A Survey of Atheists
In the ten or so years I’ve thought of myself as an atheist the numbers of non believers has grown, and our ability to connect with each other has increased. In that time I’ve often heard people talking of the atheist, humanist or skeptical community and wondered: What does that mean? Who are we? And what, if anything, draws us together?
Understanding non-believers is notoriously difficult. In many cultures disavowing religious or supernatural beliefs is strongly discouraged, those who are determined enough to do so tend to be natural iconoclasts… which is a polite euphemism for weirdos. We are diverse in our approach to life and often reluctant to be defined or labeled. The only thing that unites us is an absence of supernatural convictions, which isn’t much for researchers to work with.
There are some access points for study. One thing most of us have in common is that we weren’t born into non-belief. We arrived here after a difficult process of unpicking the philosophy, doctrines and culture of the religion we were raised in: we let go.
As I became interested in Street Epistemology I wanted to find out more about this process of letting go. Street Epistemology is a conversational method that encourages deep reflection on why we believe what we believe. It prompts people to analyse the epistemology (method of knowing) they used to reach their faith beliefs. It’s designed to allow people to begin the process of letting go of beliefs that they come to realise are unfounded.
As I listened to Street Epistemology conversations I remembered how exhilarating, painful and often lonely my own process of letting go was. I wanted to do something to support people going through the same experiences I had. As an artist my instinct was to create art for them.
Which is when I realised I didn’t really know what they were going through. I was raised in the UK an increasingly secular country by agnostic parents. As a teenager I took up an unconventional religion — Wicca — and with it a lot of supernatural beliefs. I’d reached my mid-twenties and served as a High Priestess before I started doubting my faith. Is that experience typical? Could I use it to make art to inspire and comfort people in the process of letting go? I didn’t know. I needed more data.
There is a surprising lack of research into how and why people let go of their faith beliefs. I’m not the only one to notice this. In one of the few studies accessible to an independent researcher like myself the authors remarked:
Religious departures continue to be studied less than other religious transitions.
- Explaining Deconversion from Christianity: A Study of Online Narratives Wright, Giovanelli, Dolan, Edwards (2011) .
It looked like I was going to have to do my own dirty work.
I put together a survey of thirty-six questions to assess the demographics of the atheist, humanist and skeptic community. I wanted to know about their religious backgrounds, the nature of their doubts and how they resolved them. I asked the questions I was interested in, hoping to find similarities between myself and my respondents who came from various religious backgrounds. I was hoping to find a common thread in the experience of letting go which would inspire my art.
When it was ready, I shared the link to the survey on Twitter, and after a few kind retweets from influential people the responses started rolling in. At a hundred I had enough to make art. The final total of eight-hundred and forty-eight was way more than I expected. With so many results I feel like I have a responsibility to share the data with my community.
I’m a comic book maker, not a scientist. A fact which might be apparent to any social scientist researchers who stumble across this survey. I see this data and my analysis as an interesting portrait of the process of letting go, and not as scientific research.
The data I’ve gathered is highly subjective. I’m sure my respondents did their best to remember their experiences accurately and report them honestly, but we humans are just not that good at being objective — especially on subjects we feel strongly about. Our memories are flawed and biases creep up on us. This is a problem for even the most rigorous scientists when assessing self-reported data.
The data are not entirely quantitative. Almost every question had a comment section, which allowed respondents to provide additional information. These comments were the most inspiring and insightful part of the data and I’ve included some in this report to illustrate the data and give you a glimpse of the people behind it.
Despite its limitations, I hope this report will inspire academic research, or advocacy efforts or other artists to create work based on all of our shared experience.
But mostly I consider this an opportunity for those of us in the atheist, humanist and skeptic communities, for we who have let go, to get to know ourselves and each other a little bit better.
The survey was comprised of thirty-six questions in four sections: demographics, religious background, doubts and resolution. In this report I present the results of each individual question with my own thoughts and quotations from my respondents that I think illustrate the data.
I used the term ‘faith beliefs’ instead of ‘religious beliefs’ to capture people who never possessed truly religious beliefs (you know the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ types) as well as people who held supernatural or other unevidenced beliefs. I think what all these beliefs have in common is that they are supported by faith. So, in the absence of any other ideas ‘faith beliefs’ seemed an appropriate albeit slightly clumsy phrase.
I gave my respondents the opportunity to opt out of being quoted. For those that I have I use either their first name, handle or simply referred to them as ‘anon’ based on their preference indicated in the survey.
If you want to take a look at the anonymised raw data and draw your own interpretations or perhaps inspire a project of your own, you’ll find it here.
Oh, and: the percentages given in this report are rounded to one decimal place, so don’t freak out if the whole pie adds up to slightly more or slightly less than 100%.
Part 1: demographics
1.2 Your age
Total 848 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
40–60. 369 (43.5%)
25–39. 298 (35.1%)
60+. 100 (11.8%)
18–24. 72 (8.5%)
Under 18. 9 (1.1%)
The majority of people who filled out this survey were aged between 40 and 60, with another large minority in the 25 to 39 bracket. This seems pretty representative to me, but I was surprised it didn’t skew younger since the survey was propagated primarily on Twitter where the largest demographic group is thought to be between 18 and 29.
1.3 Your gender
Total 848 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Male. 529 (62.4%)
Female. 308 (36.4%)
Other. 11 (1.3%)
62.4% of my respondents were male. Is this because the majority of atheists are male? Maybe. It could be that men are more prevalent on Twitter and the other forums where this survey was shared.
Pew research data suggests that women are more likely to be religious than men. After a quick browse through the literature it seems there are two popular theories for why that might be.
The first is the idea that women are more invested in, and reliant on, their communities because they bear the brunt of poverty, illness, old age and violence. Religious scholars contest that women’s vulnerability leads to a sort of existential insecurity. This insecurity means they are more inclined to turn to their community for support and since religions are good at maintaining strong communities women therefore develop greater allegiance to their communities’ religion.
The second explanation up for consideration by religious scholars is that women are less likely to deconvert because they are on average slightly more agreeable than men. This may mean that women will put up with a lot more logical inconsistency in doctrine, compared to men.
There’s no definitive explanation for this gender difference. It’s probably one of those overdetermined effects. But it is weird that religions generally treat women poorly and yet we keep coming back for more.
As we’ll see later, question 2.4 was designed to determine the average ‘strength of belief’ of my respondents’ previous faiths using the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. Despite the reported gender difference in number of religious adherents according to my survey there was no gender difference between my female and male respondents ‘strength of faith’.
1.4 Your country of origin
Total 831 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Top Five Represented Countries
USA. 563 (67.7%)
Canada. 61 (7.3%)
UK. 43 (5.2%)
Poland. 29 (3.5%)
Australia. 26 (3.1%)
Unsurprisingly the majority of my respondents were from the US, with large minorities from Canada, the UK, Poland and Australia. But I have forty-four countries represented in my data with respondents from six of the seven world continents.
1.5 Do you currently believe in any gods?
Total 848 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
No. 832 (98.1%)
Yes. 16 (1.9%)
This was a screening question the options were simply, yes or no. Hopefully any theists would answer honestly so I could, if necessary, exclude them from my data set. Only 16 (1.9%) of respondents said yes, perhaps some of those were accidental.
It’s not that I’m uninterested in the experiences of religious people, but this survey is about those of us who have let go of faith beliefs, not those who are still hanging on.
1.6 Which statement best characterises your involvement with Street Epistemology?
Total 847 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
I’m interested and know a little bit about it. 240 (28.3%)
What is Street Epistemology? 218 (25.7%)
I practice Street Epistemology informally. 138 (16.3%)
I consider it a serious interest. 131 (15.5%)
I’ve heard of it… 104 (12.3%)
I practice Street Epistemology and share my conversations online. 16 (1.9%)
I wanted to know how far Street Epistemology had percolated into the general atheist, humanist and skeptic scene. The answers to this question revealed that almost three quarters of respondents were aware of street epistemology, and over a third practice it. This seemed high until I realised that my data set probably suffers from selection bias. I think SE is cool and so do my friends, so the people I shared this survey with are much more likely to have heard about SE than average, if only because I won’t stop going on about it.
One of the purposes of this survey was to gather data that might make conversations with believers more productive, I hope it will be useful for the SE community as well as anyone curious about the process of letting go of faith beliefs.
Part 2: religious background
2.1 What (if any) religion were you raised in?
Total 846 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Christian. 746 (88.2%)
Other. 51 (6%)
None. 31 (3.7%)
Hinduism. 8 (0.9%)
Islam. 7 (0.8%)
Buddhism. 2 (0.2%)
Neopaganism (including Wicca and Druidry). 1 (0.1%)
The vast majority (88.2%) of people who responded to my survey were raised Christian. In the comments section for this question the vast majority specified that they were Catholic, over three times more than the second runner up: Mormonism.
This surprised me. Most Christians or ex-Christians I know were raised Protestant. But consulting the CIA factbook, I found that Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in the US making up 20.8% of the population. There are more Protestants, but they are split up among many different denominations.
I was glad to also have a few respondents from the other major world religions.
2.2 What (if any) religion did you join?
Total 798 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
None. 391 (49%)
Christian. 349 (43.7%)
Other. 39 (4.9%)
Neopaganism (including Wicca and Druidry). 38 (4.8%)
Buddhism. 13 (1.6%)
Hinduism. 4 (0.5%)
Islam. 1 (0.1%)
Almost half of my respondents (49%) did not join a new religion, of those that did unsurprisingly the majority chose Christianity (43.7%).
