Depression, Anxiety, and Worry - What Can an Atheist (Or Anyone Else) Do About Them
"It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry." - Thomas Paine
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble purpose." - James Madison
"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." - Thomas Jefferson
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The joy that religious people seem to experience is so strong that we atheists wonder if we are missing out on what is most important in life. When we see pictures of church people holding hands and swaying with ecstacy, we wonder why they are privileged and we are not.
Anyone who has experienced religious joy knows what a marvelous, wonderful, delightful feeling it is. When I was in my early twenties, I joined a Quaker commune in California. Our house was in the middle of fields of tomatoes. I was thrilled to be living near the land, and I loved the members of the commune. Our Quaker meetings Sunday mornings were joyful occasions. On one particular Sunday morning I was flooded with love for the children attending the meeting.
When a person experiences religious joy, the heart is indeed lifted up. This lifting up is recognized by other people, who are happy just being with the joyful person, and so religious joy is increased by its effects on other people.
The key element in joy seems to be a basic trust in the world - for the time being we see the world as trustworthy or, at the least, manageable. We feel that we belong. We live in a safe place. Instead of being concerned about our safety, the effect we are having on other people, our future, or other considerations, we inhabit a land where we accept others and ourselves, freely. We are afloat on the thrust of the present moment. This trust can be seen in any person who is absorbed in any larger undertaking - the religious person at a church service, the surgeon, the seamstress, the artist, the craftsman, the student, the reader, each one deeply involved in what he or she is doing. However, religious joy is something special.
Before the age of science, and particularly before Darwin, religious explanations of life made as much sense as any. Only with science and with Darwin did we realize that nature is cruel, with a food chain in which more powerful creatures eat less powerful creatures. Nature with a food chain cannot be the creation of a beneficent creator.
Does this impossibility of religious faith mean that atheists are excluded from life's most marvelous, wonderful, delightful feeling? I'm afraid that I must answer, it does. It seems to be true that only through ignorance and superstition can a person avoid the anxieties of living and experience ecstatic joy. Only religion can perpetuate the sheer delight of a visit from Santa Claus. Atheists know how empty is the belief in the promise of an afterlife, the belief in the power of prayer, and the belief that God is looking after us. We know that religious joy is a house of cards. It is immature. It does not earn our respect. Our knowledge excludes us from religious joy. Does it also exclude us from freedom from anxiety?
What is this anxiety that religion counteracts and that atheists, also, would do well to counteract?
Let's consider two types of anxiety - worry and perseveration. First, let's consider worry. One's child has taken the family car and doesn't come home at the expected hour. The parents pace the floor and look out the window, imagining a car wreck and mangled bodies. They listen carefully for the sound of a siren. Thinking and feeling are suspended between hope (that everything is all right) and despair (that the worst has occurred). The mind continues to worry until there is a resolution - either the child comes home safe or the police call.
Similar to worry is perseveration - the Pest in your mind that reminds you of the awful things that have happened to you and the awful things that you have done. If it could, this Pest would have you go backwards in time and redo your mistakes. The mind doesn't want to accept the reality of the happening, and so it goes over and over the awful happening in the mind, reliving the argument that was lost, reexperiencing the humiliation and the scorn, and agonizing over the chastisement. However, the mind rejects being a total victim and brings forth new elements - new (winning) arguments, name calling, and wreaking vengeance physically. The new elements seem to allow the sufferer to become victor instead of victim, just by thinking.
When you are perseverating, you are consumed by a victimizer-victim relationship. Your consciousness rules out wiser considerations.
One peculiarity of perseveration is that the mind interprets the dialogues that go on in the mind as being dialogues between real persons. Even though the dialogues exist only in one's mind, the persons doing the talking seem to be real. The mind has tied to the present the argument that was lost, the humiliation, and the chastisement, in the hope that the episode can be improved upon to one's advantage. Instead of saying, "Case closed!", the case is still open. It is alive in the present, unfinished.
Companion to the pest is the Critic, which stands at your elbow (in your mind) and tells you how stupid, ignorant, and awkward you are (at each moment). It finds fault at every turn.
What are the mechanisms that religion uses to counteract the pest and the critic? And how can an atheist deal with these problems?
Life is so full of catastrophes! Not only are awful happenings regularly reported in the news, but we are always in danger of our own sickness and death or the sickness and death of those close to us, from disease, accidents, and aging. We might do our best to be safe and healthy, but we are nevertheless constantly in danger, and, from time to time, all of us suffer personal catastrophes.
Feeling helpless in the face of real or potential catastrophes is a terrible feeling which we call anxiety. It is the opposite of happiness. If we could somehow counteract our anxiety, we would feel better.
The religious solution
Religions have come up with something to counteract it. They say, we are not helpless, after all. There is something we CAN DO. What is this antidote to anxiety? It is prayer. No matter what terrible catastrophe is occurring, we can do something about it - we can pray.
