The Result of a Religious Upbringing: The Constant “What if?”

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Discussion by: petermead1

Like some of you, I was brought up in a religious household. In my childhood, I went to church, church camp, youth group, and participated in bible studies, among other church activities. I always had my doubts, but it wasn't until later in life that I finally became a free-thinking atheist. 

With that being said, I have not escaped the clutches of christianity without enduring any harm. Into my adulthood, psychological repercussions that are the result of inculcated ideas about hell manifest themselves in the form of abject anxieties that plague me. 

Despite the fact that my rational mind believes that there isn't a god and that hell is a fictitious place, I cannot seem to shake this case of the "what ifs." Sometimes, I lie in bed awake at night while horrifying fantasies of hell torment me. Questions like "What if I'm wrong?" and "What if god really is there and I'm going straight to hell to burn forever?" incessantly race through my mind. Most of the time, I can use my rationality to think it through (sanely) and calm myself down, but this doesn't seem to abolish them definitively. They always come back at a later date. 

For those of you who may have experienced the same thing, what did you do to rid yourself of it? Should I seek professional help for these mental qualms? I am the only atheist that I know, and I have no one who could be empathetic to talk to. 

 

 

48 COMMENTS

  1. There’s no ‘what ifs’ as far as I’m concerned. Hold your head high, live a good life, and if that’s not enough, then I wouldn’t want anything to do with the bastard.

    That’s basically the anti-theist stance.

    There are many more arguments about the silly idea of Heaven and Hell, sins and so on. Hitchens has a few words to say about that.

  2. I’m certain there are others in the same situation as yourself. As for me, after leaving Catholicism I went on to agnosticism for many yeras, studying many different texts and religions. My issue was shaking the concept of a soul from my thinking, which I finally did. As rationality and logic will show, it just does not hold water, much less a place of eternal damnation for such a soul to be tortured in. Also, I have studied much about the origins of the concept of the Christian Hell and deduced it to be nothing more than a Christian theological invention, nothing more. The Christian concept of hell is only found in their New Testament texts and is wholly absent from the Tanach (Christian Old Testament). In Judiasm, which Christianity claims to be an extension of, there is no eternal place of torment, They have sheol, the grave. According to Jewish theology, when a person dies, they go to Gehinnom for up to 12 months in order to be cleansed of any sins by spiritual fire. After the 12 months are through, the soul, if clean, goes on to be with God. If the soul cannot be cleansed, having too much sin, it is completely annihilated into nothingness. In Judaism, life is the reward and death the punishment. But no eternal place of damnation exists. Now, after my long journey through agnosticism, I am wholly atheist and at peace with myself.

  3. I was in the same boat – Christian schools and church my whole life, camps, having to do church services a few times a month…

    I think a lot of those thoughts are largely due to habits your brain formed in life. We’ve been regularly told that we have this horrible thing looming over our heads. We’ve been regularly threatened with torture, both directly and passively. Even when the message is supposedly positive (“God loves you and saved you”) you’re still having that threat in the background (“Loves you so much he doesn’t want to see you tortured forever”). You’re not allowed to stop thinking about this potential torture after death.

    It was difficult for me to let go of those, and, in a way, it’s like learning some new skill. At first you’re very tentative, like stepping onto ice with ice skates for the first time. You’re learning how to balance, how to move in this new environment. As you continue to have positive experiences, you gain more confidence and are able to leave those fears behind. You begin to form new, healthier, mental habits.

    How long has it been since you first stepped away from religion? If it’s just been a couple years, I’d say give it some more time. You’re breaking a lot of unhealthy thought patterns, and it’s going to take time to go through them one by one. Talking with others who shared a similar background helped me immensely. Therapy can always help, too. The Secular Therapist Project may help you find someone if you want to go that route.

    • I’m 21 years old now. I was raised a christian as far back as I can remember. Around the time I was 13/14, the logical inconsistency of it all really started to become clear to me. I couldn’t ignore the doubts I felt. I felt like I had to force myself to believe or that I only believed because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t, and that seemed silly. I forgot about religion; I simply did not have a stance. Around the time I was 17, events in my life galvanized me to think about spiritual/existential matters, and I became an agnostic. I continued to contemplate it for quite some time. I settle and remained an agnostic for quite awhile because it seemed the most appropriate response to the “god question”; no one can prove or disprove anything. I eventually discovered the work of Richard Dawkins which again prompted me to analyze it more closely. I decided that my stance was not as untenable as I had believe it to be, and I became an atheist. With all of that being said, I can remember dreading death and hell as early as age 7. I vividly remember crying and praying to god for salvation. My mother was quite pious and somewhat obsessed with eschatology. She drove it into my head that I was polluted with sin, that nothing I could do (prayer, works, etc.) could get me into heaven and that the only way I would be saved was if god decided to allow me in. Absolute child abuse. I was terrified. In reply to #3 by Kim Probable:

