Even if we wouldn't go back for the world, there are some things many nonreligious people miss about their former religious lives

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Writer and activist SAMI AL-ASADY

I was raised Muslim in the United States with refugee parents from Bosnia and Iraq. Before entering our mosque, I washed my hands, feet, and face, removed my shoes, grabbed a prayer rug, and bowed in submission to Allah. The croons of the sheikh singing sacred Arabic syllables vibrated off of the walls in tandem with the quiet whispers of individual prayers. I followed the example of those around me who were absorbed, absolutely present in the spiritual experience happening in the room.

Although I did not feel as though I experienced transcendence at the mosque, I miss the sense of purity I found in Islamic ceremonies.

The power of habituation emanated in that room, for the large group of adherents, although divided by sex, were united in a spiritual struggle. Unfortunately, the rise of religious fundamentalism and international terrorism has besmirched the image of Islam. Amid my burgeoning skepticism, I grew apart from organized religion. But the memory of washing my hands multiple times before touching my mom’s pristine Koran is dear to me. I find it remarkable that an otherwise normal-looking book can transform into a holy object because of the meaning we give it.

Although these memories are dear to me, I haven’t looked back from religion because I have understood—and witnessed—the political and humanitarian consequences of unbridled religious faith. I visited my mom’s Bosnian hometown and saw thousands of marble gravestones sprawled across the hillside, like a layer of snow. I pictured snipers firing atop hills and tanks pillaging mosques, wondering why the world bore witness to genocide for two years without rendering an international response. Religious divisions are superficial ones, but faith, when used as a weapon, can justify violence when fear for the loss of social, political, and cultural values is activated.

When I affirm that I am an atheist, it is not just a term that captures my lack of belief in God, but it also holds an identity. I lead a life of reason. I have found a place to embrace my love for inquiry in philosophy, a discipline oriented towards attempting truth through reason. As opposed to organized religion, philosophical wisdom does not attempt to foster objectivity through a single prevailing dogma, but rather, by helping people to settle moral issues through an individual approach that most satisfies their intellect. While one may object that this breeds relativity, I can affirm that when I do good, it is for the sake of good, not God.

“I never understood that. It was very, very strange”

Establishing a lifestyle around my atheistic identity has brought forth more clarity than I could have ever found in my Muslim upbringing. The paradox of science is that the more it discovers, the less humanity realizes is known. The German sociologist Max Weber referred to this estrangement from meaning as “disenchantment.” However, the wonder I find in scientific progress is the eagerness for its claims to be refuted by a greater theory. There is a pleasing effect to attaining truth in a mind-independent sense. The cost of adopting religious views is epistemic pride—an outlook that considers our knowledge infallible. As Socrates illustrates in the Allegory of the Cave, it is not only imperative that we orient our minds towards breaking free from the shackles of a false reality, but also to educate those who see the shadows of truth.

I do not wish to suggest that living a life without faith is unchallenging—of course it is. I would be dishonest if I wondered, despite my atheism, how I would find absolute meaning in religion out of simplicity and convenience. If nature is indifferent to humanity’s suffering, then life would be meaningless, yet I created my own meaning by liberating myself from the allegorical cave and leading a life of reason. Leaving Islam was my first step toward building this life.

Socrates declared, in the Apology, that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Now that I have exited the allegorical cave, I can never return. I do not want to.

Professor of history, author of ‘Black Freethinkers’ CHRISTOPHER CAMERON

For the most part, I am pretty grateful that I am no longer religious. In my day-to-day life, being an atheist saves quite a bit of time. When I was a believer, I went to church at least twice a week and sometimes more. Now, instead of going to Bible study on Thursday nights, I spend valuable time with my family. Instead of waking up early on Sundays to go to church, I sleep in and just relax. In my most fervent religious moments, I went through periods where I’d wake up and one of the first things I’d do in the morning is pray and read the Bible for 20-30 minutes. That is time I can now spend running a couple miles, watching SportsCenter, or reading another work of fiction.

