Ask Richard: “Spiritual” Experiences After Deconversion November 22, 2010

Ask Richard: “Spiritual” Experiences After Deconversion

Dear Richard,

I have been seeking advice for a problem from several sources lately, and I would love your advice if you have the time to give it to me. I am struggling with a problem I have not heard spoken of directly. I would like to think that it falls under the category of “spiritual withdrawals” because otherwise I’m left to think much more disturbing things.

When I was a Christian I would have these moments of emotional rapture from time to time; moments that some would term inspirational or spiritual. They would come to me at particularly beautiful times of my life, such as a night spent alone stargazing, or the moment at which I reached the peak of a mountain trail, or when I enjoyed the crescendo of a favorite instrumental piece of music.

These moments were singular, so intense and moving that life after them would seem quite literally pale in comparison. They would lead me to spiritual insight and result in longing for something that I did not quite understand. Are you seeing how easy it was for me to attribute these feelings to the supernatural? A favorite author of mine at the time was C.S. Lewis, and his writings only further solidified my idea that these moments were messages from a god leading me to stay true to the path. That if I was true then I might experience the fullness of these hints of joy one day when I reached eternal salvation in heaven. It was a beautiful way to view it for me.

Then, I moved away from home and learned about the world outside of the country enclave of evangelicals that I was raised in. Many factors caused me to renounce Christianity, then declare myself agnostic, and finally assert myself as atheist. I handled a lot of emotional issues from letting go of a belief structure I was conditioned into, and have let go of most of them. They are troubles that come every once in a while and are soon recognized for what they are, remnants of a past I have no reason to be tied to any more.

Only I still experience the moments of emotional intensity that I used to when I was Christian. I am struck by them suddenly and painfully, like a punch to the gut to remind me of the strong emotional ties I once had to my religion. Though they are intense, they do not make me seek belief again, they just drive me somewhat crazy.

I want to know if other people have these problems, particularly de-converts; if they are common then maybe I’m just still dealing with separation from my former beliefs. But if these now painful moments are not something other people deal with as well, am I quite literally going insane? If this is a common thing to go through, what cause would you attribute it to? And do you have any suggestions for putting these emotions into a healthy perspective?

Thank you for your time and any insight you may have to offer,

Dear Haunted,

Recently, I was visiting the National Gallery in Washington DC. While wandering through the galleries, I came around a corner, and a painting reached out, grabbed me by the neck and pulled me into it.

I was there, part of it. The delicious brush of the wind, the invigorating splash of the droplets on my face, the smell of the salt, the surge of the boat, the sunlight sparkling off the swells. It was real, intense, and completely engrossing. Unaware of time passing, I was transfixed for several minutes, far longer than I usually spend looking at any work of art. Gradually I “came out of it,” and was back in the gallery. I noticed a label on the wall next to the painting. Eagerly I came up to read it, hoping that the label would add even more beauty, excitement and meaning to the experience I’d just had, something poetic and lyrical to really cinch the whole thing into a wonderful package of beauty, thrill and importance. The label said,

”Breezing Up” 1873-1876, Winslow Homer, 1836-1910

“Breezing Up”? That’s it? Nothing more? No words of inspiring wisdom and beauty to enshrine it with a meaning, add to its significance, gild and bejewel it with profound connotation? Nope.

Any other day, any other mood, any other circumstance, after lunch instead of before, and I might not have had that extraordinary experience looking at that same painting. I had studied it in school, and the effect of its photo in my art history textbook was “Meh, it’s okay, I guess.” That’s the way it is when you see the original of a masterpiece. Not always, but on rare occasions, if everything is exactly in place, it reaches out and grabs you.

The point of my story is twofold. Firstly, just about everybody has sudden, spontaneous, and powerful experiences like those you described. They are not usually frequent in our lives, but they are common to human beings. Some people have them more often than others, some more vividly than others, but I’m sure that most people reading your letter will recognize what you’re talking about from their own experiences. Watching the clouds drift by on a perfect day, cresting a hill to see a Shangri-La valley, looking at my baby daughter, and seeing her really looking back me for the first time, unexpectedly inhaling the scent of pine as sweet as if it’s both my first and my last breath. Somehow they have a brief ultra-technicolor reality to them, then things quiet down, back to the familiar and more workable level of the photo of the painting in the textbook. “Pale in comparison,” as you say. But that’s okay. If things were constantly that intense, I’d have to be taken care of in a mental hospital.

