Sam Holstein

A Short List of Ways Believing In God Held My Life Back

A Short List of Ways Believing In God Held My Life Back

Some days it feels like I’m the only atheist in the world. It’s hard to find a self-help book that does not allude to how a metaphysical belief in something greater can enable you to develop as a person. Alcoholics Anonymous and many other therapeutically supportive programs explicitly guide their followers to vest some of their emotional energy in a higher being.

As a heavy user of mental health services, this is difficult for me to deal with. Believing in God or a god of some kind has not only made my life better, but it’s also actively held me back in a variety of ways.

Counterfactuals are always dangerous, I know, but I am nearly certain that if I were an atheist for the last ten years instead of a believer, I would have sought help for my mental health earlier and had a much better prognosis.

You don’t read much from people whose atheism made their lives better, though. Believers are happy to preach far and wide about how their faith changed their life, but atheists tend to keep their life stories to themselves. There’s a cultural stigma against atheists talking about how atheism has been positive for them.

I’d like to break that silence. Becoming an atheist enabled some vast improvements in my quality of life. If someone told me about what it was like to become an atheist, and how your perspective changed when you did, I might have done so sooner.

#1: My belief made me feel loved— but that love was empty

Everyone struggles with feeling lonely and unloved sometimes. Especially since I have borderline personality disorder, a mental illness known for causing an intense fear of abandonment.

Nearly a year of difficult therapy for BPD has taught me a bevy of healthy coping skills for intense emotions. But for most of my life, the only coping mechanism I had was turning to God. If I felt lonely, I reminded myself God is here now with me and I conjured feelings of warmth and connectedness. If I felt sad, I reminded myself God is even now comforting me, and I conjured soothed feelings.

That coping mechanism wasn’t healthy for me. It certainly beat wallowing in my own misery, but it didn’t spur me to make positive changes in my life, either. When I faced a challenge in my life, I didn’t educate myself and come up with solutions. I participated in religious activities, thinking my faith in God would carry me through anything. My faith did carry me through things — things I never would have faced in the first place if I’d chosen an effective solution for the problem.

#2: My belief kept me away from effective mental health treatments

In my late teens and early twenties, I experienced a lot of intense depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. I now know these are symptoms of BPD, but back then, I had no idea. All I knew was I seemed to suffer from these things far more than others do.

If I were an atheist, I don’t know how I would have reacted to that when I discovered it. But I was a theist, and this is how I reacted: I thought a demon plagued me. Sometimes. Other times, I thought I was an evil man in a prior life (perhaps a man in WWII) and was reincarnated with this problem as a punishment. Sometimes I didn’t try to guess why. I simply despaired at being condemned to a life of punishment for no reason.

You may see the phrases “mental illness” and “thought a demon was plaguing me,” put two and two together, and think, obviously the author was having a psychotic break. I was not having a psychotic break. I simply held a religious belief 46% of Americans still hold today.

I went to school in a wealthy and well-educated area, so I was aware of mental health and psychiatric medication. It didn’t take me very long to become more educated than most people about the mental health industry. But I fundamentally believed the root of serious emotional issues was the soul, not the brain.

So, when I was really between a rock and a hard place, crying and in the dark, “What is the way out of this mess? How do I make the pain stop?” the place I turned was not the mental health system. The place I turned was God. As a result, I did not investigate medication or therapies that could help me. I engaged in prayer and divination (tarot cards) until the acute crisis passed. And then, when it inevitably passed, I credited God for the success. But the underlying problem was not solved, so the crises came again and again.

#3: My belief held me back in understanding the sciences

Perhaps some people can be theists and also be excellent biologists, geneticists, physicists, etc. but not me. Being able to lean on God as “the cause” for anything heretofore unexplained in the sciences demotivated me from learning more about them.

Here’s what I mean. I “believed” in evolution, but I didn’t really understand how it worked. I knew more than some people about how it worked, but subjects (like “how does an eye evolve?”) were unknown to me.

I didn’t want to know the answer, either. To me, being a scientist was nothing more than a very complicated version of trying to find out how exactly someone folded paper to create origami. Anything worldly felt that way to me. The only thing I felt passionate about was studying theology and developing my mystical connection with God (and the spirits, if they were there). After all, if there really is an all-powerful cosmic creator, how could I not? I was duly impressed and frequently moved to tears by the complexity and beauty of the natural world, but I didn’t feel much drive to learn about how it worked.

This started changing for me when I read Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish GeneThe Selfish Gene is not a book about atheism or theism. It’s an evolutionary biology textbook. It was the first truly scientifically rigorous thing I’d read since learning about cell composition in early high school, and it changed the way I understand the natural world. I was hooked. I wanted to understand more.

As I learned more about the natural world and how it worked, my superstitious beliefs looked increasingly ridiculous to me. Engaging in spiritual activities felt more like a waste of my time. I started reading books about logic and critical thinking skills. None of these books took aim at religious belief directly either, but every day, it was harder every day to justify my beliefs. Eventually, the scales tipped. I could no longer.

Reading science books is considerably more enjoyable for me now.

#4: My belief led me to suffer from mental illness longer

One of the more dangerous things believing in God did for me was give my suffering a false sense of purpose. On days I felt better about myself, I would imagine my suffering was a burden given to me as an honor, the way suffering was given to Job in the Bible.

Perversely, though, this created an incentive for me to stay sick. I couldn’t pat myself on the back for honorably bearing the burden the Lord chose to give me if there was no burden to bear. Many mental health issues are resolved when the patient figures out how to successfully interrupt self-defeating cycles, but my faith incentivized me to keep engaging in them indefinitely. This is definitely one of the reasons I struggled so much and made so little progress in the first few years of my adulthood.

If I’d been able to accept the truth — that these self-defeating cycles are a product of my genetic inheritance and my childhood nurture and were given to me essentially at random — it would have been much easier for me to interrupt and discard them. Now I have to overturn a decade of psychological conditioning instead.

#5: My belief kept me in a failing relationship

I dated the same man from my junior year of high school to my final year of college, coming in just under five years together when we split up. Our relationship hadn’t been working for a long time, and I knew for years prior that breaking up might be a wise idea, but I passionately did not want to break up.

Why? My faith led me to believe fewer sexual partners was better, and that marrying and staying committed to one person was better than dating around and marrying late. Of course. Remaining with that boyfriend became a matter of spiritual purity for me.

If I was attached to realistically assessing my situation and making the most effective decision instead, I don’t think that bad relationship would have been as long as it was or gotten as bad as it did.

I’m hesitant to publish this article because I know this is a sensitive subject for many people. But the world benefits when we as individuals stand up and speak the truth, and the truth is that having religious faith held me back significantly in life. So much that I grieve the loss.

Being an atheist often seems to a believer like a cold and lonely existence. It’s colder and lonelier at first, but when you reject the false panacea that is a religious belief, you can turn your attention to the joys of true loving connections with real people around you. Unsurprisingly, these are far more enjoyable and satisfying than a relationship with a deity that doesn’t exist.