Posts Tagged ‘burning in hell’

The experience of losing one’s religion

February 4, 2012

By Nathan Bergstedt

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review

Here’s a suggestion to writers out there: consider the topic of a recent conversation that you’ve had for a writing subject. A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation about freedom of speech that turned into an interesting column. And just earlier today, I had another conversation that got my wheels turning. And it was just the fodder I needed for another piece.

Anyone who has read my opinion columns with any regularity will probably know that I am a non-believer, a humanist, a free-thinker, a bright, an agnostic, an atheist. First off, as a minor tangent, I see all these terms as basically describing the same person. The individual can mince hairs as to how they like to define themselves. But for me, if I’m going to be defined theologically, despite the fact that I have no theology, any term that means “does not have a belief in god” will do just fine (for the record, I personally find Daniel Dennett’s term “bright” to be kind of stupid, though I say that with all due respect for his work in general).

Now that that’s been covered, let’s return to this conversation I recently had. It was with a fellow non-believer, who like me, grew up as a Christian. But unlike me, this person is not publicly out as an atheist. And the reason for that is because of fear of family repercussions. Part of this is because of the hassle that is apparently inevitable that would come in the form of a series of interventions in order to do some soul saving. But the other reason why this person has not told the family is because of concern for the mental well-being of the family, meaning not wanting them to have a constant fear for their loved one’s soul burning in hell forever.

Now, this person doesn’t believe in souls or some sort of consciousness that can exist beyond a body, nor in a place that this soul would go post-partum. So this fear does not belong to this person. But for those who do believe in hell, the idea that the soul of someone you care about is damned to spend eternity in fire is a horrible thought. Why would you want to trouble those you care about with this fear?

The easiest answer would be because it’s irrational, and it gives credence to the idea that a hell exists to attempt to protect people from the fear of it.

But more importantly, religion is a very important aspect of the lives of many people. So conversely, losing one’s religion is one of the biggest chapters one can experience in their short lives. To expect someone to keep this quiet from those they care about the most would be unrealistic to an extreme degree. The sensibilities of the faithful shouldn’t supersede the social and mental well-being of the person having the realization that all that they thought they knew was untrue.

I remember when I came out as an atheist. My family beseeched me to mind the feelings of my now ex-wife in regards to this topic. It was hard on her. Of course it was. But what about me? I had spent months wondering if my family was going to disown me upon learning that I no longer believed. And after I no longer went to church, all I had ever known by means of a support group was gone. I had lost contact with many friends, and my family wasn’t really sure how to talk to me. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t want to talk to me; they just weren’t sure how. But all this time, the burden was on me to mind the feelings of my wife, and no one expected her to mind how I felt to any similar degree. With the exception of a few friends, no one important in my life saw what I was doing as something right. I was finally being honest with myself about how I felt and thought, but the way it was approached by those around me was that it wasn’t something I did for myself, but something I did against others. I claim this is terribly unfair.

In the few years since all this happened, I’ve received many compliments on how I’ve come along, as well as for what it took to come to such realizations despite the social pushback.

But that doesn’t change the way the coming out experience happened. I find it terribly unfortunate and borderline disgraceful that those going through such profound changes in their life should have the extra burden of having to tiptoe around the delicate feelings of those whom they disagree. But I also can’t say that I necessarily blame my family for thinking and saying such things. The faith is what they know. Having a family member that is no longer part of the faith is new. And what’s more, they do in fact think that I’m wrong. I shouldn’t be surprised when I lacked support.

That doesn’t mean it’s the way things should be though. That’s part of the reason why I’ve written about my beliefs and experiences the amount that I have, because I think more people should be open to those who have no theology. Unfortunately, by the tenants of the religions of so many, there is no real way to reconcile the faithful with the faithless, if for no other reason because of the idea that one side will burn in hell forever. The stakes are simply too high. But these are the ideas of the faithful, not the faithless, so it should be their burden to deal with such claims, not vice-versa.

I love my family, and certainly care what they think. But I can’t let what they think dictate how I live my life. The last couple of years has been a wonderful time of self-discovery that I wish more people could experience. It’s hard enough to lose one’s religion, but in one man’s experience, it’s definitely worth it in the end.