People often ask me if my life is better now that I’ve left my religion. My honest answer is that it’s a mixed bag. On the negative side, I have to say that the reactions of people who liked me better when I still had faith have been at times very strong. I usually become a target for re-evangelism for a while, but they eventually learn to quit pushing me after they realize that I’ve heard everything they have to say about this a thousand times. Most people probably just decide I’m being stubborn and/or that the Devil’s got me under a spell; but while the pushing may stop, the disappointment lingers on. Some do their best to keep a lid on that, which I appreciate, but you can still hear it in their voices and that can hurt. If you crave the approval of people, and if you live where I live, I wouldn’t recommend atheism for you.
But once you rule out how some have behaved toward me because of my unbelief, I have to say that (when I am not working too much) I am enjoying life in a way that I haven’t enjoyed it in a long time. It’s not always about what I’m doing at the time, either. Often it’s just about feeling more at home in my own skin than I ever felt when I still believed that Earth is not my home and that I’m supposed to be longing for some other place. To explain what I mean, here is a list of the things which leaving my religion has brought me. Not everyone will necessarily experience the same things I did, but these are the benefits that I see I personally have derived from this development:
1. Peace of mind. As a person who likes to try to understand the world around me, I have found that this perspective fits so much better with the world I see than the religious perspective ever did, and that brings a tangible sense of satisfaction for me. Every week, every month, I find things seem to get clearer and clearer to me. Things just make a whole lot more sense to me now. Julia Sweeney said it perfectly when she said, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.” I don’t mean that I understand everything, and I’ve still got plenty of unanswered questions. But you don’t have to be ruled by your need to have answers to all your questions. I think our religions feed that problem in order to perpetuate our need for them. Leaving your religion can free you up to find better answers to some questions while enabling you to let go of the ones that don’t really have good answers.
2. A rediscovery of a love of learning. For me personally, I found that the loss of my religious beliefs opened me up to a really big universe of fascinating and intriguing realities. I realize that faith and learning coexist in some people’s minds better than others, but more often than not they are in great tension with one another, and at times they are diametrically opposed to one another. My change of mind energized my dormant scientific side, and as a consequence I find that almost daily I learn something new which amazes me and further stimulates my love of learning about the world around me.
3. The ability to accept people I formerly judged. Religious belief taught me, for example, to judge the LGBT community for being attracted to anything other than “the appropriate sex.” It taught me that something is wrong with these people, and while it also taught me I’m supposed to love them and somehow accept them and reach out to them, I’m also supposed to condemn something that lies at the core of their identity. That’s no longer an issue for me. The main reason most people I know condemn same-sex relationships is because of their religion. Leaving your religion can free you from that burden. I now count several of them as my most supportive friends. In fact, I have found that losing my religion has opened me up to a much wider range of people because I do not have a 2,000 year old book telling me how I should see the world. I think I’m a better person for this change of mind.
4. Less judgement toward myself…for some things. Just as a loss of religion has made me more accepting of others, I am getting better at accepting myself, with certain caveats. I do not let myself off the hook for things I consider unhealthy, or unkind, or inconsiderate of others. There are good, non-religious reasons to work to eliminate those kinds of behaviors in life. I will not, for example let myself off the hook for being dishonest toward people, nor will I excuse substandard work in my professional life. But there are quite a few things which my religion taught me I should feel guilty about, and I don’t have to shoulder that anymore. This brings an improved quality of life. I will not consider it wicked, for example, to have “thought crimes” such as wanting something I don’t have or savoring the attractiveness of another person. Religion puts many layers of guilt on us for things which are perfectly natural, and the resulting manipulation is powerful. But I’m done with that now. The self-loathing and guilt my religion taught me was in retrospect incredibly unhealthy. It takes time to unlearn the negative self-talk. But once you’ve made some progress in letting that go, you can become a much happier person.
5. I give credit where credit is due, both to others and to myself. Like the preceding two, I think this makes me a healthier person than before. If someone does something good, I do not thank God for it. I thank the person who actually did it. They deserve credit for the things that they do. Doctors, for example, must get really tired of hearing people give God credit when their surgical/medical skills and learning are what saved a person’s life. My daily life isn’t so dramatic as that, mind you, but it’s analogous. The other side of this is that when I do something right, I allow myself to take credit for it. This, thanks to my evangelical upbringing, is much harder to do. I found that the Christian faith discouraged me from acknowledging positive things about myself so that I ended up with a terrible self image. I still suffer from that because I learned self-loathing so very well. But it’s getting better, little by little. I had to leave the Christian faith for that to happen.
6. Getting Sunday mornings back. Of course, it extends beyond that once you consider how much of a person’s life can be spent investing in things like prayer, worship, Bible study, witnessing/growing membership, or attending conferences which teach you how to do all these things more effectively. After you give those things up, you realize just how much of your life you get back. I never resented my religion for the amount of my time and effort it took up. I enjoyed it at the time because I believed all of it was pleasing to God and that’s all I wanted in life. But now that I’ve “given up the ghost” so to speak, I see that there are so many other valuable things toward which I could be devoting my time and energy.
7. Better health. I realize good health and spiritual commitment don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for me personally a shift in beliefs brought a shift in priorities such that my physical health became more important to me. Now I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life, and this significantly affects the quality of my life. Just yesterday I ran another one of those mud runs with some friends in another state and I had a blast. I hope to write a few thoughts and observations about that soon.
8. Better sex. You wouldn’t believe how much more you can enjoy sex once you let go of the subtle (or often not-so-subtle) body shame that accompanies religious devotion. I know a number of couples who once were devout Christians and now are both non-believers, and almost without exception they have reported an improvement in their sex lives. It’s not that religion always directly shames people for their desires and their pleasures. But the Christian faith in particular teaches you never to be totally at home in your own body. It talks as if you belong somewhere else, and this just isn’t compatible with fully embracing your own physical existence the way that really good sex requires.
9. Friends who are more fun. And the parties are way better. Even simple conversation is more entertaining, honestly. I know this may sound petty, but I’m just telling you what my experience is. When group A is dominated by a long list of things you’re not supposed to say, think, or feel, and group B doesn’t have that list, you can guess which group is gonna be more fun to be with. And again, I find it easier now to be friends with a wider range of people.
10. More realistic expectations about life. I no longer believe that I am special or that a ubiquitous, all-powerful paternal figure is orchestrating events around me for my benefit (or for the benefit of anything or anyone, really). So I act accordingly. And I find that I don’t get let down by things not going “the way they were supposed to.” I take responsibility for those things I can control, and I don’t look for a savior to come and rescue me. Again, I think I am a better person for it.
11. A greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Once you realize this life is the only one you’re gonna get, you learn to appreciate each day in a way you never could when you believed there would be trillions more in your future. I found that a belief in eternity only lowered my evaluation of daily life and it cheapened life, in a way. But once you realize this one short life is all you’re going to get, you will find it easier to throw yourself into what you do, knowing that you need to make the most of it that you can. You won’t minimize the suffering of others (or of yourself) by saying that life will get better after you die. You might even be more motivated to be an agent of change in the world once you realize someone’s not going to come in and magically reboot the whole thing one day. It’s up to us to make the most of our one life that we can, and I find that a disbelief in the supernatural has helped me to do that.
What things could you add to this list? How has leaving your religion benefited your life? I’d like to know.
Neil Carter is a blogger, teacher, father of five, and former evangelical Christian who now writes on skepticism and life in the Deep South.
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