In this question I found my people, all 38 of them. I think that’s enough ex-neopagans to start a support group. we’ll meet under the full moon, of course.
2.3 What, if any, paranormal, spiritual or supernatural beliefs did you hold?
Total 729 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
Belief in Life after death. 627 (86%)
Belief in non physical entities. 523 (71.7%)
Belief in supernatural phenomena. 439 (60.2%)
Belief in communication with the dead. 179 (24.6%)
Belief in karma. 138 (18.9%)
Belief in visitation from extraterrestrials. 108 (14.8%)
Belief in legendary creatures unknown to science. 74 (10.2%)
Other. 73 (10%)
Belief in crystal healing. 45 (6.2%)
The most common paranormal, spiritual or supernatural belief that people used to hold was the belief in life after death. Which is unsurprising, since nearly every religion advocates this belief. In fact some have argued that this belief is not only religions major selling point but the reason for its existence. Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous starts with this thesis:
These questions about ‘what happens when you die’… they so freak people out, that they will make up any story and cling to it.
And scholars of religion, such as Ernest Becker, would agree, probably in more rarified language. Religulous was mentioned by several respondents as a ‘resource they used to help address their doubts’ in response to a later question (3.2).
Life after death is supposed to be a comforting belief, but when the believer is most desperate for comfort their belief often flounders. A JAMA study found that patients who reported relying on their religious beliefs to cope with their illnesses were more likely to pursue aggressive medical interventions in the last days of their life. They were not resigned to or welcoming death; they were fighting it.
In the words of Greta Christina from her wonderful book Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God:
Here’s the thing you have to remember about religious beliefs in the afterlife: They’re only comforting if you don’t examine them.
The fear of hell, discussed in question 3.9, could be another contributing factor to the findings of the JAMA study.
The comments beneath a later question (2.8) revealed that many respondents had seen what they thought at the time was a ghost. Ghosts are a good example of something that seems conceptually scary or unpleasant but actually provides comfort and security by suggesting the possibility of life after death. The most touching anecdotes were not about ghouls or white sheets hovering in thin air but of simple beautiful moments:
At the time, I really wanted to believe it was supernatural, but it’s such a stretch. I learned a close friend of mine had died in a car accident … When I was on the phone, a ray of sunlight was shining into the room. I wanted to believe it was a sign she wasn’t gone. — Dana
As Dana says, the desire to believe is incredibly powerful, especially when we lose someone we love. Other respondents echoed her sentiment:
I saw a scarlet tanager shortly after my mother passed away. It’s a shy bird and this one came very close to me. My mother loved song birds. — Jeffrey
On a lighter note, I put ‘cryptids’ on my list of possible paranormal, spiritual or supernatural beliefs. Then I changed it to ‘legendary creatures unknown to science’ when my friend Anthony Magnabosco pointed out that only massive nerds like me know what a ‘cryptid’ is.
The top three cryptids mentioned in the comments were Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and dragons. Bigfoot and Nessie didn’t surprise me (you can always hear them coming) but dragons? That seems strange. Then I remembered most of my respondents are from Christian backgrounds. Bible Study Tool tells me that there are 21 references to dragons in the Old Testament (King James Version).
How do Christians explain all the dragons? I don’t know, but at least some Christians use myths of the sauropod-like Mokele Mbembe of the Congo, the pterodactyl-like Ropen of New Guinea and even Nessie as ‘evidence’ that invalidates evolution. Apparently in Ken Ham’s creationist museum there’s a banner which demands suggestively: ‘Were dragons dinosaurs?’
So, maybe Nessie and other dragons’ popularity is artificially inflated by young earth creationists pushing an agenda. But they still can’t compete with Sasquatch. Nessie, Mokele Mbembe and dragons combined got less than half the mentions of Bigfoot. And mermaids, despite the best efforts of The History Channel, didn’t even come up. Which is odd because if you wanted to invalidate evolution a fish/person hybrid creature would be pretty convenient.
I’ve often wondered why beliefs in the paranormal tend to cluster. In my experience someone who believes in alien abductions is much more likely to believe in psychics, despite there being no obvious connection between the two. Psychologists have observed that belief in one conspiracy theory is a suggestive indicator that someone will believe in another, or even perhaps a contradictory theory.
It could be that certain personality types have affinities for certain ideas and that the belief in aliens and the belief in psychics are more similar than they initially seem. They are, after all, both intriguing unconventional subjects that might attract curious, unconventional believers.
Or perhaps cultures and social bubbles grow up around clusters of interests so those within the bubbles are exposed to other beliefs in the cluster and are encouraged to take them up.
A third possibility is that an underlying epistemology, or method for finding truth, will lead people to certain sets of beliefs. For example, someone who bases all their beliefs on cold hard facts might be more likely to be an engineer, wear practical clothing and enjoy rigorously researched documentaries. Mike suggested a similar epistemological theory:
I think when one wholeheartedly embraces the spirituality of religion, any aspect of the supernatural has to be considered as highly plausible… A person of faith strongly believes that the world of the flesh is engaged in an epic war with the world of the spirit. That is central to their worldview. So the supernatural world is almost a parallel world to their reality, and is likely considered just as legitimate. They have to give complete credence to this world, because that is where “the enemy”, Satan, operates. So every possibility has to be on the table. — Mike
The explanation for these ‘belief clusters’ is probably all of the above and a few other factors Mike and I have never considered.
2.4 The Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire
The next section of the survey was a ten item scale used by scholars of religion to assess the strength of people’s religious beliefs. The Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire asks people if they agree, agree strongly, disagree or disagree strongly with statements like:
- I pray daily.
- My faith is an important part of who I am as a person.
- I enjoy being around others who share my faith.
As with all self-reported data, this is a bit dodgy. It’s made even more so by the fact that I asked my respondents to answer the questions in the past tense. I wanted to know how strong their faith beliefs were, back when they were believers.
Because of our tendency to remember our past beliefs as being much more similar to our present beliefs than they actually were — a phenomenon psychologists refer to as ‘Poor Metacognitive Awareness of Belief Change’ — we might remember being more inclined towards atheism than we were.
So with those caveats, the uninspiring result was a mean average score of 25.9 out of a possible 40. Sociologists find when administering this questionnaire that the average believer ranges from 26 to 33.
My respondents were only 0.1 less religious than average. I think this makes sense; super-religious people tend to stay religious since they’ve got so much invested and not-very-religious people might not bother investigating a faith they don’t take very seriously. Maybe the person of average strength faith is the most likely to deconvert.
2.5 How important were your faith beliefs to your social life?
Total 845 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Important. 300 (35.5%)
Unimportant. 245 (29%)
Essential. 163 (19.3%)
Irrelevant. 137 (16.2%)
54.8% of respondents said that their faith beliefs were essential or important to their social lives. It’s generally thought that religion is good at building strong communities and we know that strong communities are good for people’s overall well-being and happiness providing practical and existential security.
But the comments under this question revealed a dark side to the maintenance of religious communities. Every ‘Us’ has a ‘Them’. And we never judge ‘Them’ kindly:
I didn’t trust anyone that I didn’t have an understanding of their commitment to Jesus. — Brandon
People were restricted from engaging with people outside their religious communities:
I was not allowed to have friendships or relationships outside my own church or belief system. — Phoenix
And many others lived with the constant fear of ostracism if they made a misstep:
If I didn’t ‘play along’, I’d get shunned. Was eventually shunned by my mother, and my entire family and social circle. — Butterfly Nette
Both ostracism and the Us vs Them dynamic were to become a running theme.
2.6 How important were your faith beliefs to your emotional wellbeing?
Total 843 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Important. 370 (43.9%)
Unimportant. 216 (25.6%)
Essential. 152 (18%)
Irrelevant. 105 (12.5%)
61.9% of respondents said that their faith beliefs were essential or important to their emotional well being. Many reported feeling a sense of belonging and comfort in the promise of an afterlife:
They helped soothe me and made me feel safer.— Natalie
But others pointed out a flaw in my question, I didn’t specify whether your emotional wellbeing was affected positively or negatively. Many people felt that their faith beliefs were detrimental to their emotional well-being:
It caused a lot of guilt when I wasn’t measuring up to the standards I needed to as a ‘Christ-follower’. I believed my life needed to be a constant example of a Christian woman 100% of the time. The standards were impossibly high. — Anon
Others experienced excruciating cognitive dissonance trying to hold their doubts and their faith at the same time:
The restrictions and contradictions weighed heavily on me and I wanted to be better ‘in the eyes of the lord’ but of course lying to myself wasn’t good for my well being either. — Devon
The process of letting go of beliefs is fraught with cognitive dissonance. The discomfort of holding contradictory beliefs can only be resolved by avoidance or by dropping one set of beliefs. Avoidance, denial or twisting the facts is the easy way out, but my respondents all took the more courageous route of changing their beliefs to align with reality.
Still, many people realise on reflection what they have lost and resent their former religion for the cruel trick it played on them:
I actually didn’t think it was important until I lost it, and become quite bitter and angry about most of the teachings, for quite some time. — Anon
My beliefs created the anxiety and insecurity but also provided the ‘answer’ to them. They then created a God-shaped hole in my life and my identity. — Anon
2.7 How important were your faith beliefs to your overall worldview?
Total 841 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Important. 330 (39.2%)
Essential. 257 (30.6%)
Unimportant. 174 (20.7%)
Irrelevant. 80 (9.5%)
69.8% of my respondents said that their faith beliefs were essential or important to their overall worldview.
