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The road to atheism can be painful and scary. Maybe that's why more religionists choose ignorance over knowledge.

A Religiously Knowledgeable Atheist’s Journey from Belief to Disbelief

The news that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religionists is not news to those of us who have taken the journey from belief to disbelief. The focus on religious knowledge between believers and non-believers underscores the very emotional struggle many experience when looking for meaning in their lives, reasons to continue believing, evidence of truth, and (at the point when they realize they’re all alone) assurance that they aren’t alone.

I was born into and raised with Catholicism. I reached adulthood with more questions than answers, but I earnestly sought to find them. It never occurred to me how long the journey would be, who would abandon me on the way, or where I would end up. I looked hard and prayed often. I didn’t find anything to help me, and, in a bizarre twist I wasn’t expecting, I was instead shunned and distanced for what I was doing by those who could have, dare I say should have, been willing to help me most: priests, nuns, other Catholics including friends and family members. The community I’d come to know, love, and depend on wasn’t there for me. I wandered off without anyone’s objection. I studied other religions and in the course of doing so learned even more about my own religion.

My quest to build on and secure my relationship with God competed with my quest to overcome clinical depression. I didn’t have energy to do both, but I did both anyway. I couldn’t pray while battling the side effects of medication or the depression itself, although I did genuinely try. I could barely get myself out of bed to go to the bathroom, so doing dishes, mowing the lawn, or going to mass were out of the question. But I still prayed. I prayed for my husband and children because they, too, had been abandoned. Had I been afflicted with cancer or in a car wreck, someone would have checked on me. Had I died, there would have been people coming ’round with food. Depression and religious ambiguity are not on the list of things for which people will check on you. The thing I suffered with most was understood by only one other person, and she took me to the hospital. The other thing I suffered with was understood by no one.

There is no wandering around the world in a hospital, but there was definitely time to pray and let God do His thing—whatever that was going to be. I shared space with people whose plights were so much worse than my own I couldn’t believe there was a god who would allow (inflict?) such pain. Among them were those with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dissociative disorder, and a 20-year-old whose five-year old child was the product of her father having raped her. The first therapist assigned to me in the hospital sought my advice about her own experiences and depression. I reported her and had to start all over with another therapist. Fortunately there was also a night staff of intelligent, dry-witted psychiatric nurses and another depressed patient with whom I would become good friends if only within those walls.

It was in the hospital that I was brutally confronted with what my depression was doing to my husband. My kids were young. Visiting me in the hospital was an adventure to them in much the same way they remember our homelessness as lots of good times spent with mom driving around in the car. My husband didn’t understand what I was going through or how I’d gotten there, but he followed me nonetheless even as it scared him and threatened to weaken him as a man, a husband, and a father. He didn’t bring flowers. He brought tapes he’d made of my favorite music. To this day I don’t think he understands just how much he means to me and, even as I’ve done a great deal for him since, I don’t think he knows just how much more I’d be willing to do for him.

I would eventually be medicated and released, get only a little better, go back again and set to wander the religious interstate, as it were, one last time. I hoped and prayed all the way to the edge of my existence. When I got there, I was overwhelmed with how alone I was. No crickets. No whistling wind. No echo. No light, but also no darkness or depth. Was God here? I couldn’t tell. I was so ready for something, anything, but there was nothing.

Because I’d been taught that those who commit suicide go straight to Hell for having thrown God’s gift of life back in His face, my aloneness on that day could only have been explained by three possibilities: 1) God abandoned those who sought to take their own lives. 2) He was waiting on the other side (in which case it would’ve been okay to leap, and everything I’d been taught about God and suicide was wrong, which put everything else I’d been taught about God into question). OR 3) there was no god to be abandoned by at all.

I’ve heard stories of people who got to the same point I was, feeling overcome with emptiness and stress, and then instantaneously felt enveloping warmth, a sensation of loved ones in their midst, and a white light opening up to them, presumably a path away from all the pain. I’ve since learned this same experience can be neurologically induced. I would later be told that not everyone reacts to stress the same way, that the warmth and light don’t come for everyone, and these things occur even for some who aren’t under a lot of stress or in a lot of pain. I felt so left out and left behind, but mostly left alone like a child lost in the woods at night, living in fear of every chirp, hoot, and growl.

I did eventually find my way out of the woods and as I’d heard stories of Jesus carrying people through their strife—hence one pair of footprints in the sand instead of two—I hoped this was the case with me as well. I’d turned away from killing myself. Surely there would be something indicating I’d done the right thing. But the footprints bore the imprint of the scar that came from the slash I got on the bottom of my foot when I was five years old. There was no one else with me. There was no nudge, wink, or nod that would have acknowledged my having found a way out of the mire. I was just as alone as I’d been at the edge.

I was sad all over again for realizing the loss of all I’d known and believed with all my heart, forced to see there was no one there but me. There was no safety net, no helping hands, no all-powerful love and protection that if I just reached out for would be mine. I did reach, until I toppled over. I did climb, until I fell down. I did sit quietly, until I developed bed sores. I did everything asked of me and then some. And then nothing.

It was a tremendous loss no cradle atheist could imagine and no cradle religionist would. I wasn’t torn from one world and thrown into another. I woke up in the same world and the only thing that had changed was how I looked at the sky. It was anticlimactic, such a non-moment for everyone but me. I was the only one there, still. When before I looked up to the sky, I saw God and angels and saints and hope. When I woke up from the fog of my illness and looked up, I saw blue, the sun, some clouds, a few birds, and a rare day moon. I didn’t see hope until I looked back at myself.

I had been taught to seek Jesus and God within myself, but my illness had blinded me—or so I thought. I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t find myself despite mirrors and my own eyes. I couldn’t feel anything or find capacity to care or move. I was then advised to look outside myself and seek the love of God in the kindness of strangers, in the faces of those whom I’d helped, in the mass and in prayer. It seems no coincidence now that this was when the shunning started. The number of steps taken away from me by those who said they were there to help grew by the day. Jesus’ mother wept as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” My mother, upon learning I was both suicidal and questioning my religious beliefs, cried out, “Why have you forsaken God?”

My journey from belief to not believing was long, difficult, and painful. As I look back I’m astounded by the lack of empathy I received, fooled by the notion that some people would at least have remembered what it was like when they found out there was no Santa, but apparently no one wanted to revisit their pain, not even for the benefit of another. It was easier and more comfortable to send me on a wild goose chase or just flatly put me out. Either way I was away from them.

As far as they were concerned, my quest to be saved was between me and God. And this would have been fine, except that it wasn’t just between me and God when I was eight years old. Sister Joseta wanted to know why there was blood on my chair and I told her my old neighbor man had hurt my vagina. She marched me off to confession and I was assigned penance for my wrongdoing by the priest who also heard why there was blood on my chair.

It wasn’t just between me and God when I was pregnant and unmarried. I had shamed everyone, from my entire family to everyone in my church to God Himself. And it sure as hell wasn’t between me and God when the heavy, dark blanket of depression was draped over the entirety of my life. Clearly, I was told, God had a plan for me and if I didn’t listen carefully to the advice of others, I would be set adrift. The thing is, I did listen—and I was set adrift anyway.

Then one day I came to stand on the edge of my existence and I still didn’t question whether or not God existed. Instead I begged His presence. I felt mercilessly alone. This was the moment when everyone else decided it was between me and Him. And that’s when I knew. There was no god. There was just me. It was a painful and humiliating realization wrought with fear, anger, and sorrow. I thought I’d never wake up from the nightmare of it all.

But I did. And with a sense of peace I’d never known before, a peace I could finally depend upon, it has been just me ever since.

About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.

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