The second point is that the label is superfluous. We want to add a meaning, a purpose, a point, a message to these experiences, to frame them in a context, as if to capture them in our cameras and keep them with us, because their physical, sensual experience is so fleeting. So we draw upon whatever system of thinking we have handy at the time to enclose it, explain it categorize it, record it, annotate it, interpret it, augment it. If you’re a Christian at the time, you might attribute it to the Holy Spirit moving through you. If you’re a Buddhist, you might characterize it as a glimpse of enlightenment. Whatever your current interest, religious or secular, there’s a frame and a label that you can put around the painting.

But those are all contrivances. They are all unnecessary add-ons. The experience needs no “meaning” outside of itself. The painting is the painting. The thrill at the mountain pass is the thrill at the mountain pass. The ecstasy of the perfect symphony is just that, nothing more, and certainly nothing as artificial and contrived as the “significance” we want to stick on it. They don’t need any of that stuff, and neither do we.

I call these Peak/Peek/Pique experiences. “Peak” because they seem to be the apex of our joy, or ecstasy, or aliveness. “Peek” because we fancy that they are a glimpse into a hidden super reality behind the screen of reality we normally see. “Pique” because they arouse our interest or curiosity about whatever significance we invent for them. I think it is a mistake to treat them these ways. We can spend our lives chasing after them and their imagined value, like prospectors who die in the desert searching in vain for the Lost Dutchman Mine. Just let them be what they are, remarkable moments. No point or explanation is required.

Haunted, the good news is that you are still having these remarkable moments. That confirms that they are not dependent on, nor are they brought to you by your former religion. They are a purely human experience. Consider them a nice perk of being an intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive person, with, have no fear, a perfectly sane and healthy mind.

I think your assessment is correct: the pang of sadness you feel is the grief and nostalgia for the pleasant things you remember associated with your earlier years, when your religion gave you a sense of belonging, answered your questions (at least superficially), and gave these special moments a happy and reassuring interpretation. I’m glad that you’re seeking advice from several sources. Talking about it and finding others who understand can be very healing.

The mourning period for some people who have left the religion of their childhood can be quite protracted, and like any kind of grief, it comes in gradually diminishing waves. Sudden spikes can be triggered by specific things, and these experiences seem to be a trigger for you, but you can gradually reduce the grief reaction:

Try to simply accept the whole thing, both the beauty contained within the rapturous moment itself, and the twinge of sadness that is currently your reflex. Paradoxically, letting it all flow through your awareness unhindered, rather than grasping at the pleasant part and fighting the unpleasant part, over time you will probably begin to have less of that grief reflex. You’ll be able to enjoy the lovely moments in a direct, absolute way, just as they are and just for themselves.

Eventually, if you feel the need for a comment to yourself after one of these moments passes, perhaps you’ll say something like “Wow. That was nice. It’s good to be alive.”


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • L. Foster

    You may find this video inspiring, “Haunted”.

    I know I do.

  • mouse

    I still call moments like that “spiritual” though I mean something entirely different by the term than how most people define it (it ties into self awareness and the like, inspirational works too). That’s probably why I’m so much more accepting of the phrase “not religious but spiritual” than most other atheists I meet. I tend to think of the word differently than most people.

  • Claudia

    Great response Richard. To Haunted, the positive aspects of those experiences are not coming from your former religion, but the negative ones may be. Let me explain.

    I’m a lifelong atheist and I’ve experienced these things. It’s not common of course, but it can happen. I used to train in martial arts and very occasionally you could get so deep into the technique that you felt not that your body was executing the form, but that your body was the form. I’ve heard similar things from classical/modern dancers. I felt something similar when I saw Hubble’s deep field image for the first time.

    Our brains have this capacity to overwhelm us emotionally at certain times.

    Now I’m going to speculate, so take this with as many grains of salt as you see fit. Perhaps your negative reaction after the fact comes from the feeling of loss of “protection”. You used to experience these things and then have the bonus of “knowing” that it was a sign of a loving god watching over you. Now you experience those things and they remind you that there is no loving god, and you feel loss. Those of us who never believed in the deity are not saddled with this awful sense of loss. That doesn’t mean there is something there, just that the experience you felt was an affirmation of your faith now reminds you of your loss of faith.

