This is a topic not a lot of people talk about, but it is an adjustment period all the same. When a person who was once religious becomes atheist they begin to have an identity crisis. What happens after death? Who created us? Which group do I belong to now? All of these realizations can take a toll on one’s mental health.
This article is by no means trying to convert anyone to atheism, I respect everyone’s decision to participate in a religious group and believe in any higher power they so choose. The point of this article is to help those who have decided to identify as atheist and may be going through an identity crisis. If this is you, I want to remind you that they are not alone. I went through the same thing.
Up until I turned 19 I was a very religious person. I would attend church regularly, believed in miracles, believed very deeply in a higher power and afterlife. After I turned 19 I began to start looking at the world in a different way. My perspective began to change, what I once thought was accurate I now began to believe were stories and fictional characters. I began to believe that maybe there was no afterlife and that when we passed away there was nothing. This was a very frightening and startling realization for me. I came to question what it all meant, I began to obsess over the concept of what happens after death and I was very upset by the idea of nothing existing past your final breath.
Prior to this, I was struggling to identify with the morals of the church I identified with and their very conservative political opinions. I began distancing myself from the church for a while prior to converting to atheism. I even went through a period where I was experimenting with being agnostic as many people do.
But at one point I began to realize that I did not identify with any idea of a higher power. This shift was quite drastic in my life as I had spent years believing I knew all the answers. That heaven existed and that we would all enjoy an eternal paradise and reunite with passed loved ones. When I came to the startling realization that I no longer believed that to be the case, I went through a prolonged period of sadness and distress. I began to lash out at others and I began to hate any affiliation I still had with my old church or my prior spiritual ideologies. I even began to believe that we all made our own fate and that religion was just comfort for us to be more accepting of trauma and death. This scared me.
Then, a peer I went to high school passed away and I realized that by my new definition of reality, I would never see them again, that they would never ‘exist’ again. I was really upset about this and I was living in a state of paranoia. I was constantly thinking about what everything meant and how I could overcome the fear of death. I began to resent people who did believe in a higher power, I thought them to be naive and I was angered by their decision to follow such a conservative oppressive group. At times I still do have these feelings.
So I get it. If you are reading this you might be going through the same thing. I’m here to help explain that everything you are going through is completely normal. You and I may have had a similar journey and you might feel scared or lost as well. Everything will get better. You just have to regard this time as a period of self-discovery. Here are the stages I regard to be accepting atheism and some of the obstacles you may have to go through to fully accept your final beliefs.
1- People around you may disagree with you
You might have grown up in a very religious area. Depending upon how faithful some of your close friends and relatives may be, you might begin to notice you start to disagree with a lot of the things those around you say. Sometimes speaking up will anger and/or offend them. During this time it is important to understand that no matter what your belief system is, you must be respectful of others choices while staying true to your own beliefs. You do not have to let people convert you back into the religion you have rejected, but if they want to talk about their beliefs with you listen with an open mind. See where they are coming from and understand how religion helps them cope with their daily lives. Religion is a big part of many peoples lives so it can be a very touchy topic, this said, that does not mean it should never be discussed. Just as you would not want another person shoving a belief down your throat, don’t impose atheism onto another person. Some people need religion. You are in a shifting process to a new belief system that those around you are not ready for, and may never be ready for, so be mindful of how you speak.
If a group of people begins to reject you or looks down upon you for straying from a certain belief system, this can be difficult. You may subconsciously distance yourself from people who are overtly religious and they may begin to distance themselves from you. Just remember, regardless of what anyone’s opinions are, if someone is distancing themselves from you because of your beliefs, they are not very mature. You deserve someone who will accept and respect your beliefs, even if it might frighten some.
2- You may start to think a lot about what happens after death
So, you lived your whole life believing in an afterlife, now you have accepted that you believe there will be nothingness past death. Now what? This can be a very startling realization for some. If you feel the need to be sad for a while. Do it. Think of this as you would any breakup or sad event, you need time to mourn your former beliefs. Some people, as was I, might be very bothered by the idea of nothingness, but perhaps now you have no choice but to believe it. If this is so, it can be a large adjustment.
It did take me a while to get used to the idea that this was my only life, and that after it, I would become soil for new life to root themselves from. But, after a while, I began to see the beauty of it.
When we die, I believe, we turn to soil. There is something romantic in the idea of becoming the ground work for new life to grow and live. Though consciousness will no longer be a part of my identity, my physical remains may help to serve another’s life. Even further, if one decides to donate their organs, they can give the chance of life to other human beings. I like to think of death as a peacefulness, a final resting. Before you were conceived, you did not exist. In that, you felt no pain, no discomfort. Nothing memorable. You just came to be after conception and in the womb, you developed into the person you are today.
