This writing should not be viewed as an exploration of how or why I became an atheist. I have written of both those things elsewhere; this is simply a reflection on how it feels to be an atheist compared to a believer. How does it change the way one copes with loss? Thinks about death? Thinks about knowledge or morality? That sort of thing. So no, I did not become an atheist because bad things happen to good people or because I wanted to decide for myself what is right and wrong. The following are thoughts and feelings that came after I decided God was fictional.
I start with some of the ways being an atheist is easier on the soul than being a religious person. Then I will discuss how it can be harder.
As an atheist, you are free to think more independently and make up your own mind. As a believer, knowledge is generally accepted or rejected after being crosschecked with ancient writings of primitive Middle Eastern tribes. The more fundamentalist you are the more consistently this is true. So if the bible indicates the years from Adam to today number about 6,000, a mountain of evidence for humanity’s presence tens of thousands of years ago must be labeled false immediately. If the bible says there was a worldwide flood, it happened, regardless of the fact no actual evidence can be found for it. As a nonbeliever, your mind is free. You don’t need to filter an idea through the bible, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, or any other book. You can weigh it based on its own evidence. You can decide if the evidence is strong or weak, and change your beliefs accordingly. You can change your mind without fear of crossing a deity. You’re free to doubt, to question, to say, without some big crisis of faith, “I don’t know” (even to the question of whether a higher being exists — atheists can believe one doesn’t, yet admit knowing is impossible, something most believers will not do).
Likewise, you can decide for yourself what is right and wrong. A Christian determines what’s right and wrong using the bible, an atheist creates his or her own guidelines. For instance, suppose one were to say that what’s wrong is what hurts other people. In most places, Christian ethics and nonbeliever ethics would align with this idea, but not in all. Homosexuals who fall in love, have sex, and get married aren’t hurting anyone. Nor are a consenting man and woman having sex out of wedlock.
These things may be awful wrongs in the fundamentalist Christian view. Christians may conjure all sorts of ways they cause harm (“It’ll encourage others to be gay!”; “There’ll be a harm when they’re burning in hell”; “It drives them away from the Lord”; “If it’s just a fling for one of them, the other will be hurt”; “If she gets pregnant and he leaves, the child could grow up without a father or even be aborted”), but these types of reasons either already assume the act is wrong (which is circular reasoning, and therefore doesn’t make any sense when deciding if something is wrong) or is a possible, but in no way inevitable, outcome of the act, which isn’t an argument that the act itself is wrong (if the couple instead falls in love and stays together forever, was the act wrong? If the woman gets pregnant and the man stays and they start a happy family, was the act wrong? If you rescue a child from drowning, and the child grows up to be a serial killer, was your act wrong?). There is simply no way to say homosexuality or extramarital sex hurt people (and are therefore wrong) without relying on your religion or illogical arguments.
As an atheist, you can create your own set of ethics. Now, atheists will say they can create much better moral guidelines than Christians, who will say the reverse (and even spew nonsense like “When atheists choose their morality they’ll all be stealing, raping, and killing; no one can be good without God”). Christians will say morality only came from God in the first place, atheists will point out evolution and societal factors actually explain morality, no deity needed. My point here isn’t to resolve those arguments, only to say, having experienced both, it is liberating to make up my own mind on what’s moral, rather than consult and obey decrees from a book written thousands of years ago. You can think through things, change your mind, build a better code of ethics than you used to have. Just as Christians ignore the most cruel ethical guidelines in the bible (some even found in the New Testament), you can ignore ones that are backwards but still taken seriously. You’re free to base your ethics on, say, what does actual physical or psychological harm to others.
One last uplifting fact about atheism. As a believer, you sometimes struggle with what to make of the hard times, the horrible things that happen to you. Perhaps a loved one dies far too young, perhaps your spouse cheats on you, perhaps you lose your job right after your bank account takes a huge hit. Sometimes it is simple impatience (why have I not found the love of my life yet?), other times serious grievances (why was I born disabled?).
These events often conjure familiar questions: why would a loving God allow this to happen? How could this be included in his Plan? Why couldn’t his Plan not have involved me becoming paralyzed in a car wreck or my husband leaving me? That wouldn’t have been hard for him to leave out.
At times, darker thoughts arise. What did I do to deserve this? Why would God do this to me? Is it a punishment?
It can cause some believers to start to doubt God’s existence, but I have always marveled at how this can be (my own deconversion was a rather different story). Did you not realize horrific things happen to believers before they started happening to you? Were you so caught up in your own little world that you didn’t notice other faithful people losing loved ones to cancer, falling into poverty, being raped, and so on? If a personal tragedy makes you question your belief in a caring deity, why wouldn’t a tragedy that befalls other believers? How exactly are you different than they?
Regardless, the religious tropes in response to your questions are familiar, if varying. You must not be living according to scriptures; God’s teaching you a lesson you won’t forget (this is the most extreme fundamentalist view). Well, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, who are we to question it? In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God! Well, God didn’t do it, he just allows it. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer, but we live in a fallen world. He could intervene, but he won’t, because of Adam and Eve’s original sin. Well, we can’t see God’s Plan; don’t worry, he’ll make some good come out of it. It’ll bring you closer to him. Closer to your family. It’ll change your life path. It’ll help others, maybe even bring them to Jesus. And so on.