    Sadly I have no idea how to cure this ill. Hopefully, with time you’ll learn to enjoy these awesome moments for what they are, a precious instant of Being Present that can be enjoyed on its own merits.

  • asonge

    I’d like to unnecessarily add my experience here. I was a believer for a period of time and did the whole “speaking in tongues” and “slain in the spirit” thing. Fun fact: I can still do it…but it just feels really wrong, because I’ve had that experience in response to something real (sex, art, music). I think you should realize that recreating the brain-state without the stimulus is just empty, and that feeling those emotional highs are best done with reactions to existing phenomena.

    Don’t let your religious past poison the emotional high experience. Just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean that everything must reduce down to “cold logic”. To paraphrase Hume, reason and logic should just be slaves to deeper desires. You can achieve a better life for yourself through a deeper understanding of reality, but if you forsake the larger human experiences (which are mostly emotional) you may be missing “the point” of being human.

  • ^_~
  • Haunted,

    Similar to Claudia, I’m a life-long atheist who has also occasionally experienced these intense moments of “emotional rapture”. I remember one afternoon walking home from junior high-school (probably 35 years ago) where I rounded the top a hill on the path to behold the field ahead in exquisite detail, noticing every blade of grass, every cloud, every bird… It was a field I’d seen many times before but this experience of it was profoundly different. After venturing about half-way across, I happened to find some lost object (I can’t remember what it was) but that discovery just added to my wonderment. In looking back, I can easily see how someone with a religious background would attribute such an experience to a communication by God. For me, though, I just felt “at one with the universe” like my brain was getting full oxygen for the first time. It was wonderful and I was very happy.

    In the years since, I have experiences such “rapture” on a few occasions and hope to experience them a couple of more times in my years left. I can’t comment on how to reconcile them with prior religious interpretations since I never interpreted them religiously myself. But take home that these experiences can (and do) happen to the non-religious as well. It is only the interpretation (and meaning attached) that differs.

  • Steven

    I love those moments – they inspire some of my best poetry (at least in my opinion). It’s nice to know that I’m not the only that has them as my wife just looks at me funny whenever I try to describe a singular moment of joy. I’ve never attributed it to anything other than the moment itself – a sudden swirl of snowflakes or bare feet on summer-sharp grass under an old maple tree. They are mostly random, though there are certain songs that seem to resonate through me (even without the bass cranked up). I hope that as Richard suggests they will become less haunting and more of a reminder of how precious life can be – moment to moment.

  • Tim

    You should check out Dan Barker’s book. In it, he talks about how he too had amazing, indescribable “spiritual” experiences and sensations when he was a Christian, and he talks about how he can still call up that same old sensation even as an atheist. You might find some solace in reading about someone else experiencing the same thing.

  • As mouse says this is exactly what I call “spiritual”. That moment of connection to the rest of the universe. There is nothing that I’d dream of attributing as religious to it. To do so would take something away from the experience. We have few of these pure moments of joy when the universe gets us right in the blood pumping organ. You don’t need a deity to appreciate them.

  • Firstly, just about everybody has sudden, spontaneous, and powerful experiences like those you described. They are not usually frequent in our lives, but they are common to human beings. Some people have them more often than others, some more vividly than others, but I’m sure that most people reading your letter will recognize what you’re talking about from their own experiences.

    Gosh, I hope I’m not defective, LOL. I’m not really sure what these experiences are supposed to be like, but I’m assuming it’s stronger than a brief feeling of awe or wonder. I have felt those, but I’ve never had a transcendent/spiritual/religious/mystical experience.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Welcome back, Richard! Your column has been missed, and I hope you are feeling much better!

    I too have occasional moments of what I like to describe as “transcendence”, and as others have said here, it’s usually a moment when I feel a deep connection to the rest of the universe. And I’m probably one of the least “spiritual” people you’d ever meet. I don’t think such feelings come from religion, religion just claims the credit, the way it does with kindness and morality.

  • RG

    I have these experiences after a few days of solo backpacking. I don’t analyse them too much or they fade away. They are kind of like lucid dreams. It doesn’t matter to me what causes them, or why. It doesn’t mean a spiritual world exists, only that the human brain has evolved into something grand.