A few people asked what exactly I meant by ‘overall worldview’ and, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I think I was trying to ask how important faith beliefs were to people’s general perspective and attitude to life which influences their morality, values, politics, personal relationships… you know, everything.
The fact that so many people recognised their faith beliefs had influenced their ‘worldview’ suggests the common idea that religious beliefs are personal and should not be challenged or even discussed in polite company is mistaken. In the comments I heard people describe how their faith beliefs had affected every aspect of their lives, how they voted, how they understood science, who they married and how they treated other people.
Several respondents mentioned that their faith beliefs inspired them to get involved in various charities:
I was involved with Christian activism — promoting Fairtrade and campaigns led by Christian groups & charities. — Suzi
While others explained that their conception of altruism was entirely shaped by the teachings of their religion:
I used to believe that people ‘did good deeds’ because they were Christian, and the reason I wanted to ‘do good deeds’ was because of what I learned from the bible and the teachings of Jesus. — Anon
Unfortunately many respondents faith beliefs lead them to eschew charity, or indeed caring very much about anything at all:
Looking back now, I can see that I was satisfied believing that things are ‘supposed to’ be a certain way, so I didn’t do much to change them. — Bridget
An anonymous respondent characterised their past beliefs as:
Nothing that man does matters because all will be destroyed come judgement day. — Anon
People recalled how their political positions and understanding of science were shaped by their faith beliefs and how this influenced their choices:
Almost all my political beliefs and voting decisions were informed by my religious beliefs. — Tim
I adopted Young Earth Creationism based on my faith, which shut me out of a career in science. — Mitchell
For me the most concerning comments people made about this question were the ones that demonstrated how the respondents’ faith beliefs had encouraged them to see humanity in terms of Us and Them. As Mark succinctly puts it:
It was kind of a us versus them deal. — Mark
This is an unsurprising phenomenon. Humans are tribal primates and we often fall into the trap of thinking this way based on all manner of convictions, not just religious ones. Thinking of people who don’t agree with us as somehow ‘other’ helps us deal with the cognitive dissonance provoked by their annoyingly different, perhaps scary ideas. It allows us to ignore people but also often leads to dehumanisation as this anonymous commenter hints at:
I believed christianity was right and all others were stupid cavemen. — Anon
This could be one of the most fundamental and dangerous aspects of certain faith beliefs. Psychologists believe that dehumanising the ‘other’ can lead to or accompany indifference to their concerns, cruelty and, in extreme circumstances, violence.
Since beliefs have such far reaching implications, I’m not sure it makes sense to think of them as personal. Although it’s obviously important to treat people who hold these beliefs with respect, refraining from even talking about other people’s beliefs means we never address the defining factor in many people’s worldview.
2.8 Have you ever had an experience that at the time you characterised as spiritual, mystical or supernatural?
Total 837 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
No. 365 (43.6%)
Yes, and it strengthened my faith beliefs. 270 (32.3%)
Yes, but it did not contribute to my faith beliefs. 110 (13.1%)
Yes, and it was vital to my faith beliefs. 74 (8.8%)
Yes, and it contradicted my faith beliefs. 18 (2.2%)
The parapsychologist Harvey Irwin estimates based on existing literature that about 50% of the population hold supernatural beliefs. In one Gallup poll 71% of Americans surveyed reported having had a paranormal experience. 56.4% of my respondents reported having an experience which they, at the time, characterised as spiritual, mystical or supernatural.
The majority of people who had had such an experience said it strengthened their existing faith beliefs. This makes sense, when we are invested in a certain set of beliefs we inadvertently try to interpret everything as at worst not contradicting our beliefs and at best confirming them. That’s what psychologists call confirmation bias; the tendency to notice and remember things that support your beliefs and ignore or disregard contrary evidence.
I wish I’d thought to include the option ‘Yes, that’s what initiated my faith beliefs’. No-one indicated this in the comments, but I’m sure for some people an unusual experience is the thing that inspires them to believe i the first place.
One very common experience that people mentioned in the comments was sleep paralysis. Seven respondents mentioned the phenomena by name and several others describe an experience that sounds very similar. Sleep paralysis came in just behind ghosts and ‘experiencing the presence of God’ as the most common seemingly supernatural occurrence. Julian’s account is typical:
I woke up and couldn’t move. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest and I was SURE it was the ghost of my cousin’s grandmother (we were staying at her house, I never met her). I’ve since learned this is a common phenomenon. — Julian
Sleep paralysis, sometimes referred to as ‘Old Hag Syndrome’, is a strange parasomnia that happens when your brain is in a state of local sleep. Your body is still paralysed as it would be when you are asleep to prevent you from acting out your dreams and your mind is still generating dream imagery… but you are conscious and aware of your surroundings. People from different cultures see different assailants (sometimes an old hag, sometimes a shadowy figure, sometimes a monster) but rarely a benevolent creature. This is not surprising, waking up and being unable to move is terrifying, any vision our brain conjures up is likely to be scary. According to researchers 7.6% of people report having at least one incident of sleep paralysis in their life-time, that percentage rises to 28.3% for students and 32.9% for psychiatric patients it’s thought that some people have genetic predispositions to this parasomnia which are exacerbated by stress and poor sleep hygiene.
If you suffer from this parasomnia the recommended advice is to sleep on your side, don’t drink alcohol before bedtime and try to sleep somewhere quiet where you will be undisturbed.
This sort of information and advice could have really helped Julie after a traumatic experience as a child:
I saw a very frightening apparition when I was four-years-old in my house. That experience left me with lifelong insomnia and the beginnings of an anxiety disorder. However, I now know my symptoms from that night match sleep paralysis perfectly. — Julie
We’ve already briefly touched on ghosts so I’ll move on to the other seemingly supernatural experience that made the top three. Whether you call it being ‘slain in the spirit’, Pīti, Wajad or samādhi the feeling of losing yourself in something bigger as your body tingles melts or burns is a common human experience and can be terrifying or intoxicating. Vinny described it like this:
Still don’t have an answer for it: A pastor prayed over me to receive the indwelling of the spirit. I felt a warmth begin in my belly that radiated upward and out my mouth. Only truly supernatural/unexplained event in my life. — Vinny
And an anonymous respondent recounts a similar experience:
After hours of fasting and prayer, I heard a voice that I believed at the time was god. I also used to feel a full-body tingling during meditation and prayer, and could walk around for hours feeling that tingling, feeling as though my awareness to my surroundings was heightened. The full-body tingling happened more than 100 times in my life. — Anon
I couldn’t find much commentary on this experience from Christian sources beyond the interpretation of it as experiencing the presence of God, but the Buddhists were more helpful. They describe five stages of Pīti:
- Weak rapture only causes goosebumps.
- Short rapture evokes some thunder ‘from time to time’.
- Going down rapture explodes inside the body, like waves.
- Exalting rapture ‘makes the body jump to the sky’.
- Fulfilling rapture seems to be a huge flood of a mountain stream.
I don’t know what’s going on in the brain when we have these experiences. They sound a bit like the trance-like euphoria BDSM practitioners call subspace that they think is produced by a rush of adrenaline and endorphins. This experience may predate religion. Primatologist Jane Goodall believes she’s witnessed chimps experiencing something similar while staring at waterfalls, which leads me to wonder if our pre-human ancestors did too. Whatever the explanation for this state or states it sounds like it could be fun to enter into, in a secular context.
Part 3: doubts
3.1 At what age did you begin questioning your faith beliefs?
Total 843 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Under 18. 373 (44.1%)
18–24. 200 (23.7%)
25–39. 190 (22.5%)
40–60. 80 (9.5%)
60+. 0 (0%)
None of my respondents were over sixty when they began questioning their faith beliefs. Maybe this supports the ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ hypothesis or it could be an artifact of how I gathered this data. Maybe older people are less likely to respond to an internet survey or less likely to be in the social media spheres where this one was circulated.
The fact that 44.1% of respondents started having doubts when they were under 18 suggests we should be supporting and encouraging young people to explore their faith beliefs critically. Especially, as the comments underneath other questions indicated, they are often not receiving this sort of encouragement from within their faith communities.
3.2 Did you use any resources to help you address your doubts?
Total 773 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
Books. 510 (66%)
YouTube. 352 (45.5%)
Websites. 331 (42.8%)
Documentaries. 268 (34.7%)
Podcasts. 254 (32.9%)
Other. 219 (28.3%)
Social Media. 216 (27.9%)
Blogs. 172 (22.3%)
Books were the most popular response with 66% of respondents saying they helped them to address their doubts. Books have been around a lot longer than all of the other options suggested, so this may skew the results unfairly in literature’s favour. Many respondents commented that they began questioning their faith beliefs before podcasts, YouTube or even the internet existed.
The fact that internet-based resources combined out-compete books indicates the rapid spread of atheism in the last twenty years. Just as the printing press motivated the scientific enlightenment the internet has given people tools to research, and overturn their faith beliefs which previously were hard to find.
I was surprised to see YouTube so close behind books in second place with 45.5% of my respondents looking to the Tubes to address their doubts. Considering YouTube has only been around since 2005 that is very impressive and suggests YouTube is an important platform for advocacy and support.