Death is, in my opinion, returning to a state of non-existence. I believe we already experienced this state. It is nothing to be traumatized about or to live your life in fear of. With time you will begin to grow more into your beliefs. Maybe someday you will find enlightenment through religion again, and maybe you won’t. Regardless, whatever you accept as your truth, you will grow into. And once you do finally come to terms with your truth, you can make peace with it and accept everything for what it is.
3- You might explore affiliation with new groups
I was in the choir, attended masses, went to a Catholic school, performed the morning prayer over the PA system. I even won the Catholic award at my high school. I get it. You had a group of people with similar beliefs to yours that you were once able to connect with. Now that your beliefs are shifting, you may find you are starting to disconnect with those around you. You will have to fight the urge not to resent those around you for their choices. If you disagree with them in regard to the politics of the church, by all means, have an open discussion with them concerning their beliefs and why you may regard some of them as not inclusive to everyone. However, if that person simply believes in God(s) that is entirely their choice. Please don’t try to change them.
You however may need to start finding new things that connect you with that group of people. Or if you only really connected with that group because of your shared religious beliefs then there are other groups you may be able to identify with. Perhaps you want to do good things for others but you do not want to be religious. If you were once a regular church goer, instead of going to church, perhaps you can sign up to volunteer at a food bank during the time you might have previously attended a mass of some sort.
You might want to get involved in a new hobby. If you like sports, sign up for a team. If you like acting, join a theatre club or audition for a few local plays. This is a very quick way to meet like-minded friends who you can feel close with if you feel like you and your former friends are drifting due to a conflict in beliefs.
4- You may experience an existential crisis and delve into philosophy
So you don’t believe in god anymore. But, what do you believe? Exploring your beliefs, both political and social, are always vital to any persons self-growth. Reading up on different belief systems across the world, examining political structures, reading about different theories, can all help contribute to your character and help you grow as an individual. Now that you are not reliant on a religious structure you were born into to shape your beliefs, now it is time to self-explore and determine for yourself what you believe.
Art has historically supported atheism for centuries. Many artists have been atheist and often struggle with the concept of religion and spiritual belief in their works. In Memoriam by Alfred Tennyson, is a series of sonnets that undergo this same crisis and self-exploration of a man who is morning his close friend who passed. It was widely accepted in the Victorian Era as a comfort. Queen Victoria herself stated that with the exception of the Bible, In Memoriam was her greatest comfort. Art, theatre, and philosophy have been exploring the concepts of atheism for centuries, start exploring those works if you want to delve into new beliefs.
5- You might get angry
Extremists of the faith you used to practice may begin to anger you. You might begin to feel as though they are trying to pressure you or others into believing things they are not comfortable with. I personally struggle a lot when I see people using religion as an excuse to harass women who are pro-choice, or to be homophobic or even prejudice to others who do not practice the same faith as them. These are all very valid reasons to be upset and I would encourage you to continue to explore ways in which you can help show people how to be loving of everyone.
This being said, it is also important to understand that not everyone who practices religion is an extremist. A lot of people practice religion because they want to be good people and they find comfort in God. It is important you respect that and their beliefs. Just because you have shifted to a new belief system, it does not mean you can stop being open-minded to others. Atheism also has extremists. Extremists in atheism try to push those who affiliate with religion to believe in things they are not comfortable in believing, or bully or judge those who identify with a religion. This is also unacceptable behavior. Whatever you chose to practice should be out of love and compassion for the greater good of humanity.
6- Acceptance and Love
Once you finally begin to accept your beliefs and feel comfortable in expressing your beliefs and exploring them further, you will come to a state of peace within yourself. There is a sense of power that comes with being comfortable in exploring and determining for yourself your own beliefs. Whatever belief you settle on, it is important that it is your own. Taking the time to explore your beliefs is important to self-growth and one should continue to reassess their belief system and opinions for the rest of their lives.
Once you feel comfortable in your beliefs, you will begin to feel free. This feeling of freedom will be accompanied by letting go of any anger or resentment toward religion. You will begin to see how your years being dispersed in the religion you grew up identifying with helped to shape the person you are today! You will also be impressed with your ability to explore new possibilities and being open to new ideas of what hope and love and good deeds can mean to you.
Continue to love and respect yourself and others. Show maturity and always respect others beliefs while staying true to your own. Continue to be strong, continue to learn, continue to love others, and most importantly continue to lift each other up, no matter where you stand. <3