Last year I wrote an article talking about my upbringing in and subsequent departure from Christianity as the daughter of carm.org. As a result I’ve received hundreds of both accusatory and supportive emails, but the ones that motivated me to write this article were the desperate ones – the ones from people who lost their faith and felt like they’d also lost everything else. That new position of existential confusion and emptiness is a difficult and terrifying one, and this is my attempt at an answer.
Human beings endure breathtakingly powerful experiences throughout their lives – immense beauty, love, and tragedy, and the feeling of purpose and deeper meaning. I will refer to this collection as ‘awe.’
Religion takes this ‘awe’ and attributes them to an external source. It claims there is a separate being from which we derive awe, and thus we are distant from, and not responsible for, this feeling of awe. It is not from us, it is something which is enacted upon us. Religion is a game of separation, of pretending that fundamental authority the self and the source of meaning are attributable to an unknowable other – God.
It is an interesting little psychological trick, because it places the source of awe on a location separate from the self. The nonreligious are not exempt from this (“once I travel/have children/get rich I will achieve my purpose”), but the religious do it obviously and systematically, in doctrine taught from birth.
This is evidenced by the strict authoritarian submission-power ranking system present in religious culture. It is also evidenced by the habit of the religious to engage in self-denial (no sex before marriage, no homosexuality). They set up elaborate rules of gameplay that regulate their own behavior – and conversely, these rules allow them something to point to to demonstrate that they are “winning” the game. What constitutes ‘winning’ may differ by beliefs; it may be salvation for Catholics, or a good relationship with God for Protestants.
These rules free the player from being the originator of moral choice. It gives them a script to follow, a system to trust. This is why they find the idea of equating nonharmful pleasure with moral correctness (if it doesn’t hurt anybody, why not?) so abhorrent. Doing this establishes themselves as the standard of morality and grants them moral authority. This destroys the rules of play; the religious must claim that the true moral standard is not determined by anything originating in the self, if they wish to maintain the illusion of separateness, of submission, the authority of god, and the hope of ‘winning’ the game.
Morality is only one example of how the separateness of God manifests in the religious worldview, but provides an elegant demonstration of how it strips them of their authority. There are common themes in the Bible that that believers are God’s bride or children (John 3:29, Gal 3:26). Many denominations emphasize the masculinity of God in a way of symbolically demonstrating his authority, which is why religions are often so patriarchal (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” – Eph 5:22.). Submission is a hugely prominent theme of religion. You are ‘sinners’ (Romans 3:23), who must not “lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5b).
The problem here is that establishing God as the ultimate good authority in all things means that the meaning of life is God, much as the problem with establishing rules to a game means that now we should try to win at it. For the religious, the source of meaning is inherent to the authority – and they are not the ones with authority.
I frequently hear confusion as to how religious people can choose to believe in God even when presented with contrary evidence – but it is not as simple as choosing to believe you will be late to work when presented with traffic. It is a much more terrifying process. Losing God renders the authority in your life null. It yanks the rules to your life out from under you. If you have lived your life attributing the source of every powerful experience, every moment of gratitude in beauty and lesson from pain, every moment of awe, to God – then to lose your God is to lose your awe.
The truth – that awe is created by the self, for the self – is a difficult realization, and rarely comes quickly. If you have experienced a loss of awe due to a loss of God, remember that God never actually existed. All of your experiences of awe throughout your life were real, and you experienced them without God – you just didn’t know it at the time. It was the game you were playing, and for you, winning was your awe. You are still capable of the same fulfillment, love, and purpose as you were when you were religious, the only difference is that now you have to learn a different path to it. Everything you experienced was created by you.
Taking back authority and responsibility for your own purpose is usually difficult, particularly if you have years of practice in submission – but it is still possible. The meaning of life is for the purpose of having meaning. Iit is self addressing. Feeling as though you have lost God is, in essence, no different than believing in him, because it is still feeling as though the answer is somewhere else. It is not. You have not actually lost anything. There was never anything separate to begin with. There was never a point to get to. You don’t dance in order to get to a point – you dance for the sake of dancing.