      I was in the same boat – Christian schools and church my whole life, camps, having to do church services a few times a month…

      I think a lot of those thoughts are largely due to habits your brain formed in life. We’ve been regularly told that we have this horrible thing looming over our heads. We’…

  4. You need at least one friend, relative or just an acquaintance with whom you can be completely honest about your thinking. It’s no fun being completely at odds with everyone you speak to. It’s no fun having to maintain a facade either. Start looking around for fellow travellers and you’ll gradually be able to extricate yourself from religious thinking. There are plenty of non believers around, but sometimes they’re rather hard to find as they usually don’t wear a badge claiming allegiance to the atheist community.

  5. Questions like “What if I’m wrong?” and “What if god really is there and I’m going straight to hell to burn forever?” incessantly race through my mind.

    What if all the Xtians are wrong and have been worshipping the wrong god? There are thousands of them!
    List of deities

    It seems more likely all the god claims are unevidenced and wrong. Even the believers disbelieve all the gods except their own by indoctrination. The threats are just stories to keep followers in line, and the churches in funding and in power!

    • In reply to #7 by mmurray:

      I would get some professional help from someone who is not a theist. Or at least someone who can treat this as a an anxiety problem rather than a religious one.

      Michael

      It can be anxiety. For years I had dreams ( frequently) where I was frozen by fear, with devils and bad people trying to get me. I would pray and couldn’t say hail Mary and our father fast enough as the dreams would subside when I did that (and I was not an atheist at that time, more in the early questioning phase). I told a co-worker about the dreams and he said that it’s just anxiety and not to worry about it. So that night when I went to bed I repeated to myself that the dreams were stupid and just anxiety and ordered them not to bother me anymore. I did this for about a week. May sound silly, but it worked – haven’t had one in years. Seems all the negative and confusing messages (not just religion) we’re fed can cause stress and the body holds on to that stress until it’s identified?

    • In reply to #7 by mmurray:

      I would get some professional help from someone who is not a theist. Or at least someone who can treat this as a an anxiety problem rather than a religious one.

      Michael

      I’m sure this is sound advice and worth following up.

    • Many similar replies appear like this in topics where the author is experiencing distress. However Michael if its a psychological issue that needs to be looked at this person does not require to investigate if a therapist is a theist or not. They only should look at their qualifications , experience and reputation within the profession. Your caveat is unnecessary..

      In reply to #7 by mmurray:

      I would get some professional help from someone who is not a theist. Or at least someone who can treat this as a an anxiety problem rather than a religious one.

      Michael

      • In reply to #26 by Pauly01:

        Many similar replies appear like this in topics where the author is experiencing distress. However Michael if its a psychological issue that needs to be looked at this person does not require to investigate if a therapist is a theist or not. They only should look at their qualifications , experience, and reputation within the profession. Your caveat is unnecessary..

        You would hope so wouldn’t you. If it was Australia or the UK I would not make the caveat. But last time I made a similar comment on these boards without the caveat someone pointed out that in the US you can end up with a theist in this situation offering you religious advice.

        I don’t live in the US so I can’t vouch for the veracity of the comment but I am continually astounded by the things I read here about how religion impacts people’s lives in the US.

        Michael

        • In reply to #27 by mmurray:

          In reply to #26 by Pauly01:

          If it was Australia or the UK I would not make the caveat.

          I would be careful in the UK as well, we have had cases of GPs suggesting patients try religion and there was definitely one about a counsellor in trouble for similar advice to a patient. It does not appear to be a widespread problem but there have been enough cases when people in the medical and psychiatric professions who should be neutral have tried to push religion on the vulnerable.