The atheist solution
A. When your mind is torturing you, you need to take a stand in opposition. When you recognize that your mind is perseverating, for example, call a halt to it by addressing yourself and saying (in your mind) something such as "Please go back." At first, this action will be effective for only a minute or two, after which the intrusive thoughts start up again. However, with persistence, the mind finally obeys the command for longer and longer periods of time. Persistence pays off. When you awaken in the middle of the night with the perseverating thoughts in your mind, say "Please go back" several times in a row, up to ten, counting as you do so: 1 - Go back, 2 - Go back, 3 - Go back, and so on, or you can keep track on your fingers: (left hand pinkie) - Go back, (left hand fourth finger) - Go back, and so on.
Another effective self-statement is "I'm bothered," suggesting to yourself that the pest is at it again. Say, "I'm bothered" ten times, counting the times on your fingers, and wait to see if the pestering has stopped.
The "Please go back" and "I'm bothered" sayings have the advantage of relocating your conscious self - your "I" is then the commander instead of the victim. You want to get out of the maelstrom of unwanted thoughts and feelings by relocating your self-consciousness.
It's not correct to believe that either the awful, pestering thoughts or the victim of the thoughts are the total "you." When they are pestering you, they SEEM to be all of who you are. When you say, "I'm bothered by these pestering thoughts," you are recognizing three "you's" - the you that is pestering, the you that is the victim of the pestering, and the you that says, "Please go back" or "I'm bothered." By taking sides with the you that says, "Please go back" or "I'm bothered," you diminish the importance of the you that is a pest and the you that is its victim.
B. You need also to see that your mind is trying to remake reality. Recognizing this, you need to assert reality. In addition to saying "Please go back," say, for example, "That's the way it is." Notice, also, that whether you were innocent or guilty, justified or not justified, right or wrong, the facts remain. You might be able to make amends, but, if not, you have no choice but to live with the facts with the intention of asserting acceptance of reality. The unreality of the perseverating thoughts, with their measure of revenge and rewriting reality, is replaced with acceptance of reality. When the mind reverts to the perseverating thoughts, get the mind's full attention by repeating the saying, up to ten times. Count the number of times it is said: 1 - "That's the way it is," 2 - "That's the way it is," 3 - "That's the way it is," and so on up to 10 or so, or you can keep track of the number by counting on the fingers - (left hand pinkie) "That's the way it is," (left hand fourth finger) "That's the way it is," and so on. Also, try, "End of story. I move beyond it" or "End of story. Let the healing begin."
I have found the following sequence to be useful:
Go back (10 times or so).
I close the book (i.e., the episode).
I shelve the book.
I leave the room.
I close the door.
I lean my back against the door.
Other self-talk, repeated ten times: "The facts remain, the facts remain, . . .", "I am, I am, I am, . . .", "Peace, peace, peace, . . ."
Another that I have used a lot: "You are obsessing, You are obsessing, You are obsessing, . . ." By using this self-talk, I am separating the "I" from the obsessing one. The "I" is observing the obsessing one.
Another ploy: notice the past being continuously added to and try saying, "Here. Now," repeatedly - you are pulling yourself outside the maelstrom and are asserting the here and now. Smell the air. Try to detect differences in the smells in your nose - the air in the room, the bedclothes, etc.
C. See that you are looking at life from a victim's viewpoint.
Other people have handled worse problems than yours. To get a different stance, say to yourself, "I'm ok. My life is ok. I can handle my problems." Repeat, if necessary, up to ten times. If you're not winning in this struggle, try "More effort. More effort. More effort," repeated as long as the words seem to be having an effect.
Conceive of yourself as being invulnerable. Entertain the possibility that you are invulnerable. Entertain the possibility that you are indifferent to the awful episodes that are still plaguing you.
The whole point of this self-talk is to feel that you are in control, that you CAN DO. By talking to yourself you entertain the possibility of being in control. Experiment with words that assert your being in control, not vulnerable, such as, "I come first," repeated at least ten times. Saying this moves you forward toward seeing yourself as independent, not so subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. You entertain the possibility that you are an entity separate from your victimizers. This separate entity is a magnificent creation of life itself, worthy of your own love, kindliness, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. To entertain the possibility of loving this separate entity, you can say to yourself, "I warm myself with my own affection."
D. Better than Valium is touching. If you are still feel filled with anxiety, get someone (or yourself, if no one else is available) to touch you. Start with the toes. Touch (or pull on) each little toe, then each fourth toe, and so on. Touch each pair of fingers - each pinkie, each fourth finger, and so on. Touch on each side of the center line of your skull, starting with the back of your neck and proceeding to your crown and down to your eyes. Touch each closed eye and each nostril and both sides of your lips.
Next get a hammer and touch the cold metal to your bones: cheek bones in turn, forehead, nose, shoulders, hip bones, elbows, knees, ankle bones, and soles of the feet.
In time, doing this exercise just in your imagination is sufficient. Your toes FEEL pulled, even though you are pulling them only in your mind.
Next imagine that you are holding your heart. Imagine that you are touching your alimentary canal from top to bottom. Imagine that your head is resting in the palms of your hands and that you are gently lifting it up and down.
