The Transition from Religion to Non-Religion June 13, 2009

The Transition from Religion to Non-Religion

I could use your help to generate a long list of questions (in preparation for an interview).

The topic: You used to be religious, but you no longer believe that a god exists. What questions would you have as a brand new atheist?

Here’s the type of stuff I’m looking for:

  • What caused that transition?
  • How do you make it through the day without God after relying on one for so long?
  • Should you tell anybody you’re an atheist?
  • If so, how do you come out to your family, friends, and colleagues?
  • What do you do in a time of crisis if you no longer think praying will help?

What else would you want to know if you just lost your faith?

I realize it’s a vague question, but ny suggestions would be helpful. Thanks!

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  • Am I normal?
    Are there more people like me?
    How will this affect how I fit into my community?
    What am I supposed to do at Christmas?

  • What type of religious person were you before you became an atheist? And I don’t mean ‘what religion’, but rather ‘to what extreme’? Were you a strong fundamentalist, a lazy believer, a ‘functional atheist’ as some apologists call their fellow non-fundy Christians?

  • Claudia

    Hmm tough one for me, since I’ve never been religious, but here are a few:

    – How can you get accustomed to the fact that there are questions that don’t really have an answer right now?

    – How can you live with the idea that there isn’t a cosmic justice that will make it all “ok” in the end? How can you come to peace with the idea of children suffering and dying and having no other life beyond?

    – For parents: How do you explain to children that grandma (or whoever) is not here anymore without resorting to saying she’s “in heaven”?

    – How can you define yourself in a religious society by something you don’t believe? Being an atheist sounds so empty, as if I’ve lost something.

    I should note that I have answers to these questions, but I’m guessing someone who has just left the faith (and from what I’ve read, this can be a horribly difficult experience) might not have ready answers to them.

  • “What do you do in a time of crisis if you no longer think praying will help?”

    I really don’t like this question. You might as well ask “what stops you from going out an murdering people now you don’t believe in eternal punishment?”

    Atheists can still pray (heck, some still do a sort of prayer to no one in particular – even if out of habit). And, of course, prayer works just as well whether God exists or not.

  • Santiago

    – Were you happier when you were religious?

    – How have you dealt with, or plan to deal with, family members or friends who cannot easily accept your loss of faith?

    – Do you miss the activities and the community that having a faith provided you with? I’m guessing yes, but then: have you been able to find secular alternatives to fill these needs?

  • Richard Wade

    I have a friend who is in this situation right now. The question on their mind is:

    How can I break away from my church without hurting the feelings of the people there whom I love?

  • Carlie

    How do I teach my kids to be good now?

    (A: Parenting Beyond Belief is helpful for this one.)

  • How can I be okay with the answer “I don’t know” (for which God used to be the answer)?

    Outside of religion, how do we determine truth? Is it rational to apply the same criteria to religion?

    What is the scientific method and falsifiability?

    What is the difference between evolution and abiogenesis?

    Does an atheist believe there is no god or do they lack a belief in a god- what is the difference?

  • Jenelle

    What resources are there for me? (i.e., What organizations are worthwhile checking out? What books might be helpful?) This could also be related to finding a sort of substitute for the church community if this had previously been an important part of the person’s life.

  • AnonyMouse

    What are you supposed to live for, if not God?

  • How do you become comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when previously your religion had an answer to everything?

    (At least I think that might be a question someone might have…)

  • Do you still celebrate festivals? Have you added more festivals to the ones you celebrate?( That could be a cultural thing also)) Should you do special things on Solstice now?

  • Here is mine:
    I’ve been surrounded by only Christians all of my life. Who can I look to as an atheist role model? I’ve heard all my life that atheists are bad and evil. I disbelieve that but seriously, how *am* I supposed to behave?

  • El Zilcho

    To what lengths have your friends/family/church gone to try to keep you from non-belief?

  • Is the interview going to be you talking to an established non-theist about how he answers questions for new non-theists? Or are you about to be interviewed by a new non-theist? Either way, hopefully these questions fit:

    Where do you find meaning now that the purpose of your life is no longer worship of (a) god(s)?

