Religion – Why is it so hard to let go?


rr-logoAs I look back and ponder about how I managed to make the transition from being very religious to a far more rational position, one observation is that it was a slow process and not an instant flash of insight. The transition in my thinking was perhaps reflected by the religious groups I attended and so the process involved moving out of a more extreme cult like group into a less intensive happy-clappy group, and then on into the more traditional come-and-go-as-you-please mainstream which manifests itself as something that is almost akin to a social club with a few prayers tossed in.

I’m not unique in this respect, because many people from distinctly different types of belief tell similar stories. Personally I find that a metaphor that works quite well to illustrate it all is to perhaps think of a deep sea diver who cannot simply rush for the surface, but needs to slowly rise and de-compress as he (or she) ascends.

So what is going on here, why is it so hard to let go of an idea that has exactly zero evidence and cannot be demonstrated to be true at all?

There is a rather interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times that offers an insight on this issue. The article itself is of course a good read and is by Mark Oppenheimer, who writes with a warm, humanistic style, and tells us all about “Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers“. The article starts like this …

Women talked about “coming out,” being open with their families, leaving “the closet” at a conference here this month. But the topic was not sexuality. Instead, the women, attending the third Women in Secularism conference were talking about beingatheists. Some grew up Catholic, some Jewish, some Protestant — but nearly all described journeys of acknowledging atheism first to themselves, then to loved ones. Going public was a last, often painful, step.

Now this cuts to the heart of the question … why is it so painful?

The answer soon arrives …

“It was incredibly painful,” Heina Dadabhoy, 26, said during a discussion called “Women Leaving Religion,” which also featured three former Christians and one formerly observant Jew, the novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. “My entire life, my identity, was being a good Muslim woman.”

Now there is the issue – belief is not simply about the intellectual acceptance of specific ideas such that a god with specific attributes exists, it is far more than just that. It is about having a specific identify, being part of a community, a tribe that is bound together emotionally. Often years, if not decades, have been invested in it all. Commitments have been made, so the realisation that the ideas themselves are not factual are perhaps for many almost inconsequential due to the far larger weight of emotions and commitments being carried at the same time. Many simply fall in line and play the part for the sake of the expectations that all those around them have – wives, husbands, children, parents – they all have not just cultural expectations, but cultural demands, and an insistence or perhaps a dependancy upon a religious identity being manifested in you.

This is why it takes time for many to slowly slowly reset such expectations, not just in the minds of others, but also within themselves.

Here is one story from that same article …

Sadaf Ali, 23, an Afghan-Canadian, said that she had once been “a fairly practicing Muslim.”

During childhood, she said, “I was always fairly defiant.” As she grew older, she struggled with depression, and she thought that praying more and reading the Quran would help. She became more religious and looked forward to a traditional life. “I thought my life was sort of set out for me: get married, have children,” Ms. Ali said. “I might go to school. I’ll have a very domestic life. That’s what my family did, what my forefathers did.”

But as a university student, her feelings began to change.

“As I started to investigate the religion, I realized I was talking to myself,” Ms. Ali said. “Nobody was listening to me. I had just entered the University of Toronto, and critical thinking was a big part of my studies. I have an art history and writing background, and I realized every verse I had come across” — in the Quran — “was explicitly or implicitly sexist.”

Quickly, her faith crumbled.

“So in 2009, I realized there probably is no God,” she said. “What is so wrong in having a boyfriend, or having premarital sex? What is wrong with wanting to eat and drink water before the sun goes down during Ramadan? What is so wrong with that? I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance anymore.”

For the next three years, Ms. Ali thought of herself as an agnostic. She stopped practicing Islam. She still had Muslim friends, and her brother married into a religious Muslim family. Slowly, younger friends and relatives figured things out. “They didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t Muslim,” Ms. Ali said. “But I didn’t go around telling my parents.”

Eventually, her parents heard.

“They were incredibly upset, as they believe in an eternal hell,” Ms. Ali said. “They are O.K. with me for the most part being irreligious,” she added. “But we don’t talk much about it anymore, and that’s fine.”

Help!

Are you starting to have doubts, do you need to link up with like minded people who can help? If so, there here are a few useful pointers …

You are a Muslim who no longer believes and you need help from ex-Muslims who have had the same experience …

You are a cleric who no longer believes …

  • The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.

You want to meet other like-minded skeptics and non-believers …

  • Skeptics in the Pub is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and social networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and other like-minded individuals.
  • You might also like to consider a Humanist meetup.

If you have left religion, but are still struggling with the after-effects in some way or another …

You are a Christian who no longer believes and you need help from ex-Christians who have had the same experience …

You are a Mormon who no longer believes and you need help from ex-Mormons who have had the same experience …

Take heart, because you are not alone, we are all in this one life together, and there are many out there willing to reach out and help.

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