        • In reply to #27 by mmurray:

          In reply to #26 by Pauly01:

          Many similar replies appear like this in topics where the author is experiencing distress. However Michael if its a psychological issue that needs to be looked at this person does not require to investigate if a therapist is a theist or not. They only should look at thei…

          Let me tell you the most amazing example of “be careful who you ask advises from”:
          In the US there is an organization that is called CAN – Cult Awareness Network that was founded by a father who had lost his daughter to a cult or something. He was doing a great job for many many years then, he adviced someone in the cult of Scientology to get help. The cult learned of it and did a tactic that ended up that CAN got sued, couldn’t pay and had to give up the name to …..the Cult of Scientology!!! Wow, so when desperate people in trouble with a cult call the Cult Awarness Network, they speak with a member of the most powerful cult in the world! and the US government did not even try to fix that.

        • To Michael , Kim , Phil and Stephen

          I think the general trend is the more clinical and scientific the training , the more trustworthy the therapist. I would generally not go to a counsellor because I think the selection process for who becomes a counsellor is wrong(at least where I come from). I also agree you have to be careful of people who do not have a clinical aptitude for the job. My message is to stay away from ‘save the world’ types.

          One of Science’s objective’s(not sure of the apostrophise :) ) is to prevent people from making shit up. The therapist that spoke about ‘The Secret’ is a joke and in highly trained professional circles would have being viewed as such.

          In reply to #27 by mmurray:

          • In reply to #33 by Pauly01:

            To Michael , Kim , Phil and Stephen

            I think the general trend is the more clinical and scientific the training , the more trustworthy the therapist.

            It was crazy – she had been licensed as a social worker for years before going into more of a personal practice. Guess it goes to show that all the credentials in the world can’t remove the woo. (I went to somebody else and my first question to her was to see how she felt about The Secret – she hadn’t heard of it.)

            On a different note, I came across a blog today that really captures exactly what we’re talking about here, and I think it’s really worth reading – Evangelical Christianity and Low Self-Esteem.

        • I think your advice is absolutely justified. I do live in the United States, and it would not surprise me whatsoever to consult a psychologist on these matters and blatantly receive religious advice. In America, that is almost morally obligatory. Honestly, I would probably be more surprised if I didn’t hear any religious advice than if I did. In fact, I live about 2.5 miles from a “Faith-Based Counseling Center.” I’m not fucking kidding. In reply to #27 by mmurray:

          In reply to #26 by Pauly01:

          Many similar replies appear like this in topics where the author is experiencing distress. However Michael if its a psychological issue that needs to be looked at this person does not require to investigate if a therapist is a theist or not. They only should look at thei…

      • In reply to #26 by Pauly01:

        Many similar replies appear like this in topics where the author is experiencing distress. However Michael if its a psychological issue that needs to be looked at this person does not require to investigate if a therapist is a theist or not.

        Eh, I don’t know. I was looking for a therapist and the very first one, while not religious, was so invested with The Secret that all her advice revolved around that book. She suggested that I make requests to the universe, even for parking spaces, which had echos of my mom praying to Jesus for parking.

  6. It took me about 10 years to firmly declare my Atheism, for this exact reason. The day that I finally was released from it all, was when I realized that, whatever souls are supposed to be made of, souls aren’t part of the material world so they CAN’T BURN! Or think conversely, what use would a soul have for streets of gold (that it can’t walk on) or virgins, or even gates of pearl (are spirits bound by precious stone and can’t pass through them)?
    During the time that the Bible was written, fire was actually the biggest threat they could make. Fire departments didn’t exist back then; a lightening strike could wipe out an entire village and be contributed to ‘God’s wrath’. But, even if you could concede that there is an eternity, and concede that a soul, some part of us, will live forever, it is still absolutely physically impossible to believe that this invisible part of us would be subject to torture by fire. And what exactly would keep a soul bound to the confines of hell anyway? Will there be a magic force-field?
    Our very nature, to think in physical terms, leads us to think of this supposed afterlife in the same physical terms of our current existence, making the situation seem somewhat plausible. But it’s just not. I’m still willing to be wrong but I no longer waste my time living my life expecting an afterlife to exist. Grieving the loss of an afterlife that you truly believed in, realizing that this won’t happen, takes time. Give it time.

  7. I came from evangelical family, went through the same thing for a long time. Then I began to understand the brainwashing and the delusions behind the religion. No more worries now. To understand the brainwashing and delusions behind your own religion, try to understand them behind another religion. If you are Christian try to imagine how Muslims can believe what they do. You will find you are looking in a mirror. Eventually you will not experience any more fear of the hell your parents taught you, than the hell of other religions.

  8. Go to the old richarddawkins web site ( from this site use menu option Community – Old site ) and search for ” Effect of the concept of hell on children “. The comments there will get rid of that black cloud hanging over you. Enjoy the rest of your life in the sunshine.