    My only problem is when leaving the trail. My last three trips were followed by 2 months of depression. The regular routine is very dull in comparison. But, that only motivates me to get out again, and live a more adventurous life., my backpacking blog…

  • Thegoodman

    Its important to remember that not knowing the answer to something or not understanding an emotion we have neither makes us insane, nor does it give evidence of a “higher power”.

    It is simply that, inexplicable.

  • roxanne

    These moments are certainly not unique to those of the religious faithful! I think I experience these moments more often than others…I believe it comes from a coping mechanism I developed early in life to deal with the poverty & emotional abuse I experienced as a child at home. (I found solace in books and walking in the natural places)

    I once called it a religious experience, then a cosmic connection, and when I was a Buddhist, it was affirmation of walking the 8-fold Path…

    Now, ever since I evolved into my atheism, I recognize these moments as moments of enlightenment, or wonderment, or discovery. To gaze upon the familiar and see the unfamiliar, is a trick I do deliberately. I call it “looking as if you’ve never looked at it before”. it’s refreshing, allows me to keep things in perspective, and works wonders when in a difficult or uncertain situation.

    College, reading non-fiction, living by the beach, and my choice of profession all allow me to feel these moments often and lucidly. I love them, enjoy them, and when these moments bring me to tears due to the emotional surge (which usually occurs after I have worked with hoses), I find them cathartic, refreshing, and a reminder that I am only one small component of a vastness I only barely understand…

  • Richard Wade


    Gosh, I hope I’m not defective, LOL.

    Certainly not, rest assured. I don’t think you need spend any time envying someone else, or thinking you’re missing out.

    These things are completely idiosyncratic and subjective in how people experience them, and more importantly, they’re completely subjective in how people describe them. They seem to be more vivid for some than others, but there’s really no way to objectively measure that. For some, if an experience is just a bit more emotionally invigorating than their usual level, they might call it “rapturous.” For others, they might describe them as you have, “Oh yeah, I’ve had a brief feeling of awe or wonder.”

    There’s just no way for us to get inside each other’s heads to directly experience what someone else is describing. If we could, our reaction might be “Holy smoke! What the heck was that!?” or it might be, “Oh that was nice, I’ve had a couple of those before.”

    Perhaps if you don’t have hit-you-in-the-forehead-knock-you-on-your-ass experiences, it’s because you don’t need them. Maybe your general level of appreciation and awareness is strong enough that “spikes” in your emotional experience are unnecessary.

  • bernerbits

    Music does this for me. In fact, I found it profoundly disturbing, as a Christian, that secular music could induce in me the same feelings of “rapture” as songs of worship sung in church. Now, I was bright enough not to dismiss all of secular music as some sort of false idol, but it was enough to call into question the validity of any of my so-called spiritual experiences.

  • Although my family is Catholic, I was never religious myself, and I’ve also had similar experiences. In fact, one thing that surprises me is how much religious music affects me (this often happens with gospel and classical religious music). Even though I know the lyrics are nonsense, they can still draw out strong feelings and emotions.

    I just recently got the new John Legend and The Roots album (which is fantastic), and I had an intense experience listening to their cover of the Bill Withers song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” It’s a Vietnam protest song, but it sounds a lot like a gospel tune and there are a lot of religious references. I sat it my car outside of work and listened to the song twice before I had to go in, and was just in this euphoric state for the first part of my day.

  • Ah, yes. I get those wonderful feelings from burning bibles and doing Satan’s work. It’s all about the little things in life.

  • justanotherjones

    I’m a life-long atheist, and I’ve had those feelings. There are sometimes strong physical and emotional components to them for me. Like on the rare occasion that I find myself in a church and the music or the windows or architecture gets me, and I want to cry but I feel conflicted because I’m in a friggin’ church.

  • Ian

    Excellent response, and excellent advice. And excellent to see you firing on all cylinders again Richard.

