New atheist searching for coping mechanism

So I have recently decided that I will no longer continue to mentally wrestle with myself over whether God is real or not. I have decided that I am happiest knowing I am not lying to myself anymore. As a child, I could say that I truly did believe God existed. However, I was a bit of a bookworm as a kid, and after reading enough materials on science and physics, my faith began to ebb away around age 14 when I started high school. I still went through the motions, and I tried very hard to get back into religion, but for some reason my mind just refused to accept it.

Once I got to college and was truly allowed to think for myself, most of my religious beliefs came crashing down. For awhile, I considered myself agnostic, because that final tether of theism, a divine creator and something after death, was really hard for my mind to give up. Saying that it wasn’t true was pretty awful for me, because I had grown up thinking about death and the universe in a particular way.

I suffered through a lot of pain and death growing up. My father was killed when I was 2. I never saw my mom much, because she worked long hours to support my sister and I. I was an introverted child because of it, and was often picked on until I shot up to 6ft tall and put on 40 lbs after middle school. The person who looked out for me, my grandfather, also died when I was just 16. And to top it off, my family hates my wife and they have disowned me because of her. My mother, ironically, is now one of the people that brings me the most pain. Obviously, these are sweeping generalizations and a lot more went on here than I am saying, but the details are not important.

Very recently, I was walking outside at night. I took a moment to look up at the sky, and just kind of absorbed the scene. I imagined distant galaxies with other sentient beings like us. I tried to picture what their society would be like, what kinds of things they would believe. I also thought about how we have so many religions here on Earth, and how they compete, and how they changed with time and their practicers, and the human-ness of their shortcomings. I thought about how coincidental it was that religions began so early on, but there are no new ones being created today. After just sitting there for over an hour wrestling with my mind, I concluded that religion must simply have been a way for people to cope with an existence they were utterly terrified of. Building a “scarecrow” to put the blame on for the unexplained, the truly evil, and the simply awesome, was the only way our ancestors knew to cope and feel ok and secure.

However, I can’t say that my experience as an atheist has been all too happy. There is no going back knowing what I do now. Sometimes I almost wish for the ignorance of religion again, simply to feel secure and have hope that being even a derelict Christian did for me. But then I remember I would simply be living a lie instead of dealing with my problems, and my life is too darn short to be untrue with myself. My source of greatest despair with my new belief system is death, which should come as no surprise to someone who formerly believed in an afterlife and heaven. I have been thinking for hours on end about how to cope with a final end. I guess the only comfort I can take is knowing that it is indeed final, and I cannot be punished for eternity for rules I broke that were written by flawed human interests. Also, I guess that since feeling and thought and sight and all of that other good stuff we call being alive will be no more, it will be hard to miss being alive. I won’t even know I am dead. There won’t be anything, I will have a last breath, and then everything is wiped away. It is the most absurd concept to try to get your brain to process, but in some ways is not terrible when you think really hard about it. I will live the way I choose, and when I die, I will not be able to regret or long for or miss anything. I think it is a misconception I used to have in my agnostic stage. I looked at atheism and was terrified, because I pictured death as an atheist as floating in a silent, black, nothingness with just my thoughts. Then it occurred to me one day that there would be, in fact, no thoughts. No inner monologue. And all of a sudden, death seemed more peaceful. It is such a hard concept to process and something that just literally took years to process fully. I get still get butterflies and sweaty palms talking about it. It is just that touchy.

The other hard part was dealing with the deaths of people I had loved. It was truly, truly hard to reconcile my differences with coming to terms about never being able to see them again. I still break down weeping sometimes from it, and this is coming from a 6’ 6” 230 lbs guy (it would look something strange to behold, I’m sure). It is hard breaking a lifetime of false beliefs and promises. I try to remind myself that I am only fighting my own memories, that I need to learn from them and honor them by doing things I admired about them, and never letting their memory fade. I have come to terms with the fact that they no longer exist to be disappointed or sad or mad or anything. I am lucky to have known them, even if just for a short time. It is still so hard though. Maybe one day I will be able to cope better, but today is not that day, and tomorrow does not look promising either.