  9. This as you’re no doubt aware is part of the process, and what keeps a great many otherwise normal and intelligent people trapped in a religion that offers the contradiction of eternal damnation and eternal paradise in the same turn. It constantly guilts you into thinking you’ve wronged against their deity merely for existing but that you’re special and will remain so as long as you’re obedient. A rather bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome where the community having been through fear and intimidation by their own predecessors use those same tactics to keep you there and as long as the fear holds you rationalize ways this makes sense and call it love.

    And through methods more insidious than Pascal’s Wager this very ‘loving’ community perpetuates their own doctrine over everything through intimidation and fear of damnation with promises they have no way of keeping (and punishments they have no way of enforcing) to keep you from leaving. It is why those feelings likely still persist. All part of the process. Without guilt and threat of punishment it becomes a series of contradictory stories with no basis in fact and antiquated notions of justice. Merely a testament of the thinking of the time as opposed to the thinking of deity of any sort.

    Much of my family still maintains this way of thinking but I haven’t for some 20 years now. No interest in going back ever.

  10. You seem to have had so much indoctrination – you mentioned church camp, bible studies, etc – that it’s only natural that you find it hard to shake the conditioning. Sorry if that sounds patronising. I’m frankly impressed that you had the courage to strike out on your own!

    Like a bully, the old conditioning is kicking in and challenging you. You should try and find a way to laugh at it, rob it of some of its power, maybe watch some films that satirize religion (Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” for example)…

    “O Lord please don’t burn us,
    don’t grill or toast your flock.
    Don’t put us on the barbecue,
    or simmer us in stock.
    Don’t braise or bake or boil us
    or stir fry us in a wok.
    Oh please don’t lightly poach us
    or baste us with hot fat.
    Don’t fricassee or roast us
    or boil us in a vat,
    and please don’t stick thy servant Lord
    in a Rotissomat.”

    Maybe someone can suggest some others?

    Don’t give in to the fear! It’ll pass.

    All the best…

  11. You seem to have had so much indoctrination – you mentioned church camp, bible studies, etc – that it’s only natural that you find it hard to shake the conditioning. Sorry if that sounds patronising. I’m frankly impressed that you had the courage to strike out on your own!

    Like a bully, the old conditioning is kicking in and challenging you. You should try and find a way to laugh at it, rob it of some of its power, maybe watch some films that satirize religion (Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” for example)…

    “O Lord please don’t burn us,
    don’t grill or toast your flock.
    Don’t put us on the barbecue,
    or simmer us in stock.
    Don’t braise or bake or boil us
    or stir fry us in a wok.
    Oh please don’t lightly poach us
    or baste us with hot fat.
    Don’t fricassee or roast us
    or boil us in a vat,
    and please don’t stick thy servant Lord
    in a Rotissomat.”

    Maybe someone can suggest some others?

    Don’t give in to the fear! It’ll pass.

    All the best…

  12. Congratulations, Petermead, on attaining freethought! I have traveled a similar road, but I took my time about it and was able to dissociate myself entirely from the Christian society I had grown up and lived in, so, by the time I finally adopted an atheistic viewpoint, the emotional and other subrational conditionings and ill effects that a Christian upbringing and education leave in the psyche had been largely undone. Others here have given very good advice. In particular, I would agree that making the acquaintance of at least one other atheist or agnostic with whom you can talk freely about the anxieties you still experience concerning Christian superstitions would be a great help to you. Talking about such things may be all you need to do to overcome the trouble, because you thereby bring it out into the open where it can be seen for the nonentity that it really is.

    Have you watched the videoclip entitled “Atheists – what if you’re wrong?” by Matt Slick in the News items of this website? You may find what he says very eloquently in that clip helpful in your own case too. I wish you all the best.

