Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Depression and Atheism

I promised this topic a while back. Sorry it's taken me a while. Actually, I don't know if I should apologize at all. It seems kind of silly of me to think that any of you wake up day after day thinking, 'is this that day that Ray will finally tell us about his atheism?' then being disappointed when I don't. Beyond silly, it's arrogant.

Nevertheless, I've been promising and not delivering for so long because this is something that never even occurred to me and I never really think about. I'm not really sure how to go about addressing the two topics as they relate to each other because, in my mind, they don't. Both things are deeply personal to me and have grown roots that are so old and deep that removing either depression or atheism from the earth of me would be, to say the least, disturbing. I'm willing to do so with depression; I'm not with atheism.

Let me start by saying that I believe I understand theists, specifically their perspective of atheists. I spent most of the first two decades of life as one. It seems hopeless to live without the belief in god. If no one created us, if there is no externally designed plan for my life, and, most importantly, if nothing happens when I die, if there's no reward for the good and no punishment for the bad, then what's point of it all? How can one live in a universe so empty of meaning, purpose and hope?

It's easy to understand why theists can believe that atheism and depression go neatly hand in hand.

I was depressed well before I became an atheist. The first time I seriously considered suicide was when I was around twelve. I had no reason to feel bad but I did. I felt so bad about myself, so unloved, so worthless, so invisible, that I went down into the basement where my dad kept his guns. I spent a long time sitting with a loaded rifle in my lap, bawling and blowing snot bubbles. I never could work up the nerve and when I heard the garage door opening - I had been home alone - I quickly unloaded the gun, put it back on the rack and went to hide in my room until I could calm down.

So, now, I've told that story. Didn't plan to but there it is. My point is that my atheism didn't lead to my depression. Clearly, I've struggled with some pretty classic symptoms of depression for most of my life and well before my, um, conversion.

Even though that's the right word I hate to use it. For me, at least, conversion carries a lot of baggage. When I think of conversion, I think of the scene in the New Testament when Saul is strolling to Damascus and has a massive, singular revelation that causes him to completely change the course of his life and, for some reason, his name.

My crossover from theism to atheism took longer than an afternoon walk. It was probably a very long time coming but, as a process of which I was aware, lasted about 6 months. I won't go into the gory details. I'd reached that time in life when one starts to consider his place in the world and I'd been exposed to enough of the church to understand that it was a very human creation instead of the holy, unquestionable institution that I'd been raised to believe in. These two things gave me the courage to actually consider the possibility that the faith I'd been raised in wasn't necessarily the truth.

I spent a very weird summer living in a crap apartment downtown, working the night-shift at a local factory and reading. I read everything I could about faith, theism and religion. By the end of that summer, I was settling a little uncomfortably into atheism. I still had those questions I mentioned above except without the hopelessness. In fact, as I look back now, I count this time as easily within the top five happiest points of my life.

In time, I've answered those questions for myself. Theistically speaking, I am incredibly comfortable in my skin. In fact, as I struggle with my expanding and contracting emotions, my professional life, and all the relationships in my life that I seem to subconsciously destroy one by one, my atheism is one of the most solid things about me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not an evangelical atheist. I'm not crazy about my tax dollars going to blatant theism but I'm never participated in a lawsuit about it. If the mayor of my town wants to put one of those cheesy lighted nativity scenes in front of City Hall in December, go right ahead. I'm just saying that, of all those things that all of us struggle with internally, the theology thing is settled for me.

I don't know if I've covered this at all. As usual, I just cracked my head open a little and tried to give you a look. So, lurking and not so lurking theists, if you have any questions or comments, have at it.


Melanie said...

12....12....HOLY cow! You really have had a rough and tumble life haven't you? Sheesh!

It's like you read my mind. Even after all of the e-mail's we have passed back and forth, I'm big enough to admit that i wondered, myself, if your depression had anything to do with your "religious choices". Guess you can chalk it up to religious fanaticism. :)

I'm still rooting for you that the depression WILL go away, or at least go into remission for a while, and that you will be able to discover who you are without it. You may actually like "him".


Mona Stott said...

Great insight Melanie, and thanks for the post

Ariane said...

Thanks so much for willingly sharing with us your personal thoughts. I know that's typically not an easy thing to do.

I'm so sorry to hear of your life long struggle with depression. When I was younger I believe I battled with more of a mild depression. It wasn't until I was in my adult years that my depression actually turned severe.
You've had a long battle and you're still fighting! Don't ever give up!

