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December 28, 2005

Pain or Liberation?

Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's dad, suffered two major crises in his life: one -- a subject of To the Lighthouse -- when he lost his wife; the other when, while a tutor at Cambridge, he lost his faith. "I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly" he wrote in his journal in 1865. Stephen, according to a friend, contemplated suicide.

Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?

Salman Rushdie is among those who have found freedom in the evaporation of religion: "Imagine there's no heaven," he has written, "and at once the sky's the limit."

Is it easier to feel that now? Is Rushdie right?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 28, 2005 10:17 PM


Losing my faith was a gradual process. I had questions and doubts my whole adult life that grew stronger over the years as I became more educated in religion, mythology, ethics, philosophy, and other things. Religious leaders provided insufficient and sometimes quite bizarre answers to my questions. I found many more reasonable, intelligent and enlightening answers at the university. There was no crisis, no death in the family, no death of a friend, no financial problems, etc. that triggered me to hate god and walk away from my faith. It just gradually disappeared. I have had a wonderful family life and marriage for 30 years now. This developed into a family "de-conversion" to atheism triggered by our children's doubts as they entered their teen years and our answers to their incessant questions were as insufficient as the pastors of the church. I can't speak for the other members of my family, but the day I finally let go and admitted that I didn't believe in god and heaven and hell and the devil and all that, it was like a weight was lifted off of me. I have felt stronger, freer and happier than I had in my whole life. I have come to accept the cycle of life, and death as natural and nothing to fear. This is how things are. The nature of things. I am at peace with that. So, my answer is loss of faith does NOT always involve a crisis, and it doesn't always hurt.

Posted by: debbie at December 29, 2005 1:09 AM

Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?

I went through a whole Pascal's dilemma sort of thing, i.e. do I dare to suppose that my religion is fundamentally wrong and risk damnation?

Other than that the whole process was positive and finally rejecting religion very positive.

Frankly being a depressed athiest makes no sense to me (at least regarding the religious aspects of your life). I suspect Virginia Woolf's dad had severe emotional problems and was lashing out.

Posted by: Boelf at December 29, 2005 3:36 AM

I really think the answer to this question is that it depends on the temperment and personality involved. Some people seem to need such a "high" purpose to their life that only religion will do, and losing that can really destroy them. For many others, other things like work/art, love, family, politics can take that place and even allow them to thrive.

Posted by: Noah at December 29, 2005 10:02 AM

It doesn't "have" to hurt. It often will, though, because like most such life transitions, it won't be complete -- ie, bits of the old theistic thinking will still be lurking, and thus you'll experience conflict between the opposing worldviews.

Think of Camus' meditation on whether a thinking person should just commit suicide in the face of a meaningless universe. That question is predicated on a couple of conditions: 1)that meaning is, in fact, necessary; and 2)meaning must come from a source external to yourself. That second condition is the classic theistic position, and I think that when people suffer pain from their de-conversion, it's because that idea is still lingering in their heads. Those kinds of underlying believes/assumptions about reality can be devishly hard to overcome.

And there's other stuff, like the conflict that can result with friends and family. The end result, I think, is that it depends on the person, the circumstances, etc, as to how easy that process is.

Posted by: Gregory at December 29, 2005 2:21 PM

Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?

Quite the opposite, in my experience. I was a seriously neurotic child, lying awake in bed at night, breaking out in a cold sweat when I thought about heaven going on and on for ever and ever without end. Plus the constant anxiety of imagining a cosmic peeping tom watching everything you do, and preparing to cast you into everlasting infinte torture if you slipped up. It was nothing but a relief when I realized I didn't have to believe in that stuff.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at December 30, 2005 1:59 PM

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