I also have a lot less anxiety about the state of my soul and my relationship to an imagined deity. I no longer feel guilty about singing along to hip hop lyrics that are replete with expletives or having one too many when I go out drinking with friends. As an atheist, I can just live my life without worrying about being a sinner who is destined to burn in hell for all eternity. When I finally accepted that I was an atheist after a roughly 3-year period of wrestling with my religious beliefs, it was the most freeing feeling in the world. Knowing that only other fallible and imperfect humans would judge me for my actions and not the all-powerful creator of the universe ironically helped me become an even better person—more patient, compassionate, and desirous of helping others.

Leaving religion is not without its drawbacks, however. While I was always a bit skeptical of religious doctrines at the various churches I attended, I did appreciate the opportunity to build community that they provided. In 2006, for example, I moved down to Chapel Hill, NC to attend graduate school and quickly made some wonderful friends at the local African Methodist Episcopal Church I joined that fall. To be sure, I made friends in my graduate program as well, but sometimes I just needed and wanted to be around some people outside of academia. My graduate program was also not a particularly diverse one, so it was nice being able to quickly make connections with other young Black professionals at church. Even though I am not religious and have left that church, I still have some of those connections today, including the youth pastor from the church who performed my marriage ceremony in 2012.

“They are so successful at building communities”

Along with the sense of connection and community that attending church provided, what I miss most about religion is that it constantly pushed me to think about the type of person I am and the type of person I want to be. Oftentimes this sense of reflection was accompanied by threats of eternal damnation, which I don’t miss. But it was nice to be in an intellectual space that aimed to foster moral and ethical development. Indeed, it was the type of ethical and moral questions raised in some of those church services that pushed me to look beyond the Bible for answers and led me to the work of philosophers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti that started the process of undermining my religious belief. As an atheist, it is easier to get through a day without reflecting on the state of a soul that I allegedly possess, but sometimes that also means I am not thinking enough about my personal development. Luckily, the main thing I miss about church is something that can be rectified without it and I would not trade my atheism for religious belief any day.

Attorney and author of ‘Women Beyond Belief’ KAREN GARST

For the past several millennia, power was coupled with religion to such a strong degree that leaving one’s religion was simply not a choice. But times are changing!

I attended Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck, ND in the 1950s. Everyone I knew attended a church or synagogue. I probably had never even heard the word “atheist.” And I certainly never doubted my faith.

What I really liked about religion was the social aspect. I sang in the church choir from grade school through high school. In high school, we marched down the main aisle of the church in our gowns. It was pretty awesome. As adults, my sister, my brother, and I would imitate this special walk while each singing our different parts. For your information, the song was “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage.” Also, we had a group in high school called Luther League. As I didn’t date in high school, this was my social life. We got together every Sunday night and had a potluck, went bowling, roller skating, etc. I think I also appreciated the thought of an afterlife. At that time, I was sure I would go to heaven forever.

When I attended a Lutheran college, Concordia College, in Moorhead, MN, I was surprised to learn in my Religion 101 class that there were multiple authors of the first books of the Old Testament. Each was identified by the first letter of the name they used for god – Y for Yahweh, E for Elohim, etc. That did put a few skeptical thoughts in my mind. In graduate school in Madison, WI I met a great array of people. I often call that time my political education. One of the people who was responsible for bombing the Army Math Research Center had just been caught and it hadn’t been long since the Dow Chemical riots on campus. I was active in the Teaching Assistants’ Union and we went on strike in May of 1980. To me, church was family, neighbors, and acquaintances. It was difficult to go to a local church where I knew nobody. So I pretty much stopped going. When I moved to Oregon, I did attend a Lutheran Church that was pretty progressive. When I married, we switched to the Living Enrichment Center which was more spiritual than religious. When it folded, we were done.

I got more involved in atheism, per se, when I learned about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. This Supreme Court decision allowed Hobby Lobby to not provide certain forms of birth control to its women employees because of its “religious views.” I ended up interviewing women who were atheists and wrote two books based on their essays. I became active in several atheist organizations and attended many events and spoke on podcasts.

While I have retired as an author, I am still interested in the subject. What I dislike most about religion is that it does not take a lot of reading to see that every one of these myths about a god is based on what went before it. The Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh has a story of the ark and the Old Testament writers copied it almost verbatim. That most people never do any research or question their religion is almost mind-boggling to me. I also resent the power of religion in our politics. The Supreme Court decision mentioned above is just one example. Various churches support of political candidates is really a violation of church and state.