I hope that you will continue striving for success in overcoming your battle with depression! Thanks again!

4-Lorn said...

Very heartfelt and honest. I relate on almost every level. Though I'm not an atheist, my faith and beliefs have taken such a harsh toll over the years because of this relentless depression that I can't pray anymore. It's emotional and futile. It makes things worse.

There's a song on the radio playing these days (that I don't particularly like) that has one line in it that hits home for me.

"Just prayin' to a god that I don't believe in."

That's sums it up for me.

Puresinner said...

Like you, I too suffer with an extreme form of social phobia, or avoidant personality disorder. Unlike you, I not only believe in God, my life is God. I have a question for you, but first:

I've been a loner all my life, choosing to play alone rather than with friends due to shyness. My shyness gave way to anxiety when, in highschool, I was made fun of. Pushed around, books knocked out of my hands, last to be picked in P.E. class, etc, etc. Then later in life, I thought I could help my situation if I pursued a wife, but while dating over the course of 4 yrs, I was lied to and avoided, and when I did get a date, never had a second. I was told once before she ever even knew me that my life was stagnant, without zeal or ambition. So I looked to pursue wealth and put all my eggs in one basket and failed miserably. I'm still paying for that mistake 3 years ago and will continue to do so for a long while. Things were on the up and up in my church, though, where I was elected to the church board and was made a Sunday School teacher. My theology, however, which is not so positive and upbeat, led to my dismissal as a teacher and from the board. I moved away from there as a result.

I left for college to be an engineer. I now work a production job. I wanted at least 10 kids. I've never been kissed. I wanted a life. I have so much more, "For God has chosen the lowly things and despised things and the things that are not to nullify the things that are." (1 Cor. 1:28)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matt 5:3-5)
The last shall be first and the first shall be last. (Matt 20:16)

I have pleaded through all these years that God would remove this anxiety, but He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9)

Scripture speaks of the parable of the sower in Matt 13. 18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

And in Eph 6:13, "stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand."
Jude 1:24, " To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen."

So here's my question, why when things got tough did you run away and I remain standing?

Ray said...

Hey PureSinner, thanks for your comment and question.

I understand what you're asking but, I can't accept the premise of your question. It presumes that the church is the right place to be; for me it's not. I didn't run away from the church or christianity. I ran to my truth, my place to be when I recognized it.

Also, this wasn't a particularly tough time in my life. If it had been, I probably wouldn't have been able to find the space in my head to work through these grand issues. Nor would I have had the confidence to begin to ask the questions that I had to ask.

I am not hiding, defeated and frightened, from a god on whom I turned my back because I did't like him. I am living free of religion in a world where god simply doesn't exist.

I always find it interesting when christians quote scripture to me as a way, I assume, to persuade me of their version of the truth. In your world the bible may be the word of god but, in my world it's a mostly random collection of ancient texts that were arbitrarily mushed together by a collection of pre-Enlightenment thinkers - all men - whose motivations were as much political and financial as they were spiritual, if not more. Basing an argument on scripture does not persuade me of anything.

Puresinner said...

I wish you well, then, and may you have only success in all you do.

Ray said...

Thanks, Puresinner. You, too.

Mental Health Speciaist said...

This blog is filled with some great instances of inspiration. A lot of people make a call for therapy with these kinds of problems. It's astounding how far you've come.

Frida said...

Hi Ray,

I'm also a depressed atheist. I've heard that religious people are happier than atheists in a given region (although happier countries have a smaller percentage of religious people), but that hasn't convinced me to try religion as a solution to my depression. I was raised in a secular family and I am an engineer and I would be forcing myself to try on a belief that is completely illogical to me.

Puresinner said...

Hello Frida,

Your right in saying you cannot force yourself to believe what is illogical. I have a question for you or whoever it may concern, but first I have to lead into it.

I have many Bible verses I would like to quote, but I realize you do not identify with the Bible as being a valid source for answers. But the Bible does answer why we (myself included) cannot make ourselves believe. It answers how I overcame unbelief to obey God wholeheartedly. It explains why you struggle with belief that there is a God. It explains why depression exists and why as a believer, it still exists. It explains why God so much hates religion, yes, religion. Religion is synonymous with hypocricy. Religion is nothing more than a means for man to "legally" boast before men. If you would like to read an example of this: Luke 18, 9-14.