From the comments beneath this question I noted the most popular books people mentioned that helped address their doubts, I don’t think they will surprise you:
- God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
- The End of Faith by Sam Harris
But according to my respondents the book most likely to provoke its readers to reject their faith beliefs and become atheists is… The Bible.
As Justin recounts:
As I started reading the bible more and trying to understand it, I started to understand inconsistencies and hypocrisies. I started to study other religions and realized that there are such a wide variety of beliefs and practices out there: how could a religion from the middle east apply to peoples in the andes? In addition I observed and better understood the hypocrisy that I witnessed in christians. It was sort of a natural progression of realization that religion was unnecessary and false. — Justin
Other holy texts were mentioned. The Book of Mormon and The Quran were runners-up in the ‘holy books that inspire atheism category’ for the same reasons Justin articulated.
Even though there were only two mentions of it, I’ll add Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs to the ‘Make Me An Atheist’ reading list. It’s one of my personal favourites and provides the usual critique of religion and some suggestions for a secular philosophy and practice.
3.3 Did you speak to anyone about your doubts?
Total 844 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Yes, a few confidants. 347 (41.1%)
No. 217 (25.7%)
Yes, my family and friends. 141 (16.7%)
Yes, everyone! 79 (9.4%)
Yes, but only anonymously online. 51 (6%)
Yes, through an organisation devoted to helping people in the process of reevaluating beliefs. 9 (1.1%)
Only 9.4% of respondents were confident enough to talk to everybody about their doubts, but the majority (74.3%) had someone to talk to, which is good news and I suspect a massive improvement compared to previous generations.
That said, I can’t help but worry about that sizeable minority (25.7%) who had to go through it alone. If you are one of them, I hope you are able to reach out eventually even if only anonymously online. Maybe the fact that there are other people questioning their faith beliefs who are unable to speak up will inspire you to try reaching out, or at least offer you comfort that you are not the only one going through this process alone. You are not alone in feeling alone, weird, huh?
A great resource that is obviously not as well known as it should be is Recovering From Religion, they offer guidance, peer support and secular counselling to help people who are questioning their beliefs. Only 1.1% reported reaching out to an organisation like RFR, which I think should inspire us to promote and support their work so more people can benefit from their expertise.
3.4 Were there any non-faith beliefs that changed as a result of questioning your faith beliefs?
Total 838 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
Yes, my philosophical beliefs changed. 509 (60.7%)
Yes, my social and cultural beliefs changed. 491 (58.6%)
Yes, my ethical and moral beliefs changed. 480 (57.3%)
Yes, my political beliefs changed. 369 (44%)
No. 173 (20.6%)
Yes, other beliefs changed. 81 (9.7%)
Considering how integral peoples faith beliefs are to their overall worldview it’s unsurprising that 79.4% of my respondents reported that changing their faith beliefs had knock-on effects for their political, ethical, cultural, philosophical and other beliefs. As Mark says:
Everything changed. — Mark
A couple of people commented that for them the arrow of causality went the other way, that questioning their beliefs about social issues or even the paranormal eventually lead them to question their religious beliefs:
In fact I think it was the other way around for me. My changing opinions about politics, society, sexuality, etc are what eventually led to my lack of faith, because everything contradicted religious teachings.— Justin
I should have thought of this when designing the survey because that’s exactly what happened to me!
This raises the same question I considered before about belief clusters from a different angle… why do clustered beliefs rise and fall together? Some of my respondents were drawn to the epistemological hypothesis, once they changed how they assessed knowledge all beliefs reached by the unreliable epistemology in Karen’s words: “fell like dominoes.”
All beliefs became irrelevant, without evidence a belief held no meaning. — Ivan
How I think in general changed! — Anon
Others felt like letting go of their faith beliefs allowed them to shrug off apathy and judgmental attitudes:
I was raised to be homophobic and anti semitic by the cult. When I left I realised how fucked up that was.— Anon
Making this life better for myself and others became much more important when I abandoned faith in an afterlife. — Patrick
I went from a ‘everything happens for a reason/according to plan’ worldview that was very passive and non-judgmental to a ‘nothing happens for a reason, there is no plan, this is our only chance, we are the arbiters of justice and morality’ view. It drastically made me take more responsibility for myself, my life, my choices. — Anon
Less dramatic changes included Paige’s change of heart regarding the word Christianity:
Going from xtianity to atheism changed my spelling of particular words too. — Paige
3.5 If you raised them how did the majority of your family and wider community respond to your doubts?
Total 731 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
They were willing to discuss my doubts. 260 (35.6%)
They were unwilling to discuss my doubts. 234 (32%)
They were dismissive and hostile. 209 (28.6%)
They were encouraging and interested. 28 (3.8%)
60.6% found people unwilling or actively hostile when they raised their doubts. This is again, not surprising, but sad. When we voice our doubts about faith beliefs people will inevitably feel defensive and/or concerned about our spiritual health. This can lead them to react dismissively, hostilely or to shut down altogether. Luckily there are organisations like Recovering From Religion and spaces online where you can explore your questions openly.
If you do feel it’s important to speak about your doubts to people your life who are not initially receptive, be gentle with them and yourself and try to only take responsibility for your own conduct. I’ve found investing yourself in what other people think or say or feeling you are responsible for their beliefs is a recipe for disappointment. A useful book for people figuring out how to talk about their religious doubts is Greta Christina’s Coming Out Atheist.
3.6 Roughly how long did the process of examination (from initial doubts to eventual letting go) take?
Total 844 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
A year or more. 296 (35.1%)
Less than a year. 207 (24.5%)
5 years or more. 182 (21.6%)
10 years or more. 95 (11.3%)
20 years or more. 64 (7.6%)
The majority of respondents (59.6%) reported that the process of letting go took up to five years which, I guess, depending on your perspective is an eternity or a blink of an eye. Keeping this figure in mind might help atheist activists set realistic expectations: we shouldn’t expect someone to give up their faith beliefs overnight, we should expect the process to take up to five years on average.
Only 7.6% said it took them twenty years or more, I’m impressed by these people. Letting go is an uncomfortable process I’m not sure I could have endured it for that long.
3.7 Was there a particular event which provoked you to begin questioning your faith beliefs?
Total 837 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
It was a bunch of things, nothing specific. 419 (50.1%)
Yes. 338 (40.4%)
No. 80 (9.6%)
40.4% of respondents that said there was a specific event that triggered their first doubts, they described these experiences in the comment section below the question. Many people said the event that started them questioning was spotting inconsistencies, illogic or immorality in their religious texts. This reminded me of a comment the podcaster Brian Thompson once made about why he became an atheist he said something like:
Because I’m a nerd! I didn’t just read The Lord of The Rings, I read the Silmarillion. And I didn’t just go along to church, I read the Bible… carefully.
Another common thought provoking experience was a conversation with a friend who asked interesting questions. No-one reported starting to question their faith beliefs because an angry atheist yelled at them but many said that a few friendly questions got them thinking. This suggests that we should be gentle and curious with believers and learn how to ask good questions. A great resource for this is the Street Epistemology community.
Religious people themselves, just like their texts, are inspiring people to start questioning their faith beliefs. Many respondents listed cruel, corrupt or abusive behaviour by people in their faith community as a catalyst for their doubts:
The case study completed by the Australian Royal Commision into Jehovah’s Witnesses and their cover-up of child sexual abuse. — Maximus
The leader of the church was indicted for fraud. — Jessica
I was listening to my pastor put down LGBTQ+ people and just thought: Is this really necessary? This is a bit much. Can’t people just be free to express themselves? — Christopher
As a philosophy nerd I recognised The Problem of Evil rear its ugly head in many of the comments. A few people simply named it while others described situations that had lead them to considering this classical philosophical problem: If God is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful how come evil exists? Why, if he knows suffering is happening, cares about us and has the ability to help us does God allow babies to die in agony, natural disasters to cause devastation and people to be born with conditions that will torture them their whole lives? As Mark simply puts it:
The last straw was the suffering. — Mark
The suffering people described was either horrifically large scale or poignantly personal:
My doubts started when I found out that China had been harvesting organs of a large group of nonviolent people of the Falun Gong faith. It shook me to my core I was sick for days mentally and physically.it was like a slap in the face that woke me up, like a flood gate of harsh reality. ” — Mary
When a gunman shot a classroom of small children, I knew there was no god and if there was, he was useless. — Barbara
9/11 was a wake up call — LB2KOOL
LB2KOOL was not alone in mentioning the events of September 11th 2001. But it was the more personal accounts that really moved me:
A good friend, very religious, who worked with autistic students, died in a car wreck coming home from working with a kid. — Amanda
The kid next door shot a hummingbird in our yard with a BB gun. I remember holding this bird as the life drained out of it, the blood coating its jewelled feathers. I prayed so hard for this little bird to be saved. That’s when the seed of doubt was planted.— Teresa
My dog died. — Anon
The last trend I noticed when looking at these responses was people reporting that it was an encounter with other religions that made them question their own faith beliefs:
As a Christian, I felt ‘a calling to witness to Muslims’ so I decided to read the Koran. While reading the Koran I thought ‘This book is all bullcrap, how can anyone base their life on this?’ Then, though I had read the Bible over 30 times, the next time I read the Bible I similarly realized ‘This is all bullcrap, how can anyone base their life on this?’ I was devastated and started a quest of gathering information. Every stone I turned over pushed me further and further away. — Max
This demonstrates the power of what the philosopher John Loftus calls ‘The Outsider Test for Faith’ he suggests because any believer must admit that their faith beliefs are dependant on their upbringing and geographic location we should examine our beliefs as if we were not brought up in our own culture, but as if we were ‘an outsider’. This is exactly what one anonymous respondent reports doing:
I pondered a simple question, ‘what if I had been born in a country whose cultural religion was different from my current one? — Anon
To inspire thinking about faith beliefs as an outsider Street Epistemologists recommend asking yourself, or someone else: ‘If the reasons you provide for believing in your God are identical to the reasons someone from another faith gives for believing in their God or Gods, how do you determine that you are right and they are mistaken?’.