    How do you answer it when people accuse you of not wanting to live by anyone’s rules but your own?

    Do you think you would ever return to religion?

    How would you answer it when people say you’re only a non-theist because you are bitter about something that happened in your religion? (Or is this true?)

    Do people leaving all religions have similar similar feelings of fear and loneliness?

  • Sarah

    Religion often plays a large role in determining what a person thinks about social and moral issues i.e. homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, etc. Have your views on such “hot button” issues changed since you left Christianity?

  • No help here because:

    1. I was a “practical atheist” for the last few years of my church going life.

    2. Atheism is common (and accepted) in academic circles.

    So for me, it was “ok, did I really believe that”.

    The only question would be:

    “how do I talk to my family (lesser educated) in a way that doesn’t hurt their feelings”.

  • One possible question might be: How to I replace the community I left behind, since church was my social life and my support system?

  • gmcfly

    I asked a lot of the above questions, and also:

    How can I be sure I’m making the right decision? What if I’m wrong?

    What do I say to people if they want to know why I’m not religious anymore? What do I say if they accuse me of being “weak in faith” or “self-centered”?

    What kind of person do I want to become?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What do you do in a time of crisis if you no longer think praying will help?

    Act. For example, if you are piloting a plane that is going down, almost anything you can do would be more useful than praying. Try to restart the engine, apply some flaps, whatever.

  • Jenny

    When I became a fully fledged atheist, these were the things that intrigued me most –

    1. Are you more or less afraid of death now?

    2. Do you now look down on religious people, or regard them in any way “stupider” than atheists?

    3. Does the amount of religious influence in the media and politics bother you more than it did before?

    4. Do you believe that the world will ever become truly atheistic?

  • magdalune

    Here are the ones that I’m encountering with myself a lot (new atheist here):

    How do you determine the intricacies of what is good and what is evil without an external base to determine it?

    How do you tell other people that you’re still a good, smart, fun person who can have a good life when their assumptions about atheists are grossly off-base?

    How do you overcome the initial depression?

    Sorry for the free plug, but I wrote an essay on the similarities between the last few episodes of Angel Season Four and the experience of a new atheist coming out among conservative to fundamentalist Christians:

    It really resonated with me and brings up these same kinds of questions.

  • Eliza

    I’ve never been religious, & others have already posted the more serious questions I imagine someone might have. So, not less valid, but a little more off the wall perhaps:

    How am I going to find someone to date now?

    What am I going to do with all this religious paraphernalia?

    Is there any way to get a refund for all that time & money I put into religion?

  • phoenixflash

    What do I say instead of ,”goddamit” or OMG?

  • Chakolate


    Yep – and also, ‘thank god’ and ‘heavens no’ and ‘hope to god’ and all those other things. Or even, ‘hell!’ You might as well say, ‘unicorn!’

  • llewelly

    How do you determine the intricacies of what is good and what is evil without an external base to determine it?

    The hard way. Sit down and figure out which choices are most likely to cause the most benefit, or the least harm. This usually involves a great deal of homework. Occasionally it will involve so much homework as to make you furious with people who obviously haven’t done their homework.

  • I concluded that I would never get answers unless I let go of all beliefs affiliations, despite the risk of being wrong.

    Eventually I found a spirituality outside religion, based on understanding how the mind works (phenomenology).


    How can I be sure that an answer actually works?

    How can I live outside the boundaries of religion?

    Is that they are saying likely to be absolute truth or merely something that serves their personal interests?

  • magdalune

    Oh, I’m doing my homework, and yes, it bugs me when everyone else just does as they’re told without considering any other option.

    But I miss the absolutes, and I sometimes don’t know how to appeal to those who have opposing viewpoints based on differing but equally valid perceptions. Morality is a messy world.

  • Ethos

    It’s been touched on, but one of the most important considerations for someone just “coming off” their long-time faith is determining a non-religious moral foundation going forward.

