Losing Your Religion: How to Deal with a Crisis of Faith

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 26, 2010 in How-To

In the 20th century alone, nearly a billion people left the religious faith of their parents and became non-believers. For some, this was liberating. For others, it wasn’t a big deal. But for many, it was terrifying.

The loss of faith was terrifying for me and many others because my religion had trained me to be terrified of losing faith in an effort to ensure that I never would. I was told that non-believers would be tortured forever after death, that they could have no objective moral code, that they had no meaning or purpose, that they were angry and sad and rarely found happiness.

I lost my faith kicking and screaming, trying to hang on to the security of the faith I had always known. So did many others. But for whatever reason, we could no longer believe our religion was true, and so we had to face a world we now believed was without morality, purpose or hope.

Still, most people do not lose their religion during a crisis of faith. Usually, we eventually return to the safety and comfort of our religious tradition. Probably, this has less to do with the rationality of the situation, and more to do with the fact that non-belief just isn’t an option. It’s too scary.

Researchers say that we rarely choose our worldview for rational reasons. Instead, we choose our worldview for other reasons and then rationalize the decision later, without noticing what we are doing. Our brains do this automatically to protect us from any devastating blows to our ego. Thus, our brains have every emotional incentive to rationalize our way back to the faith of our childhood.

To the millions of non-believers who live lives of abundant morality, purpose, and hope, the religious horror stories about non-belief are silly or pernicious. Without them, people would be more free to choose a worldview on better criteria, such as its likelihood of being true, or its capacity to let a person live out their dreams.

As someone who has been through a scary crisis of faith and came out the other side happy, fulfilled, and passionate, here is my advice to those facing a crisis of faith: Don’t panic. My own loss of faith was a nightmare. I thought the whole universe had shattered, and all meaning and purpose had been swept away. But it wasn’t true. Millions of non-believers know it’s not true.

So here’s what you  should do: Seek out non-believers and ask them about what it’s like to be a non-believer. It’s easy to find nearby non-believers on Meetup or MySpace. After some time you’ll come to realize in your heart and your head that non-belief can be just as fulfilling and wonderful as the faith you once knew, and then you’ll be truly free to choose as you want. If you go back to your religion, fine. But at least this way you gave you brain a chance to choose on your own terms. You did not choose from fear, but from freedom.

If you’re going through a crisis of faith and want someone to talk to, feel free to contact me.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Erika June 26, 2010 at 6:44 am

Just yesterday, as part of my One Year Skeptic project, I read Psalm 143 which has some lines that, I think, express well the fear you are thinking of and show that crises of faith are far from a modern experience:

Come quickly, Lord, and answer me,
for my depression deepens.
Don’t turn away from me,
or I will die.

  (Quote)

al friedlander June 26, 2010 at 9:33 am

“I lost my faith kicking and screaming, trying to hang on to the security of the faith I had always known. ”

Story of my life…

I would many times play ‘mind-games’ with myself. Kind of like the dejected child who ‘claims’ he’s lost faith, but is still secretly waiting for the kind-father to ‘come back’ “when you least expect it”.

After all, that’s what happens in Hollywood, right? So it -must- be true.

My childhood dreams/fantasies started to shatter, however, when I started seeing life outside of my narrow, first-person perspective. If ‘x’ happens to other Christians, why would I expect ‘x’ not to happen to me. Am I special?

“I was told that non-believers would be tortured forever after death, that they could have no objective moral code, that they had no meaning or purpose”

Still struggle with this one. I once saw a commenter say the term ‘theist-in-denial’. Sometimes I wonder if I still fall in this category. Will I have the courage to stick to my beliefs during the last lingering moments of life, or will I utter a quick ‘safety’ prayer for ‘God to have mercy on my soul, if He exists’.

It’s all very hypocritical, and I’m not very happy of myself for it. Still, it’s all about -fear-. Eternal damnation scares the hell out of me, even if every moral-bone in my body feels that it is completely unjustified. Because of course, -if- God does exist, there’s no way He’d care about ‘my’ interpretation of morality since he’s, you know… GOD

Meanwhile, the LORD instructed one of the group of prophets to say to another man, “Strike me!” But the man refused to strike the prophet. Then the prophet told him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the LORD, a lion will kill you as soon as you leave me.” And sure enough, when he had gone, a lion attacked and killed him. (1 Kings 20:35-36 NLT)

  (Quote)

lukeprog June 26, 2010 at 10:03 am

al,

Interesting that hell is still so scary for you.

