Ask Richard: Former Minister Grieves the Loss of Her Faith January 2, 2012

Ask Richard: Former Minister Grieves the Loss of Her Faith

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

Thank you for being there (in “The Friendly Atheist”) when I finally realized I was grieving the loss of my faith. After a lifetime of service to the Presbyterian Church, including three years in seminary and seven years in pastoral ministry, it left me completely three years ago, at the conclusion of a difficult interim position. I’m 64 years old. My husband, also clergy, never took anything in scripture literally and often ridiculed my beliefs. Now I find myself even farther out than he is. I also did a Master’s in existential philosophy (before seminary) and see no point in mental gymnastics. I watched my dad, a great and learned man, lose his mind during the years before his actual death. Nothing lasts, why strive? You advocate something called “secular humanism.” I always saw that as the enemy of Christianity so I know nothing. What’s it about and what’s good in it? Ayn Rand is about the extent of my knowledge and I found her horribly egotistical. I’m sad except when I’m with my granddaughter and the three or four women I volunteer with. I’m not suicidal, although I don’t see any grand purpose in life or living.


P.S. I just occurred to me that for the first time I’m grateful for (instead of angry about) the secularization of Christmas so I can still enjoy the gifting and decorating.

Dear Barbara,

I think you’re still in the midst of your grieving. The greater the importance that a cherished person, thing or commitment has for us, the greater the grief we suffer when it passes away from us. Grief can last quite a while, and it fades away gradually. Your commitment was enormous, and so I’m not surprised if after three years you are still mourning.

What you are describing also sounds a little like depression, which sometimes accompanies grief, but which can settle in and become chronic, remaining even after the grief is over. I’m glad that you reassure us that you’re not suicidal, but it also might be good for you to run through the main items on the depression checklist. While grief for any kind of loss can have many of the traits here, they generally taper off over time. For depression, look for a pattern of persistence or even increase over time:

  • Feeling daily sad, empty, purposeless, worthless, helpless, hopeless, or inappropriately guilty.
  • Irritability, impatience, anxiety.
  • Loss of interest in friends, family, hobbies, pleasurable things.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions.
  • Changes in appetite, significant weight loss not from dieting, or weight gain.
  • Loss of energy, fatigue, moving very slowly.
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping.
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, body pains.
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide, wishing to die.

If you have any of these to a significant level, or if you have some of these to a moderate level, I think you should consult a doctor or counselor or both. If you decide that therapy would be helpful, be certain that it is not pastoral counseling in any form. Regular, secular, psychology-based counseling would be the best choice for you.

Aside from that issue, It sounds like your loss of faith also resulted in a loss of things for you to do. The timing of this in your sixties, when not only are you adjusting to changes in your body, you’re also adjusting to changes in roles that you and society might expect of you. This could be adding to your sense of being adrift and directionless.

Seeking a direction, you asked about humanism. Descriptions and definitions differ, but I think that you can get a good understanding from the material on the American Humanist Association website. Read all of the essays on that page, not just the Humanist Manifesto III. For someone with a Master’s in existential philosophy, these should be easy reading. Ayn Rand is probably not the best representative of what humanism can be. Here I ask our very learned Friendly Atheist readers out there for their recommendations for further reading on humanism.

My friends, your suggestions, please?

You need some peers, some people who understand what you are going through because they have been there too. The internet is a wonderful tool for this, and a few online atheist friends who can recognize exactly what you share are very important. Again, I ask our readers if they know of good sources for former clergy to find each other. Finally, former clergy or not, having at least one trusted atheist friend with whom you can meet face to face is invaluable. Keep looking, don’t give up.

I don’t pretend to understand much about existentialism, but I do remember that Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

You can choose your own purpose, invent whatever meaning you wish for your life, cast yourself in whatever role you please. You don’t have to passively receive it from above, from outside of you. It’s deeply and wonderfully all yours. Judging from your letter, I think your role will have much to do with helping other people.

You asked, “Nothing lasts, so why strive?” I reply, “Yes, nothing lasts, so strive!” Make the most of this limited time. Don’t live inconsequentially, have an effect! Leave the world a little better because you were here. It might not be a grand and famous difference you’ll make in the world as a whole, but it can be grand and famous in the lives of those people who are lucky enough to know you.

You’re already on the right track by spending time being happy with your granddaughter and the three or four women with whom you volunteer. Ah, volunteering. You’re already practicing an important expression of humanism. You’ll find from your reading and your own experience that other human beings are both the essence and the embodiment of humanism, the essence and embodiment of your own humanity. Expand your love, your caring, your willingness, your interaction, your positive effect on others, and you expand your own life.