3.8 Was there a particular big question or problem with your beliefs that troubled you first?
Total 831 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Yes, it was a classic philosophical problem. 385 (46.3%)
No. 275 (33.1%)
Yes, it was a personal problem. 171 (20.6%)
46.3% of respondents said that the first big question or problem they started thinking about was a classic philosophical problem. I was surprised at this, I guess there are more philosophy nerds out there than I thought or perhaps people involved in atheist, humanist and skeptic circles online are more likely to think in abstract philosophical terms.
Overwhelmingly the philosophical problem that they described was the one I discussed in the last question which Jerry referred to as ‘the good old problem of evil.’ They asked:
If god created everything, and god is good, why is there evil…can pure goodness create evil? Even so, why is evil allowed to continue? — Seth
If God is good, is he unable? Or just deaf? What good is a God that doesn’t answer prayers and lets innocents die— Anon
A few other philosophical questions came up in the comments:
If God made the universe, who made God?
(Known by philosophers as ‘The Problem of the Creator of God’.)
How can we have free will if God knows our future actions?
(As much as I’d like to, we really don’t have time to get into the free will question here, but it is an interesting problem to consider.)
If God exists, and is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, all reasonable people should agree on his existence. So why are there are reasonable non-believers?
(Some philosophers conclude that because there are reasonable non-believers God, as defined here, cannot exist. This is referred to as the ‘Argument From Divine Hiddenness’.)
These are old questions that philosophers and theologians have argued about for centuries but to those in the process of letting go they feel fresh, relevant, very personal and vitally important.
3.9 What did you imagine the ‘worst case scenario’ might be if you let go of your faith beliefs?
Total 791 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
I would lose my connection to my close family. 395 (49.9%)
Other. 250 (31.6%)
I would be ostracised by my community. 243 (30.7%)
I would lose my sense of meaning and purpose. 230 (29.1%)
I would lose income or career. 51 (6.4%)
The most common ‘worst case scenario’ my respondents anticipated was losing the connection to their close family (49.9%) with 30.7% expressing a fear of being ostracised by their community. Many religions threaten doubting adherents with disconnection from their community and the people they love. Reading through the comments I learned many different words for this practice:
Expulsion (Jehovah’s Witnesses)
Disfellowshipping (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism)
All these terms equate to banishment from community and communion with the divine. Many holy books support this practice of ostracising unbelievers, or those who do not conform to the religious doctrines of the group. As in this passage from The Bible:
11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.
12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?
13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.
The threat of banishment works well at enforcing group loyalty. For our ancestors ostracism meant expulsion from your tribe to manage alone in a hostile environment. Banished people often ended up dead. So those willing to conform or rightly wary of banishment were more likely to survive and pass on their genetic material. We are mostly descended from those who are happy to go along with the crowd or those who are too scared to speak up leading many to suffer from an exaggerated Fear of Negative Evaluation. Banishment no longer means death, but it is still a very serious threat, which is why religions wield it over their communities. This means many never reveal their doubts to even their closest family:
I have no idea how my family would take it and don’t care to find out — July
I loved my family, still do, the thought that they would reject me, especially if I would not be able to see my grandkids any more was very emotionally hard for me. — Anon
Some find that their fears are not warranted:
(I feared voicing my doubts) would strain my relation to my wife who keeps a strong, if not practising, faith. Fortunately, it did not happen. She has accepted me as I am now. — Anon
Once some people realise the cruelty of the implied threat of banishment it can provoke them to shed the last vestiges of their belief quicker. When your religion says ‘our way or the highway’ some doubters are inclined to reply ‘well, screw you for making me choose’ and take their chances on the highway:
I WAS ostracized and I met better people as a result. Such as my wife. — Christopher
The fact I didn’t think to put ‘hell’ on the list of possible worst case scenarios demonstrates my limitations as someone brought up in a secular household trying to comprehend the experience of people indoctrinated with religious ideas from birth.
In the comments under this question I read, the word ‘hell’ once and thought: that’s odd. Was the person thinking ‘I better keep believing in hell, or I’ll go to hell’?
Then I scrolled down and read that word again and again, and again and I started to get it:
I would be wrong, God was real, and I was going to hell. — Envy
I would burn for all eternity in a lake of fire, tormented by demons — Anon
I have a massive fear of hell and eternal punishment that I see a therapist about.— Heather
In this life religions make us fear banishment and then they invent a whole other realm to threaten us with after we die. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it feels like to fear hell in the way so many of my respondents did, but reading these responses broke my heart and when I put it back together, I found it was furious.
3.10 Were you tempted to stop questioning your faith beliefs?
Total 836 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
No. 464 (55.5%)
Yes, but I don’t think I could have. 189 (22.6%)
Yes, but I persevered with my questioning. 135 (16.1%)
Yes, I almost did. 48 (5.7%)
When you begin doubting your faith beliefs for many of us it’s like a one way ratchet, some questions cannot be unasked, even when we sense the answers will change our lives in unimaginable ways. As Wally said ‘some thoughts you really just can’t unthink.’ 55.5% of my respondents said they were not tempted to stop while 22.6% said they were tempted, but don’t think they could have stopped the process once it had begun.
The temptation is understandable, this process is hard and it’s made harder by those who wish to prevent us from asking uncomfortable questions:
Questioning my beliefs was considered blasphemous so it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. — Phil
But the longing for truth is powerful:
I was in search of the truth. That led me to question my beliefs. I wouldn’t want to believe something that wasn’t true. I couldn’t believe something I knew wasn’t true. — Christine
My desire to know the truth outweighed my fears. — Marilyn
Of course we can never know how many believers have doubts and either resolve or repress them and carry on believing.
3.11 During the process of questioning your faith beliefs did you experience mental health issues?
Total 835 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
No. 454 (54.4%)
Yes, but my mental health issues are unrelated to my faith beliefs (or lack thereof). 115 (13.8%)
Yes, but questioning my faith beliefs helped me work through my mental health issues. 88 (10.5%)
Yes, my mental health issues intensified during this process. 76 (9.1%)
Yes, as a result of questioning my faith beliefs. 61 (7.3%)
Yes, as a result of people’s responses to my doubts. 41 (4.9%)
Almost half (45.6%) of my respondents experienced mental health issues during the process of letting go. In the comments the most commonly reported conditions are anxiety and depression, this makes sense; mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain and probably worldwide. It’s hard to assess your own mental health objectively but only 7.3% think their mental health issues were directly provoked by the questioning of their faith beliefs. It seems most people think the pressure of letting go of their beliefs exacerbated an underlying problem rather than causing one, as HS reports:
I suffer from anxiety and it was surely heightened during the time I was disconnecting emotionally from the church. — HS
10.5% of respondents said that questioning their faith beliefs helped them work through their mental health issues:
I finally realized that I wasn’t crazy for doubting my faith. — Aisha
The old, subtle, perpetual sub-currents of religious anxiety, guilt, and frustration instantly evaporated when I became an atheist. I finally had peace. I no longer had to figure out God’s plan for my life, or how he was punishing/rewarding me, etc. — Ryan
While this anonymous respondent finally saw his struggles for what they were once he’d abandoned his faith, and hopefully now has a chance at getting better:
I have combat PTSD and while I was in the faith I was told I could simply pray away the ptsd and night terrors, because I couldn’t I was looked down upon and almost took my own life because I felt I wasn’t strong enough. — Anon
Many people recounted struggling with a profound feeling of loss and disillusionment during this time:
I felt like I lost a huge part of me. I felt lost. I didn’t have prayer for support or comfort. I found myself praying out of habit. I didn’t realize how often I ‘talked’ to god. I lost my best friend when I realized it was all B.S. — Diane
Losing my comfort safety net was mentally and emotionally unpleasant, and as a teen, I had no other answers for what morality or justice meant without a God nor any idea of how to figure those answers out. Some training in ethics and philosophy would’ve greatly helped. — Christine
When your whole world revolves around a belief of something you can’t touch see or smell it has a profound effect on your own mental stability! When you walk away from that, you’re left empty. Religion is a magical fantasy world full of strange rituals, brainwashing/reprogramming, fear-mongering, guilting others into submission, shaming and lies… how can this not affect your mental state? I’m still recovering from the abuse.— Mary
The answers to this question highlight again the importance of organisations like Recovering from Religion. I hope anyone currently struggling with mental health issues can take comfort from knowing there are people who have survived these challenges many of whom would love to help you do the same.