  (Quote)

other eric June 26, 2010 at 10:13 am

al friedlander – “Eternal damnation scares the hell out of me”

i sometimes can’t decide which is more scary, eternal torture, or the absolute obliteration of my consciousness. for me the latter usually wins as the scariest, though it seems infinitely more likely than an eternal afterlife of any sort. i often find it preposterous when the religious claim that the non-religious just don’t want there to be a god. on some (selfish, admittedly) level any proposition involving immortality seems preferable to one of absolute death. it’s just that the propositions of immortality that exist are silly as heck.

can’t wait for the consciousness uploading though, right luke?

  (Quote)

Atheist.pig June 26, 2010 at 10:19 am

The threat of hell to children is the worst thing about indoctrination in my opinion. I never had the problem because I never believed a word of it but I know others who suffered from this psychological abuse and still fear it even when they no longer have a belief in god. Psychological abuse can scar for a long time.

  (Quote)

Lorkas June 26, 2010 at 11:04 am

@other eric

If the nonexistence of your consciousness after death seems scary to you, is it scary for you to think about the nonexistence of your consciousness before you were born?

  (Quote)

al friedlander June 26, 2010 at 12:48 pm

“i sometimes can’t decide which is more scary, eternal torture, or the absolute obliteration of my consciousness. for me the latter usually wins as the scariest”

To be quite honest, I -used- to be afraid of non-existence. This changed for me, however, when I finally came to a full understanding of the notion being akin to an infinite sleep (we won’t be around to care). And I truly believe, that in life, there are -many- things worse than death/eternal-rest.

  (Quote)

other eric June 26, 2010 at 12:56 pm

@Lorkas

a bit, yes, in that it’s a reminder of my temporary nature. although at that point i haven’t “lost” anything. i use the quotes to show that i recognize the ridiculousness of the notion of losing one’s consciousness. at least it seems ridiculous…
i admire those who can acknowledge this probable outcome but defeat their fear through faith in other minds or in the pleasure of accepting the nature of life and death, but i suppose my solipsism or something hasn’t allowed me to get there just yet.

if you’ve got some advice on how to defeat the fear of death, i would be interested to hear it.

  (Quote)

other eric June 26, 2010 at 1:08 pm

al friedlander – “…akin to an infinite sleep”

i’ve tried using this notion, but in sleep YOU still exist in some way to wake up, which seems to be not so in death… depending on how you define the self.

perhaps i’m being irrational, or have a pedestrian understanding of the notion of self, but i’m still more afraid of non-existence than hell. though this in no way causes me to believe in hell over non-existence.

  (Quote)

tmp June 26, 2010 at 1:57 pm

other eric – “…any proposition involving immortality seems preferable to one of absolute death.”

I have personally always found eternity an horrible, horrible idea, but never had any problems with oblivion. Although I don’t see how being MORE afraid of immortality than non-existence would help YOU. :)

I seem to recall some paper, somewhere, that claimed that we learn persistence as babies. Initially, people only exist if we can see them, and when we learn that they do exist even when we don’t see them, we learn it TOO well. Hence, belief in afterlife; for most people just REALLY comprehending that people can stop existing is hard. There is nothing really to do but practice. :)

  (Quote)

other eric June 26, 2010 at 3:20 pm

@tmp

no, YOU’RE the baby!

anyways… i’m not saying i don’t comprehend that people can cease to exist, just that it’s scary.

  (Quote)

Jeff H June 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I don’t think that I’ve ever really feared dying and ceasing to exist. It’s a weird thing to think about, of course, but I dunno, I’m quite glad that I’m not going to live for all eternity. I mean, it’s not like I’m wishing for death, but when I’m done here, I’d like to just be DONE. None of this hanging around forever stuff. It’s like coming home from a long trip and then realizing you’ve missed the bus and have to walk all the way home. After the long trip you just want to get home and be done with it already. The walking just prolongs it further.