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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  • dorothy30
  • Andrew Irvine

    That’s a great answer, I can’t think of anything to add other than that I hope she does well.

  • Mary

    You will find a kindred spirit in Bruce Gerenscer’s “Fallen from Grace” blog 
    Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for 25 years, pastoring churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce left the ministry in 2005. He has since left the Christian faith and is now an atheist.  His story is very interesting and he’s a good writer too!

  • Natasha Gow

    While there is a significant age difference between us, and I have certainly never been a member of the clergy, I have recently begun on my way out of depression.

    Before, I found myself feeling inconsequential. I didn’t feel like there was much point or worth in perusing anything. Not that I was suicidal either. No life is precisely that, no life at all.

    In the last few months, after some good professional help I have begun to find at least a little hope in that what small things I do every day contribute to my future and contribute to the world around me. Its still a struggle because I have that dark cloud over my head. It is hard to remind myself that this is simply it and I need to make the most of it. But I do my best.

    Best of luck to you Barbara, I am sure you have the fortitude to get through this.

  • Shells

    Being a former Christian and now semi-Randian myself, I do have to agree that her work isn’t the best place to start for a recent nontheist. Most people hear her advocate selfishness, but forget the preceding qualifier “rational”. Intentionally thinking about yourself first is so opposite of everything everyone has ever told you that it can be too shocking a change.

    I wish the writer the best of luck in figuring out for herself what she wants her life to be, rather than having someone choose it for her. Read everything. Read every philosopher, read Kant, read Sarte, read something about Rand that wasn’t written by Rand herself (it’s easier to understand that way). Figure out how you want to live, and go for it. The world’s yours.

  • Charon

    Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend Rand. For anything. Given the number of
    secular humanists who are on the left end of the political spectrum (the large majority, in my experience), most of them wouldn’t recommend Rand either.

    Nor I would I start by combing through L’Être et le
    Néant, although the very basic existentialist idea of one givings one’s
    own life meaning is on the right track, I think.It’s probably ridiculous for me to give advice here, since I’ve never been in a loss-of-faith situation, but… it might be helpful to figure out what is missing most. Is it community? A sense of philosophical completeness? Purpose? Certainty? Connection to a larger world?There are secular replacements for most of those (not all – absolute certainty is gone and ain’t never coming back, but I regard that as a good thing). Sometimes the secular replacements are a whole lot better (you can enjoy all of science now!). You’re already volunteering, but try a variety of things and see if any of it works. Hiking (connection to the natural world), taking adult ed classes on interesting subjects to see what science offers (maybe ecology or astronomy), reading philosophy (and not just the two-hundred-year-old stuff; Patricia Churchland is awesome, Daniel Dennett is thought-provoking, and if you’re looking for hardcore naturalist philosophy, you could try Second Philosophy by Penelope Maddy – though after the first section you’ll have to adore mathematical logic to continue).It takes great courage to face the evidence and lose one’s faith in the first place. So I don’t doubt that you’re strong enough to develop a meaningful life without faith. And if you still want to occasionally just sit around eating Ben & Jerry’s and listening to My Dying Bride, well, that’s okay  🙂

  • Charon

    There were more paragraph breaks when I submitted this… I don’t suck at writing that bad, I swear.

  • Find YouTube videos and writings by Michael Shermer.  He’s cool.  Read Skeptical Inquirer.  One friend told me that, when it came to religion, I threw away the baby and kept the bathwater because I still love Xian music (old, not Christian rock) and think that the church I was raised in had decent ideas (except for the belief thing).  I don’t hate the Bible.  I don’t hate the music.  I just hate the requirement that you have to believe (I never could).

  • Anonymous

    Without going all “No true Scotsman” on you, I don’t think any coherent definition of Humanism could include Rand as a Humanist. She was undoubtedly an atheist, but atheism is merely a lack of belief in gods while Humanism is an actual philosophy which as far as I’m aware, Rand did not associate with.

    As for everything else I agree entirely. Remember, you now understand you only have one life, which makes every living minute infinitely more precious. There will be no second tries, and the only measure in which you will live beyond death is in what you leave behind. So try to leave behind people and communities that are enriched, happier, safer for knowing you. Volunteer work is a great way to do this.

    Please check out The Clergy Project, which is made for people just like you; current and former clergy who lost their faith. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of people who went through the same doubts and grieving process as you have.

  • Edward Tarte

    Barbara, I am an ex-Catholic priest, now atheist, age 77.  I have videos on YouTube.  At YouTube, you can search edward tarte, and then browse at my profile page.  One that I invite you to watch is my video, ‘You Atheists Have No Hope. What Keeps You Alive?’   (It was recommended a few weeks ago by Hemant the Friendly Atheist and got a favorable comment from Richard also.)  So it might be worth your time.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Here’s my take from a cognitive therapeutic approach.   Fundamentally, Barbara is grieving a mistake.  Faith is just belief and beliefs can be mistaken.  I think Barbara is upset that she spent so much time and effort in a series of mistaken beliefs.  The cognitive belief is that she should not have spent so much time and effort pursuing what she now realizes was just a mistake.  It is a perception that perhaps she is smarter and somehow knowledgeable enough that she should not have made those mistakes.

    That perception is the flaw in the equation.  People make mistakes.  They often spend substantial time and effort on mistaken ideas or beliefs.  We are human and the great part of that is that we can correct our perceptions.  What I’d tell Barbara is just to accept your are like everyone else and simply a flawed human.  In many ways embrace the “course correction” and realize that correcting out mistakes is a sign of someone who is aware enough to make the correction.

  • I definitely understand depression, and if that is what’s happening, power to this strong ex-Minister!
    I think it’s vitally important to work out what /does/ matter to you, whatever you believe (or don’t believe) in. I personally believe in nothing – fate, afterlife, God, the spiritual realm, etc. But people matter to me. I have seen the inside of my own mind, and it’s so vast and complex, I as a person have such a rich experience of reality. I could go on for hours and just scrape the surface of who I am. The knowledge that other people around me are so vast and complex as me, that they feel as much as I do in their lives and I can make a difference in that extensive inner world of theirs – it makes me happy. It gives me purpose.
    Listening to Neil Degrasse Tyson talk about his work of exploring the universe – literally – made me realise that’s not just me. I find my truth and meaning in other people. Some people find their truth and meaning in scientific or artistic discovery, in creating things or self improvement. Richard Dawkins, I think, finds meaning in the discovery and understanding of truth, the progression of science and learning. Less known but equally meaningful people find meaning in having families, raising children. Some people explore the world and learn all about other cultures and that makes them feel complete. God or religion is just one little option in the sheer number of things that can make a human life important. I think everyone just need

  • Bananafaced

    Barbara, I recommend traveling because it gets you out of your comfort zone. You can become trapped in your grief for that which you invested so much time if you stay in one place. Plan a trip with your granddaughter. Go see the wonders of Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon. You could even tour Central and South America in the winter and Canada in the summer. The excitement of seeing more of the world might make your endorphins kick into high gear. It could take your mind off the past and usher in a new lust for life. Best to you in your quest.

  • I think Richard is right to recommend some form of secular counseling. It helps to talk about difficult experiences. I’ve never been a member of the clergy or even very deeply involved in organized religion, but to some extent I still grief over the loss of faith and the certainties and comforts that went with it. I can only surmise that your sense of loss must be incomparably greater. I don’t have much wisdom to pass along, but finding a new community, even if it’s a virtual one, will help you find your way back to happiness.

  • Anonymous

    I wholeheartedly second this recommendation. I totally fall in love with Mr Tarte  every time I watch one of his videos.

    Also, here’s Dan Barker’s talk at Skepticon, where he talks about becoming a sceptic after having being a preacher (also he speaks about The Clergy Project).

  • Highly recommended. Five stars. (Sorry Ed, that I didn’t think to mention you.)

  • Erik D Red

    “xpastor”, who you’ll find in the friendly athiest forums, just springs to mind, and for obvious reasons.  I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here, but from what I’ve read of his posts, he seems like someone who’ll be happy to help.  If he doesn’t turn up here soon, I suggest you go find him.

  • Rich Wilson

    Think of the things that gave your life meaning before, and look for them to give you meaning now.  You granddaughter?  Perhaps something to help other children as well?  

    At the very base level, it’s all about decreasing suffering and increasing well being.

  • Since Barbara has a master’s in existential philosophy, why not start from there? You’ve probably already read Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism,” but it’s always good for a refresher, especially because it handles this exact question:

  • Marco Conti

    I am no expert on losing faith. I never had it to begin with. I have “faith” in science and in human nature, but it’s not the same Faith religious folk say they experience.

    However, I am an expert on depression and I think it is part of the human condition. Unless you are a piece of broccoli, you cannot help but being depressed about something in your life. I’d be worried if someone living a normal life didn’t have some moments of depression.

