Dealing With Depression as an Atheist and Learning to Love Myself
Why I'm Sharing My Story
To be an atheist is not always the easiest path in life. There are a lot of people who hate atheists and act cruel to them. For a long time in my life I had to hide my beliefs. I had to hide the fact that I was an atheist because I lived in a community of Christians who were not accepting of such a path.
Living a life where you can't be yourself and you have to hide who you are is very hard. In hiding my beliefs I wasn't accepting or loving myself. I feared how my atheist self would be judged and treated by others who believed differently. It took many years of self-hate and doubting who I was before I could tell people openly that I was an atheist. These days I carry the label of atheist with pride. I don't let the haters make me feel horrible for being who I am. We all have to go on our own journeys to figure out how to love ourselves and to find our own truths. It took me a long time to figure out that I had to learn to love myself before I could live a happy life.
I hope that in sharing my story others who have been in similar situations will realize that they aren't the only ones struggling to be an atheist in a world dominated by religious ideologies.
The Worst Crime: To Be An Atheist
I remember the first time I ever told anyone I didn't believe in God. I was around 13 or 14 and sitting on the kitchen floor talking to my oldest brother. I don't remember the conversation we were having before my admission but I remember what happened after. I told him I didn't believe in God and he looked at me with shock and then anger. My other brother walked into the room and my oldest brother said loudly "Did you hear what she just said? She said she didn't believe in God!"
I didn't know at the time that this was wrong. I was just a little kid. I grew up in a household where religion really wasn't talked about so I was left on my own to figure things out. I did know about God, heaven and hell, and the basic stepping stones of Christianity that kids are taught but at that age most kids have lots of questions and thoughts. In that simple statement "I don't think I believe in God" I learned quickly that I had said something that was going to get me treated as if I were a delinquent. Though I wasn't an atheist at that point, I was old enough to wonder what was real and what was not. That day I got my first lesson in religious discrimination.
They both were upset and kept asking me questions. They lecture me about the Bible and God and told me that I was wrong. They yelled at me and shamed me for thinking such a thought. I remember not being to happy with myself or them afterwards and feeling very confused about life's truths. It would be a while before the topic of religion would come up again. When it did I was in for the worst period of my life.
9/11 Changed My World
I was 14 years old when 9/11 happened and my world changed so that Christianity became a more important topic in our household. 9/11 and the terrorist attacks scared the world. Both of my brothers were deeply impacted by fear for their immortal souls. Some people thought that such a horrible event was the beginning of the end of the world. It was this event that triggered my brothers and my mom to seek answers and comfort in their religion. They began to go to church and read the Bible. Before I was born, when my parents were still married, my mom, dad, and brothers went to church. My mom was Catholic but they went to my dad's Baptist church. After I was born, they divorced when I was around a year old. My mom was a single mother and church became an afterthought because she had a family to provide an income for.
When Christianity seeped into my world at the age of 14 the way it emerged in my life wasn't positive. In was out of 9/11 that the worst side of Christianity surfaced in my life. Before, religion was non-existent in our household and wasn't an issue, but after 9/11 that statement I made years earlier that I didn't think I believe in God suddenly became a focal point. My family didn't care so much about me and what I needed to make sense of the world as much as they cared about me submitting to this ideology so they could save my soul from the depths of hell.
For a young kid with hardly any religious education the idea that a God existed and loved people but let so many die horrible deaths on 9/11 just didn't make sense. As a 14 year old I had questions like "Why would a loving God do something like that?" I was still young and learning about religion so I questioned everything. My questioning was taken as me not believing in God and my family got angry anytime I said something that went against what they believed.
I remember my oldest brother being the worst to deal with. He would corner me and drag me into debates where everything I said was wrong. There were days where he would make me sit in the living room and he would ask me religious questions for hours. No matter what I said I was wrong and he made me feel like crap. At that time I wasn't an atheist and had never even heard the word. I was just a confused teenager searching for answers.