Anyway, now that I’ve got my pessimism out of the way, I’d just like to mention a great site that helped me through my deconversion transition: exchristian.net. It’s got a great community of kind and caring people, and lots of deconversion stories to let people know that you’re not alone in the process. That’s how I dealt with my crisis of faith – talking to other people that had gone through the same process.

  (Quote)

Lorkas June 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm

The idea of existing eternally doesn’t really scare me either, unless it’s eternal existence in a never-changing world like Heaven or Hell. Either one of those sounds terrible to me.

If I found some way to live forever (or perhaps I should say “a very long time” or “until the heat death of the universe”) in our current world, where I could constantly be learning more about how the universe works and exploring new places, I don’t think I’d mind living forever. I’d rather not be than be in a non-changing heaven or hell, though.

@other eric

I find it interesting that in at least one religion–Hinduism–the concepts of immortality and mortality are exactly reversed compared to their positions in Christianity. In some sects of Hinduism, it’s believed that consciousness repeatedly cycles–after you die, you are reincarnated into an infant and continue living. This is a terrible cycle, because life has so much suffering, and the point of good living is to break out of that cycle of death and rebirth and achieve true death (moksha, or release, is the term given to the concept).

Maybe reflecting on the fact that so many people hold release from life to be the ultimate goal in life can help address your fears a little bit, at least.

  (Quote)

tmp June 26, 2010 at 4:56 pm

other eric,

>i’m not saying i don’t comprehend that people can cease to exist, just that it’s scary.

Ok, I was just pointing out, that for many people the thought is alien, through no fault of their own(because we all acquire this difficulty in infancy), and scary because of that. And that there is a difference between intellectually understanding the concept and truly accepting it(“There is no life after death, just wait until you are dead and you’ll see.”). No insult was intended.

  (Quote)

Mastema June 26, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Great post Luke.

It reminded me of what I experienced during my deconversion from Mormonism. Despite my best efforts, I never experienced the “burning in the bosom” that Mormons report. This led to doubts, which absolutely terrified me. I became severely depressed and came very close to killing myself several times. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of my family finding my body.

One night, I admitted to myself that I didn’t know if God existed, and that that was an OK answer. Up until then, I wasn’t able to accept that answer because Mormons place a a huge emphasis on being 100% sure (knowing) that “The Church” was true, Joseph Smith was a prophet, God was real, etc.

I quickly realized that I had been conditioned to think how the LDS church wanted me to think. I wanted to find out what I thought, not what “The Church” wanted me to think. I had to get out of Utah, so that’s what I did a month after I turned 18, and I haven’t looked back. It took a long time to consciously abandon my old opinions and beliefs one by one. I explored many different faiths, but ultimately couldn’t accept any of them.

Mormons do not believe in a Hell, but they do believe that apostates will be cast into Outer Darkness with Satan. That’s not one of the many things that missionaries typically talk about to potential converts.

I’m happy as an atheist. I don’t have any regrets. I am free to be myself, and my thoughts are not restricted to what an authority figure tells me to think. I just wish the ex-Christian/ex-Mormon (Mormons consider themselves Christian, despite the objections of many other denominations) online community had been around when I left in the mid to late 90s. People deconverting now don’t know how good they have it.

  (Quote)

thepowerofmeow June 26, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Some thoughts to help with death.

1. I go to be with God – if God is nothing, then that is fine.

2. I am following the same path as my father and his father and his father. I will be with them. If it’s nothing, then that is fine.

  (Quote)

lukeprog June 26, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Glad to hear it, Mastema!

  (Quote)

TDC June 27, 2010 at 6:56 am

al friedlander,

I know how you feel man. I haven’t quite left theism, but the idea of an eternal hell is absolutely horrific. It has tortured me for years.

There came a point when I realized how ridiculous it was for theists to use the “there is no meaning if God doesn’t exist!It’s all hopeless”

As if the alternative is better? There’s meaning in life! Too bad over 70% of the population will spend eternity experiencing the most terrible suffering imaginable!

I recall hearing that William Lane Craig tries to “raise the stakes as high as possible” with the “life is meaningless without God” argument. If anything I think the atheist could raise the stakes much much higher by reminding the Christian how many of their loved ones will probably be in hell of Christianity is true. It sure stops me dead in my tracks.