  13. even as a practicing catlick i had nightmares about going to hell, these left after i became an atheist but the interesting thing about them was they were never actually about hell so i couldn’t tell you what it was like in my dreams, only the fear that i was going there.

    so psychologically speaking, my fear was being selected to go to hell, not hell itself. looking back i felt it meant i knew i was different from the people i pretended to be like, and if there was a god/satan, they knew the truth.

    nowadays no amount o hell talk effects me. it no longer computes as rational. eternal torment? i can’t get my head round eternal anything! the idea of going to heaven scares me just as much. eternity doing nothing, learning nothing. all i could look forward to was a gradual descent into insanity.

    hell on the other hand, sounds bad but if it’s eternal all i can imagine is a gradual getting used to it. everything reterns to median eventually. furthermore, the company in hell would make it more barable than heaven.

    then the what if i’m wrong question. you could be wrong, but you being wrong doesn’t make anyone else right. there are too many alternatives.

    consider this:

    god made the world, satan is an angry angel who wants to take people to hell. religions teach us that satan is devious and tells lies, makes promises that are either false or come at the cost of your “soul”. one thing the religions all agree on is that satan uses religion (other ones, not the true one) to get his souls. after all, if you were satan, that’s what you’d do right? you need to trick people out of heaven the best way is false advertising. there are thousands of practicing versions of monotheism currently. if it’s true what you’ve been taught then all but one of them is false.

    so. as an atheist, you could ask “what if I’m wrong” and the only answer you can use is one based on reason and logic.

    as a believer, you’re encouraged never to ask “what if i’m wrong” but reason dictates that you should because statistically speaking, you almost certainly are.

    I hope this helps in some way. if i’m wrong you can call me a bad kitty in the next life cause i’ll be going the same place, you might have trouble picking me out among all the other cats though 😉

  14. Hi Peter,
    I don’t know how old you are but I am 43 and +-15 years passed before every ounces of “what if” evaporated in my mind so be patient. Brainwashing healing is a very long process. What helped me most, is reading and researching every single facts and making sure they where bullshits. (Like Incorruptibility). Now I am free but what a amazing waste of time this was!!!

  15. I was raised Catholic but except when I was a young kid I never had much of a problem with this. I can imagine that I might be wrong about the existence of some kind of divinity. But the idea of a God who was so powerful that he could create the universe yet so petty that he could watch individual humans and punish them for believing the wrong dogma just seems so incredibly absurd it never worried me. Besides there are so many very real things to worry about like climate change or that another idiot cowboy may one day be in charge of the most powerful military in the history of the world.

  16. Like you, due to my religious upbringing (Catholic ’til 21 – now 47), I had concerns over the whole “what if I’m wrong” thing – although it wasn’t quite as strong as what you described yours to be. The solution for me was to learn as many arguments favoring the position that God exists as I possibly could, as well as the attendent refutations of them. I have now reached a point where (while I can’t exactly remember all of the details of all of them) I am fairly confident that I have heard the “best” and found not a single one to be convincing in even the slightest degree. I am also relatively confident that I’ve heard ALL of the ones people seem to think have merit – I don’t expect any “surprises” in the foreseeable future.
    At this point, while in all honesty it would be irrational for me to say I know there’s no God and no Hell, I am as convinced as I need to be that it’s all a big steaming pile of rubbish. I also am as confident about that position as I need to be to say: “I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit” – a one-way, non-refundable ticket to the Netherworld if you believe in such a thing. The fact that I am willing to say it ought to be some indication as to just how inadequate I find other’s reasons for belief are (to parrot Sam Harris).

  17. Like you, I was raised in a fundamentalist church. The hell fire sermons take their toll. I am now in my 80s and no longer worry about hell but it took a long time for the damage to go away.
    Whenever I had doubts I would think about the events and thoughts the caused me to reject religion. I probably reinforce my position by visiting sites like this one. There is strength in numbers.
    I think you ma get some good advice here.
    Good kick

  18. I would suggest to Petermead that he thinks about the absurdity of the Christian heaven and Hell. Learn some physics. Heaven is like Hilbert’s Hotel with an infinite number of rooms. When another guest turns up, there is always another bedroom for them. Ah isn’t Jesus just so accommodating ! As for Hell, how does Jesus keep the fiery lake on the boil for eternity without losing energy? Ah mysterious are the ways of God ! The whole bloody threat is phony all the way through and its only purpose is to keep knees on the floor and bucks in the collection plate.

    Bloody religios and their Bogeymen ! Cast it aside, like so much useless ballast !

  19. I didn’t grow up in a very religious household. My mum was young when she had me, around 20, and she lived in a flat in south London shared with a flatmate, and until I was 4 I thought everyone lived at an all-girls’ party almost constantly. So I don’t know what it’s like to have to react against a really oppressive religious childhood, but I think it can sometimes drive people to adopt an ‘all-or-nothing’ response to anything which is even remotely related to religious ideas, whether they are actually religious or ‘just sound as though they are’. I think that can slightly skew peoples’ worldview to an extreme that is equally invalid.

