doubt, part 2

The third kind of doubt I’ve experienced is emotional doubt.  Strictly speaking, this shouldn’t really be classified as doubt, but something that makes you want to doubt.  An example of a Christian equivalent might be: getting fed up with the church, or the hypocrisy of Christians, or the rules.

A couple of weeks ago I experienced emotional doubt for the first time since becoming an atheist.  I was alone in my apartment one night, watching a quasi-creepy movie.  It was dark, and I was kind of lonely, and I was suddenly arrested by an intense fear of dying.  This would have been just a momentary lapse of reason, but it was the first pang of fear that I’ve felt for myself in awhile, so it affected me deeply.  Normally, I think about death fairly often, and I’m okay with the prospect of ceasing to exist.  But that night, it just terrified me.  I didn’t want to think that I would ever die.  It frightened me enough that I began to wish fervently that there was such a thing as heaven.

I ran through this whole monologue in my head: I really wish that I don’t ever have to die.  Right now, I wish that I believed in heaven.  I wish I believed that there was a God here to hold my hand in moments like this when I’m scared.  I think that if I wanted to, I could make myself believe in heaven.  I could make myself believe in God, and then I wouldn’t ever have to be terrified of dying.  Wouldn’t that be great?  But at the end of the day, I will die.  And my soul will either cease to exist, or go to heaven (or hell).  And God either definitely does exist or definitely doesn’t exist.  No matter what I make myself believe, only one thing can be true.  And as it stands right now, the truth as I believe it and as I know it is that there is no God or heaven.

It is a powerful thing to face those moments, to stare into the prospect of death, into the face of chaos and purposelessness, and consider the fear and the starkness of what I believe to be true: that, in reality, there’s nowhere to go but down.  To be terrified by that truth and not back down is, I think, one of the most honest and raw kinds of spiritual experience possible for an atheist.

Emotional doubt, or the appeal to emotion, is extremely, extremely compelling.  To be fair, it was partly responsible for my deconversion, in that being fed up with the church and the way Christianity was practiced made me consider my intellectual doubts more seriously than I otherwise would have.  But I also had emotional doubts toward atheism, which was the reason why deconversion was so hard for me.  As fed up as I was with Christians in general and with Wheaton and my church in particular, they were also the only home I’d ever had. I knew that Christianity could provide everything that I really wanted for myself in life.

For me, emotions play a big role within religion or within atheism.  But the decision to follow or not follow a religion is first and foremost about truth.  That’s not the case for everybody; for a lot of people, religion is much more about guidance or comfort or relationship or mystery.  And that’s okay.  People are different.  What’s not okay is when people assume that their reasons for being compelled by religion should apply to everyone else.

Sometimes I still wish God existed.  Often, I wish there was a grand scheme behind everything.  I think most people do, given the pervasiveness of religion throughout history.  I also wish there were unicorns and mermaids.  Especially mermaids.  But my life isn’t any less full because they don’t exist.  And now, part of the joy of living in a world without them is dreaming of them and dealing with life without them.


3 thoughts on “doubt, part 2

  1. Paul Wright

    I think a lot of people get that “it’s late at night and I’m going to die one day” experience:

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die

    (as my Dad would say, it’s being so cheerful that keeps Larkin going).

    Another source of emotional doubts for me is singing Christian songs in groups (which we’ve occasionally done in a secular setting, as Charles Wesley knew how to rock), or hearing them at concerts.

    Still, I just don’t get people who can believe a thing merely because it makes them feel better. There’s no way back for me via the emotional route alone.

  2. Lily Post author

    I can’t believe I failed to mention Christian music in this post. That’s a huge one. I still love to listen to it, though.

    Paul, your comment also reminds me of an experience I had last summer: I was setting out on a mountaineering expedition with a group of mostly non-Christians in a secular setting, and before leaving we stood together and held hands in a circle to “pray” for our trip. I liked that, having the communal aspect of prayer without any references to religion or God or spirits. When God is brought in to such situations, I often somehow forget that community and love and goodwill are just as available without religion.


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