    The arbitrary and eventually amoral policies of religion (gays are evil, etc) are what led me away from Christianity, but the immediate basis of right and wrong wasn’t clear, especially after having the Bible as Moral Manual to reference.

  • Anfractuous

    You asked “What questions would you have as a brand new atheist?”

    There are many superficial questions which are easy to deal with, like what do you do for holiday celebrations? What do you say instead of God damn, etc? What do you do with all the time/money you used to waste on church? How do you deal with the feeling of being a part of a hated minority? Most of us can work out rational ways of dealing with these relatively superficial dilemmas. But my biggest problem is how to deal with the underlying psychological underpinnings of my personality. Reasoning by itself just doesn’t seem up to the challenge.

    I define myself as a good person and am very close with my family, which I believe is my most important relationship. I’m nice to others and consider myself relatively virtuous. My value and virtue, however, have always been determined by what others think of me. i.e., I must get good grades, follow rules, be polite, put others’ needs before my own, etc. But it’s hard to feel like I’m really a “nice” person if I see believers as deluding themselves or stupid or even lying – which is what I really feel now. I have actually enjoyed some of the snarkiness toward Christians that I read on the internet and am ashamed of this feeling when I think of it applied to my own dear family.

    How do I answer a much-loved sister, for example, who believes in Creationism – aside from answering her without making her feel stupid, that is? She, as well as the rest of my family, has always defined virtue and goodness as living according to faith. Now that I don’t have faith, even though I no longer define it as a virtue, I know that she does. I have seen how she tries to love the sinner but hate the sin. However, I know that deep down, she does hate the sinner. In her eyes now, that would be me. I know that our relationship will be forever altered. She will be polite and try to love me, but it won’t be real.

    I know what you’re thinking – or at least I think you’re thinking: How can you endure a “love” that’s based on a lie? The answer, of course is, I can’t. But I am thus far, not brave enough to find out what my family’s reaction will be when I come out. Right now, my feelings toward them have been forever altered, and theirs are based on lies I let them believe about me. That certainly doesn’t make me feel virtuous, either.

    Pretty much an untenable situation, wouldn’t you say?

    In addition, even when I am not interacting with my family, I don’t feel free to express what I really believe in my writing. I need an income and my writing could fill some of the void for me, but I can’t do it anonymously forever – if at all. What if I should be found out, which is pretty much inevitable? Won’t my family feel even worse if they find out by accident that I really think their beliefs are a ridiculous lie? Won’t they feel even more betrayed if I “shame” them publicly without even warning them?

    Okay, I say to myself, so just get on with it and come out. That would solve all my problems. At least our relationship would be based on truth. It would be good for my family to see that an atheist can be a good person. It would help them grow too. I could always find other friends to take their place. Yup, replace those I consider the most important in my life. Besides, as an sixty-six year old, visually impaired, disabled person, I’m pretty much stuck with the internet as my “friends” these days. Very comforting.

    Sooo, I read blogs and giggle at the snark in secret – my self respect in tatters, no income, resenting my family for “putting me in this position,” but knowing full well I’m doing it to myself.

    Jeez,what a cry baby! Grow a spine! Get a life! I shall sit down right now and reason my way out of this.

    Wish I could.

  • magdalune

    My goodness, Anfractuous, it’s like listening to myself talk. I’m a fervent writer of religion in blogs as well as a fiction writer who dips into horror, religion, and sexuality. In those places, I am openly gay and atheist because my writing is the one place where I can be completely honest. However, since one cannot be completely anonymous, I live in constant fear that I’ll be discovered by my parents and my work.

    I work at a church, no less, where religious discrimination is allowed and enforced. I’m presently dependent on my parents because the church doesn’t pay me enough to live on my own, and I’m still looking for a job elsewhere. But they have financial hold over me.

    I’m constantly reminded that the peace in the house is dependent on me keeping my mouth shut while the rest of them can speak as they like. I’m constantly reminded that if they knew who I was, even if they still loved me to some degree, even if they didn’t say it out loud, I would be The Enemy. Yet I still love them and want to respect them by not having an embarrassment as a daughter. Yet doing so stifles me and being honest to myself and others.