Some days I'd be there with my angry brother for 4 or more hours being told I was wrong time after time. Four hours is a long time to lecture a kid on how wrong they are about everything. A lot of damage to my self-esteem was done to me in those sessions. My family was blind to the internal struggles going on within me. I became depressed and angry. I was angry at my family, angry at God and Christians, angry about 9/11, and so much more. I constantly questioned what was true and not and whether God was real or fiction. No one noticed that I was going through a huge struggle in my own head. At some point I stopped talking and fighting them and hid in my room away from their constant berating. I didn't want to talk to people who only seemed to care about proving themselves right and not caring to even listen to what I had to say.
I would consider what happened to me verbal abuse. Because I wasn't accepting Christianity I was treated like I was a bad kid. I was a good kid. I never got in trouble, made good grades in school, and was well behaved. I was constantly yelled at and insulted. I had religion forced on me out of my brother's fear the end of the world was coming because he believed the Bible predicted such an event.
Confusion Then Clarity
Over time my depression got worse and worse to the point I was suicidal. There were a few times I came very close to killing myself. No one noticed either. The abuse and forcing of religion continued until one day I just broke. I remember the day well. My mom and brothers forced me to go to church. A person can't just say they adopt a religion. It's a personal choice. It can't be forced. Whatever the belief system, a person has to believe it and feel that it is the truth deep down in the depths of their mind and heart.
On the day I was being forced to go to a church I was being forced to adopt their beliefs when I didn't accept it as truth in my mind or heart. The way they got me to go was by yelling at me. I remember during the service I was so angry and hurt that I cried silently in the pew. My mom and brother noticed and were embarrassed. When we got home I went to my room and just cried.
It was out of that moment of pain and sadness that the fog of confusion in my brain cleared. I strangely found a moment of clarity. I had stopped crying and was staring out the window. It was a sunny day and the sky was a brilliant blue with fluffy white clouds. The air was cool and felt good on my face. I don't know why but it was in that moment I stopped caring what my family thought of me. Maybe it was the looking out at the world and seeing its natural beauty that helped me find peace of mind. Maybe I finally had hit my breaking point and decided to stopped struggling with my family. Maybe it was the thought that I only had to graduate high school then I could escape my family. Whatever it was, that day though I had hope that things would get better.
Finally Finding The Right Path
My relationship with my family was damaged and it was around the age of 14 that I began waiting for the day I was 18 and could move far away from them. I got accepted to college at the age of 18 and applied to live on campus, away from my family. It was while I was in college that I was able to think for myself and to form my own identity and perceptions of the world.
I've always been a smart person, even as a kid. I loved reading and researching. I remember back in high school I would read about cultures all over the world and how people differed so greatly from place to place and changed throughout history. When I went to college I studied Sociology which offered a perspective to studying people and the way they act and think that made sense to me. I didn't just choose to be an atheist. I became one because of my education. In college I went on an intellectual journey to learn about every religion I could to see which I thought was the path for me. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Native American spirituality, along with religions that no longer exist and new ones emerging were all part of my education. I wanted to understand different beliefs, their origins, and practices.
I didn't find a good fit in any one religion. Some had nice teachings but the supernatural elements were never something I could accept. It was only in the world of scientific approaches that I finally felt at home in my own mind. I found that science offered me explanations about the world and how it works that made sense and answered the questions I had my entire life. When I study religion I see it through the mind of a scientist. Looking back, even as a young kid, I always tried to explain the world as a scientist would.
A Zen Buddhist Helped Me Love Myself
In my search for my identity and acceptance of my atheism I somehow found peace with myself with the help of a Zen Buddhist. In a college philosophy class I was assigned to read a book by Cheri Huber, a Zen Buddhist, called "There Is Nothing Wrong With You." I often find it funny that it was in the teachings of a religious teacher that I accepted my atheist self.
Huber's book was all about learning to accept who you are. She talked about how people will put you down and make you feel horrible but their voices don't matter. The only way to be at peace within yourself is to accept who you really are and love that person. I appreciated her book because her view was so peaceful. I read more of her books and listened to her in interviews. When I'd seen the worst people could be because of their religious perspectives, I appreciated how kind she was to all human beings no matter who they were.
