What I Lost When I Lost Religion

Cthulhu fhtagn.

Cthulhu fhtagn.

This post over at “Godless in Dixie” had got me thinking about what gets lost when one leaves religion. The answer isn’t the same for everyone, and it’s a real difficult question to deal with. Part of it involves answering questions about what religion used to mean and what it means now. Then there’s the difficulty of separating harmful beliefs from people who meant well and harmful practices from people who had ill intent. On top of all of that is recognizing that religion is a complicated thing that intentionally hides from scrutiny.

It’s hard to ask myself about this kind of stuff.
Most of all, it’s because topics like this invite misunderstanding and projection. I feel like if I talk about some of the things I lost when I lost my faith, people might think I’m considering going back. Although I haven’t gone into much detail why, if I ever did seriously consider any religion again, it would be an indication that I am not in my right mind. Because of that proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over my head, I don’t go into stuff like this lightly.

But seeing people reconsider religion – especially one I was familiar with – after having left hits upon that subject matter in a sore spot. The problem is that religious institutions and gatherings and other trappings do fulfill basic human needs. Out here in the country, the social interaction from church is often the only social interaction some people receive in a week. Their work and lives might keep them so busy that they can’t talk to people outside their homes on a regular basis. In that sense, religion offers an outlet to satisfy social needs.

There’s also the community that forms in a church congregation. It’s not the same community found in people who share a hobby or some other interest. Your local car enthusiasts won’t check up on you if you lost a member of the family. Congregations will do that; they’ll also make food, take care of housework, offer people to sit with you, and maybe even lend money. When I see a church, I see a group of people that will at least try to pretend that they care.

Losing religion means losing this social safety net. It means losing people you might care about. Too many people I’ve known have lost marriages because of losing their faith. So many little things attach to religious interaction that it’s difficult to see them until they’re gone.

They’re important enough that people will try to find replacements.
When I read the article above, I saw someone trying to deal with losing an idea and some very tangible things. I could understand why people might feel the urge to go back. It seems like such a small price to pay to get familiar comforts again. All one has to do is choose to believe.

That’s often where the issue ends. For a while, that’s where I thought my issue ended. I couldn’t see that I needed to start finding people out there that wouldn’t condition their good treatment of me based on whether or not I believed in the same invisible friend. It completely escaped me that I was actually trying to replace what I’d lost. The only difference between me and someone else who might be looking harder at going back is that I’ve got darker reminders of what happens if I do.

On a side note, it’s hard to write about this without jumping down many rabbit holes.
I’ve actually started this post at least ten different times in the past several weeks. Every time I’ve seized upon a different aspect of it. Each one wasn’t fully descriptive of the problem I was facing. I was avoiding looking at something because it made me uncomfortable.

That said, it doesn’t mean that these rabbit holes aren’t worth climbing down. There’s a trove of ideas worth mining, but me getting lost doesn’t help anyone else out. So, I have to limit myself to this one main aside.

The bottom line is that people shouldn’t underestimate the value of atheist and other secular communities.
While a lot of atheists might scoff at the idea, simply being around people you agree with on something is a big deal. It gets magnified a bunch of times over when that person has just lost a social network. People coming out of a faith are often needing a chance to catch their breath before moving on. In order to provide a meaningful alternative to church society, this is something that needs to get recognized.

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9 thoughts on “What I Lost When I Lost Religion

  1. I can relate to this post in a way. When you are a member of the military , they are your family, the people you live with, the people you play with, the people you watch TV with, the people you eat with, the people that are around you constantly. They are closer to you than your family in most respects, in fact I would say for most of us they become your family. So that is why studies show most who leave the military early, rejoin with in a couple months. In fact the military lets you do this with no loss of rank or benefits. In fact after five years in , five happy years, I left and once home to a hated place I really thought of going back. The only thing that stopped me was I was gay and at that time it was a risk. Granted my unit that I left did not care, my warrant officer told me he did not give a crap , he would do my reenlistment oath himself knowing I was gay. But it was just to risky for me at the time. The reason I got out was the new C.O was a former infantry officer and had no clue as to what we in satellite intelligence did. He couldn’t relate to us as people and he wanted us to be like his former grunt ground unit, and his tank drivers. He did not last long, but long enough to sour me on the whole Army thing. But boy when I was out on my own, did I really miss the support network of being in a unit. I did learn to live my life on my terms and in my own way. But it took time and yes it was hard. Be well and at peace. hugs

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  2. I’ll also say, being raised atheist, having those secular communities is important because it is so isolating being the only kid in school who doesn’t go to church or believe in god and Jesus or whatever. While I understand the critiques some atheists have about atheist churches, I think it’s really harsh. Humans are social animals and we need those social networks to thrive. I’ve also noticed atheists who tend to be disdainful of such things tend to be university professors or in other fields where there are a higher number of atheists and likely can get their social needs met through work as a result, whereas atheists not in those fields likely have to keep quiet so they won’t get fired.

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  3. Reading this, I think my situation was really different. Church wasn’t for me a source of community. This among many other reasons could explain why I don’t miss those church days.
    Hope you will be able someday to confront these vestiges of your old faith

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    • I don’t miss the old church days very much, but I can recognize how other people might miss it. Most realistically, I’m not missing church so much as I missed specific people within that church. Sometimes I forget that.

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  4. This is why I often recommend the Unitarians to people who have dumped faith, but don’t want to lose having a support network. The UUs have all the churchy social support stuff without telling you what to believe.

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  5. I remember reading a book called ‘Leaving Your Religion’ by James Mulholland recently. In it, he described religion as like the ‘Walmart’ of social needs in that it provided everything. Leaving religion is hard for many because it’s like moving away from a big town to a small town where you have to replace all these needs, but you may not be able to do it all in one place. Having said that, it is WAY better to leave than to stay a live a comfortable lie which will slowly eat you inside, as I have found.

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    • I agree, and I like the analogy. Some of the needs are also manufactured (like an unchanging deity, salvation from sin, afterlife destinations, etc.). Those are probably the toughest to overcome, since they were all in the imagination to begin with.

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