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Quick Thoughts on a Quickie

The article Jen linked to this morning in the Quickies about atheists being as happy as believers triggered thoughts of my personal experience coming into my own as a non-believer.

If you’ll indulge me . . .

I was baptized Catholic, and was raised as a Christian; at least until I was old enough to decide for myself about going to church. The odd thing is, I don’t really think I was ever a believer. Maybe my mind wasn’t equipped, at that time, to contemplate the stories and their place in reality. Or maybe my youth and my curiosity about things in the natural world around me superseded any desire I may have had to investigate the religion further. What ever the case, I never really thought about the supernatural elements that members of the church are expected to believe in any critical fashion.

I was, however, highly aware of the things I was supposed to do and of the things I was not supposed to do. After all, there were live, flesh and blood adults in the church and in my community re-enforcing the dogma, especially the ideas of sin and punishment. Through attrition, those ideas worked their way into my little boy brain.

And that coupled with my desire to please my parents, and the other adults, was enough to keep me in line.

It was only after I had stopped going to church, and actually started studying the various world religions, that I turned a critical eye toward the supernatural elements and the legends I’d grown up with. And of course, a good critical, unbiased examination reveals that there is no magic. It also exposes the stories as merely re-hashed ancient myths and, by turns, renders religion itself quite useless to progressive people.

It wasn’t long before I found myself comfortable with the labels “agnostic” and “atheist”.

But a strange thing happened. I wasn’t happy.

Armed with a fresh, new worldview, I realized that a lot of my writing (and my part in a lot of discussions) was taking on a decidedly anti-religious tone. I seemed angry. I seemed to be attacking religious people for the simple fact of their belief.

This concerned me a great deal, because I really like people. I enjoy interaction with everyone, despite their beliefs. I didn’t want to be making enemies, so I had to try to understand my anger.

And after a lot of reflection, the answer became obvious. It was simply that I held a grudge for being made to feel guilty for certain things as a child. I was made to feel fear for no good reason. I had been forced to accept nonsense, as well as to spend a lot of time engaged in activities that kept me from doing things I really wanted to do. And all of that had stemmed from what amounted to one big lie. I sensed injustice in that, and I was pissed off about it.

Fortunately, with understanding comes healing, and I decided I didn’t want to hold grudges anymore. I didn’t want to cultivate anger. I thought it best to let it go.

And so I did.

Now, of course, the religions of the world still do things that make me angry, and I write about them here on occasion, sometimes with more vitriol than is probably called for. But it’s no longer personal, and I don’t hold the anger for long. I say my piece, and then I move on.

And I feel that from an intellectual standpoint, I’m happier now without the anger, and certainly happier than I ever was as a member of a church. 

It’s not that I think religious people are unhappy. The opposite is most likely true; at least on some level.

But I think that once one learns that life is not about placating an unseen deity, but about enjoying, studying, growing within, and sometimes even fearing the human condition, one finds the size of the flock has expanded well beyond the confines of any church walls. The neighbors, the waves and handshakes, the smiles, the laughs, the tears, the births and deaths, the good times and the bad are more numerous and more substantively varied. It can be a catharsis, a wonderful, beautiful thing to step away from religion.

And for me, it was just a matter of getting past the anger to fully enjoy it.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Agreed though i wonder when did you split from the church i was almost forced to split when m parents divorced and after giving up church i found myslef wondering about what to do when i realized that most of the things they said actually had made no sense whatsoever. once the magic was gone all i was left with were creepy old men talking to me about how i was going to burn in hell if i didn’t live a certain way and that didn’t sit right @ all!

  2. I grew up and still am a part of a secular humanist jewish community. I was lucky enough to be taught about science while staying connected to my people. I will even be giving the annual senior speech at the Rosh Hashana service. We changed all of the prayers to speak of the human influence versus god and we sing yiddish songs about our culture.
    Am I happy? Tremendously. I have a community and I have logic. I can’t imagine splitting from a community and I feel thankful to my parents every day for bringing me up in one I didn’t have to disagree with.