As I approach my 72nd year, I still enjoy studying the history of religion and other myths. But I certainly wish others would see them as what they are – myths.

Professor of philosophy and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt RYAN FALCIONI

As I began to think about this question, I was surprised to realize how many of the things I do not miss about religion, or am even ashamed of, are intimately connected with the things I miss the most.

I miss the hope of heaven, for example—the comfort and optimism that came with the belief that I will be given a perfected body and be reunited with loved ones in a paradise cultivated for the faithful. Further fueling this hope was the belief that there would be additional treasures bestowed upon the select few of us who had been divinely ordained to play significant roles in both expanding God’s Kingdom on Earth and in fighting until our last breath in the upcoming apocalyptic showdown.

Feeling like a Green Beret in God’s army is a pretty damn good feeling!

This privileged status was at once intoxicating and crippling. I have vivid memories of being seven or eight years old and praying in earnest for God to grant me the strength and courage to fight in this cosmic war…that I would not fear mortal death and that I would not deny Him even when facing inevitable persecution and physical torture, as did so many Christian martyrs before me.

That’s some heavy shit for a second grader to contemplate.

So for me, this hope and dream of eventually reaching heaven came with a heavy price tag: my impending martyrdom. I had many sleepless nights wracked by a deep-seated fear that I was not up to the challenge. I even feared that I might end up in hell.

As I got older and began to have serious questions and doubts about the faith, fears of eternal punishment weighed heavily on me. It all seems so tragic to me now, but the fear of hell served as a pretty effective impediment to my personal growth for many years. This can be one of the more sinister dimensions to belief in eternal punishments and rewards.

I do not miss this part of my religious life.

Yet despite these worries, in my younger years, I was completely committed to fulfilling my divine mission. And to be completely candid, the sense of purpose, certitude, and accompanying superiority felt amazing. There was an assuring simplicity to this totalizing ideology. It permeated everything. Secular music: bad; homosexuality: evil; premarital sex: don’t even think about it. Non-Christians: evil…but also potential converts. At age seven, I had the answers to all of life’s big questions and the confidence that goes with it. What I now see as a fear-driven, otherizing, and intellectually dishonest worldview, I experienced as an empowering and righteous rubric for life. As I reflect on this feeling of importance and elevation above others, I feel ashamed. I am ashamed of the condescending pity I felt for so many of my friends. This kept me from engaging with people in more meaningful and honest ways. But again, this self-righteous certitude, and even pity for the lost masses, is both invigorating and addicting.

“I miss sort of being in that mindset. Because I can’t get that back”

On a much lighter and hopefully more conciliatory note: Religions do rituals well. I miss many aspects of daily and weekly prayer and worship, rites of passage, holidays, and even church services. I miss the sights, sounds, and smells of all of these things. I even miss the tastes (well some of them, anyway) of church potlucks. To this day, I can’t help but grin when I catch a whiff of slightly burnt church coffee endlessly heating in those gigantic stainless percolators that must only be sold to religious institutions. Furthermore, in these years of my fervent religiosity, the holiday seasons were fuller and more integrated into my life and community. And as much as I protested forced participation in church plays and events during my adolescence, these were often fun, meaningful, and they definitely succeeded in bonding our families and communities. I know that many secular groups have created new, or resurrected old, rituals and rites of passage. But reflecting back on my experiences I cannot shake the realization that religions just do these things better. If for no other reason, they have been in the ritual and holiday business for a very long time.

I find that I can feel gratitude for many of the experiences that I had in religion. I am also glad to have worked through others that were both personally toxic and inimical to what is good and true. I am grateful that in the place of false hope and crippling fear, I have cultivated pragmatic realism and resilience. In the place of condescension and certitude, I have developed kindness and a capacity to embrace ambiguity.

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A child of Bosnian and Iraqi war refugees and a first-generation college student at Arizona State University Barrett, The Honors College, Sami embraces his diverse academic and multicultural background...

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Dr. Ryan Falcioni is a Professor of Philosophy at Chaffey College, in Southern California. He specializes in 20th century philosophy of religion, ethics, cultural theory, and philosophy of language. Currently,...

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Christopher Cameron

Christopher Cameron is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He received his BA in History from Keene State College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in American History from the...

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Retired executive director of Oregon State Bar. Written two books on women and religion. PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.