    It’s a catch-22, and I’m not looking forward to the day when everything explodes. This is one of those scenarios that simply cannot end well.

  • Anticontrame

    “How can I best avoid pissing people off while having a religious conversation?”

    “How will I recognize when arguing is doing more harm to my position than good?”

    “What’s the best way to diffuse the situation when tempers flare?”

    Ok, most new atheists probably don’t have those questions in mind, but they really should.

  • EdWest

    These are the kinds of questions I seem to run into from “green” atheists.

    how do I deal with the people who suddenly seem to hate me?

    Who can I talk to instead of my minister or rabbi?

    How can I convince people that my decision is based on reason, instead of “hating” God or my parents?

    A lot of my fellow atheists are scary and angry! Are there normal, moral, drug-free, non-goth, calm atheists out there? How can I meet them?

  • Anon E Mouse

    Hey, some of us goths are pretty reasonable people – we just wear a lot of black. 🙂

    Never had religion growing up. Never missed it either.

  • Jake Bradshaw

    How do you feel about people? Gays, people with different viewpoints, the death penalty, capitalism, equality, women, etc

    I became much more egalitarian when I realized it was all made up.

  • AnonyMouse

    Anfractuous, magdalune – I know exactly how you feel. I have to keep my atheism hidden from my parents because, as devout funda-Pentacostal Christians, they believe that all word against God comes directly from the Devil, and that if I cease to believe it is because I have been “deceived” or “tainted”. (Back when I first lost my belief, they found out about it, and while they stopped short of a full-blown exorcism they were bound and determined to get the demon out of either me or their house – no matter what it took. I feigned reconversion in order to restore the peace.)

    Anfractuous – It’s like being on a sinking ship. Do you leap off now and try to swim to safety, or do you cling to the ship’s remains and count the minutes until you drown? No matter what happens, you’ll have to deal with the water eventually. It’s best that you equip yourself as well as you can and face it head-on. You’ll still have to swim, but you will eventually get through it.

    Unfortunately, family is not a problem that you can just reason your way through. The best you can do is steel yourself, wade in, and be polite but firm as you explain yourself to your family. If they decide to be cruel about it, back off and let them sort themselves out. If they really love you (as many families do, despite their initial feelings to the contrary), they’ll come around. If not, at least the waiting is over.

    No matter what you end up doing, though, do this: get some new friends. Meet some people that you can be completely honest around. It doesn’t matter if they’re atheists or religious. Simply being around people who understand and accept you will provide immense comfort, especially when the pain seems worst.

    magdalune – It may seem tough, but no matter what you do, you must hold on. While I don’t experience constant trouble in remaining innocuous – we don’t talk about religion/morals that frequently, and when we do I can usually agree with them about something – there are times when I must force myself to smile and nod or even lie to keep the peace.

    But let me tell you this: it is worth it. Right now, your parents and church basically own you. Maintain your anonymity at all cost and say nothing of your religious beliefs until you are able to escape, because when your parents own you, they can and will go to every length possible to guilt, persuade, and shame you into rejoining their cult. It is not worth the strain.

    The best solutions I have found are to avoid confrontation (if at all possible, I leave the room when they start a discussion) and to vent myself on the Internet a lot. Not just anywhere on the Internet, mind – I protect my anonymity by using a unique pseudonym and limiting my comments to sites that I know my parents don’t (and won’t) visit. Friendly Atheist is a great place, because one look at the word “atheist” will send my mother fleeing in righteous terror.

    And again, find people that you can talk to in real life. I have a sister and a cousin who have also left Christianity (one still believes in God, the other is not sure) and it is immensely relieving to get together with them and talk about our feelings, if only occasionally.

    Best of luck to you both.

  • Atheist Trapped In Utah

    To what extent, if any, do I need to justify my lack of belief to anyone?


