There’s something many Christians don’t realize, and many atheists don’t talk about: it is very hard, scary, and time-consuming to leave your faith and become an atheist. Becoming an atheist (or agnostic, polytheist, etc.) tears at the fabric of your personal identity, rips out all the mental, emotional, and (il)logical safeguards you previously placed your faith in, and decimates your support networks and communities. As a former Christian, I know this firsthand. And it frustrates me that this isn’t talked about more, among Christians and among atheists. So here I am, talking about it on the internet.
Christianese and The “Lazy Atheist”
The Christian community has an extensive lexicon of terms and phrases, something I like to affectionately call “Christianese.” Christianese does some pretty silly things with the English language. It puts prepositions in strange places — only in youth group do you “love on” someone, a term that is both puzzling and slightly pornographic. Christianese also peppers sentences with unnecessary proper nouns and adverbs — “Lord, just…” is a common way to start every sentence in a group prayer.
Christianese also has a selection of phrases for people who leave the faith, including: “backslidden,” (primarily Old Testament) “fallen away” (primarily New Testament) or “lapsed” (primarily institutional). These words all suggest that to leave the faith is an act of laziness, weakness, or lack of trying. If you no longer climb up, you slide back. If you no longer hold on, you fall away. If you no longer adhere to a set of rules or responsibilities, you have lapsed. With this kind of language ingrained in the Christian community, it’s no wonder that they view people who walk away as being weak (either mentally, emotionally, or spiritually). This couldn’t be further from the truth, but the subtle negging of this particular mind game is admittedly brilliant.
Becoming An Atheist Is A Struggle
Listen, leaving a faith you grew up in is not an easy thing. It’s a painful, introspective, self-aware process wherein you strip yourself down to your elements and reassemble yourself piece by piece. It will inevitably include feelings of panic, loss, guilt, anger, frustration, and betrayal, none of which are pleasant and all of which need to be worked through sufficiently before finally coming to terms with your atheism. You will be forced to wade through conversation after frustrating conversation with other Christians — in small group, in church, over lunch with friends, in lecture halls — where the questions eating away at your mind are dismissed with the same Bible verses or institutional catchphrases. Even at my college, surrounded by some of the most intelligent minds in Christian academia, I walked away with either insubstantial fluff or mind-bending interpretive theories, both of which left me wanting to pull my hair out.
Becoming an atheist doesn’t happen overnight, either (although terms like “backsliding” and “falling away” make it sound like a quick, split-second kind of thing). The process of leaving the faith can take years. I started having those first deep, world-shaking questions about my faith four years ago. I’m still adjusting to this new life, weeding out old biases, teaching myself that cosmic guilt is unnecessary. I’ve listened to the many debates, read dozens of books, watched hundreds of videos, inspected multiple holy texts, exposed myself to innumerable worldviews, and exhausted most of my close friends (both religious and otherwise) with persistent conversations on the subject. It’s time-consuming and intentional. It’s not a slip-up, not a mistake, not a lack of attention or concentration, and certainly not weakness.
Choosing To Stay An Atheist Is A Struggle, Too
Once you become an atheist, choosing to stay one presents its own challenges, which require strength and mental clarity. If you come from a background of faith, you will find that the people who used to be your greatest support system either vanish, become hostile, or look at you differently. Sure, the lucky atheists among us might have family or friends that accept them and love them regardless of their lack of faith, but the point remains: you now embody everything they think is wrong with the world. You are now, more or less, the “enemy,” the thing their God said to watch out for. If you are not hated, you are pitied. And you are always, always to be disproved, by word, deed, or prayer.
There are also very personal reasons staying an atheist is hard. If you’re going through a difficult time in your life, it’s really hard to no longer be able to feel like a higher power is watching out for you. If something bad happens to someone you care about and you can’t be there, you feel at a loss to help because you no longer believe prayer works. If someone asks you “Why do I face this challenge?” or “What happens after death?” the answers get a lot more tricky. (On the other hand, questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” get a lot easier to answer.) These are trying experiences, especially when you used to feel connected, safe, like you had the answers.
Atheism Is Worth The Struggle
So, why become and stay an atheist? It’s different for different people, and I can only speak for myself. I went to a Christian college where we were encouraged to ask hard questions about faith and the Bible. I asked the questions that didn’t have acceptable answers. Believe me, I looked for those answers. If you could have seen 20-year-old Vi staggering out of the library with a dozen thick tomes on the subject of God, you would have laughed. I decided I couldn’t logically come to the conclusion that God existed (at least in the form that Christians claimed He did). It wasn’t even a choice at that point. My brain literally wouldn’t allow me to reenter that warm, fuzzy world of faith, even if I’d wanted to. It was like waking up from a dream and not being able to fall back to sleep.
Once that happened and I came to terms with that loss, I realized that other things I had been living with — a pervasive sense of inherent dirtiness or unworthiness, fear of the corrupt outside world, the ghostly promise of societal persecution, the mental gymnastics required to morally justify Hell, the concept of sin itself — had been lifted from me. The freedom and lightness of being that I’ve felt since then is rivaled only by my newfound ease of mind and spirit. But the point is that this did not happen all at once, it did not happen without sacrifice, and certainly did not happen without years of critical thought and work that continues to this day.
A Call To All Christians With Atheists In Their Lives (AKA All Of Them)
Dear Christians, atheists know you will never agree with them about their lack of belief. Reasonable atheists don’t expect you to. We are grateful when we can have civil conversations about our differences without fear or anger. But the one thing you can do for the atheists in your life (and no matter how insulated in the community you are, I guarantee you have atheists in your life) is respect the intentionality of walking away. We are not weak. We’ve done a very difficult thing, something many people wouldn’t even dare to do. At least give us the courtesy of acknowledging that.
Originally published on Medium in November 2017.