  • I know for a fact that the brain and body can have intense experiences without a ‘god’ or any other supernatural being. I suffer from Panic Attack Anxiety Disorder as a result of my brain no longer making a chemical that is called a reuptake inhibitor. This chemical counteracts a rush of adrenalin due to the flight or fight response when the body feels threatened. I have these intense feelings of panic and the need to run away as fast as I can, for instance, when a train goes by on the tracks a few blocks away. Intellectually I know there is nothing to run from, but my body sets off these intense horrendous feelings when even slightly startled. These feelings include heart palpitations, sweating, intense anxiety, pounding pulse, my skin gets extremely hot to the touch, my hearing gets extremely sensitive, and I can’t breath– to name a few. I am literally incapacitated until it passes. Thankfully there is medication to correct this problem. But I just wanted the writer of the letter to know that often the brain does things we don’t want it to for no reason at all when it comes to feelings.

    I also experience intense feelings of joy when listening to awesome music, or finishing an incredibly difficult knitting project.

  • Idahogie

    I’ve never been particularly religious, but I did experience a similar event while Swimming with Dolphins in New Zealand (written up in Skeptic magazine). It’s a wonderful world.

  • Not religious, but I had one of those “OMG it’s all so beautiful, I am ONE with the UNIVERSE” moments when I did Salvia Divinorum. Except it was a ten-minute “moment”.

  • I’ve had these kinds of moments all my life: religous, not and in between. The funny thing is I didn’t really associate them with god, etc. even when I believed. A big difference for me was they have never left me feeling depressed but rather with a deep feeling of wellbeing and belonging of being a part of it all and that it was good.

    The description others have said of feeling one with the universe is apt. Awestruck, overwhelmed at the beauty of it all, and tremendously moved that I am a part of it all even as I feel tiny by comparison. I feel me and every tiny part of all there is in an extremely part of it all but only as we make up part of the total of it.

    Now I’m 52, 53 in a few months, and I suck at science. It goes straight over my head. But this, religious or not, was how I was always left feeling by these. Only in recent years with the internet and You Tube, the last few, have I really heard of Sagan and other scientists speaking of how we are made of star stuff but the second I heard it, it resonated with me. It was one of those aha moments. It is exactly how I felt without having the words for it. And, if you think about it, if they are right, it only makes sense that a good many of us would from time to time be struck by that feeling of connectedness to the universe.

    I’ve watched several of the Symphony of Science videos on You Tube and I love them because just watching them brings the feeling on and I feel my eyes water with the good feeling of them. Yet, I can’t play them too often because I revere them too much. Revere might be the wrong word but I can’t think of any better. They are so moving, so stirring and so recreate that awestruck feeling in me that they cannot be every day.

    Check them out. You might find them comforting.

    Here’s a good one to start with (it’s the first I watched):

    And now I’m going off to watch a few myself because, yeah, talking about it made me want to experience them again.

  • Oh, yeah, Richard, I got caught up in the conversation so much, I almost forgot: good to see you on the mend and have you back with us. Welcome back!

  • jonathan roberts

    Temporal lobe siezures is a REAL possibility. See a Neurologist: Get an EEG (especially if you have an episode when hooked up)& an MRI. I hope it’s just a spiritual experience, but this could be the first symptom of something more sever. Let us know either way.

  • Ghys

    Hmmm… ever since I’ve made the step from agnostic to atheist in 2008 I’m having MORE spiritual intense moments, not less. I think they’re beautiful and stem from my love for the world.

  • jim carlin

    Desiderate-is something i have held on to
    even in the most disturbing times

    – – -“Take kindly the counsel of the years,
    gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
    Nurture stregnth of spirit to shield you from sudden misfortune.
    But do distress yourself with imaginings.
    Many fears are born of fatigue and lonliness.
    Beyond a wholesome dicipline, be gentle with yourself.”- – -Max Ehrmann

  • Richard,

    Certainly not, rest assured. I don’t think you need spend any time envying someone else, or thinking you’re missing out.

    Oh, I was just joking around a little. I really don’t feel jealous of anyone who has these experiences. I just find it interesting that other people have them when I can’t remember anything I could even remotely describe as a heightened or altered state of perception.

    Perhaps if you don’t have hit-you-in-the-forehead-knock-you-on-your-ass experiences, it’s because you don’t need them. Maybe your general level of appreciation and awareness is strong enough that “spikes” in your emotional experience are unnecessary.

    That’s an interesting theory, but I’m more inclined to think it’s simply the way my brain works. I don’t think I’m more aware or appreciative than the average person, but I do think my brain is not inclined towards different states of perception. If religious belief is at least partly biological in nature, the way our brains are wired has got to have something to do with it. So people who frequently experience “at one with the universe” moments are probably much more likely to link that with whatever supernatural teachings they come across. In my case, I grew up atheist, but I’m pretty sure I stayed an atheist because I never experienced anything I could describe as supernatural. And what everyone else is describing does sound foreign to me. I don’t think “Wow, that tree is pretty” qualifies as a transcendent moment, LOL.

  • RNofHearts

    Spiritual withdrawal ? What the heck is that? Did you never learn anything about the human brain or emotions? So, I may be overcome with emotion while listening to a certain song, where as another person may be in complete dislike of the song, that is totally normal! For you to not know this … now to me thats not normal. I am sorry if that sounds harsh or insensitive , as I am always on others to not be that way , but if you are truly an atheist , i dont think you would even be asking about this. I do believe in God totally , but i can still appreciate the physiology of the brain… go figure.

  • Richard Wade

    I think it’s a really good idea of yours to practice what you tell your friends to do, to not be harsh or insensitive, especially when it’s quite apparent that you don’t have the slightest understanding of what has been discussed here. Your initial question, what the heck is spiritual withdrawal, does not seem like a genuine information-seeking question, but just a rhetorical question when followed by the rest of your comment.

    You say that you “do believe in God totally,” but you still seem to want to be the judge of whether or not someone else is “truly an atheist.” That makes no sense.

    If you are sincerely curious about what was discussed here, rather than just wanting to sound superior, I will be very glad to respectfully answer any genuine information-seeking questions you ask.

  • RNofHearts

    @Richard Wade

    Maybe my statement did sound insensitive , but from what I am gathering this unusually emotional feeling that everyone is talking about is a natural thing, whether you are a spiritual person or not. So yes, I guess I dont understand how that feeling would be a a bother to someone. If they are relating it to something that was in their past , then maybe it is a different issue altogether? I wasnt meaning to sound superior, it just seems like what is being discussed is common sense to me.

    I also have never heard of the term “spiritual withdrawal” and still feel that there is no such thing. Correct me if Im wrong ,(which I am not saying Im not) but dont most atheists base their beliefs on evidence, proof, logic and reason?

  • @RNofHearts,

    If I can jump in here, for me, as an atheist, I admit and recognize that any feelings I have that approach the supernatural are merely transient flights of fancy. The rational side of myself just tells me that any such thoughts are not founded. For example, I sometimes get the feeling that I’m going to win the lottery… that its just a matter of time. The rational side of me keeps me from spending all my available income on lottery tickets (I do buy perhaps 2 or 3 tickets a year). My rational inner voice keeps my irrational side in check. Otherwise, I would be inclined to form all sorts of unfounded beliefs about how the world works (or accept the unfounded beliefs of others).

    Bottom line, I get the “spiritual” thoughts from time to time but my rational side keeps them in check and in perspective.

    And if I did win the lottery, I would probably make a big donation to a secular group. Winning wouldn’t be proof of any supernatural premonition. It would just be dumb blind luck.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi RNofHearts,
    Thank you for asking again. I apologize for my own harsh sounding response to you.

    I agree with you that the intense experiences described by Haunted, the letter writer, as well as several of the commenters are natural occurrences that are experienced by most people, though usually not frequently.

    However, I disagree that it is common knowledge that these extraordinary moments are common to people. I have found that the lay public, especially those who do not have a substantial education in psychology have very little understanding of this phenomenon.

    Very often people are at a loss to describe their intense experiences clearly, so they often keep them to themselves. Very often their cultural environment views odd or hard to describe personal experiences with suspicion, suggesting that they are signs of being crazy. I’ve even heard some religious people assert that these experiences are demonic. So, often people don’t talk about them, don’t realize they’re not alone, and find no understanding.

    In Haunted’s case, s/he originally attributed them to a divine message to encourage him/her to continue on the path. So Haunted had a strong association that would trigger memories of his/her religious past whenever one of these intense moments spontaneously occurred, even long after s/he left the faith.

    Here is where the “spiritual withdrawals” comes in. It’s not a common phrase, but a term coined by Haunted to try to express his/her disturbing reaction to the remarkable moments. I think that what Haunted meant by that is a lingering feeling of grief or loss about no longer having the personal comfort and the well defined social role that his/her religion used to provide. This is very common amongst people who come to no longer believe after being intensely indoctrinated in a religion.

