Your First Crisis as an Atheist July 7, 2009

Your First Crisis as an Atheist

Mary Bellamy is the Counsel and Director of Special Programs for the Secular Coalition for America.

She’s undergoing some surgery today and shared a few of her thoughts with me. With her permission, I’m posting them here in the hopes they might help others going through something similar:

As a fairly recently minted humanist, I am facing my first serious crisis post-prayer. I have cancer in two places in my left breast and “atypical” cells in my right breast. Today, a doctor will remove all of my left breast and part of my right breast. Hopefully my lymph nodes will be clear and that will be that.

Do I miss having a deity to pray to? No. Being able to dispense with prayer is actually a comfort to me.

If I still believed in a god, I would wonder why this had happened to me. I would wonder how god would decide whose prayers to answer — mine or the prayers of others facing medical crises — since we would not all be spared.

I would wonder how I should pray. Should I offer to make a deal — if you spare me I will… Should I bargain — if you spare me until I have seen my children grow up, I won’t complain when you do take me (that’s what I prayed the last time I faced a medical crisis).

I would wonder what I should pray for. Is it selfish to pray for your own life/health? Should I pray instead for the end of hunger in the world or for god’s will to be done?

It’s freeing not to have to deal with the questions prayer raises. I am free to focus on my needs, my family, my friends (even the friend who will light a candle at a shrine to the virgin for me today, because who better to watch over me today than she who suckled Jesus at her breast?). So if anyone tells you that as atheists we have given up a comfort in a time of crisis, tell them no — we have given up a distraction and confusion, not comfort. For comfort we have our families and our community.

After you became an atheist, what was the first crisis you went through? How did you deal with it at the time?

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  • My father developing cancer. Without prayer I was able to focus on doing something practical for him

  • ungullible

    Twelve years ago, I had a very similar experience as Mary’s. Within a few years of becoming an atheist, I was diagnosed with stage II-B hodgkin’s lymphoma. My reaction was almost identical to Mary’s – I found it a relief that I didn’t need to ask “Why me?” questions but could instead focus on researching my treatment options and getting better.

    I wish I had more to add, but it sounds like Mary’s got the right attitude and outlook to beat this. Cheers to you, Mary!

  • I’ve always been an atheist so there was no crisis. However, like Sean, the distraction of well meaning but ineffectual holy men and thoughts of divine interference were ignored when my mother was goign through cancer. Instead practical needs came first.

    Mary’s surgeons and nurses have had many years of training and experience in how best to help her. I know I would rather rely on professional people and good carers than wishful thinking. Also a positive attitude and having goals helps in recovery. Stay positive and make use of your support network of friends and family, that’s what they’re there for.

  • Ken Karp

    Mary –

    Here in New Jersey, we’re thinking and hoping for the best. Does that help? Maybe not with the medical outcome, but perhaps so with the patient’s outlook.

    Get back to the office soon … we need you there!

  • Revyloution

    First it was learning to breath, then shortly after that I had to teach myself how to draw milk from my mother. It was all down hill after that.

    Those of you who had deep faith, then lost it to become atheist are an enigma to me. Im just glad you can look back and see how silly those ideas were.

    If there are any statisticians or behavior researchers here, this would be a great project. Build a questionnaire that will help learn what events begin the loss of faith. I would love to know how someone can just abandon mystical thinking.

  • Revyloution

    Oh, and far more importantly,

    Mary Bellamy, I hope all goes well with your surgery! Get well soon!

  • beckster

    The worst is when someone you love dies and well-meaning people “reassure” you that the person is in a better place and that god has a plan. Now the more interesting one is when someone you love commits suicide and people drop the “he’s in a better place” part and just reassure you that god has a plan. I mean, what do you say to that? They are trying to be nice, but come on? How does that make anyone feel better?

  • Matt

    The positive psychosomatic effects of prayer can’t be neglected, and as an atheist, you can have similar ways of cheering up yourself that really helps your mind and body to stay healthy.

    Without all the dead weight a religion brings into this.

  • SarahH

    My first crisis was losing a college professor I was close to and then a close friend (to cancer and a drunk driving accident respectively) very suddenly, and just a few months apart.

