Ask Richard: Atheist Struggles with Lingering Anxiety and Guilt after Deconverting October 29, 2020

Ask Richard: Atheist Struggles with Lingering Anxiety and Guilt after Deconverting

Got questions? Please send your questions for Richard right here! Keep them concise but include any pertinent information. Letters may be edited. Your identity will be carefully protected.

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

Dear Richard,

I found your page by luck while searching on the internet about coming out as an atheist and the guilt associated with it. 

I have come out as an atheist a while back now, but I often find myself feeling guilty that I’m offending God and he will take away all the blessings I have in my life away from me, like my new home, my job, my partner etc. 

All these are not rational arguments that come to my mind, but emotional reactions that can lead to panic that are reinforced when I come into contact with my very religious mother or with other religious people in the society (friends etc).

Could it be that I have intellectually accepted that there is no God but not emotionally?

Thank you so much for your help and guidance!

With kind regards, 

Jason

Dear Jason,

Thank you for this excellent presentation of a very common challenge that I have seen in many people who have recently realized that they are atheists. Your question states it succinctly:

“Could it be that I have intellectually accepted that there is no God but not emotionally?”

In the hundreds of Ask Richard letters that I’ve received and in many in-person conversations, I’ve often seen a pattern in the process of becoming free of religious beliefs. There are of course exceptions and variations, but it usually has two stages, intellectual and emotional.

The intellectual stage is usually first and is comparatively brief. A vague dissatisfaction with clerics’ or religious people’s simplistic or dismissive answers to a person’s earnest questions begins to grow just beneath conscious thought. In response, the person sometimes dives into studying scripture and/or increases their religious observance. Despite that, or even because of that, doubts arise about how religious ideas, claims, and beliefs just don’t make sense and don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. Those doubts start an increasingly conscious dialogue with the believing side of a now-divided mind, and then sometimes rather quickly, there’s a cascading collapse of the central beliefs and the supporting beliefs.

Then begins the much harder and longer stage, because despite the fact that we like to call our species Homo sapiens, “Man the wise,” the biggest portion of the human mind is governed by emotion rather than by reason.

The emotions that assemble like a besieging army can be myriad, and they can be fierce. The nature of the person’s religious upbringing, their age, their resources of support or lack thereof, their general emotional makeup and personality all influence the type of feelings, their intensity, and how long they last.

Very common early on are anxiety and fear, or as you are expressing, guilt. Threats heard from early childhood into adulthood of God’s displeasure causing misfortune in life, or eternal torture after death don’t immediately dislodge from the psyche. The reflex of fear, guilt, or remorse can linger for months or years. This is evidence of how fear-based and guilt-based religious doctrine is reprehensible emotional abuse that has been done to the person when they were young and had no defenses. Some people have actually used the resentment that comes from seeing what was done to them to help them fight against that inappropriate fear or guilt.

Another source of anxiety or guilt can be the person’s concern about disappointing or causing unhappiness in their most significant loved ones, primarily their parents. Atheists are seldom the selfish, uncaring ogres that the stereotypes portray. They often worry much more about how much hurt their disbelief will cause their parents than how much hurt they’ll have to endure from their parents.

Grief and loss can set in when one realizes that an important part of their internal support is gone. Perhaps they were comforted by the idea of a perpetual loving parent figure that cared about them and watched over them, the reassurance that no matter how difficult life got, they always had a backup who would somehow protect them from the worst of the possible outcomes. If their self-image was attached to being part of a religious group, there’s a serious loss of the comfort and confidence of belonging. So much of our sense of ourselves is not just interior; much of it is built on our relationships and the sharing of values with others.

Another level of grief and loss comes up if their relationships with family, friends, and co-workers are affected when it becomes known that they’re no longer believers. The reactionary treatment by loved ones can range from cool dismissal, to rejection, and all the way to cruelty. Some relationships are seriously disrupted but eventually heal. Others are permanently broken.

If the person’s social life was attached to their religious group, they might have to build a new group of friends from scratch. Loneliness and boredom might be their most reliable companions for quite a while. This is one way that local atheist groups can be helpful.

If to avoid all that the person tries to keep their disbelief a secret, it comes at a cost. Having to fake things, pretend, and cover up reality can be exhausting as well as frustrating. Yet another source of guilt shows, up, lying. Constant hidden tension and unexpressed resentment build up, and those can be toxic to any loving or respectful relationship. There’s also the problem that one way or another the truth usually comes out eventually, so all the things that were avoided still have to be experienced.

Not every atheist reports having to suffer all of this daunting onslaught of emotional hardship. Some are lucky to have healthier relationships with their families and friends. Some have excellent supportive resources. Some are able to move more rapidly to the last part of the emotional stage, relief and liberation.

Whether they have had to go through all of the emotional wringer I’ve described or some of it, or not at all, many newly-realized atheists report a lightness of mood, a sense of liberation from the guilt and shame that no longer can be applied to them. Some religious people imagine that newly-realized atheists rejoice that “now they can sin all they want.” That’s a shallow characterization that actually reflects the shallowness and ignorance of the theist who says it. What atheists actually describe is a feeling of vindication when it’s obvious that they have not turned into the amoral nihilists or cynical narcissists that they were warned they’d become. There’s a combination joy-and-challenge from realizing that they are fully responsible for their behavior; they take the credit for the good and they take the blame for the bad. Their virtues and faults, their successes and failures belong to them.

Jason, you have mentioned some good things in your life such as your new home, your job, and your partner. Your intellectual realization that there is no god who gave those things to you will eventually soak into your emotional side, and you’ll know that he’s not there to take those away from you either. These are your accomplishments. They’re yours to win, yours to keep and improve, or yours to spoil and to lose. If there is credit to share, it’s with other real people who helped you, and it is your responsibility to express your gratitude and your appreciation to them, and to help them in return.

Begin to expand a part of your mind that I call the Observer. When a pang of guilt or anxiety comes up about these issues, develop the habit of saying to yourself, “Oh look, there’s that fearful guilt thing. Interesting that that’s still coming up, but I’m not gonna buy into it.” This will help you to create a distance between you and the reflex feeling, a bit of detachment so that even though you initially feel the discomfort of the feeling, you don’t get down into it and really suffer it. It passes. This method takes practice by repetition. You’ll get better at it, and over time the false feeling will become less frequent, less troublesome, and eventually will trouble you no more.

You can use this technique when you’re with your mother or other very religious people who trigger that anxious response, but also, it’s really okay to simply reduce your exposure to them for a while. For the time being, give yourself permission to see them less frequently and for shorter amounts of time. They present the most difficult challenges for you, so you very much have the right to go into those situations at your own pace, taking on trials that fit your developing strength and self confidence.

One last thing. If you begin to feel that you’re really stuck in this pattern, be open to getting help from a professional counselor. The problem you have described responds well to modern evidence-based methods of therapy. One source of referrals for appropriate secular counselors is The Secular Therapy Project.

Congratulations on your ongoing emancipation from religious mental and emotional tyranny, Jason. As with every other aspect of your life, persevere, make the most of it, and enjoy it.

Richard

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