself "Respectful Atheist" to say that, wouldn't you?

What do you think?  When I say above (somewhat reluctantly) that I feel like I was "deluded/brainwashed/indoctrinated", as a Christian, are believers justified in saying that I'm "elitist" or "arrogant" for framing it in these terms?  No one has actually ever accused me of this, I'm just thinking out loud here.  

Sometimes I wonder if Christians only think this way because it plays perfectly into, what I believe are, their pre-conceived notions that atheists must be angry and rebellious (because, deep down, atheists actually know that God exists; and they're super pissed off about it)!

For those reading this blog who have themselves held to two diametrically opposed worldviews, at different stages of life (ie. Christian turned atheist, or atheist turned Christian etc.), did one feel better than the other?  If so, why do you think this was the case?


  1. No, I do not think you are being arrogant at all. I don't know your church background, so it is very possible that you were simply indoctrinated and brainwashed. I am believing your testimony that this was the case.

    However, we are all ethnocentric, and tend to think in terms of our own culture and background. No one can ever be completely unbiased.

    Do you think it's possible for some atheists to have become intellectually conditioned by naturalism, and not able to think outside of this worldview, to be in a kind of box of their own, without truly realizing it?


  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I was raised in Baptist (or Baptist like) churches. My Dad is a minister.

    Yes, I absolutely think this is possible. My feeling is that we all need to make a conscious effort to expose ourselves to different points of view (and to consider them with an open mind). Most people slip into confirmation bias, after a while, only seeking out/paying attention to those things they already agree with.

    While it's true that we can't ever be completely unbiased, I find that many people use this as a convenient excuse (and don't bother trying at all). The effort is still worthwhile, in my view, even though perfection is never attained.

    Do you have any doubts about your faith Rebecca?

  3. Of course, Respectful.

    All thinking people of faith doubt. But, I don't feel that faith means the absence of doubt, or that doubt is a bad thing to stress about. Ultimately my doubts over the years have led to a deepening and enriching of faith.

    Also, I don't feel that we will ever have all the answers in this life. Didn't St. Paul write for we see through a glass darkly, and now know in part..That seems ok to me.

    I was an agnostic as a young person, and I had doubt then too about my agnosticism. :) But, in my case, those doubts and questioning led ultimately to God.



  4. When I first realized that all that I had been taught about the Bible was not true I felt angry at being so stupid not to have ever questioned what I had been taught. I was upset that I had passed my belief system onto my children without ever wondering or questioning the reality of it. Then I felt depressed about no longer having the security of being loved unconditionally by the god of the bible. As time went on I have come to feel peaceful about by decision to leave the faith. I no longer have to worry about confessing sins and worrying about being out of fellowship with god or quenching the holy spirit. I think I am a kinder person and less judgemental.

  5. I just left Christianity 3 months ago. Being a Christian definitely felt a lot better than things right now. The meaning of life has been taken away along with some very deep relationships I had with believing friends. The cognitive dissonance has changed to wanting to believe and worship a God with the knowledge that none worthy of praise exist.

  6. One of the things I like about that picture is that I'm pretty sure someone who just become a Christian might feel very much the same way.

    I came out of a pretty laid-back sort of Christianity, and I don't remember feeling particular better or worse as a result of one state or the other. But I'm one of those former Christians of whom it actually is fair to say, "He was never a Christian to begin with." The big relief to me wasn't giving up my belief or finding a new way of looking at the world, it was discovering that the fact that Christianity didn't make any sense to me wasn't necessarily because of something about me.

  7. Cerbaz, the emotional roller coaster that you describe is not unusual. I'll be writing more about that, from my own experience, in my next post.

    Zach, I'm sorry to hear that you're finding it so rough right now. I'm still an in the closet atheist so, thankfully, I haven't had to deal with the loss of relationships (yet). Frankly, the thought (of how people will react if/when they find out) is one of the very few things in my life now that has the potential to keep me up at night. My advice would be to hang on, give people (and yourself) a chance to get used to the new need to find a new normal, and that will take some time to unfold. As far as meaning, I'm a firm believer in the fact that we make our own meaning in this life. What are you passionate about? As has been said by others, there may not be any ultimate meaning TO life, but that doesn't mean there is no meaning IN life. It may not matter, in one thousand years, if I am kind to my wife and children today...but it still matters today!

    Michael, good observations. Yeah, this is what I thought was so ironic about that photo...Christians talk about seeing the light, and having the scales taken from your eyes etc., but it was the opposite for me. I feel more clear headed now than ever.

  8. I was an atheist and became a Christian at 22 years old, and the feeling`s I had when I first converted were the usual joy,happiness, but these are just like any new relationship , infatuation first hard work later. I have had very good and very hard times as a Christian but the bible teach`s me its not about what I feel so much, but about what I do, for instance , being married 24 years I go through a period where I feel I have had enough and want out but should my feeling`s take precedence over my responsibility , No, God says love your wife its a command not an option based on how I feel .So feeling`s come and go but right and truth are forever.And just on the seemingly unbelievable parts of the bible, such as the virgin birth, I find it funny that atheist`s can believe the universe made itself, the solar system organised itself, life made itself from non living chemicals , the human brain sexual reproduction organs and the very method of getting pregnant came about from non living chemicals, by chance,but one single woman getting pregnant without sex now that I can`t believe. I am afraid its more to do with one`s philosophical position than evidence

  9. Hi Marfin,

    Good to hear from you again.

    I agree that feeling's should not take precedence over responsibility but, in your example, this stems directly out of your moral responsibility to your wife (with or without a God).

    Let's suppose for a second that there was in fact no God (hypothetically speaking, of course), would it then be morally acceptable for you to leave your wife, simply because you felt like it? I think not. Are you only moral because God commands it of you? Or, is there a deeper reason? If there were no God, would it then be o.k. to steal and murder? If not, what reasons might we have, as a society, for continuing to condemn those actions? (Hint, there are plenty of them)

    I don't disbelieve in the virgin birth because of any philosophical position, I disbelieve it due to the evidence against it. I discuss some of that evidence here,

    And a more detailed analysis can be found here,

  10. Sorry, I accidentally put an apostrophe in the word feelings, above, where there shouldn't be one. My bad.

  11. hello. first off, great blog! i very much enjoyed reading it. also, do you by chance know who created the photo used in this blog? i am a musician and i was hoping to get permission to use the image as album art. any information regarding to the copyright owner would be greatly appreciated! thank you.

  12. I love your blog!!! This should be a memoir!

  13. Dear Respectful Atheist,
    I just found your blog and it looks like you aren't posting as much these days. I still wanted to say thank you for writing. I am in the middle stage that you describe. I have called myself a Christian for six years, but with massive life changes this last year my spiritual life fell apart. It has been a time defined by isolation. To be able to read someone's respectful testimony of questioning and several others via the comments has been therapeutic. I found myself identifying with several of your thoughts and several of the comments left. I look forward to reading through many more of your posts as I continue this process. Thank you for opening up the discussion and letting me know that I am not alone.