    I didn’t know how to handle death, and I kept picturing their bodies rotting in the ground, empty without the brain activity that made them the people I loved. I cried almost every day for a long time, and there’s still no comforting thoughts that ease such pain. Yes, they left their mark behind in the memories of other people (and in what they wrote while they were alive), but that doesn’t change the fact that they were here and now they’re gone. It doesn’t make up for it or bring them back.

    I eventually realized, though, that I couldn’t spend my whole life fixated on the people I lost. I want to live life to its fullest while I have the chance, because I believe this is all the life I’ll get.

    I hope Mary makes a full recovery and gets the support she needs.

  • Cypress Green

    Actually, my crisis *and* turning point came at the same time. The crisis spurred the other. My mother died unexpectedly…never woke up one morning. By that point I already doubted Jesus’ divinity.
    Her funeral was a very lonely affair as she had few friends and almost no family. (and my stupid ex never called our friends, as I asked) There were so few people at the graveside I had to pitch in and help carry the coffin down a slippery hill in heels.

    I stood over her grave and wanted SO badly to think she was ok and I’d see her again. But I knew I wouldn’t. I thought, “Well, if there is a god, I can’t believe he’d create a hell. So if she still exists, she’s fine. And if there’s nothing after death, she’s ok, too, cause she doesn’t even know she’s gone.”
    Then I felt satisfied. But I really knew she was gone for good.

    So it was sad when my dad got cancer and died, when a friend killed himself, and now that my 40s sister has cancer. Knowing the truth helps. I actually feel less helpless not believing.

  • Cypress Green

    Revyloution Says: Those of you who had deep faith, then lost it to become atheist are an enigma to me.

    LOL, Yeah, I think most of us who did have faith feel the same way!!!

    beckster Says:The worst is when someone you love dies and well-meaning people “reassure” you that the person is in a better place and that god has a plan.

    Geez! That’s a pet peave of mine, too. I had to smile and grit my teeth at my dad’s funeral listening to that all day!
    Worse yet is the suicide thing. I am bipolar, and a bipolar friend who ‘talked me off the ledge’ later killed himself. People who think suicide is a sin obviously have no real experience with depression in themselves or loved ones.
    Ya’ know, if god existed…it’s HIS fault. He made my brain chemisty this way, and if it kills me, well, it’s all on him. The big jerk. LOL

  • Hal in Howell MI

    For me, it was the other around, it was a crisis that tipped the balance in favor of atheism. A few years ago a tumor was found on my throat. The doctors, who were most conscientious and understanding, were unable to determine either by biopsy or MRI if it was malignant. Major surgery was required.

    I can tell you I was scared to death, though I didn’t feel the necessity of calling on a “higher power” to get me through this. I had been leaning toward “unbelief” for a quite a long time, but had never “declared.”

    What closed the deal for me was the anesthesia. It was nothingness. I couldn’t perceive it. There was no “going toward the light”. There was nothing. When I awoke I realized that I had experienced death or not being born, if it is possible to experience nothingness. It was incredibly reassuring and enlightening. There was no presence of anything (I’m told by the medicos that you are in a deep coma, just a step from physical death and that the brain is shutdown except for autonomic functions.) The experience made me realize that there is nothing except this life. In fact, I now find it quite disturbing to even conceive of an “afterlife” or “eternal” existence. BTW, the tumor was benign.

    I likely haven’t expressed myself well, but all I can say is it was a positive life-changing event to find there is no god.

  • thiolsulfate

    My first crisis was a serious personal crisis.

    When I finally understood that there was no god, no heaven, or even a hell I was faced with the ultimate mortality. At the time, eternal suffering was preferable to oblivion. I went into what I consider a depression phase where I could not bring myself to leave the house for almost two weeks. I missed two weeks of class and failed an exam because of it.

    Having been a devout and conservative Catholic for 19 years and giving all of that faith and belief up within the span of a thought was a serious personal loss. Now it has become a source of strength for me.

    Having finally come to terms with death I’m no longer afraid of it. Without the crutch of god or faith I still walk on.

