Having been raised in a Christian family, I moved away from religion in my early adult life and am now an Atheist. Religion has always been an area of particular interest to me, even after I left the faith I was raised in. I still find the subject engaging and intriguing to this day and am inclined to write on the subject from time to time. This can already be seen in some of my poetry, with some earlier poems written from a Christian perspective, while others are clearly written from an Atheistic or sceptical-agnostic viewpoint. My interest in the subject particularly manifests itself in my other creative writing. I will inevitably write more on the subject in various forms which I hope will be interesting, insightful and enjoyable to Theists and Atheists alike.
There are many fascinating aspects to religion that are relatively objective and so it is a fertile area for examination without having to make enemies on either side of the God divide. For example, as a former Christian I thought my perspective on some of the good things about having a religion would be interesting to both sides, perhaps highlighting some things that Christians may take for granted about their faith, or giving a fresh perspective to Atheists who struggle to recognise any potential benefits to spiritual belief. This prompted me to write the article below. I remained neutral throughout the piece and in no way try to insult anyone or dissuade people from their existing beliefs, whatever they may be. (Evidently, there were readers of the piece who thought I was too objective and I was actually accused by some people on Facebook of having written it as a ‘guerilla-evangelistic’ piece designed to lure and attempt to convert people to Christianity. In all honesty, that was probably the last reaction I had been expecting.)
Hopefully this will be of interest to people and may be the first of several pieces which look at religion from my own perspective.
(Originally Published Online on 20/09/2015)
I was raised in a Christian family who attended church every week, read and discussed the Bible and made sure that we went to a Christian school. As I got older, I stopped believing in God and adopted a hopeful, waning Agnosticism, which later gave way to very definite Atheism. For many years, I felt that I could not possibly know that there is nothing, but this was just a natural stage of denial after having been brought up to believe in God for as long as I could remember. The reasons for my turning away from Christianity are unimportant to this piece and my intention is not to debate the existence of any God or gods, to try to persuade anyone to adopt my way of thinking or to demonize religion as an institution. Instead I just want to share the perspective of someone who once believed, but has left that behind and the things that I miss about believing in God now that I live a secular life. These could be read as things which Christians or other Theists can enjoy and find comfort in, or maybe they could illustrate a fresh perspective for other Agnostics or Atheists who cannot understand what benefits a person can feel from holding a religion. There are, of course, things that I do not miss about being a Christian too, but there are five things which I particularly do miss from the time I had that belief and the reasons why.
1. Comforting Others
This seems like a small thing (and is probably a source of annoyance for many Atheists out there), but when someone is having a hard time, especially if they hold to any religious belief, then the phrase “I’ll pray for you” can be quite meaningful and comforting. Whether you hold to a belief or not, there is nothing that I now have in my verbal arsenal which quite carries the same weight; “I’ll be thinking of you” or other such platitudes seem to pale in comparison when you think about it. No-one believes for a moment that simply thinking of someone can do any tangible good, although some schools of thought suggest that sending out positive ‘vibes’ can have a positive effect on the energy of the universe (the law of attraction). For those who have a religious belief, having someone converse with God on your behalf can offer hope that there is a force more powerful than vague energies working in your favour. It would be nice to have an Atheist equivalent, but I don’t think one really exists that can offer the same comfort or condolence. Of course, the counter argument would be that it is an empty gesture for anyone who does not hold that belief, and that the energy spent on prayer would be better spent on taking positive actions, but there are times when no action can be taken and we all resort to the usual cliches and platitudes. In times like that, I always miss being able to pull that one out of the bag.