  20. I know how you feel having been dragged through an evangelical church in my youth. I had a “hell does not exist” moment and a deep sense of relief when I subjected the bible to the same/similar standards of proof the average evangelical/fundamentalist demands of evolutionary and other contrary theories. Of course the whole edifice collapsed like a house of cards especially when one considers the false/unforefilled prophecy, Jesus promise (on no less that five occasions in the New Testament) to return in the lifetimes of those who witnessed his first coming… we are of course still waiting. Add to this the promises that prayers will be answered and the followers of Christ would be able to perform miracles and the fact no one in my church had managed to raise the dead let alone empty a hospital ward with a prayers (nor any church ever that i am aware of).

    The very concept of hell is a moral horror. I have posed the question to evangelicals, what crime in their opinion is so abhorant that it actually deserves an eternity of burning and pain? The answer is generally “that is human thinking” or “Its a mystery” which is of course a moral and intellectual cop-out. Imagine, I say to these people, if they came home and found me raping their son or daughter and when they expressed outrage and horror I merely replied, its ok, I’m just being mysterious. They would not accept this excuse, I fail to see why i should. Hell has no redeeming function, it is put there to frighten people and as a feeble explanation as to why god does not act in this world in the here and now when it might do some good.

    Once you really come to realise how completely subjective is the “evidence” for the Christian god or any other god for that matter past and present the fear that there might actually be a hell put there by a god who made man flawed and limited then commanded we be perfect evaporates.

  21. The what ifs related to god-belief are philosophical stances. If you are going to worry about ‘what ifs‘ related to the god of Christianity, then you, and Christians too, need to worry about the what ifs of other belief systems. What if Muslims are right, what if the Hindus are right, what if Zeus is, after all, the one true god? What if, what if, what if? You can’t worry about them all, and it’s not worth worrying about any of them in my opinion. My idea is to be true to myself, be good a far as I can, and accept life on that basis.

  22. ‘What if I’m wrong?’
    As a human being all you can do is look at the evidence. There is not a shred of evidence for the supernatural let alone religion. If you can accept that then its rational to say that all the religious imagery you are being occupied by was created be people who lied , made up and invented all this stuff.

    The human brain unfortunately is prone to guilt and shame , because you feel these emotions , it does not mean that there is any supernatural moral dictate at play. It’s just the way your brain has evolved to work.

    I also at times wish I could divorce all these emotions , unfortunate human baggage , it’s the cost of being alive.

    My advice , relax and live your life as best you can.

  23. I know exactly how you feel, because I feel the same. Not a day passes by that I don’t have these thoughts… What if… It’s not that I feel constant fear of heall anything, it’s just that I admit that there is a possibility that I may be wrong. I guess our problem with these fears is that we are not very convinced in your atheism. Childhood Catholic indoctrination means a lot too I suppose. And of course I have never given one second of thought to a possibility that there might be some other god that is the “real one”. The interesting thing is that I don’t even bother to read any Islamic, Hindu, etc teachings, and probably neither do you. Other religions do not give us headaches, do they? Having said that, I am not sure, that I will ever completely shake these chains off… Although, I hope I still have the second half of my life ahead of me, I believe the first 30-35 years of my life as a believer did too much damage to my brain that I would ever be able to recover completely.

  24. Ex-preacher here. I know and am intimately acquainted with your feelings. I had ‘preachers panic’ – a slightly more intensified (from a verse in Ezekiel that says preachers get judged more harshly) version of panic. This lasted a year, and still clutches onto my mind slightly. While I don’t know whether you need to seek professional help, I myself thought of that approach. Sadly, as my preaching career ended, I hadn’t the money to do so.

    Forced to handle my insane religious fears on my own (I am also the only atheist I know) I have come up with various ‘techniques’ of my own to assuage my mind when panic sets in. I always walk outside and observe the cars going by, the birds sitting on the fence, the smell of the forest in the field across from my home and remember that no matter how frightened I am, everyone, everything, is still going on around me as if nothing negative is happening at all. This usually brings the heart rate down immediately. To be honest, I think at these times about how implausible hell really is – what a horrid place. There is nowhere on earth that unpleasant. As sin-torn as the earth is supposed to be, it should evidence something as horrible as the image of hell.

    It takes practice. I still have horrible moments, bad dreams, but after a large amount of practice, it has gone from once a week, to perhaps once a month – and decreasing. I hope you are encouraged, it can get better. If you feel stuck, or that your panic is too difficult to overcome, try seeing a professional. If I had the financial ability, I definitely would have.

    Just remember, bring yourself into the realm of the present, remember that the sun is still fusing atoms, the planets are still going around, and the earth is still turning. I hope you find some comfort.

    • J
  25. I had a similar problem when I was a toddler. I was afraid of the dark. I would look out at the shifting shadows and imagine all manner of monsters in my room. Most particularly I was worried about someone under my crib who could reach out and grab my legs. (That particular fear lasted into my teens. I would leap onto the bed from a distance so they could not grab me.) I begged my parents to leave the door open a crack to let some light in. They refused. Eventually, they got me a night light and the problem went away. I give night lights to all new borns in my life.

    How could this experience help you? You need to shed some “light” on whatever it is that triggers these fears. At one level, you know they are just as bogus as the scary stories you hear at summer camp. EMDR is great for wiping out the emotional reaction to such trauma. I used it to get over my trauma surrounding hypodermic needles.

    Note also that indulging the fear by jumping onto the bed, gave it weight. Had I my life to do over, I would steadfastly refuse to “protect” myself that way.

  26. I wrote earlier using an analogy of fear of the dark, but the post seems to have been pulled.

    Here is another approach. Earlier in my life I decided to read both the bible and the Qur’an cover to cover. My high school teachers said that even atheists had to read it to understand English literature. I expected the bible to have a sort of Charleston Heston as Moses grandeur. My main familiarity with it was quotations coming along with death threats. It was dreadful, boring, repetitive, insane, the dog feces of literature. I could barely believe anyone could treat this garbage seriously. It had no emotional effect other than contempt and disgust.

    The Qur’an was quite different. It was much more poetic, not so obviously wrong or self-contradictory. It was very repetitive. Its hellfire descriptions were so vivid they gave me nightmares for months. When I found myself drifting to fearful thoughts, I just dragged them away. I used some of the Ken Keyes techniques.

    So I suggest you read the bible cover to cover to whip up enough contempt to overcome your fear. You might read one of the annotated bibles that point out its idiocy in case you might be tempted to gloss over it.

    Yet another approach. I used to deal all the time with emotional basket cases, young men who had been traumatised by thinking they were the only gay person on the planet, who deserved death for their crime. There was no point it trying to talk them out of their twisted thinking. All I had to get was get them in a room with some healthy people, and the social friction made this crap evaporate in a few hours. Maybe the solution to your problem is some socialising with the unafflicted.

  27. Hi Peter

    I am fortunate in not having been down such a fundamentalist route, but I can readily see that strongly believed fears of hellfire etc would be equivalent to long term exposure to traumatic imagery, leading maybe to something akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from internal images generated by external preaching, one might argue emotional abuse – especially when inflicted on children and young people (See ‘Good News Clubs’ etc etc).

    However, at 57, although I have been out to myself (and most others) as an atheist for over ten years, I had about 40 years (from childhood to my later 40’s) of some kind of faith. I still have ways of thinking and feeling that probably have a remote relationship to those beliefs, namely a sense of what ‘ought’ to be, what is ‘fair’, how bad I am, and so on – a sense of some overarching balance of justice, as if – to borrow Dawkins’ imagery – there is a kind of moral ‘sky-crane’ hovering above me and the world that ‘should’ pick us up – or might dump us – if things go wrong, or I do things wrong.

    I agree with other posts here, to live in the present moment and, in that, to look at what one does see and feel, rather than what we might imagine is there, or what we think we ought to feel. I try to accept I have fears and guilt, to look at them but not indulge them. I also strongly agree with the posts here about mental patterns – it’s as if I have many well worn mental ‘grooves'( or maybe tracks or scripts) that I have repeatedly gone down, played or rehearsed to myself – and guilt is in the top ten (anger and fantasies of various kind also feature strongly). Maybe even though such fears are horrible, they are at least familiar and so offer a kind of bleak if bizarre comfort.

    I am (slowly!) accepting that it will take some time, not just to recognise these habitual and unhelpful ‘grooves’ or patterns, but to let them to wind down, run out of steam, so to speak. I am even cautious about feeling bad about having these ‘grooves’, ie am trying to avoid thinking I should be guilty about feeling guilty, and try not to spend huge amounts of time or energy trying to suppress them. I am trying to better notice when a negative train of thought has started, to accept it is there, but say to myself something like: “This is a familiar worry. I’ve thought about a lot before. I’ve concluded these fears are unreal and nothing has changed since. Do I really need to think and worry about them again in the same way, going over the same points – and do I need to do this now?”. But this is not easy.