Part 4: resolution
4.1 Has letting go of faith beliefs changed any of your personal relationships?
Total 830 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Yes, it’s been difficult but overall for the best. 217 (26.1%)
No. 210 (25.3%)
Yes, I’ve had to walk away from some relationships. 154 (18.6%)
Yes, all of them, for the better. 105 (12.7%)
Yes, I’ve been rejected by people I was close to. 73 (8.8%)
Yes, I’ve lost people I was close to. 71 (8.8%)
26.1% of my respondents said ‘yes, it’s been difficult, but overall for the best’ which is only slightly more than the 25.3% of people who reported that letting go of their faith beliefs had not changed any of their personal relationships at all. It seems most of us have found ways to connect and appreciate the people in our lives who still hold the faith beliefs we’ve let go of:
With almost all of my family, it is better to not broach the topic of my non belief. I still love them, and they still love me. And time has shown it is more important that we ignore our differences so that we can still be in each other’s lives. — Anon
As we saw in a question 3.9, fear of ostracisation is high but only 8.8% respondents actually experienced it. That seems like a positive response but we must consider the potential selection bias at work here: perhaps those who correctly assess their chances of being ostracised as high are less likely to reveal their doubts. The few in that 8.8% had some tragic stories:
I recently broke up with my fiancé who is Muslim. Her family won’t allow her to marry a non Muslim. I am still heart broken. We went through miscarriages but her faith was important to her too. — Hech
I lost EVERYONE except my family. I lost my marriage and all my friends, as well as my community. I don’t regret it though. The people who really cared about me stuck with me. The ones who didn’t, good riddance to ‘em.— Captain Cassidy
But thankfully Cecilia’s milder experience seems more typical:
I got the ‘stink eye’ at family gatherings. — Cecilia
Perhaps because of the fear of ostracism, many respondents are keeping quiet about their doubts. But many of those who have spoken openly to friends and family have found that their honesty enriched the relationships:
Most relationships are better because I’m more authentically myself and I found out far more of my friends were atheist than I could’ve imagined. Many people did abandon me, but that was easy for me to accept since they were not authentic friends in the end anyway. — Robb
The majority of my relationships were unaffected by my rejection of faith, and I feel like many of them became better because I was able to be more honest about myself and about what I thought. — Corinna
My believing friends and family are more awkward around me, but I’m more comfortable around them now because I can be honest. My wife tried to reconvert me and left her faith in the process. It has brought us even closer together.— Mitchell
These respondents described how being honest improved their relationships with others, but I’m sure they’d all agree that another benefit of honesty is getting to know yourself better. After-all you can’t be honest about your beliefs if you’re not really sure what they are or why you hold them. That’s part of the process of letting go: thinking carefully about what you believe, figuring out what your beliefs are, then standing up for them.
4.2 Do you think you are ‘better off’ or ‘worse off’ without your faith beliefs?
Total 837 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Much better off. 706 (84.2%)
Somewhat better off. 85 (10.1%)
No. 32 (3.8%)
Somewhat worse off. 14 (1.7%)
I guess it won’t surprise you that the majority of people (94.3%) involved in the atheist, humanist and skeptic communities online feel like they are ‘better off’ without their faith beliefs. 84.2% selected ‘much better off’ and many commented beneath that even this is an understatement. Only 1.7% of respondents described themselves as ‘somewhat worse off’ and not a single individual selected ‘much worse off’.
Most commenters celebrated a feeling of freedom and release:
The truth has set me free… — John
I live my life for myself and the people around me now. No time to waste! — Darwin Phish
Losing my faith was the single most liberating experience of my life— William
Many specified that the relief was from their own psychological discomfort:
My worldview is no longer at odds with the world as I perceive it.— Sebastian
The mental relief of letting go of cognitive dissonance was profound. I liken it to trying to keep spinning plates from falling. As soon as I let them fall rather than be devastated I was relieved with a new sense of freedom. I could explore my curiosity wherever it led me without reservation. — Graceful Atheist
Beneath the simple joy of freedom, a few commentators expressed ambivalence about their journey, perfectly summed up by this anonymous respondent:
Ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power.— Anon
4.3 Do you think your personality has changed as a result of letting go of faith beliefs?
Total 834 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Yes, a little. 382 (45.8%)
Yes, dramatically. 260 (31.2%)
No. 192 (23%)
77% of respondents reported that letting go of their faith beliefs had resulted in a change of personality. The comments mostly revealed positive shifts, an increase in compassion, happiness and a decrease in ‘judgmentalness’ were the most commonly reported positive changes:
I can look at social issues honestly and with much more compassion for others. — Anon
I’m less judgmental. I’m happier. I cherish every moment now since there’s no afterlife. These few decades are all I’ve got. — Ryan
Although it can be hard to be objective about our own personalities as Eli hints at:
My wife says I’m much happier, go figure.— Eli
Many of the women who commented on this question felt that letting go of their faith beliefs was empowering and made them more comfortable being themselves:
As a woman, I feel freer to be myself and not feel pressure to be submissive or ‘feminine’ which is contradictory to my natural personality. — Ali
I finally feel free to be the person I really am, no longer trying to quash the parts of my personality that weren’t in line with idealized female traits. — Rachel
I found Ali and Rachel’s comments really moving. I’m so happy that they are able to live their lives on their own terms now and they reminded me how important atheist activism is, particularly for women.
We atheists, humanists and skeptics are a self-aware lot. Some respondents noted that despite the overall positive nature of the changes they’d noticed some negative side effects:
Perhaps my cynicism shines a little more? — Trish
I’m happier, and probably a little arrogant. — Kenny
This suggests that while we extoll the benefits of increased compassion, happiness and tolerance we should be careful not to overlook the possibility of negative changes. Arrogance and cynicism must be the traits we atheists are most often accused of, so to be better advocates, and happier human beings, we’ll have to work together to try and find antidotes to both. I suggest spending more time staring up at the stars. It makes me feel profoundly ignorant and small and fills me with a sense of awe and beauty that quells my cynicism for minutes at a time.
Or you could try dancing naked in the woods, as an ex-witch that’s my answer to everything.
4.4 Has the way in which you approach new ideas changed since letting go of your faith beliefs?
Total 833 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Yes, dramatically. 467 (56.1%)
Yes, a little. 221 (26.5%)
No. 145 (17.4%)
82.6% of my respondents feel that letting go of their faith beliefs has changed the way they think about new ideas. I included this question because I thought it was likely that a change in the way you think about ideas would inevitably correlate with letting go of faith beliefs. Although which comes first would be hard to determine.
My journey started when I started thinking critically about the claims of a colleague that there was some nefarious reason for putting fluoride in the Sydney water supply. It lead me to online skepticism and slowly but surely my approach to new ideas changed. I started reevaluating my old ideas until I eventually worked my way around to applying my new-found critical thinking skills to my own religion. As Jerry, in response to this question, simply stated ‘skepticism, baby!’ I’m sure this is how it works for many of us, once we’ve discovered a new method for assessing truth we can’t help but apply it to every new idea that comes our way.
There were lots of skeptics with similar stories:
Before I felt I had to ‘gird my loins’ to battle any idea different from mine. I don’t have to accept all new ideas, but I can listen and understand where they are coming from instead of being automatically defensive lest they insult my own beliefs.— AC
I’m far more skeptical than I used to be, and far more willing to acknowledge that I could be wrong. — Tim
And one echoing Jerry:
Scientific method, baby. — Cyd
I discovered Street Epistemology a bit later in my journey, but many of my respondents credit the SE method — carefully examining your beliefs and asking yourself why you hold them — as integral to their transformation and an essential tool for assessing new ideas.
4.5 How do you interact with people who retain faith beliefs?
Total 837 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this was a multiple choice question)
I ask the odd question if I get the opportunity. 421 (50.3%)
I avoid the subject. 291 (34.8%)
I use Street Epistemology to discuss faith beliefs. 195 (23.3%)
I can’t help it! I make snarky comments. 140 (16.7%)
I challenge them whenever I can. 122 (14.6%)
Other. 114 (13.6%)
I pretend to share their faith beliefs. 52 (6.2%)
The most common response at 50.3% was ‘I ask the odd question if I get the opportunity’. The runner-up was ‘I avoid the subject’ (34.8%) with ‘using SE’ (23.3%) coming in third. I hope most of the people avoiding the subject are not in Rigo’s situation:
I’m surrounded and alone. I have to play the game. And I hate it. — Rigo
Many respondents pointed out that their approach depended on the situation and the person they were talking to, which is good to hear!
Perhaps those who are asking the odd question could benefit from learning how to make those questions count by watching a few SEers in action. Seems like these respondents are on the right track:
I am curious so I ask about their thought processes. — Anon
If someone is open to small talk about the subjects I will ask questions… mostly the ‘why’ kind. — fullajoy365
I will admit I have been snarky or sarcastic as I was finding my way out of the belief. It did not go well. I’m so glad I stumbled upon Mr A.M. (Anthony Magnabosco) and SE as this has helped me greatly to interact in a more respectful and engaging way whilst helping them to look at their beliefs in a different way.— tourtoise
Many respondents were affronted at the suggestion that they might pretend to hold faith beliefs that they don’t ascribe to:
Varies widely. But I NEVER EVER fake it. — Michael
I refuse to pretend to be anything I am not to protect their illusions. — Anon
Let’s hope all of us, especially Rigo, will one day be able to say the same.