  • TimothyJosephWood


  • In my first crisis, I went running back to faith; that is, until I realized why I’d given it up in the first place. Now, I don’t bother. I just focus on figuring out what I can do to improve the situation. It’s much easier without all the fantasy.

  • Rob

    History: I don’t recall a point in time where I became an Atheist, I think its just always been there even through all the years of sunday school, confirmation, etc in a very nice Lutheran church. No holy rollers there thank goodness.

    Muscular Dystrophy: A lot of things happened that would test a persons faith, but for me the biggest happend 2 years ago when we found out that my then 2 year old daughter had Muscular /dystrophy. The discovery part was terrible as we went through test after test and slowly started to eliminate some really nasty options. We landed on a mild form of MD that shouldn’t impact her lifespan, but will offer some minor challenges throughout her life. Good thing the world is so much more accomodating in 2009 and she’s a funny, smart and happy little 4 year old(that walks really fast instead of running and you can see in her face that she thinks she’s breaking land speed records 🙂 ).

    Rational Thought: I recall having those rational conversations with my wife and in my head about the biology of it, where the mutation came from, who was a carrier, what are our options, what can we do to help, what’s her long term prognosis, etc.

    Mystical Nonsense: I also recall the crazy things friends and family would say about god giving us challenges, gods special children, etc. Really? Seriously? Whatever god you pray too is a vicious person if they put any family through this kind of angst. We’re very lucky in the grand scheme of things, but so many more families are far worse off with their children. It’s very very painful to go through and if someone “creates” a child this way as a “test” then they’re incredibly cruel. That would be like a parent beating a child then hugging them for comfort. Yeah… really nice of you….

    Donate: Please don’t pray … Donate to MDA!

  • The first crisis I faced after realizing I was an atheist was when my mom was in a car accident. She was hit head on by a man who was high on meth and driving without a license. She broke both legs, one arm, multiple ribs, and her sternum.

    I found myself happy that I was an atheist at the time because I didn’t have to wonder why god would let such a thing happen. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and there was no purpose behind it. I looked to her doctors and to the support of our family to get through it.

    Since then, I’ve wondered what her personal thoughts were at the time. I think if I had still believed in a god that I would have been very upset trying to understand why something like that could happen. It baffles me when people say that something like this strengthens their faith. I guess that’s the only way they know to get through it.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of another very touching post, written by Richard Wade in April 2008.

    I wish Mary a quick recovery from her surgery.

    Also, Revyloution said:

    I would love to know how someone can just abandon mystical thinking.

    I am someone who’s in transition of letting go of the mystical thinking. I think for most people, especially in my case, it doesn’t “just” happen. It’s a slow and painful process. The questions that always lurked in the shadows of my faith, from which I worked so hard to barricade myself, simply became too loud and too visible to ignore. When you start facing those hard questions one by one, there is no choice but to answer them one by one. It feels like the foundation you’re standing on is crumbling under your very feet, and you find yourself frantically searching for some solid ground…anything to keep from falling into the darkness. It’s that Matrix-like [blue pill/red pill] dilemma with every step, and it’s an excruciating process. I found myself constantly tempted to go back. I don’t know if I could have continued without the on-line support I had/have. Eventually, though, I’ve begun to realize that there is no dark hole underneath the old foundation, and, in fact, the foundation itself may have been a delusion. So far so good…

  • Yeah – there’s no “just” losing your faith. Losing my faith is my first crisis, just finding ways to deal with it, experimenting with new thinking, trying to figure out how to keep being a part of my family… I don’t have a high tolerance for emotional pain as it is.

    But comfort or no, I can’t choose to believe something that simply isn’t true, so even when Miss Conservative Christian in me clings to her past, Miss Atheist keeps on keeping on because nothing Miss CC says is true, just desperate.

    It’s not comforting to go through life without a mystical loving dad; but it may be better than believing that awful things happen for a reason. What a mean dad! When things just happen by chance, it’s easier to accept that they happened and all you can do is move forward.