  (Quote)

al friedlander June 27, 2010 at 9:21 am

@TDC

“I recall hearing that William Lane Craig tries to “raise the stakes as high as possible” with the “life is meaningless without God” argument. If anything I think the atheist could raise the stakes much much higher by reminding the Christian how many of their loved ones will probably be in hell of Christianity is true. It sure stops me dead in my tracks. ”

I completely agree

  (Quote)

Al Moritz June 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I was told that non-believers would be tortured forever after death, that they could have no objective moral code, that they had no meaning or purpose, that they were angry and sad and rarely found happiness.

Yesterday I was with my wife at my friend’s house who is an atheist, and we had a terribly good time (and he can cook some mean swordfish!). He is a happy guy who is easy and natural to talk with (my wife agrees) and he has three wonderful, happy children (ages 19, 22, 25). I know that at least one of them is an atheist too.

So do I think you cannot find happiness in atheism? Of course you can find happiness. Can you be moral? Of course you can, as is obvious in my friend’s example.

(But just as my friend is happy, I am happy too. In fact, we both admire one another’s happiness, among so many people who are discontent with their lives.)

As a believer I have never had much fear of hell; certainly, I try to avoid hell but the thought of it never kept me up at night. And if atheism would convince me, I could easily envision there to be no life after this one, without undue fear of death. Rejecting atheism is for me a purely rational choice into which considerations of life after death simply do not enter, and also not fear of loosing happiness or the limited moral goodness that I may have.

As a Christian, of course I am delighted and thankful to God for His promise of an eternal afterlife in His glorious presence. However, as I said, I could envision life without that promise.

  (Quote)

Jon Hanson June 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I understand not being bothered by the thought of you yourself going to hell as a Christian, but to me you have to be some shade of sociopath not to worry about God torturing people like your friend for all eternity. I say this as an agnostic but I thought the same when I was a Christian.

  (Quote)

Al Moritz June 27, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Hmm…where precisely did I say that I did not worry about my friend’s salvation?

  (Quote)

piero June 28, 2010 at 9:00 am

OtherEric:

if you’ve got some advice on how to defeat the fear of death, i would be interested to hear it.

I don’t think it can be done, unless you are a mystic or a suicide bomber (though I doubt anybody really does not fear death). I’d say, learn to live with it. Everybody is afraid of death, everybody lives, and everybody dies. I don’t like the idea of dying, but I reckon the probability of my dying this year to be pretty low, so I do what I’d do if I knew I was not going to die this year.

  (Quote)

Jeff H June 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I agree with piero. It’s not about escaping or defeating the fear of death. It’s about accepting the facts and then moving on from there to spend what time you have the best you can.

  (Quote)

grimace13 June 28, 2010 at 8:27 pm

i find this article interesting because having a “crisis of faith” as you put it is incomprehensible to me, i unlike most of the people i’ve read in the comments never have been a theist not even when i was little. So reading about yours, and others experiences and try to sympathize or at least understand what you guys went through is really intriguing.

  (Quote)

Bashar August 8, 2010 at 4:56 am

The method to extending is by accessing the zero point energy I think. Through exercise your body can create and clone it’s cells thus making more energy and speed up metabolism. Cardio as walking or jogging can do that. You want more span that’s an option. Individual thinking. Your body can gain energy through exercise which means improving, regularly done like they say it makes you younger, And not deny our true nature and desire. I think this might help. dunno if it’s true or wrong.

  (Quote)

mary craig April 22, 2011 at 3:10 am

I know these posts were made some time ago so hope I’m not too late in posting. First I want to say that after 32 years of being a Christian and 17 years of being raised in church, I too am having a crisis of faith (crisis may be an huge understatement) I no longer love God and know I have lost my salvation. However, what I would like to address is the points made here about eternal hell. I was led to believe this all my life too but discovered this year that “Eternal Hell” is not Biblical. I do admit there will be judgement and punishment but I can assure you it is not for all eternity. The wages of sin is death.
If you go on to youtube and look up Edward Fudge: The fire that consumes. or listen to this little video clip (top left hand corner) http://www.jeremyandchristine.com/articles/eternal.php
I hope this knowledge brings you some comfort.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }