There aren’t a lot of books about atheism out there directed specifically toward a young adult audience, but David Seidman has created a guide to godlessness just for them. It’s called What If I’m an Atheist?: A Teen’s Guide to Exploring a Life Without Religion (Beyond Words/Simon Pulse, 2015) and it incorporates many of the stories you’ve seen online and dozens of interviews the author conducted with young atheists (some of whom read this site). Having written about a similar subject myself, I can tell you Seidman’s book is excellent, personal, and an incredibly useful resource. I hope libraries everywhere stock this one, because I have no doubt a lot of people will check it out.
In the excerpt below, Seidman talks about how becoming an atheist will change your life:
Were I to declare myself an atheist, what would this mean? Would my life have to change? Would it become my moral obligation to be uncompromising toward fence-sitting friends? That person at dinner, pissing people off with his arrogance, his disrespect, his intellectual scorn — would that be me?
GARY WOLF, JOURNALIST
So you’ve quit theism. Now what?
There’s a good chance that you’ll feel happy. Researcher Heather Downs has said that the college-age ex-theists she’s interviewed “speak about being happier now without Christianity and ‘never going back.’”
“While my family, friends, and teachers look upon my choice [to be an unbeliever] as questionable,” said Thomas, a high school student in Alberta, Canada, “I have never in my life felt better about myself.”
Feeling Grief for Belief
I became an agnostic today… I actually can’t believe I did. I honestly feel like I’ve lost my mind… maybe because I’m intimidated by this unexpected worldview change… I never thought I would come to this point in my life.
Peregrínus, age seventeen, California
And now, the bad news. Before you get to the happiness that often comes with giving up religion, you may have to pass through a lot of pain.
Becoming godless can hurt like losing someone you love. “I remember crying on multiple occasions because I literally felt nothing for this faith I had for the majority of my life. I felt like I was mourning something,” said greylight, the young unbeliever from New York mentioned in the last chapter. And Downs said that most of the ex-theists in her survey of college-age deconverts have suffered “sadness, depression, confusion, stress, and physical angst.”
Just as someone who loses a loved one will yearn for that person to come back, someone who loses God may want him back, too. “I wanted God to exist, very badly,” said Charizard, a young unbeliever from Michigan. “I would beg and plead ‘God, if you exist — please tell me! Show me! Give me anything.’ I wanted that moral authority to exist, to bring some kind of order to the chaos of existence.”
Chaos can be confusing. “I couldn’t trust myself or anything, because what I had believed was true with all my heart turned out to be one big illusion,” said greylight. Downs quoted one unbeliever: “‘I didn’t know what to believe any more.’”
Even if you can leave your old beliefs behind easily, you may still have trouble digesting your new beliefs. “Accepting that the universe doesn’t care about you and that humanity is a dust speck is tough,” said David, a twenty-year-old in Massachusetts, about his deconversion at age fourteen.
A Bitter Breakup
Like losing a loved one, losing a belief can be infuriating as well as saddening. University of Connecticut sociology professor Bradley Wright’s study of deconversion stories said, “These accounts speak of a broken relationship with God as one might talk about a marital divorce. They are emotional, bitter at times.”
Many ex-theists seem angrier at religion than at God. “Spending most of my life with blinders on in the church has really left me with a feeling of being robbed,” said a young atheist who calls himself J.
For many former theists, the anger eventually evaporates, although the memories don’t. “[At] the age of 15, I managed to detach from [my church] and first I was full of hatred, but after some time I kinda managed to find my own way and my own [beliefs],” said a German unbeliever in his early twenties who calls himself freud. “But the dogmas which they imprinted into my mind and the traumatic experiences will probably never fade.”
A Lonely Life
Yet another problem is loneliness. Boston Globe journalist Eric Gorski has reported, “Young people who leave organized religion miss something: A sense of community.”
A fifteen-year-old going by spikedhair95 would probably agree. “Man, there’s just so much frustration with my new life [as an atheist]. Especially when you live in a town full of idiots. Every time I tell someone I’m an atheist at school, they give me a dirty look or act so shocked.”If you feel lonely or alienated too, check this book’s appendix and its resources for finding other unbelievers.