    ((This was a big issue for me at the beginning. I found myself being an obnoxious schmuck by seeking out religious people and starting arguments with religious people. After a while, however, I became secure enough in my atheism to not seek out confrontations and arguments… I leave the initiation of these things to the religious when I, calmly and clearly, state that I am, indeed, an atheist…))

  • Brooks

    When I first deconverted from Christianity, these were some questions I dealt with. What is the purpose of living if death and hell are your only options? If purpose is chosen by yourself, how do you find your purpose without religion? How do you express your views on religion as a new atheist to your friends that are still religious without offending your friends?

  • How does one deal with ceremonies saturated with religion? For instance Weddings, I pity the man who has to tell his woman that she can’t have her dream wedding! How does a Non believer maneuver that situation when the bride-to-be is very Christian?

  • The transition from being religious to being non-religious is extremely interesting, and in fact had this conversation with two friends recently. A question that holds particular fascination, at least for me, is “what motivated your movement away from religion, rational objections or an irrational impulse or trigger (such as a calamitous event)?”

    I’ve gotten both responses when I have asked the question in the past, but establishing which one is more prevalent could provide a clue as to what motivates people to be religious, or not.

  • How do I deal with the inevitability of death?

    How do I deal with no longer feeling cared for by a higher power who has a plan for me?

    How do I interpret experiences I once interpreted as spiritual, metaphysical, or religious?

  • Brooks

    Another question I thought of was if you believed in a literal hell as a believer, do you still suffer from a fear of hell as a non-believer or did it just vanish after you stopped believing? If you still suffer from the fear of going to hell, how do you fight against that fear? How do you respond to believers when they tell you that you’re going to hell?

  • Quester

    Am I still the same person?

    How will this impact my relationships?

    Do I have any need or desire to deconvert others?

    How do I go on from here without disparaging who I was before?

    What principles do I use to guide my life now? How do I choose them?

    Is there any place in my life for ritual celebrations?

    What if there are one or more gods, and I’m wrong?

    What do people who believed otherwise believe, anyways?

  • Greg B

    Does life still have meaning?

  • Tinman

    How do I ever trust any “answer” ever again?

    How do I ever trust myself again?(after all, I believed in God, and was not intentionally deceiving myself)

    What should I feel?(God told me what to hate and who to love… How do I decide what is the more “mature” or “correct” way to feel without an all knowing being…)

    How do I come to terms with not having all the answers?

    How can I ever trust a relationship again?(God was my biggest support in life, losing him was the hardest thing I have ever done… How does one ever trust any relationship after a blow like that)

    With so many people out there(90% of America alone) that believe in a God, and now that I see how easily people can be deceived, how can I determine who is worth listening to?

    What do I DO now?(I personally wanted to become a missionary… It was my single greatest passion… What do I do with my life after God?)

    What do I live for?

    Where do I go to for fulfillment?

    Are there any answers that I can stand on?

  • Margot

    * What caused that transition?

    Actually studying the bible. Studying how it came to be and realising myself (ie without atheists telling me) that it’s arguments were circular and couldn’t be used to convert non believers. I realised my xtianity was based on emotion and not logic or reason.

    * How do you make it through the day without God after relying on one for so long?

    The same way I always did! I realised it wasn’t god and in fact, that was a relief because if it was god, then he sure did a lousy job!! In fact it was just me plodding along doing the best I could with what life threw at me.. and that’s how I exist today

    * Should you tell anybody you’re an atheist?

    If it comes up in coversation then sure, I’ll talk about it but I don’t bring up the subject first usually.

    * If so, how do you come out to your family, friends, and colleagues?

    When the subject comes up, I just state the truth that’s all. There’s no mystery. if they want to dicuss it more I will but I’m not here to convert anyone. I don’t want to be harrassed when it comes to what I “should” believe and won’t do that to anyone else either.

    * What do you do in a time of crisis if you no longer think praying will help?

    I use my intellect and other resources that have always been available to me. Which is what I did before. Prayer is nothing but wishful thinking and while it may have benefits for ‘positive thinking’, ultimately it’s actions and attitude that made a difference, not wishful thinking.

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