Journey to a Non-Believer

I used to be religious. A long time ago. It was extremely easy for me, brought up in a fairly religious yet extremely relaxed family. My family’s religion never restricted me, on the contrary, my rather amusing parents found a way to make it all about the good things. It was comfort, and faith in the idea that things will work out all right in the end. It was about kindness and charity, about humility and respect, and mostly, about forgiveness. My parents’ version of Catholicism was very.. cherubic. Do not judge, do not be harsh, do not select whom to love or get along with, love everybody, help everybody etc. Contrary to the regular experience of religion, I escaped almost completely misogynistic implications of the faith that I was born into. Years later, when I brought up the topic of abortion and contraception and the Catholic church’s opposition to it, to my mother, she looked at me with a kind of vague astonishment. Despite being a devout catholic, raised in a family with a veritable bevy of priests and nuns, she didn’t know about the church’s rather strict prohibition of all forms of birth control. When I explained, she thought it ridiculous that priests and nuns should tell couples when to have kids, and when not to. She found it astonishing that the church, or really anybody, should try to regulate our bodies and choices that way. In fact, she thought the whole idea of marital counselling by church authorities vaguely comical. As she would say, “how can you counsel people on marital relations when you have no idea what it takes to love and live with someone for decades? Or to raise children with all the fears and expectations?” The point I am trying to make is that, as a female in a conservative country, I was brought up in an atmosphere that didn’t in fact, provide the kind of impetus to question religion. No one ever told me to study less, aim less, throw a fit if I consumed alcohol, (although smoking was liable to set off an explosion), or drill the concept of family honour linked to my virtue into my head. Hey, you get to pretty much do whatever you want, and when life really sucks, you have a genie to turn to and whine. What else do you need?

Then, due to the influence of other family members who turned to atheism, I found myself re-thinking the reality and existence of faith in a higher power. I have to hand it to the religious, it’s extremely difficult to let go of a faith that you have been raised in and that forms the bedrock of your support structure. Even when one retreats from the rituals of the religion, letting go of the faith that shapes your attitude towards life is really quite tricky, and sometimes you wonder how those without faith explain the world around them. To every argument by an atheist, you have what you think of as the most logical response, fall back on the classical argument of ‘well you can’t possibly know’ and find yourself wondering if the world makes sense without a grand purpose. Of course, once you reach the other side, you’re amazed at how you ever thought differently. But religion had already lost much of it’s grip on me by then, and I think even the overall faith / spirituality that I thought I held on to was mainly out of the comfort of remaining ensconced by familiarity, and partially out of laziness to  really, boldly, say that I was an atheist.

Everyone’s journey to atheism follows a different route, everyone finds different reasons to stop praying. Some find answers in science and its answers, and its rather definitive disproval of the idea of creationism. Some just find the idea of a God faintly unsatisfying after a while, and find their fervour reducing to the point of non-existence. My own process relied rather heavily on my own path as an adult and a professional. In my whole life, there has never been a point when I was not a militant advocate for social justice, and for human rights. I might have fulminated in silence and occasionally lashed out at my immediate social circle about these issues, but it has been and I hope will always be, the core of what I wanted my life to be about. When I chose to re-orient my life, in a professional sense, towards the struggle for human rights, the more I learnt, the less I found myself able to believe in a loving, omnipotent God. Becoming a feminist definitively turned me away from all kinds of organized religion, since I found myself unable to reconcile my own identity as a self-confident woman who believed herself eligible for everything life has to offer, with all of the different conceptions of virtuosity, purity and chastity expounded by virtually every major religion. But outside of institutional religion, which many turn away from, there was still the question of just faith, or belief, in a higher power. Immersing myself in the stories of the pain that has been perpetrated upon innocent people, effectively destroyed that for me. Suffering as a term, is woefully inadequate to describe the horrors that have been perpetrated upon innocent human beings throughout history. I cannot, in good conscience, justify the things that have happened, and continue to happen on this world we inhabit. The gut-wrenching grief I felt every time I read about another murder, massacre, exploitation or gang-rape did not allow me to believe in the concept of a God. No merciful, loving God would allow the kind of suffering that does take place. Natural disasters or death by sickness are fairly mild compared to the kind of pain that millions of human beings feel every day, brought about by other horrible people. I know the stock replies to this issue – “God works in mysterious ways”, and “That sin is committed by man, not God. He gave us free will”. To the first, my response would be, that’s not enough. Demystify the acts of God, so I can figure out why, to his so-called favoured creatures, a God would do this. Why allow the ‘children’ you claim to love so much, this kind of inordinate, wrenching pain. If it is to test them, that sounds like a faintly manipulative and sadistic God, one to whom I’m not particularly inclined anyway. Years later, this particular recollection makes me smile. I wonder if I would’ve been less inclined to lose faith in this path if I had been taught that God was just but vengeful when crossed, that he seeks to punish those who anger him. If I had been (and I often tell my mother this) then maybe I could have dismissed human suffering as the punishment of a God who decided to teach his creations a lesson. But I wasn’t and this explanation doesn’t suffice. To the second stock response, I questioned why humans were given the capacity to have free will, if this is what they were going to do with it. To test the capacity of someone else to enter into heaven, God gave the ability to perpetrate unbelievable amounts of pain? Surely, a benevolent and all-knowing God could have figured out a way to not let us be capable of such savagery?