Maintaining the Old Ways
Changing your viewpoint on God and religion doesn’t automatically change your habits. “Several months after my deconversion,” said a young unbeliever who uses the screen name Adept, “I’d kneel down and pray before getting into bed, only realizing what I had done about twenty minutes later.” A music-loving unbeliever from Tennessee, like WOAH its Mia!, said that she still loves Christian rock. “I can go and rock out, even raise my hands during the ‘worship’ part… I felt united with my fellow young adults just rocking out and appreciating the music.”
Keeping up theist-style activities may seem hypocritical. But it can ease a painful transition into a new way of life by letting you hold on to experiences that you’ve always liked from your theist days. It’s like bringing a comforting childhood teddy bear with you when you leave home for college. As a college-age Texas atheist with the screen name longhorn_fraz said, “Why can’t I celebrate Christian holidays, occasionally go to church, and respect a few Christian religious conventions, not because I actually believe in any of it, but because it is part of who I am.”
And, of course, you can revisit your old ways for other purposes. A young unbeliever with a screen name of ChadOnSunday, has even gone to church: “I actually enjoyed church more as an atheist. When you’re a theist church is long and boring and serious. When you’re an atheist it’s like free standup comedy.”
Freedom of the Mind
The best part of being an atheist is the freedom. As a Christian, I was always worried about my deeds, asking, “Is this going to land me in hell?” As an atheist, I don’t have to worry about that. I just do what my own moral compass tells me to do, and that’s good enough.
Dylan, age eighteen, Arkansas
The most common reactions to deconverting are relief and a feeling of liberation.
“Previously, my way of controlling [my feelings about God] had been to pray all the time, which put the responsibility on me. But after I just began to let it go and stopped always praying,” said Sunflower, the twenty-one-year-old Australian quoted in the last chapter. “I didn’t have to feel responsible any more. There was no hell, no God. Everything was so much simpler.”
Fez, a nineteen-year-old Washingtonian, felt the change in his body. “I remember the day I finally told myself ‘I’m atheist.’ It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
John, age twenty-one and from Australia, found a whole list of new pleasures. “[I like] not having to worry about ‘being born with sin’ and all the repercussions that go with leading a normal human life. Not having to feel guilty for being happy in life. Not having to worry about pleasing someone else.”
Some joys of freedom are more down-to-earth. Said Alex, a seventeen-year-old from Georgia: “Well I get to sleep in now on Sundays.”
Life without an Afterlife
Many ex-believers find that they’re particularly happy about something that sounds unhappy: death without an afterlife.
Mark, the English unbeliever first quoted in the previous chapter, said that “the notion that my life is so fragile and it could all end in a heartbeat” has given him “renewed vigor in my life, a greater focus on my life’s goals and the relationships I strike up with people.” John, the twenty-one-year-old Aussie, agreed. “I’m not living this life preparing for the next, wasting it all away. I live life to the max because you only get one chance, then it’s over.”
Finding Meaning in a Godless Life
“Although Christianity is supposed to provide all this meaning for your life and all this fulfillment, I was finding more fulfillment and more meaning in other things. Basically I was realizing that there were a lot more answers in this other [unreligious] framework that I was building for myself.” That’s from an unbeliever in Heather Downs’ survey of college-age deconverts. Other young ex-theists feel the same way.
“I like the feeling of being responsible for your actions,” said Matthew, a twenty-year-old from Australia. “[Since] you cannot blame Satan or a divine plan… being an atheist really forces you to think about life more existentially. You ask questions like ‘What meaning can I make my life have?’ ‘What is the good thing to do?’”
Some young ex-theists find a kind of meaning that you could call spiritual. “After I deconverted,” said a young Arkansan who goes by the screen name The Sanhedrin, “I found a new respect for life and humanity like I had never had before and it felt good.” Vanessa, a college student in New York, said, “I feel like a more ethical, rational, tolerant, and loving person now that I no longer believe in God.”
Will You Be Happy?
Like any big change, deconverting brings a messy mix of feelings. Quitting religion has delighted and liberated plenty of teenagers and other people, but you can’t depend on it to free you from your worries as automatically as aspirin frees you from a headache.
So what will happen to you? Aidan, a girl who’s said that becoming an atheist profoundly affected her spirit, has thought deeply about the power of going godless.
“It’s never determined my happiness,” she said. “But it widened the scope of my mind.”
What If I’m an Atheist? is now available online and in bookstores.
From What If I’m an Atheist? By David Seidman. Reprinted by permission of Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.