I finally got around to seeing Julia Sweeney’s 2007 monologue performance Letting Go of God, where she describes her journey from being a good Catholic girl to an atheist in adulthood. It was funny, informative, and moving, as she describes the kinds of questions that occurred to her and the answers she sought from her parents, her priest, other religions, and her readings, before she finally accepted that she was, in effect, an atheist.
Here’s the trailer.
It struck me that there are three kinds of atheist stories. There are those who grew up in a nonbelieving home and thus were never indoctrinated into belief in the first place. Then there are those who grew up in a religious environment but realized at a young age, either in their teens or pre-teens, that it did not make any sense and ditched the whole thing without too much angst, though possibly leading to some conflict with their families. And then there are people like Sweeney and me, who were ‘good’ believers growing up in that we accepted most of the teachings of our religions and came to our atheist realizations much later in life. It is this last group for which it is the greatest struggle in letting go.
Although Sweeney’s story is different from mine in many of its details (she grew up in an Irish Catholic home in the US, I in a liberal Protestant Sri Lankan home) I saw many similarities too, as she grappled first with the realization that god may not be good, to the intermediate stage that the Bible did not seem to make much sense and that god seemed to be either inept or malevolent, to the final one that god may not exist at all.
The key similarity is that we both started out as strong believers and transitioned to nonbelief in adulthood. It struck me that perhaps the stages of transition for adults from belief to disbelief in a god may have sufficient generality that some psychologist should explore, like the Kubler-Ross seven stages of grief: Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.
What might be some initial candidates for the various stages? Based purely on the two data points provided by Sweeney and me, I identified seven stages that I suspect are not unique to the two of us.
- Suspicion (that there is more to the story of god than what we were told as children or in church, and that some of the things we were told and believed are not true)
- Curiosity (to see if we can find ways to allay those suspicions, fix the problems, and thus salvage belief)
- Fear (that the problems are insurmountable and are far more widespread than we initially thought)
- Dismay (at the thought of what the non-existence of god or an afterlife entails)
- Apprehension (as to what might happen while we secretly test the hypothesis that god does not exist)
- Relief (at the discovery that assuming god does not exist does not result in catastrophe)
- Exhilaration (at experiencing the intellectual and emotional freedom that results when superstitious beliefs are abandoned and the mind is free to go where the evidence leads, and at the realization that we are lucky to be alive and that life is wonderful)
Of course, the process may not proceed linearly. There will be some backsliding out of fear as to where the journey is leading and deliberate attempts to silence doubts.
I am curious to hear from readers what they think of this sequence and how their own experiences compare with this.