Huber gave me the stepping stones I needed to change the way I thought about myself. I stopped being angry at Christianity because of her and forgive those who had judged me badly. I learned to reflect and try to understand why people are the way they are and in that understanding I realized I judged Christians in as hateful way as they had judged me. In hating religion I caused myself internal turmoil and couldn't have peace of mind in my world surrounded by a Christian family. When I let all the anger go and proclaimed that I was an atheist and proud of that all the self-hate and hate for others slowly drifted away.
College Is A World Of Diversity
A college campus is an amazing place. There are students from all over the world, from different religions, and cultures. For me it was a great place to be an atheist. For the first time in my life I met other atheists and it was okay to be me. I found a place with people who thought and saw the world through a similar lens and that feeling was wonderful.
It was on campus that I also began hanging out with a Christian friend who was determined to convert me. Because I had let my anger go, I was willing to talk to her just to learn about her perspective. She and I would meet up once a week and talk about our beliefs. She wasn't forceful and only cared about having pleasant conversations about spirituality (the opposite of what I experienced in my youth). For a year, she and I would meet regularly and have nice discussions about religion and science. I began reading more about science and what other atheists had written. After a year of talking my friend finally gave up on converting me and when she did I finally realized that I was an atheist for life. No matter what Bible passages she presented me or evidence she gave me to prove her beliefs right I could not believe they were the truth.
I found truth in science. I found beauty and purpose in numbers, theories, and scientific methods. I tried to think like a Christian in my earlier life. So many people told me that is was the correct path I needed to take that I tried. I tried to be a Christian. I read the Bible and listened to Christians tell me their beliefs but it never worked for me.
It took me a long time, but around the age of 21 I figured something out about religions and other similar beliefs. Different people's brains are wired to see the world differently. My brain is wired to think like a scientist. I can no more think like a Christian than a deeply dedicated Christian can think like an atheist. There is no such thing as right or wrong. We all think we know the truth but in reality truth is an objective concept. We all have to believe in what is best for us for our own individual lives. The path of the atheist gives me purpose, passion for life, answers, and so much more. There is no other path I can follow because I will not find those things anywhere else. Trust me, I've walked on many paths created by different religious ideologies but the only one that was 100% right for me was in the footsteps of atheists.
What Is Heaven To An Atheist?
After a lifetime of searching for answers I have finally reached a point where I know enough to be at peace. So what belief has brought me peace you may ask? It is the idea that when I look at Earth I see Heaven. If you think about the world we live in it is an amazing place. I can stand on a mountain and look down at the beauty of the world and have a deeply moving sense of awe. A simple flower in my eyes is made up of microscopic electrons, processes like photosynthesis, and more. The flower in return is part of a greater process within it's ecosystem. The world is an amazing place in how things work together and exist.
Some people think heaven is a place where you go when you die but to me heaven is where you are when you are alive. Yes, there are bad things going on like poverty, wars, etc. It is in the human experience of living and being able to experience all that life has to offer that heaven on Earth can be real. The ability to live and feel happiness, love, and more is a gift. It may be a gift from a God (if you so believe) or it could be a gift that was given through natural processes. Whatever the reason we are here we are lucky. It doesn't matter what a person's religion is. Our world is a heaven if we let it be one for us. Just look around and appreciate what you have and love your life. Don't get caught up in anger or hate. That is a waste of the precious and limited moments you have to truly live.
For Those Atheists Who Feel Alone Or Hated...
For those of you reading this who have been in the same situation as me there are a few things you should know that I wish someone would have said to me when I was younger. It's okay to be an atheist. There is nothing wrong with that. People might be mean to you, say bad things about you, and try to prove you wrong, but other people don't matter. Just learn to love who you are as a person.
You don't develop a belief system overnight. It is a lifelong process we all go through so there is no hurry to figure things out. It is in learning to accept yourself and your identity that you can start to ignore all the critics. You aren't alone and it is okay to be yourself.
© 2015 Casey White