In March of 1985 I took the plunge and converted to Christianity.
In March of 2003 I told my family that I was an atheist.
I am fortunate in that my family supported my decision. In fact, they strongly encouraged my decision to get off the “Crazy Train” of Christianity. We were Fundamental Baptists and I think that they had just about had enough of the rules and regulations that governed every detail of our lives.
My departure from religion left a major void in my thinking. When a person joins the Fundamental Baptists, they do not have have to think. It reminds me of the lyrics from the old Rush song “Subdivisions:”
“ . . . .Opinions all provided, The future pre-decided, Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone. Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”
Prior to my exodus from fundamentalism I did not have my own opinion: One was provided for me. My future was cast as though in a brass mold, and I was a psychological clone of my fellow drones. As I began to question fundamentalism I did indeed feel alone. I was terrified of what would happen once I left the “collective.”
Once I finally admitted to my family that I no longer believed I felt a wave of relief. Of course, my family was supportive. Not all atheists are well received when they “come out.” In fact, some are disowned and disinherited. Nevertheless, I felt relieved . . .and shortly thereafter I felt confused. As the song goes, I had become a “misfit” and felt as though I had no philosophical anchor.
While I was glad to be alone in the sense that I no longer had to fear a voyeuristic deity monitoring my thoughts, I finally realized that I needed to decide for myself what was important to me as a human being. I could no longer depend upon a cult-like religious group to tell me how to think: I had to form my values on my own.
Certain things seemed rather obvious: Killing, stealing, and lying, for example were inherently wrong, even without the bible’s guidance. My family continued to be important to me as did my work ethic. Nobody else was going to support my lovely wife and my five children.
Other things, though, seemed a bit hazy. Fundamentalists routinely prescribe opinions on alcohol consumption, how to dress, who can marry whom, and those with whom you may socialize. Being set free from my mental prison meant that I now had to make those decisions by myself . . . but it also meant that I was free to make the “wrong” decisions in these areas.
As I type, it occurs to me that perhaps this is what scares a lot of people about leaving their religious beliefs behind: The fear of being wrong.
Peter Pan was painted as a young man who wanted to remain a child forever. My own children have told me that there are times that they could wish that they were still minors who could have important decisions made for them. Indeed, I see this issue rear its head in my mental health practice virtually every day: “What if I stay married and it doesn’t work out?” “What if I divorce and later regret it?” “How can I know I’m doing the right thing.”
The mature answer to is obvious: You cannot know. Some decisions seem right at the time and later we find (painfully) that they are not. Other decisions appear correct, and we happily find later that our judgment was spot on.
Even if we consider the opinions of others, we alone are responsible for our decisions, be they healthy or unhealthy. Children are deemed not to have the adult faculties to consent to make adult decisions in our society. This is how we “protect them” until they are ready to make their own decisions.
Religion prompts us to abdicate personal responsibility and return to a childlike certainty. The fact that more nonbelievers are climbing out of the woodwork is a sign that we are growing up as a species.