Some respondents from the 16.7% who admitted to sometimes indulging in a snarky comment spoke up in defence of snark especially on social media, whilst Kendra reminded us ‘Snarky is in the eye of the beholder’.
4.6 Is there anything in your life now that would never have happened if you’d retained your faith beliefs?
Total 826 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Yes, my life is dramatically different. 306 (37%)
Yes, there are one or two things in my life that I never would have expected before I discarded my faith beliefs. 262 (31.7%)
No. 258 (31.2%)
68.8% of my respondents answered ‘yes’, and Natalia answered simply ‘I’m happy’.
Letting go of beliefs seems to have been profoundly healing and empowering for some:
I suffered from childhood trauma. Discarding my faith beliefs gave me the strength and opportunity to leave toxic connections behind. — Teresa
Whereas others are now happily enjoying the simple pleasures of a secular life:
I’ve had sex(!) which wouldn’t have happened unless I was married (which I’m not). — Molly
I wouldn’t have tried tea, coffee, or alcohol. — Anon
I actually think I wouldn’t have started playing Magic the Gathering if I wasn’t an atheist. Which is where I met everyone I call a friend, actually if I was still a theist I don’t think I’d be alive because I would have never found nerd playing cards. — Jayvis
You know, sex, caffeine and Magic the Gathering… the essentials.
Many people mentioned improvements to their sex life but for some people letting go of their faith beliefs was the only way to exist as a fulfilled sexual being:
I am a lesbian. Leaving the superstition has enabled me to accept myself and be free of guilt and shame — Anon
I would have never come out as gay. I would have never been in a loving marriage for 31 years. I would have never been open to traveling to parts of the world that didn’t embrace Christianity.— Micah
I never would have met my husband. (I would have married a woman which would have ended in disaster.) I would have never met the many wonderful secular friends I now have.— Phil
In the arena of love, romance and human connections there are, as Jo says, too many things to list:
If I had retained that life: I would have never met the love of my life. I would have never moved to Europe, met all the wonderful secular humans that I love so much. I would have never found out who I am, and what I can enjoy each day. Too many things to list. — Jo
But for a large minority (31.4%) not much has changed:
My Sunday mornings are free … but that’s about it. — Anon
But at least that means more time for playing Magic the Gathering!
4.7 Which areas of your life were affected most positively by discarding your beliefs?
Total 805 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
Emotional wellbeing. 612 (76%)
Non-academic intellectual pursuits. 450 (55.9%)
Mental health. 447 (55.5%)
Academic pursuits. 280 (34.8%)
Creative projects. 247 (30.7%)
Relationships with friends. 236 (29.3%)
Work or career prospects. 150 (18.6%)
Relationships with immediate family. 142 (17.6%)
Relationships with extended family. 59 (7.3%)
Relationships with faith community. 33 (4.1%)
76% of my respondents noticed a positive effect of increased emotional wellbeing after letting go of their beliefs. It’s hard to tell how much of this effect is due to the cessation of negative influences and how much is due to no longer being in that uncomfortable phase of uncertainty and doubt.
For those whose felt persecuted or judged by an aspect of their faith belief the relief is palpable:
Coming out from under religion is like seeing the sun for the first time in days or having a huge weight lifted that you didn’t even know was there. It is very freeing, breathing for the first time. — Elizabeth
I used to be terrified of the dark. When I stopped believing in the supernatural my fear disappeared. — Mario
‘Emotional wellbeing’ is an admittedly vague term. It was interesting to see how many of my respondents defined it as something like ‘being in the present moment’ or ‘appreciating the present moment’. When so many religions encourage us to fixate on what happens after you die, giving up those beliefs seems to inspire a dramatic shift of perspective. For many respondents what’s important to them now is, now:
Overall I am able to live outside of the faith belief shadow. I don’t question how something might impact my afterlife, but instead my ‘here and now’ life. I like living for the present instead of worrying about if I’ll make the cut after I die. My friends are more supportive and intellectually challenging than my faith belief friends ever were. — AC
A recognition of the finite amount of time I have to be with the ones I love, makes every moment count. Also intellectual freedom to follow my curiosity. — Graceful Atheist
Since discarding my belief in heaven, I treasure every moment I have in this one life I’m guaranteed.”— Justin
Emotional wellbeing is thought by psychologists to result from a feeling of self-efficacy: having freedom, control and responsibility for one’s own life. People with high self-efficacy often report themselves to be happier than those who score low on a self-efficacy questionnaire. As many faith beliefs encourage us to attribute our successes and failures primarily to someone or something outside ourselves it makes sense that my respondents, like Steven, reported connecting their increased emotional wellbeing to a newly gained sense of responsibility:
Personal responsibility. I’m not sure why. But knowing that everything in my life is up to me and that there’s no invisible force guiding it is so… reassuring. Because I know that good or bad, the result of my decisions are mine and mine alone. Both successes and failures.— Steven
Rejecting magical thinking helped me personally to actually deal with issues instead of sweeping them under the rug or praying they were fixed. — Dana
Another explanation for the increased emotional wellbeing so many of my respondents reported are the new possibilities that opened up once they had let go. Many suddenly had the chance to do what they please and love who they want to while others enjoyed a newfound intellectual freedom to explore the world and themselves:
I discovered I have a bit of poetry in my heart. And I’m interested in every field of science. Two of the many things mormons discourage- artistic creativity and critical thinking. Those things play a central role for me now. — ButterflyNette
One thing that surprised me the most was how much more confidence I was at work and at home. I stood up to my husband with surprisingly good results. Also, I was much less afraid to make mistakes at work, which ultimately lead me to a promotion. Imagine that.. give up this one little thing and my whole life changed… for the better. I guess it wasn’t such a little thing after all. — fullajoy
Self-exploration, time spent just thinking about the nature of the universe unhindered by dogma. Priceless. — joeybladb
4.8 Which areas of your life were affected most negatively by discarding your beliefs?
Total 713 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place, this question was multiple choice)
Relationships with faith community. 382 (53.6%)
Relationships with immediate family. 356 (49.9%)
Relationships with extended family. 301 (42.2%)
Relationships with friends. 221 (31%)
Work or career prospects. 59 (8.3%)
Emotional wellbeing. 52 (7.3%)
Mental health. 52 (7.3%)
Academic pursuits. 14 (2%)
Creative projects. 12 (1.7%)
Non-academic intellectual pursuits. 7 (1%)
I didn’t include ‘none’ in the list of areas of life that could be affected negatively by letting go of faith beliefs. If I had at least 44 people would have selected it as they let me know in the comments below this question. Maybe the people who didn’t respond to this question (there were 713 responses compared to 805 for the previous question regarding positive changes) couldn’t think of any negative effects of letting go.
The area most negatively affected in people’s lives were relationships with family, with 92.1% of respondents reporting that their relationships with either their immediate or extended family suffered. It would be interesting to track how this changes over time. I suspect that in many cases the initial negative effect diminishes over time as family bonds prove stronger than faith commitments as this anonymous respondent experienced:
My parents and I were at odds for quite a while. My distancing myself was what I needed, and eventually broke their need to ‘bring me back to the fold’. — Anon
Although for many of my respondents from strict religious backgrounds this is often sadly not the case:
I lost a decade with my sister and never have been able to repair my relationship with my mother. — Micah
This has been difficult. My siblings have been angry, some relationships are a bit awkward. My mom is very hurt and worried. — Anon
Here I think we can learn from the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom have dealt with rejection from their family of origin. One of the admirable ways LGBTQ+ people have handled ostracization is by building their own communities and creating ‘logical families’ of people who respect, value and support them to replace biological families who can’t or didn’t. As attitudes change LGBTQ+ people have been experiencing less rejection, and hopefully the same will be true for people who find themselves letting go of their family of origins faith beliefs.
Initiatives like Sunday Assembly, a secular congregation that gathers to celebrate life, is an attempt to build large scale in-person communities that offer an alternative to religious groups. But we also need to focus on facilitating the creation of smaller secular logical families for those who need them. All over the internet atheists, humanists and skeptics connect with each other to joke, debate and vent, perhaps we need a place focused on connecting.
Data from the last two questions (4.7 and 4.8) combined
1518 responses over two multiple choice questions (percentages rounded to one decimal place, ordered by negative:positive ratio)
Relationships with faith community. negative 382 positive 33
Relationships with extended family. negative 301 positive 59
Relationships with immediate family. negative 356 positive 142
Relationships with friends. negative 221 positive 236
Work or career prospects. negative 59 positive 150
Mental health. negative 52 positive 447
Emotional wellbeing. negative 52 positive 613
Academic pursuits. negative 14 positive 280
Creative projects. negative 12 positive 247
Non-academic intellectual pursuits. negative 8 positive 450
Combining the data from the previous two questions, it’s obvious that positive effects of letting go were significantly larger than negative effects, and that the negative effects were predominantly social. Though it’s important to remember that my respondents may well be likely to overreport positive effect and underreport negative effects in their enthusiasm for secular life. What can I say? We’re an optimistic bunch.