Anyway. I digress. You get the gist. I stopped believing. Losing belief in religion, faith, and really the concept of a higher power, has sobering and interesting effects on a person’s psyche. Life is a lot more lonely, and a lot more scary. Now, when things go really wrong, when people you love are in danger or sick, you can’t whisper the rapid and fervent prayers under your breath. You can’t furiously make up prayers in your head when you really want that grade or that job, because a very large part of your brain is standing off to the side and saying, with raised eyebrows, Really? Who exactly are you talking to? It’s frightening in a way I wouldn’t have believed possible. But, in a completely different way, it is calming. Because now you don’t expect life to toss cherries and roses at you simply because you are nice, have prayed, and followed the instructions to live a good life. Don’t have friends? Either you are not that much fun to be around, or the people around don’t appreciate you. Both of which are eminently correctable, and less liable to send one into spirals of feeling sorry for oneself. Didn’t get that amazing scholarship / job? Either you weren’t good enough, others were better, or it’s an imperfect system. Again, factors that I found myself more willing to accept, than the failure of my prayers. Your health is failing? It’s not God testing your faith, the human body is just not made of steel and things are likely to go wrong sometime.

Life is not perfect. Repeatedly, and insistently things will go wrong, and you will find yourself knocked down. I don’t claim to  always be able get back up. But lack of belief in a supernatural entity who means the best for you makes it easier to accept when things go wrong. I don’t expect that life will be great, wonderful and filled with love and success because I believe that I’m a good person and I’ve done my part, and prayed to my God. I don’t expect that life will work out simply because here is no reason it shouldn’t. It may. Or it may not. But that depends on millions of things that are not in my control, or really, in anyone else’s. That makes it easier to accept, internalize and move on, instead of feeling sorry for myself, misunderstood, and aggrieved that all of my good deeds didn’t pay off.

Why am I writing this? Do I hope to turn people away from religion? In my opinion, the world would be better off without institutionalised religion. Perhaps even better off without belief in a supernatural power, promise of rewards in the after-life, and the realization that this, this life, is really all you have. That it’s worth it, to try to be happy, and to fill it with love and laughter, instead of merely duty, responsibility and achievement. But more so, that it is up to us to do what we can with our lives, instead of waiting for God to make it work for us. But faith gives hope, and strength, and for those less fortunate than me, (which is really a LOT of people), that maybe there is a reason to their suffering. Taking that away would be cruel. But I wonder. If we stopped relying on God to explain our misfortune, would the human species be more willing to take responsibility for its actions?

  • Beatrice Louis

Beatrice is an irredeemable human rights lawyer, constantly over analyses public institutions and social norms, and is a rapt fan of tech innovations, lover of fantasy worlds and all things noir. Find her writing at https://medium.com/@Beatrice.L

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