    For people with that background, two separate emancipations take place. The intellectual one, seeing through the irrational claims, the illogical arguments and the utter lack of evidence tends to happen sooner, but the emotional emancipation often takes much longer. Sometimes after years they still long for the reassurance of their safety, worthiness and belonging. It takes time for the emotions to catch up with the intellect.

    It’s not an exact analogy, but think of an addict with several months of recovery who has a strong and clear intellectual understanding of how his substance of abuse is harmful to him, and how imperative it is that he abstain. Even so, for quite a long time he still will have strong emotional ties to its use and the pleasant feelings he once enjoyed. If something triggers a memory of those early good times, he will experience either a desire to return to it, or a grief that he cannot return to it, or both. He experiences an emotional “withdrawal” symptom.

    So for Haunted, even though the experiences themselves sound quite beautiful, the immediate pang of grief and loss that they trigger cancels out the enjoyment. It will take time, but I think that s/he will be able to gradually unlink the memories from the special moments.

    RNofHearts, you are correct that most atheists base their beliefs, or their abandonment of beliefs on evidence, proof, logic and reason. But they are still humans, with emotional needs that take time to be fulfilled in new ways when those beliefs are radically changed.

    Thank you again for asking again. I hope that I have answered you satisfactorily.

  • RNofHearts

    @Richard Wade

    Thanks so much Richard, that does answer a lot for me. I thouroughly enjoy discussing and learning new things.( even things I amy not always agree with). You seem to be very level headed and knowledgable. I enjoy this website very much. It is very interesting to me.
    Although I will say just this one thing, I still feel that Haunted is relating these feelings to her past, posssiby in some form of guilt , perhaps she had a bad experience in her church (which sadly is not unheard of), but I hope after all is said and done , she just realizes that no matter what happened , this is how the human body and brain were made to feel. It is AMAZING really, and that these feelings are meant to happen. BUT, just one other side note…(not meant to sound negative or mean) … I have talked to people who have said they had these feelings but , when they were “high” on drugs , so I dont think that really counts because you’re mind is artificially altered at that time anyway). But other that that , just live your life without worrying so much! Worry and stress is not healthy!!

  • Richard Wade

    RNofHearts, thank you for your gracious and inclusive attitude. I enjoy respectful exchanges too, particularly with people who have differing views. Agreement is not important, only understanding is.

    It’s possible that Haunted’s process of letting go of his/her faith and religion might include something about guilt and/or some bad experience in church, but s/he doesn’t mention it. This paragraph in the letter sums up his/her deconversion:

    Then, I moved away from home and learned about the world outside of the country enclave of evangelicals that I was raised in. Many factors caused me to renounce Christianity, then declare myself agnostic, and finally assert myself as atheist. I handled a lot of emotional issues from letting go of a belief structure I was conditioned into, and have let go of most of them. They are troubles that come every once in a while and are soon recognized for what they are, remnants of a past I have no reason to be tied to any more.

    This is quite typical of many atheists’ stories about leaving the religion of their childhood. They move away from the family or community, often going to college, and they encounter a much wider range of ideas, beliefs and viewpoints. They learn new ways of thinking, not just new things to think. They realize that their original ideas were insular, provincial, and cannot stand up to more careful thinking. Their growing intellect begins to poke holes in their beliefs, and that conflict that I described between their intellect and their emotional attachments begins, and it has to run its course. Guilt might be one of the emotions they feel, as they work out their conflicts about leaving the faith of their family while trying to be true to themselves.

    Atheists don’t very often cite traumatic or abusive experiences at the hands of someone in their church as a major cause of their apostasy. They might have experienced such things, but they seldom attribute those to the process.

    I agree with you that powerful experiences that are produced by drugs are not desirable and not really comparable.

    RNofHearts, I hope you enjoy your family and friends at your holiday gatherings. My secular salutation to you will be,
    It’s cold. Spread warmth wherever you can. It’s dark. Shine light wherever you can. It’s slippery. Help people to make their way safely wherever you can. May you also enjoy that warmth, light and safety.

  • RNofHearts

    @Richard Wade

    Thank you Richard ,your honesty, thoughtfullness and kind words are much appreciated.

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