4.9 Which approach do you wish someone had taken with you when you were in the midst of reevaluating your beliefs?
Total 808 responses (percentages rounded to one decimal place)
Asking thoughtful questions during normal conversation. 164 (20.3%)
Pointing out logical flaws or contradictions in my faith beliefs. 131 (16.2%)
Using the Street Epistemology approach. 121 (15%)
Telling me about their own experience of discarding faith beliefs. 105 (13%)
Leaving me alone to deal with it myself. 102 (12.6%)
Presenting me with evidence that disproves my faith beliefs. 66 (8.2%)
Presenting me with resources that challenge my faith beliefs. 61 (7.5%)
Challenging me directly and assertively. 22 (2.7%)
Challenging me gently then backing off. 22 (2.7%)
Telling me about other people’s experiences of discarding faith beliefs. 14 (1.7%)
This is one of the questions to which I received the most mixed reactions, which demonstrates how individual this preference is. The biggest percentage of respondents (20.3%) said ‘asking thoughtful questions during normal conversation’ was how they would have liked to have been approached. This makes sense as in a previous question (3.7) many reported that their initial questioning was provoked by a friend asking thoughtful questions, and in question 4.5 the majority of respondents reported that they used this approach with others ‘asking the odd question [about faith beliefs] when they get the opportunity’.
These responses also backup my observation in question 3.7 that angry atheists have limited success in deconverting people, at least in one-on-one interactions. Only 2.7% of respondents chose ‘challenging assertively’ as a preferred approach. And some like Raven specifically complained of aggressive atheists in the comments:
I interacted a lot with folks who were very abrasive atheists. Those folks need to learn how to be more reasonable when discussing others faith beliefs.— Raven
But people were not in favour of an overly gentle approach either, with exactly the same small percentage (2.7%) of respondents opting for ‘challenging gently and backing off’.
As this anonymous respondent observed, there’s an art to asking questions that inspire reflection and don’t provoke defensiveness:
Most approaches listed would have just caused negative reaction from me. They would have created conflict and my psyche would have redoubled it’s protective efforts.
Thoughtful open ended questions are really the best way to get me thinking about a thing or idea, and I’ve noticed that works best with others as well. I can, and I believe most people can sense when another person has an agenda. This will turn most people off. Thoughtful open ended questions give the sense that the other person cares about your opinion and want to explore ideas with you.
Aside from that, my journey and my self ‘salvation’ were very personal, and my own. Intrusion by others would not have been welcome. — Anon
18.2% of my respondents report that they practice Street Epistemology (in question 1.6), and 15% would have appreciated someone doing the same for them:
I don’t think people can be forced or reasoned out of faith. SE seems to open up the channels of personal thought and exploration of their beliefs and starts the personal evaluation. — Kenny
I wish one of my teachers in college had cared enough to challenge me a bit more. Wish SE had been part of my philosophical education.— Mortgage Hill Musings
As a fan of SE I was expecting everyone who had heard of the methodology (74.3% of respondents according to question 1.6) to wish they had been exposed to it during the process of letting go. In this question respondents could only select one option, so perhaps for many SE would be their second choice, but I suspect there is something else going on here.
Most of the SE conversations I hear online are formal interviews between strangers and yet it seems many people appreciate less structured, more personal conversations between friends and family. Maybe we should regard the SE conversations we see online as demonstrations of the method which we can simplify and adapt to use in our everyday lives, when asking those ‘odd questions’, instead of a form of formal communication we should all aspire to imitating.
A feeling of isolation was expressed by many in the comments, not knowing that there are others out there who don’t believe and not knowing that not believing is even an option were sadly common experiences:
I didn’t realize for the longest time that not believing things was an option. Religion was compulsory for my entire life into early adulthood. It would have been nice to hear from somebody that they had figured out you could just stop buying into it, even after you had.— Jon
I just needed to know there were others. For years I thought I was the only one who had a hard time swallowing religion.— Elizabeth
I thought I was the only person on the planet who had figured it out. Just knowing that many people don’t believe would have been nice. — Steve
Hopefully as online and in-person atheist, humanist and skeptical communities grow, fewer people will suffer from the feeling of isolation. And as we atheists increase in number and visibility, Steve’s experience will become less and less common.
4.10 What do you wish someone had told you when you were in the midst of reevaluating your beliefs?
This last question was the first one I thought of, and to me seemed the most important. I had the idea that I could find a way to offer comfort and reassurance to people in the process of letting go by understanding how others experienced that same process
Maybe out there was someone just like me ten years ago. Someone who felt exhilarated and disoriented, who I could reach out to. Who I could help somehow.
I wanted to know what you would say to yourself if you were able to send a message back in time. I wanted to know what you needed to hear.
Here are some of the responses that most moved me:
Here’s a bus ticket and a couple of hundred bucks. There’s a job waiting for you in Pasadena. — Diana
Ryan, I’m an atheist.” After publicly telling my deconversion story on Facebook, my unbelieving friends who were in the closet came out to me. This simultaneously made me happy, but also sad — that they, for whatever reasons, chose not to be open and honest about who they were.— Ryan
Doug just let that shit go, no you are not stupid like they told you everytime you made a mistake no no matter how much you pray things will not change you have to change how you deal with death and your anger so remember you are a good person go do good things. — Doug
You deserve to be loved whether you believe in God or not. You are not a bad person.— Heather
I have 629 of these responses and I want them to reach the people who need to hear them. So I’ve curated a list of responses to put on the Twitter feed @HowWeLetGo. It will post a daily message for almost two years, I hope that people currently going through the process of letting go will get a message from someone who has already come out the other side.
There was a common theme in many of these responses that echoed Mary’s response to the previous question:
I needed to know it was okay to not believe and that I was safe. — Mary
I took twenty four of these responses and arranged them into a poem for Mary’s past self and anyone else currently letting go.
It’s okay to question
It’s okay to have doubts
It’s okay to explore the doubts
It’s okay to ‘question authority’.
It’s okay to question your beliefs.
It’s okay to question everything.
It’s okay to explore your thoughts on religion.
It’s okay to step off the religious bandwagon for a while.
It’s okay to seek answers.
It’s okay to require proof.
It’s okay to view the world differently.
It’s okay to think differently
It’s okay to think for yourself
It’s okay to trust yourself
It’s okay to change your mind.
It’s okay to be an atheist.
It’s okay to be gay.
It’s okay to let go
It’s okay to leave.
It’s okay not to know.
It’s okay to say “I don’t know”.
It’s okay to not believe in anything.
You’ll be okay.
Collecting, analysing and reporting this data has been an emotional experience for me and I thank everyone who took part, especially those who I quoted in this report.
There’s a lot to be learned from looking at the experiences of our community and thinking about the best ways to support and encourage people going through the process of letting go of their faith beliefs. I hope more serious researchers look at this data and perhaps create better, more rigorous and more scientifically useful surveys than mine. This is not really the job for a comic book artist, but I’m honoured that you trusted me and proud to have done my best.
I have several recommendations based on this research, which I hope the atheist, humanist and skeptic community will find useful.
It’s hardly an original conclusion, but this research makes it clear that the time for angry atheism is over. If we want to help people currently in the process of letting go and ensure a good reputation for the atheist, humanist and skeptic community in the future we need to resist the impulse to express anger or derision, especially in one-on-one conversations.
Reading the comments of those of you who have suffered at the hands of religion I have a much better understanding of where that anger comes from, but no matter how justifiable or righteous anger, as an advocacy tactic, does not work. Perhaps if we find private spaces to vent and work through our feelings of anger and betrayal they are less likely to slip into our public discourse. In light of criticism from outside our community and the comments of self-aware respondents I think we should attempt to defuse anger, cynicism and arrogance. I suspect supporting people who are angry and hurt by religion to work through their issues and fostering social norms of compassion and humility would decrease these negative qualities.
If we want to encourage others to consider letting go of their beliefs I think that we should take the principles of SE and find ways to apply them in casual, informal ways. Use our favoured technique of ‘asking the odd question’ about people’s faith beliefs but making sure those questions are carefully crafted to provoke deep consideration. This is something the SE community could be actively working to facilitate.
If we want to support fellow atheists, humanists and skeptics we should try to build communities on both the large and small scale. If we are open about these communities it could also encourage those on the brink of letting go to feel safer to do so, knowing they will have a relatively soft landing. Lots of initiatives already exist to build large scale communities but I wonder if there might be a technological solution (dare I suggest an app?) that could help new atheists who’ve been rejected by their community to find a new, logical family.
The last recommendation I have is for all of us to step up and support organisations like Recovering From Religion , Ex-Muslims of North America and Faith to Faithless. There are so many of us who would have benefited from being able to talk to a secular counsellor or attend a meetup of like-minded people while we were letting go. There are many of us still struggling with trauma from our experiences who rely on services like the ones these organisations provide. If you want to help people through this process supporting organisations like these is one of the best ways to do so.
Understanding who we are is critically important for us as a community. We must be compassionate to each other and create the kind of spaces and organisations that will help us grow as atheists, as humanists, as skeptics — and as people. That compassion starts with well informed empathy.
When the responses were rolling in I saw in real-time people sharing the darkest, hardest moments of their process. Somewhere someone typed their despair on a keyboard and it appeared in my spreadsheet as data. It was surreal. The fact that so many people found the experience of sharing these difficult emotions with me is telling. I suspect that in our eagerness to promote the benefits of the secular life, we sometimes forget to hold space for those of us who are hurting.
Many people reported going through a period of nihilism and despair. Some of us are still there. I don’t know how to help these people, but pretending they don’t exist can’t be the right approach.
I feel like I know you all so much better now. I hope by reading through my overview of this data you get that same sense that I do, that despite being far-flung across the globe and despite all our differences, we are somehow all in this together.