Believing that bad things happen for a reason and that I was part of some bigger plan was a huge comfort for me when I was a Christian. Hard times were seemingly not as trying, because the belief of a larger purpose nullified much of the hopelessness of any struggle. I had a complete lack of existential angst and fewer philosophical questions, because answers were generally inbuilt into the faith. The sense of purpose and security which came with the idea of intelligent design gave me comfort that whatever happened was for the best. It also alleviated some of my sense of responsibility as I thought that everything that happened, for good or bad, was God directing me down the path that would ultimately be best for me. Believing that whatever the plan was would be for the best presented less pressure. I assumed that God would take care of me, being the faithful servant that I was at that time. By removing God, I lost that particular sense of purpose and existential angst has become a real issue for me at times. I perhaps feel this more intensely because it was something that I only started experiencing later in life. Now, I choose and create my own purpose, which means that the responsibility and ownership is squarely on myself for the way my life unfolds, whether that be good or bad.
3. On The Side of Right
With any religious belief there comes the sense that you are ‘one of the good guys’. Religion dictates certain behaviours and attitudes which the followers adopt and they are taught that those who do not do likewise are ‘sinners’ or some other such term. The majority of religions teach that following their rules is the way to achieve salvation or to please God, and this creates a vague (or, in some cases, extremely well defined) sense of ‘us against them’. Everyone who does not follow the religion falls into the ‘them’ category in this one, and thus the belief that God is good and just makes believers the good guys. Not to say that everyone else is a villain, but even the best among them are not actually fighting on the side of good, so they wouldn’t be classed with the protagonists if this was in the framework of a story. This sense of belonging and being part of a larger good was something that gave me an added strength and sense of worth which it would be hard to replicate outside of religion, as in a small way, everyone gets to feel like a little bit of a hero.
4. The Afterlife
This is one of the big ones as far as feeling a sense of loss from the changing of my beliefs. Believing in the afterlife gave me the comfort that the loved ones I had lost had gone on to a better place and that I would one day follow and be reunited with them. I believed that all the good that I and others had done would be rewarded in the afterlife and that bad people would be punished for their evil, giving a sense of justice and balance to the universe that one simply cannot find in everyday life. There is also the obvious comfort that death is not the end, for yourself or for anyone else, which seems to be a finality that people generally have a hard time accepting. Without believing in God or the afterlife, that is a finality which I simply have to accept. I generally look at that aspect as somewhat irrelevant to myself personally, as I am not scared by the thought that I did not exist before I was born, so therefore don’t fear the similar state of non-existence which will follow my death. Even so, the other aspects of believing in an afterlife are much better than the Agnostic/Atheist alternatives.
5. Miracles and Magic
Lastly, the one thing I miss most about being a Theist is the sense of magic and wonder that comes with believing in an omnipotent God who is capable of miracles. What could be more amazing and awe-inspiring than a being that could literally do anything? Realism is so boring by comparison, and even though we can all marvel at the progressions of science or the incredible things that we discover in nature, they are a lackluster consolation prize when compared with beings who can transform matter, move mountains or create life and galaxies. That sense of wonder is almost impossible to experience in adult life without religion, because if there is an explanation for everything then there can be no real reverence or true awe at anything that we can experience. Maybe this is somewhat of a longing for childhood innocence rather than religious belief, but the same holds true for either that life experience is robbed of a sense of mystery when everything is viewed purely scientifically or logically.
In the course of writing this piece I came across an article sharing a similar perspective, although there were some big differences. Obviously everyone’s experiences are different and so are people’s reasons for believing what they do. I try to always respect that and I wholeheartedly support everyone’s individual right to hold their own beliefs. My particular experiences of religion may well have made me miss certain things above others in my post-religious life, or experience some of the things on this list in a completely different way to how someone else may experience them. This is in no way a universal list and some people in similar situations may miss other aspects of being religious that I have not mentioned here, hold others in higher esteem, or regard some without value at all. One of the things that the other piece I read had expressed was a loss of the automatic community which one finds themselves in when they are part of a religion. This is not a part of it that I would personally list here, but I can certainly appreciate the benefits which that can offer. Overall, there are probably more beneficial aspects to religion than most outside may realise, and some things that believers may take for granted.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to read the related piece – Confessions Of An Atheist (Part Two): 5 Things I Don’t Miss About Christianity.