My last battle with this new lifestyle will be my wife. She is Christian, and although she is not devoutly Christian, her family are what I would consider near fanatics. For example, they wanted us to live in separate places despite having to go through a long engagement because of financial problems and physical distance between us. Combining households would have solved everything, but I love my wife too much and went along with it to make her parents happy (since my family was non-existent and we needed some sort of support system). I make them sound awful, but they are actually very nice people. They just believe in different things. Silly, yes, but different.

My wife has said that she wants our future kids to go to church, and I am too passive to say no. At the same time, I keep thinking about the hardship and letdown the truth was for me and saving them from false expectations in the first place. I also feel like there is an impenetrable barrier between my wife and I now, and that I can never truly be close because I have this secret. I used to share everything with her, and it made me so happy to be so honest. I am depressed now because I am scared she will leave if I tell her. I told her before that my faith was weak (never that I was truly atheist), and she said it would be pointless to be married because marriage was a religious thing. I disagree, I think it is a lifestyle choice, but the fact is that she basically stated she wouldn’t want to be married.

And so, I keep all these secrets to myself, and they fester in my mind and drive me crazy. I am at yet another crossroads consequence to my beliefs. My newfound atheist self wants to be as truthful as possible and live the way I feel I should. My conscience screams “Wait!”, “Don’t Do It!” to preserve my friendship with my wife, who I absolutely cherish. I’d do what the average person might and get angry at God for putting me in such a position and to help me, but I have accepted my full responsibility for action in the situation.
I guess I just want to know if anybody has had to tell a loved one this and what happened. Its not exactly a great measuring stick of success for how my situation will turn out, because everybody is different, but maybe it will at least let me prepare.

Posted: March 8th 2012


This was posted in March of last year, so perhaps something has already happened with you.

My best friend married a Christian (when him and I were still both Christians). He had to tell her. They don’t talk about it that much, surprisingly, but he had to tell her. When they have kids I’m sure it will come up again.

But what else is there to do? It has to be done. If she is a committed Christian similar to many Christian women I know, I don’t see why she would leave you. It’s the Christian, more so, who considers marriage sacred.

Posted: January 3rd 2013

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George Locke

Sorry to hear all the tribulations you’ve had. It does seem as though you’re working hard to make the best of it. I should tell you that we are not trained counselors here; I bet that a few sessions with a professional would do you a world of good. With those caveats, let me advise you such as I can.

I think it may be possible to keep your atheism a secret from your in-laws if necessary, but it seems to be driving a wedge between you and your wife. The stakes could not be any higher, but it seems like there’s no alternative to sharing yourself with your wife. As you say, keeping secrets is driving you crazy. You have to trust that your wife loves you. From what you say about her attitudes toward marriage, it doesn’t sound like religion is that central to her.

Consider how you want this conversation to go. If you frame the discussion in terms of “your terrible secret”, then your wife is more likely to react badly. You could begin with something like, “I’ve been thinking about religion recently, and I’ve come to realize a few things about myself,” or, “I’ve been thinking about my spirituality,” or something. This can be an opportunity for deeper sharing between you. This is the kind of thing that a counselor could help with – you have to be honest, but it doesn’t have to be a bitter pill. Don’t equivocate or make it seem like you’re on the fence if you’re not — that opens to door to attempts at converting you — and by all means be sure to emphasize that this is not a criticism of her or her family, it’s just something you know about yourself.

As for your fear of death, it sounds like you’ve made some sort of peace with it, though it is an ongoing process for all of us. For myself, I have a far greater fear of infirmity and interminable pain than being dead. As Mark Twain wrote, “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.” Your impact on the world lives on after you, as you surely know better than most.

Posted: April 6th 2012

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