Dealing with the after-effects of a religious upbringing

NPR’s week-long series on ‘Losing Our Religion’ continued today (you can read/listen to part 1, part 2, and part 3), with part 4 being a continuation of the conversation they had in part 2 with the group of six young nonbelievers from a variety of religious backgrounds.

This time they explored whether there was anything they missed by leaving their religions. The responses were mixed, with one occasionally disturbed by the idea that all his memories would cease to exist when he died, and others saying they missed the sense of community that their religious institutions offered. Others reported having internal dialogues that had a vague similarity to the prayers they once offered and were vaguely discomfited by the fact that they were doing this.

I suspect that such feelings of internal conflict are common in the early stages of leaving one’s religion. Part of the power of religion is that it offers an all-encompassing worldview that traps young children in a thicket of issues that tap into the most primeval of emotions: right and wrong, life and death. Even after you break free of religion’s grip, it takes a while for you to work your way to an understanding of how to deal with those issues without the framework of religion. This is why it is so important for the nonbelieving community to be visible and open, so that newcomers can easily find people with whom they can talk through their struggles. Susan Jacoby writes about how important it is to be an open atheist so that those with doubts and concerns know there is someone they can talk to.

The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.

NPR this morning also had an extra feature where they explored what happens when one partner in a relationship is religious and the other is a nonbeliever, something that is going to become increasingly common over time. Rather than one person trying to convert the other, usually a futile task, such couples need to, and often do, find ways to create a modus vivendi.


  1. ReneeHendricks says

    There are some very curious and often scary after effects when one is brought up religious. Something I talked a bit about on my blog was on the continuous relating of hell and what hell would be like. I grew up with that and, even as an atheist and a skeptic, it’s something that still haunts my dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever “out-grow” it as an atheist as the brain tends to be a tricky little thing – preying upon you while you sleep.

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