    And I can see it being difficult if you do not have face to face contact with fellow atheists. Maybe there are some atheists locally (who may even be known to you in some way but not as atheists) but it may be that forums like this will be your main contact and support. I wish you the best & keep in touch here.

    Steve

  28. I should say that while I have been an atheist for over 20 years now that expressing it wasn’t always an easy road. I was still staying at home when I came to the realization and it was after years of a rather gradual letting go. But the process of expressing that to family members was an entirely separate process. It was nearly traumatic in some cases and many still aren’t aware (but to be fair I live a great distance from most of them these days) and if there are other atheists in my family I don’t know of any.

    After years of reading up on mythology and asking myself numerous questions about what justifies a set of beliefs over the other and finding none had such justification I simply found myself letting go over the course of my adolescence, initially just accepting that perhaps some of it was true. Then, upon writing a concept album about the misconceptions of Christianity in a band I was in years ago I realized I simply didn’t believe at all. I was simply holding on through some feeling of obligation.

    And like many others here the feelings of guilt weren’t easy to simply dismiss but in knowing I didn’t believe any of it there and the lack of evidence continued to mount there was little recourse. At no point in my life have I ever felt like I made the wrong decision and I did have some friends of similar thinking over the years who either came out of religious families or simply never had belief. It did help to get a little perspective back then.

    Looking back, my 44 year old self is content with having separated himself from religion back in his late teens and anyone just coming to a similar place know this: it seems difficult now, and the feelings of guilt and betrayal will pass. If anything the community that fostered such guilt and intimidation for the sake of perpetuating a mindless belief should feel guilty passing that on to someone else.

    “What if” as a question is just there to reinforce staying in the flock as it were. You’ll be far better for shaking it off and finding better questions. Over the years you’ll find yourself asking, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

  29. What if Christians are wrong and Muslims are right? What if Muslims are wrong and Hindus are right? What if Hindus are wrong and Zoroastrians are right? What if RCs are wrong and Protestants are right, if Sunnis are wrong and Shi’ites are right, etc, etc, etc,……….. ad infinitum. To chase away the fantasies that are torturing your mind, just follow the recommendations of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180:

    ” Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

    Also try to read scientific books for the general public and you’ll find out that all the stuff written in religious books doesn’t make any sense. And above all, my dear fellow, READ THE BIBLE, and you will become a convinced atheist.

  30. Someone much wiser than I once said that anyone who claims to know what happens after death is either a fool or a liar. It may help to remember that all the descriptions of hell and all the rules that supposedly determine whether you or I will end up there are invented by men. The Bible was written by men and much of what we now think we know about hell wasn’t even in the Bible, it was made up by church leaders much later for the purpose of control and the exercising of power.

    You have taken a difficult but important step in throwing off the restrictions of religious belief. You now have the freedom to use your mind to explore and understand the wonderful exciting mysteries of the universe, instead of being told what to think, feel, say and do. One of the most vital things you should do now is to revel in your freedom by casting off the lingering superstitious nonsense that has been used to keep you in line. I don’t pretend that it is easy, after all you have been brainwashed almost from the day you were born, but it is possible. In doing so you will feel lighter, happier, more content and more excited by what you can achieve and help others to achieve.

    I went through a similar process and all I can advise is to join discussion groups, read as much as you can, interact with like minded people on line and in the real world. One day you will realise that your fears and doubts no longer assail you.

    Good luck my friend. It’s going to be fun!

  31. Perhaps this quote would be helpful:
    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. I am not afraid.” Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor during the 1st century

    • In reply to #44 by David W:

      Perhaps this quote would be helpful:
      “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, t…

      I think it is a form of PTSD: the kind of indoctrination, with threats of hell-fire, with which you were brought up, is psychologically abusive. But it will go. (Whether you feel you need formal help with it is something only you can know.)

      I like the Marcus Aurelius quotation very much. My user icon is another Emperor, Julian, who admired him greatly, and sought to be another Philosopher Emperor.

  32. Like you now, I was in the same place, where all of the contradictions and irrational teachings of the church (and the bizarre proclamations about heaven and hell) led to confusion and anxiety. I read Richard Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion”, and that book alone completely liberated me. You should believe in evidence based science. The book will definitely help you.

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