  • phoenixflash

    When my father died at age 50 from cancer, my mother never forgave God. She spent the rest of her life pissed off at an imaginary sky-daddy. She survived 30 more years depressed and angry. A God That Doesn’t Exist ruined her life and I have hard time not being pissed off at that.

  • llewelly

    I don’t feel comfortable writing about the details, but the inability of religion to be helpful (or even to not be so hurtful) in the crises I suffered during childhood played a substantial role in my abandoning religion.

  • scott hall

    When i was 9 i decided to be an atheist cause to me god seemed like a total bunch of shit. I was raised catholic but born an atheist i always say.

    My first problem was when people would sneeze and expect you to say “bless you” or when i would sneeze and they would say it and expect me to thank them for it and i wouldnt.

    I actually had my mom get really mad at me about the subject and when i told them i didnt believe in god they sent me to counseling with a priest to bring me back into the fold haha.

    To this day i still hate it when i feel a sneeze coming on and i know some fucking sheep is gonna say bless you and im going to ignore them and then hear them say it again only louder as a decleration of their faith in god and in some way to make me feel guilty(?) or ashamed.

  • scott hall

    Oh one other thing, i actually had someone tell me if i dont like people saying bless you or having to say it back at people just to be polite to say Gazoontight(?) or however you spell that which if im not completely wrong is just german for bless you which apparently makes it ok to say it since im not speaking in my native language so i can maintain my atheistism while still being polite. No thanks.

  • Revyloution

    scott hall, its ‘gesundheit’

    and its a great phrase for atheists. Its two words in one (Germans love to squash together multiple words into one)

    Gesund is the word for health, and the suffix ‘heit’ can be interpreted as ‘for you’ So all your doing is telling someone that you hope they have good health. Nothing mystical at all.

    I prefer the jobsite Spanish invocation. Most Latinos I know use the word ‘Sancho’ when you sneeze. It means ‘the man who sleeps with your wife while you’re working’. How that became associated with sneezing, I doubt Ill ever know.

  • “Gesundheit.”

    It’s wishing them health, not blessings. Much more secular.

    … and my note has be pre-empted by someone saying exactly the same thing. Good timing.

    BTW, Sancho is just a name 🙂 Sounds like slang to me. I’ve heard “salud”, which also means ‘health’.

  • Revyloution

    MikeTheInfidel, ya Sancho is a name, but the slang term is pretty ubiquitous on the west coast job sites of the USA. Salud is definitely the polite phrase, but I just love using ‘Sancho’.

  • Anonymous

    The subject of sneezology often comes up in atheist conversations.

    May I point out that “bless you” is just a friendly phrase? It’s a widely accepted way in America for a person to say to another, “I notice that you just made a noise, and I will take this opportunity to make a friendly gesture.” If someone put their hand out to shake your hand, would you slap it away because it’s not done in the exact fashion you are comfortable with? By putting too much meaning into the words themselves, we can alienate people and become the bigots that we accuse others of being.

  • Jim

    While I wasn’t an atheist at the time, my last real crisis did happen after I had dispensed of the concept of a personal deity that answers prayers. I was a deist.

    I think that Mary is right in that the comfort that comes with prayer is short lived and always leads to the questions she posed. I had lost one of my cats a couple years ago, suddenly and the event was very stressful, emotionally. Since I had nobody to pray to anymore (that cared or listened) I was forced to face the ordeal head-on. I forced myself to feel the sorrow and allowed myself to mourn my loss but at the same time, I set a time in which I would no longer allow the emotion to control me. It took time and was hard to do but without the whole, ‘why me, why this, why now’ questions burning in my brain, it passed relatively easily.

  • Weimanxi

    I’m a recently converted atheist(Fall of 2008), and my 4 year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in June. My husband is a lifelong atheist, and he has been helpful with framing my thoughts about the whole situation.

    I still pray, but not really to anyone, maybe I’m still clinging to mysticism? At first I didn’t, but it was more work to try to stop that habit. Now I think of it more like meditation, or a conversation in my mind.

    I have felt relatively free from the ‘why me’ questions, and I’m not angry, except perhaps at the cancer itself.

    Glad to find this website.

    I can easily trace my conversion from religion to atheism if anyone is curious.

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