When it is all said and done, there remains a puppet master who either allowed something awful to destroy your life for his own purposes or caused it in the first place to punish you.
What a relief atheism is! What an immense mental burden that dissipates and simply never returns. When you believe there is no god who loves you and cares for you, the hard parts of life — from daily annoyances to the most painful real-life nightmares — start making more sense. There is no unseen being pulling the strings, deciding whether or not your daughter will be kidnapped, raped, and killed. There is no caring Father who decided no, you shouldn’t get that raise at work. There is no struggle with the question of why. Bad things happen because of human interactions (and natural disasters like viruses and tornadoes). That’s all. Why isn’t even a question worth asking anymore. No higher power gave a green light to your suffering. It’s just us — we human creatures do everything we can to avoid suffering, but since we cannot control all other people or natural events, there will be pain. Some experience more than others, but few avoid it completely before they die.
As someone who’s experienced the loss of family members while both a believer and a unbeliever, it is my personal testimony that it is easier to cope when you’re no longer asking, “Why did God let this happen?” Instead, there is no question. There is no why. It’s just life. It’s what it means to be human. It is sad, but life simply often is.
On the other side of the coin, of course, is the fact there is no God to comfort you when bad things happen. For comfort you must rely on friends, family, and yourself. This is not so bad — and not all that different from when you were a believer, as believers need and want a real shoulder to cry on. Sure, there’s no higher purpose to your little brother dying of Salmonella poisoning and no God to make you feel better, but considering if there was a God he could have prevented such a senseless death it’s really a beneficial trade-off. In the end, you don’t need a deity to cope with grief. It can actually be easier without one.
But what of the burdens on the atheist’s soul? Those things that are harder as an atheist?
First and foremost is the hardest truth any human creature can face: I am going to die. I will cease to exist. My mind will be no more.
If only I could be like Mark Twain, who said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Was this sincere? Was it just bravado? Who knows. But I am afraid of death.
The idea of returning to that state of nothingness — just disappearing forever — as we imagine the birds, the butterflies, our dogs, and all other creatures do is an uncomfortable, frightening, saddening thought. Accepting we are mortal and trying to go through life without fear of it all ending at some moment is a heavy yoke to bear. It is much easier on the soul of the believer, who thinks he or she will live forever, plus in a paradise, plus with all his or her loved ones. While I believe this is wishful thinking (“If something seems too good to be true…”) and is in fact the reason religion persists and will do so for a long time more, it is certainly a more pleasant belief than that in 80 years I’ll be gone forever.
How does one deal with something like this? Well, while the dread of nonexistence is something I haven’t conquered yet, I will say it encourages me to cherish each moment in a way I did not do as a believer. After all, if you have eternity, what is this mere “pit stop” on Earth? Each second just isn’t as valuable. Now I am more mindful of the time. I’m reminded to show more love and do more good in this place, to create a better world for people living now and my future children and grandchildren — should I live long enough to have them.
Second, becoming an atheist can do a number on your relationships with those you care about. I consider myself lucky in this regard. Sure, it created a little tension here and there with family members, made some friends avoid me on social media, and a girl I wanted to marry did not appreciate my deconversion and moved on. But overall, I am still so close with many strong Christian friends and my changed beliefs were accepted, if sadly, by family, who still love me as much as before. It goes quite differently for many new atheists. It can destroy people and families. Throw this in with the feeling you’ve said goodbye to a dear old (if imaginary) friend, someone you fell asleep talking to, someone you trusted and knew, someone real and always looking out for you, and becoming an atheist can be a painful experience indeed.
Finally, purpose. Along with wishing to live forever, people tend to want a purpose for their existence. They don’t want to be a creature that only exists by chance, with no ultimate point to their being here. That’s the nature of being an animal, not a human! They would rather be foreseen, designed, existing to serve, love, and be loved by a higher power. Without God, life has no meaning!
The randomness and pointlessness of it all can seem depressing at times, leading to painful existential crises and nihilism. Why bother living? Why bother doing anything at all? Some nonbelievers struggle mightily with this, but to be honest I have not. I have my moments where these thoughts creep in, but mostly I am simply happy that I exist at all. I could have easily not been around to feel depressed about being around! As Richard Dawkins put it,
The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Because of this (to go back to the topic of death for a moment) he says, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born… We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
And since I exist, I can give meaning and purpose to my own life. That’s what’s wonderful about it. No, there is no “ultimate purpose” decreed by an invisible god. Instead, you have to decide what your purpose is and how you will spend the time you have. To give your life meaning, do something meaningful, as Carl Sagan once said — something to help make the lives of other human beings better or to just find inner peace and happiness.
To quote former pastor Dan Barker, “Asking, ‘If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?’ is like asking, ‘If there is no master, whose slave will I be?'”
Elsewhere, he said, “There is indeed no purpose of life. There is purpose in life… Life is its own reward. But as long as there are problems to solve, there will be purpose in life. When there is hunger to lessen, illness to cure, pain to minimize, inequality to eradicate, oppression to resist, knowledge to gain and beauty to create, there is meaning in life.”
Not everyone will choose the same purpose for his or her life. But the point is we all choose — and hopefully, given how short life is, we choose wisely.