  3. Nice post Sam. I had a similar path…except Lutheran (which is like Catholicism without scary nuns). And by highschool I HATED religion. I have since mellowed and have friends of many faiths (I think I might even know some Scientologists, though I try not to think about that too hard) but I still have some anger. But now it’s more focused on the damage done or being done in the name of ignorance couched in religion. I think some of this ignorance would be around with religion or not. But when my perfectly nice neighbor can wave a Prop 8 banner in my face because their god told them homosexuality is a sin, I still get very angry. Because it has real world applications and causes real world pain. Of course, I think you were referring to that when you were saying that religions still make you mad….I was just getting riled up thinking about it and thought I would take a break from my work to vent. Done now. Going to get a latte.

  4. Raised Christian Scientist (Fast train to Woosville, btw) and baptized Lutheran when I was 9 at my own request. I read the entire Bible, picked up a few really annoying speech patterns and found Jesus. By 13 I had lost him again and haven’t look too hard since.

    Funny thing is I like churches, well the idea of churches. The idea that people can get together specifically for the idea of contemplating something (anything!) larger than themselves and the pettiness of daily life. There are some less fundamental churches that I would actually like to attend for a sense of community. (If they didn’t start at 8 AM because, seriously, WTF?)

    Of course, I could get the same sense of community from Skeptics in the Pub meet up or something like that. But I would be surrounded by people who read the same books and blogs. There’s less chance of being exposed to new ideas.

    On the more mercenary side, churches are a terrific place to find out whose great-aunt Martha just died and they just don’t know what to do with all those books.

  5. I was brought up as a christian myself and forced to go to Church as a kid so i can definitely relate to how you felt very much. I also have been angry at my family for imposing their beliefs on me. I have been agnostic for a few years now at least and i have seen much improvement in my life. I definitely think i’m happier than i was as a christian. I still have some grudges to let go of, however. I am trying to accept my family as they are, but their ignorance can be a bit much for me to handle at times. I can certainly understand why people want to believe, but there’s a difference between simply believing and endangering their lives and the lives of those around them. There’s some people who take things too far.

  6. I am not a very angry person by nature. I learned years ago, around junior high, that when I loose my temper, I risk loosing control of my actions, and people get hurt. When I reacted without thinking, someone was very nearly hurt as a result. Fortunately, it was never serious.

    I knew even then that repressing emotions was bad. So I tried not to repress anger. I just learned to deal with it. I came to realize that being angry doesn’t mean that I have to act on it.

    A couple years later, when I became an atheist, I suppose I was able to bypass that angry stage to a certain extent. Looking back, I don’t really remember much of it. There might have been some here or there, but nothing in particular springs to mind.

    I was angry with my parents, not for raising me Catholic, but for forcing me to continue going to church and taking catechism at an age where I’m supposed to make those kind of decisions for myself. So I sort of became an atheist out of a sense of passive aggression. (I’ve been struggling with that a lot lately, and had a bit of a personal breakthrough recently, but that’s another story.) Maybe that’s angry, looking back, but I didn’t really think of it that way at the time.

    I don’t think that we’re necessarily happier as atheists, I don’t think that they’re necessarily happier as believers. I think that the individual is happier by finding that path, that way, that world-view, that agrees with their perspective. There is no such thing as one true, perfect religion, belief, or world-view that is right and true for everyone. Atheism is fine for me, but it’s not for everybody. What’s best for everyone is for everyone to be free to search and find their own path.

    Those of us who are content and satisfied with the atheist perspective are happier than we would be as believers. And those of us who are content with some kind of religious belief are happier than they would be as atheists.

    The ones who are unhappy are the ones who are stuck at one extreme or the other, or somewhere in the middle, unable to come to terms with who they really are as individuals because of some sense of cultural repression or expectation. I hope they find their way.

  7. Ooh! Story time! I love story time!

    I hadn’t really thought about where my anger comes from. I would suppose part of it comes from being forced to go to church as a kid, as Sam said, and part of it from seeing all the dumb things that happen as a result of religion, as Elvismorte said. I’ll have to think about that more. I’m not sure how I feel about my anger either.

    I initially stopped going to church because I didn’t like having a curfew on Saturday nights. It wasn’t until I stopped going to mass that I began to give serious thought to the possibility of not believing in God. By that age I had already been confirmed and become a Eucharistic minister.

