Asking big, big questions

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Q: From a Florida teen: (This is a much-edited post.)
Hey there, A couple years ago (sometime around the summer tenth or eleventh grade) I began see an advantage to an atheist life. I’ve never pegged myself to be a guy with mental problems-but rest assured I went quite crazy at times. The biggest turning point was when the pressure of having to do what was right according to Christiantiy’s standards surrounded me, consuming everything I enjoyed sexually, or else wise. I felt this ever looming feeling of doom of the invisible force everyone calls god always breathing down my shoulder, his voice telling me everything was wrong, and everything being ripped away from me before I knew it. I decided the only way to stop such paranoia was to not believe in a god at all. With no existence of a god, there’d be no invisible forces out there.

This lifestyle switch brought on many advantages:I use to pray for things and do nothing, now I would get up and actually make them happen-discovering prayer wasn’t what got me what I wanted and not a requirement at all in the first place has moved me towards getting a lot of my goals done. The, “thank god,” aspect has completely left me. And that paranoid fear of having a talent or something tooken away from me because it’s ‘god’s not yours’ has long left me-leaving my accomplishments, abilities, and talents seeing no limit. Life is stress free not feeling like I’ll be struck by lightning for no reason, or ‘tooken away because god says it’s your time.’ Basically what I had back when I was religious was a fear of a powerful invisible force that could strike with certain disaster, or take everything away from you at any giving moment.

The problem is that I feel guilty about my decision. I loved my (step)dad-and he was quite the religious man. Buying candles, praying, and all that jazz. He died of cancer back when I was in middle school. One aspect of guilt comes from the feeling that he’d likely be very unhappy with a choice of anyone in his family to not have a belief in god. A HUGE factor of my guilt comes from my family. Every single one of them is religious (with the exception of a few more who never go to church with the exception of a wedding or two). Especially my grandma I live with. After her accident, she became interested in church again-and wanted to drag me along, having not known about my atheist urges. When it comes to her she doesn’t invite, she just says you’re going and you are. And I said, “I don’t like religion.” she goes nuts. She’s never heard about the paranoid struggles I had with it, and never wants to hear it. I was forced to go a max of a few times before she finally went on her own, I haven’t had to go back since-and she sounds quite happy, always talking to her husband (who also doesn’t go) about her experiences there. I feel (and have felt) very relieved. She hasn’t told me, but it looks like she’s accepted the fact that I’m just not a church guy from what I see.

And that’s it really-all the same stuff I mentioned before hand. I’ve discovered what secular humanism is and have been looking into it since then, and I truly believe I am the closest to a secular-humanist. I cite my reasons for an absence in a religion to be a rapidly growing lack of superstition. I don’t believe in luck, don’t think anything bad is gonna happen when I open an umbrella in doors, know black cats are cute little things, although honestly some things are still wearing off (ghosts for example are still hanging on). Religion falls in the mix-no invisible guy that there’s no psychical proof of is going to do anything to me.

But the guilt factor has shot up again. Here comes the reason for this post-the big shocker, the sole reason for all the guilt in the world from my prospective atheist lifestyle. A very good friend of my late father, and a good friend of mines gave me a medal for graduation, with the virgin Mary painted in it. “Here take this,” he says, “See that? That’s the heart of god,” he pointed to a tiny heart on the painting, “This way it will always be with you.” “This is blessed by the Pope! Don’t lose it, put it on your keys, or something, always keep it with you.” Although I wasn’t in the least bit thrilled about it, I stuck it in my pocket, and threw on a smile. The guilt of even keeping it killed me. Keeping it meant I was ready to be sucked back into that paranoid lifestyle, that all good in my life was because god and not me-meaning my life wasn’t even my life at all, and could be tooken away from me at any second, the usual unexplainable stress that asscociated me with my relgiious lifestyle. So I threw it away.

Thus comes my guilt, a friend of my father, and a man with such good intentions. The voice told me, “Someday you need to be an honest adult about your views-tell these people how you feel, be honest.”
This double-life of sorts with it’s positives have always had the negatives underlying it a step away, and they are as follows:
*My African-American descent makes me feel like I’m disagreeing with legends such as MLK, or siding with evil Atheist based organizations. I have a fear that an extreme dislike of religion would eventually consume everything I love. I felt especially a lot of guilt for the military who fight by this phrase “God Bless AMeria”. Nothing really curbs this one beyond just ignoring it, and remembering our (magnificent) founding fathers said, ‘freedom of religion’.And of course:*My deceased father-Remembering how much he loved me, and how religious he was, and all the things he did for me is the biggest factor.

Other than that, the positives are still there. But my split mind can’t help but for a split second still feel the tangs of the Dark Side in choosing a non-religious lifestyle. Philosophies and just being a good person in general have become my lifestyle. Is that enough?

Thank you if you can help me, thank you.

A: I’m very impressed with the complexity of your thinking. You are asking the huge questions and not settling for easy answers. This is what people your age should be doing. Any value, religious or otherwise, that is simply accepted without careful thought can’t stand up to a big challenge. So please don’t minimize what you’re doing by accusing yourself of making unnecessary “epic struggles.” These struggles are big because they are very important. You are working hard to define yourself in a way that will let you live your life with integrity.

I don’t know where you will eventually land on the question of religion or a particular religion. You have a good mind that won’t be satisfied until you’ve done more exploration. In the meantime, I see you doing your best to be a decent man who strives to take responsibility for himself while still being respectful of the people who love him. That’s something to be proud of.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Jun 2008

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). Asking big, big questions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 18, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/06/29/asking-big-big-questions/