    But if depression takes over your life, you have to do something. Medication can help but modern psychiatry seems to be obsessed with giving out pills but no advice on how to cope with things.  

    I wish I could tell you what the best path for you would be, but I can’t. I can tell you what I do when I get depressed about the human condition and what works for me. Maybe it will work for you, maybe not, but maybe it will give you an idea of what would work for you.

    Whenever the filth and the lack of morality in my fellow human gets to be too much, I go to youtube and search for some video by Carl Sagan. Could be Cosmos, could be something else, but listening to Sagan, his childing wonderment at the universe, nature and the stars is always very inspiring to me. Why not give it a try? 
    I suggest you try to find a good version of his “Pale blue dot” essay put to video by someone with good film skills.
    Here is a good one I found, but there are some pretty great version floating around, all with the same soundtrack but different graphics:

    Then watch this video:

    I hope you enjoy and you will be able to enjoy life as a humanist.

    PS: And forget about Ayn Rand. That’s libertarian de-humanism

  • Very good. Funded by Dawkin’s foundation.

  • Anonymous

    That’s exactly what I was going to recommend.

  • Nancy Norton

    I’m surprised nobody has suggested ‘Jen Hancock’s Happy Humanism Handbook.’ It’s basically free and a quick, easy read that is a perfect introduction to the basics of Humanism. Her web page is:

  • Barefoot Bree

    My first thought was the Clergy Project, mentioned above. My second is Living After Faith (on Facebook and Blogspot, with a dynamite podcast, too), associated with Recovering Religionists – who might have a local meetup group in your area. There are a number of secular forums online, too, many of them peopled with former believers who can sympathize. My favorite – and my internet home – is the Secular Cafe. Google can find all these spots.

  • Anonymous

    “Barbara”, I grew up Presbyterian in Northern VA,  and the wife of the pastor of the church that I attended in the 70’s and early 80’s was also clergy, and founded her own church in a growing neighborhood nearby. I liked her immensely, she was full of energy and intelligence.  And I think she would be just about your age now.  So even if you are not her, I once knew someone in very much the same situation. 

    I think of humanism as all the stuff the church told you that you should do to be a good person, except for the believing in god part.  Kindness, generosity, honesty, social justice (this was the Presbyterians, after all), feeding the hungry, taking care of the planet, etc, etc.  Except that as humanists, instead of doing those things to score brownie points with a god, or because we fear punishment, we do them because it strengthens the society that we are dependent on and makes the world a better place for our familes and loved ones. 

  • mkb
  • Russ

    Barbara, do you remember a little song that they used to sing in Sunday school:
      Oh, the time to be happy is now
      And the place to be happy is here
      And the way to be happy is to make others happy
      So, lets have a little heaven ’round here.

    That’s Humanism in a nutshell. 
    I was well on my way to losing my own faith when I discovered that that little song was actually a famous quote by “The Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll. 
    What he meant was to be happy now, don’t wait until after you die.  Be happy here, don’t hold out for a heaven that you’ve never seen.   I would have loved to see the faces of my Sunday school teachers had they learned what that song actually meant.
    I suggest you read as many of Ingersoll’s lectures as you can find.  He was a brilliant anti-apologist and will make you feel strong and confident in your new position, but more importantly his words on human relationships soar with beauty and comfort.

    Don’t despair.  I feel dawn is breaking for you.  You can already see that there is more to Christmas than tawdry, self-congratulatory pomp.  You’ve discovered how to celebrate what is real: the delightful decorations, the joyous festivities, the giving, the love, the sharing with family and friends.
    So it is with all of life.   What you have is REAL!  Enjoy it.  

  • Eivind Kjorstad

    It’s not strange that when your faith goes, it feels as if something is missing. There’s a part of you that needs rebuilding, on a different foundation.

    Everything that made this life worthwhile before, is still valid and still worthwhile. The kind words of a friend. The embrace of a loved one. The joy of sharing a meal. The excitement of adventure. The smile of a child. The beauty of a butterfly.

    I think everyone has to find their own meaning. For me, love, beauty and search for knowledge have value by themselves and give meaning to my life.

  • I’d really like to suggest some people here get familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell….

  • I would recommend two strategies to being a more happy person.  1.  Get involved with some new things.   2.  Choose to find joy in the things that you are already doing.

    The feeling of loss with loosing faith is just as real as the feeling of loss with losing a loved one (real or imagined).  The human mind forms connections over time that take time to undo and form new connections.  Getting over loosing faith will take time but as new connections are made in your life, other things will start to add value and the feeling of loss will diminish.  Just like getting involved with a new person will help get over the previous person, getting involved with new things in your life will help you get over the “love affair” that you previously had with the idea of eternal life with Jesus.