    By the way, if anyone hasn’t listened to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting go of God” and is enjoying reading these, they should definitely check it out.

  8. I was raised Catholic. But my family was already the kind of “Easter/Christmas only” churchgoing kind, so we didn’t spend too much time in church, and half the time we were there it was late december and freezing cold inside.

    Anyway, I also had a lot of anger. The one memory that continuously gets me riled up is getting in a fight in school with one of the kids who didn’t get religion class, about the solar system. He said the earth was a part of the sun, and I said that was just ridiculous because the sun is really hot and god made them both in 7 days.

    To this very day, I’m still mad as hell they made me believe such antiquated drivel and didn’t even bother to mention the scientifically proven alternative view.
    Anyway, the same teacher also tried to convince my sister that babies come from god, at which point my mom apparently told her to stop it with the bullshit and either keep quiet on the subject altogether or explain the origin of babies the way it really works. Go mom!

    My anger towards religion and its followers sort of waned after I got into somebody’s face (online, mind you) for being a believer of such stupid crap, and how could he possibly believe this drivel, etc… And he responded, rightfully insulted, “Because that’s what I believe”.
    After that, I realised I had been just as bad as the fundie bible thumpers who try to convert you, and switched to a more “sowing the seed of doubt” approach that’s ben much more successful as well.

  9. You and I took the same path and came to the same conclusions, Sam.

    I know many Jews that took the path that Sydust took. I really like the acceptance that the Jewish community has for “secular” or “cultural” Jews. Not like xtians at all – With them, it seems that you either believe, keep your mouth shut or get ostracized.

    I still have a large residual supply of anger towards the religulous that warped my life and mind. I went through a lot of pain because of them and like some above, I have neither forgotten nor forgiven…yet. Some of this is coming out in therapy.

    I think the turning point for me was reading Carl Sagan’s books. I finally realized that his world view was not only more compelling, but it actually had the added value of having proof that it was correct. I learned that there are very few black/white “truths” in the Cosmos* and most of the people that want them have stopped thinking for themselves. I only wish that Carl had written books like Pale Blue Dot and The Demon Haunted World when I was younger.

    *The few that exist seem to be on the order of fundamental physical laws.

  10. As somebody who de-converted from the faith after over thirty years inside, I think the happiness quotient is directly related to how genuinely secure you are in your beliefs. The happiest time in my life that I can remember was the summer after my senior year of college through about the winter of that year. I’d recently recommited my life to God and had zero doubt that I was on the right path. When I later became an evangelical and realized there was stuff that I just couldn’t make jive with what I inherently felt to be right, I became MISERABLE. Here I was, “newly born again” and I simply couldn’t feel any of the joy that everyone around me felt. Well of course not, they apparently had no quarrel with what they believed. It made sense to them. But I could NOT be happy knowing that according to my faith so many people were going to burn and suffer for no better reason than they picked the wrong answer to the god question.

    Having recently deconverted, I do still harbor some anger and I really REALLY have to refrain from calling Christian family members out when they post idiotic things to facebook. My sister in law posted some christian COMEDIAN’s takedown of evolution and I had to interlace my fingers to keep from rattling off exactly how it was wrong.

    I’d say I’m becoming happier in my atheism. Getting over the fear of hell wasn’t easy. And even now, I think I have far more existential dread than I’ve ever had before simply because after thirty years of belief in an afterlife, it feels like something’s been taken away. And now I think my fear of horrible things has ratcheted up a LOT. I fear a lot more for my kids, for my wife, for myself, knowing now that if something horrible happens there will be no heavenly father waiting on the other side to make everything okay. Which SUCKS.

    But despite all that, things are getting better. My wife is still a believer and we are finding more and more middle ground every day. The knee jerk assumption that this would ruin our marriage has passed and we are finding new ways to reinvent our love for each other outside the mental construct of something that’s “god given.”

    So yes, I’m still angry at the religious, though really it’s more of a manifestation of the “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I want you to realize that” syndrome which has been a part of every facet of my life regardless of my belief. But all in all I feel I’m finally pulling out of the fear of hell funk that has plagued me for pretty much the duration of my belief.

    I posted my de-converstion story here if anyone’s interested: http://tinyurl.com/lehy4x

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