The point is this, I reference the Bible to answer many things. It's a source other than my own intellect, my own feelings, my own experiences, my own relationships. The Bible has been proven to be more trustworthy than I. Let me explain. I have made many mistakes in my life that I would like to do over. At the time, I thought I was in the right, only to be proven wrong by experience. This is life. If what I know now could have helped me then, then how can I be so sure that the decisions I'm currently making will not at some point in the future reveal I am currently wrong? How can anyone be certain of anything? As Jesus stood before Pilate to be sentenced to death, Jesus said to Pilate, "All those on the side of Truth hear My voice." To which Pilate replied, "What is Truth?" The Bible is certain of what Truth is.

Before the question, one last thing. I believe in a God I cannot see or hear or touch or smell or taste. I believe to live as a Christian has been much more difficult than to have lived not as one. I believe that regardless of what horrible sins I committ, I am covered by grace and can never lose my salvation, yet I'm convicted for taking too long a break at work. I believe that all my good deeds are the result of the Holy Spirit within me, not the result of my own actions so that no reward awaits me for the good I do.

Why then, do I desire that you should know Him the way I know Him? I love Him with all my heart and wish to share this love with all who will listen. Why am I a fanatic about my Savior? What can all of you (non-believers)collectively agree on is the logical reason for such a faith?

If your scratching your heads, the answer is in the Bible:) Look for it.

Signs of Depression in Men said...

Thanks for yet another great article. Atheism is something that is always on my mind.

Anonymous said...

I suffer from depression, and I am a christian. I am a mormon. No, I do not have horns or six mothers. My mother is a actually a convert from the catholic church, born and raised in Italy. I am just a normal person. I love my church, but I still suffer from depression. Christianity is said to be a beacon of hope, a comfort, and a guide. With this said, it is often thrown at me "how could I possibly be depressed?" But the more people I meet who are from my same religion and have this problem, the church is not to blame. Life happens, and events in life happen, however I used to blame my religion.
I didn't want to live up to be anyone, I didn't want to live up to standards.

I used to be frustrated, not knowing why I couldn't shrug off this depression I have. I tried medication, counseling, but nothing seemed to work. I stopped going to church, I felt inadequite among "perfect" people praying to a god that I felt either wasn't there, or couldn't hear me. Why would I want to obey this God?

Then one day, when I hit rock bottom, I decided to start up again on my christian faith. And I realized that the rules my church had, were based around serving God, but they really served myself and others. Every activity I did began with service for other people, and in turn it gave me self worth and balance.

Religion is not a solution for depression, I still suffer it to this day. However good works for other fellow human beings can bring amazing thoughts and emotions, you didn't know you had inside you. A common community where you lift others and they lift you.

And when it comes to a solution, I think that's entirely what you find that brings you the most peace. For me, it was my religion.

The Pursuit of Happiness said...

Well said, Anonymous. Thanks.

Kelly said...

Sorry for the rambling mess. Just stumbled across your blog. I'm not sure how long I've had depression, but the symptoms really made it known when I was becoming an atheist and when I finally admitted to myself that I'm gay. I don't attribute my depression to atheism at all--I found that when I started thinking for myself I saw the world and how I function in it and how others function as well. Nor do I blame being gay for my depression. I think that being an atheist and being gay are just fine and perfect for me, but I'm having trouble adjusting to a society that doesn't accept people like me. Long story short, a year after depression hit I started drinking. I did that for about 6 or so years before quitting a few years back. I've been on and off meds for depression for the last few years--I'm going to have to go back on meds because I almost lost my job this week.

Anyway, that people think atheism and depression go hand in hand are extremely mistaken. Just by looking around the internet it's pretty clear that many atheists are perfectly happy defining their own existence by choosing what meaning their lives have. That's actually one of the greatest things about being an atheist, and many find peace in this. I, however, don't have peace and happiness because of the depression. There are precious few resources for atheists with depression and I think this is because atheists DON'T want to be stereotyped as being depressed. The only time I ever come across the topic is when atheists have to explain to theists that atheism does not cause depression. Well, what about atheists who do have depression? We exist, and we need help. Theism obviously doesn't work for me--being exposed to it makes me worse, so therapy that relys on a higher power does not work. I have to go now. I wish I had time to finish my thoughts.

ferdinand receno said...

I like reading you post, it open new windows for me. Trying new avenues for a walk would certainly help people find a way to block the ever staring eyes of depression. Thanks for sharing this great article.

buy rs gold said...

a new frustrated atheist. I have noticed that faith based folks are more happy compared to atheists in a granted location (although happier nations around the world possess a smaller sized percentage of faith based individuals), nevertheless which hasn't already persuaded me personally to use religion as a means to fix my major depression.
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