    Religion preaches that life has no meaning or joy without living in the framework of belief and the church.  Of course they only preach that to keep people coming to church.  Plenty of people have found meaning and joy in living outside of a belief and church community.  You can too.  It involves a change of attitude that life can have meaning and joy even if life doesn’t last forever.  Some even view these two things as totally unrelated:  finding a way to enjoy life and the whether or not there is an afterlife.  Just because you stop believing in an afterlife doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying life.  The notion that they are coupled is only church propaganda.

    I wish you well.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Don’t look for a religion substitute.  Just find pleasure in the small everyday things that we all do.  Get involved with some new things.  If you can, over time, you will find that you will be a happier person.

  • I am a humanist “minister” and I highly recommend Greg Epstein’s “Good Without God” ( I think that if Secular Humanism had a “bible” this would be it. Greg is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and also runs the Humanist Community Project ( I also suggest that you get involved in a local humanist or freethought group. It may be that you are also missing the sense of community that religions are so good at providing and belonging to a group can help fill that void. You can most likely find a group in your area on (free to join). If you can’t find one close to you contact me on facebook (click my profile pic to the left)  and I’ll try to help you connect with a group that works for you. I admin a facebook group with over 450 members that is for freethought group organizers only and represents groups all over the U.S.

    Good luck!

  • Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s student and heir, rejects the classification of (Randite) Objectivism as Secular Humanism.  He also rejected the idea of “Secular Humanism” in an essay in the objectivist collection “The Voice of Reason” (p 80 in the paperback); most of the other pieces are by Ayn Rand herself.
    The main distinction would be that altruism is (AFAIK) a strongly held belief in all strains of Secular Humanism, and explicitly rejected in Randite Objectivism. Both are atheist philosophies, but they’re distinct from one another. 


    After reading way too much, over too many years, I keep coming back to the existentialists.  I think it is incorrect to say life has no meaning.  I think the proper answer is, ‘life has no inherent meaning.’  Life has the meaning you give it.  I think this is true whether it be the lonely individual doing his or her best to think his way through, or be it the person who submits to an elaborate construct like organized religion.  Hang in there.  It gets easier. 

  • Taxihorn

    What is the appropriate emotional response to our existence, given the certainty
    of our mortality? I rather enjoyed Shelly Kagan’s 2007 Open Yale lecture which suggests that gratitude is the reasoned response.
    If you’re given a chocolate bar, that’s great. If you’re given a second
    chocolate bar, even better. If you don’t get a third, should one be
    sorrowful, angry or afraid? Not really. Gratitude is the logical
    response, for however many chocolate bars or years one may get on this
    fantastically complex Earth.

  • Taxihorn
  • I don’t think anyone has mentioned this, but I highly recommend the Living After Faith podcast, hosted by Rich Lyons. He is a former preacher, United Pentecostal, and shares his personal story and the stories of others who are leaving faith. 

  • Margy

    Beautifully said. Eivind, you are a poet.

    I went through a period of grief when I finally decided to stop praying many years ago. I’d left organized religion without a backward glance, but stopping praying was like losing a best friend. It was painful to accept that I’d believed in a lie for decades. Now, however, I am much more content as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian. I embrace science, facts, evidence, logic, and reason. Everything makes sense now, and all those nagging, irritating, unanswerable questions are gone. I don’t take anything “on faith” anymore. I feel free! What a relief!

  • Geocatherder

    Skip Rand and find a helpful secular counselor for a few sessions.  I suffer from depression (now adequately controlled by meds) but I was making it far, far worse than it need have been with my thinking patterns.  Some sessions with a therapist (a licensed social worker, NOT a psychiatrist) worked wonders.  Sue kicks my butt when it needs kicking, and talks me out of my negative thinking.  In fact, after several years of doing well, I’m back to seeing her again for a few sessions, because I’m changing careers and I need some validation and a butt-kicker.  A good counselor is worth her/his weight in gold…

  • Incognito

    Not sure if anyone else has suggested it, The Good Book: a humanist bible by A C Grayling. “For a secular age in which many find that religion no longer speaks to them” from the dust jacket…

  • Trace

    Sorry, I am late to the conversation.

    Barbara, I really like humanism in its UK incarnation. I prefer it to its American counterpart, in spite of all its similarities. 

    Try these two sites for info.

    Good luck and remember, you are not alone. It gets better!

    the above link is a treasure of book length works including my favorite Robert Green Ingersoll!!

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