E. When the perseverating thoughts weaken, there is a void left in the mind. Sometimes this void can be peaceful and restful. However, in such a state the mind is vulnerable to further attacks of the unwanted thoughts. This is the time to assert the enjoyment of the present moment. Just as a child loves everything around him or her, the adult, too, can enjoy present circumstances - the colors, smells, touch, sounds, and tastes of the present moment. Recognition of them can be activated by a saying, such as "This moment is delightful" or "I enjoy this moment." To assert the statement fully, repeat it ten times: (left hand pinkie) "This moment is delightful," (left hand fourth finger) "This moment is delightful," and so on.
This can also be the time for sexual self-awareness. You can turn your attention to yourself as a sexual person - men can recognize their maleness, and women can recognize their femaleness. You can say, "I enjoy being a sexual person. I enjoy being a member of the male/female sex." You can let sexual ideas enter your mind.
Those who seize the hour with zest and purpose,
lifting a crown from its pale locks,
easily reap the richest bounty,
but we fools force it out of our way
with hope before us and happiness behind,
and our tomorrows murder our todays.
The religious solution
Although it is true that I as a single person might be ignorant, there is Someone I am in touch with who is all knowing. Although it is true that I as a single person might be weak and ineffective, there is Someone I am in touch with who is strong and effective. When I am in need of someone who knows more than I and who is more effective than I, I can ask Him to help me out, and He will do so. Having access to someone all knowing, strong, and effective is a wonderful feeling.
The atheist solution
Atheists wouldn't be atheists if we didn't have an affinity for education. We are not content with the status quo. We want to know more and more. It is education that has brought us to the atheist position. We know too much to be content with the vapidities of religion. It takes a lot of intellectual strength to be an atheist.
As people who are educated and open minded, atheists relate particularly well to certain non-theist heroes: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Voltaire, Shelley, Byron, Goethe, G.B. Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Robert Frost, the Curies, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Mark Twain, Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Einstein, Linus Pauling, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Stephen Jay Gould. Pertinent quotations from some of these heroes can be found in the Internet at this address:
Some people have more of a guilty conscience than other people. Those people who are very much taken with being a good person are the ones who suffer most from a guilty conscience. Even though their infractions are only run of the mill, they question themselves at every turn - did I do the right thing? Did I embarrass myself? Did I look foolish? The guiltiness weighs them down, and they feel depressed.
The religious solution
Religions both add to the guiltiness and relieve it.
Most religions teach that human beings don't stand alone but, on the contrary, are supernaturally connected to something outside themselves, such as God. It is easy to understand why some people believe this - since a person's mind does not have dimensions or boundaries in space, it is easy to think that it is infinite. Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) say that "we are all connected," i.e., all living things are supernaturally connected. Other religions refer to "the ground of all being," as if we are connected with some higher (or more basic) Mind. All in all, being acceptable to God is a huge responsibility. God expects a lot in return for his friendship. The Christian religion, for example, tells its followers, "Christ died for your sins. He has made you acceptable to God, who forgives you and makes you his friend again. You are reunited with not just a good person but with the Best Person there is." However, this Best Person is very judgmental (the sheep and the goats) and requires continuous attention through prayer, attendance at church services, confession, etc. Jews believe that they are specially chosen by God, but much is also required of them - eating Kosher, prayer, attendance at services, mezuzahs on doorframes, etc.
The atheist solution
Atheists see that the connectedness myth is not only irrational but also harmful. It's awful to think that someone is looking over our shoulder every minute or that someone is keeping a record of our good deeds and our bad deeds, like Santa Claus, who "knows if we've been naughty or nice." It is good for me to be separate and to feel separate, to feel the freedom of not being watched. I can affect other beings, but I do so through my behavior, not directly (supernaturally) through my mind.
Atheists can seek self-forgiveness. In the same way that self-compassion opposes shame, self-forgiveness opposes guiltiness. Both occur only in the mind. Just as shame implies lack of compassion, guiltiness implies lack of forgiveness. If I am troubled by shame, I can seek its antidote, compassion, by saying, "self-compassion." Similarly, if I am troubled by guiltiness, I can seek its antidote, self-forgiveness. Both self-compassion and self-forgiveness are a matter of emphasis, an emphasis of a value or a perception that draws toward or includes instead of repelling or excluding. Nothing is overturned or destroyed. Rather, everything is as it was before, except for the way things are looked at.
Compassion and forgiveness do not take well to being forced. Once the idea of compassion is acknowledged, it takes effect. Once the idea of forgiveness is recognized, it, too, takes effect. Self-compassion says, "I don't have to justify myself. I am already justified by the magnificence of being human." Self-forgiveness says, "I don't have to forgive myself. Whether I was right, justified, and not guilty, on the one hand, or wrong, not justified, and guilty, on the other hand, it doesn't matter. Either way, what happened can't be changed. The past is irreversible. My only option is to move on."
The question arises, shouldn't you be punished for the harm that you did. Shouldn't you pay your debt to society. If compensation or restitution can be made, certainly it should be made. If it is possible (and right) to apologize, certainly you should apologize. Furthermore, punishment makes you more wary of repeating an offense. However, it is a dangerous remedy - it creates its own waves of fear and hatred.
When I am forgiving, I am friendly despite what the other person has done. I reestablish a friendly relationship. I take the other person back into my society. Forgiveness maintains the cohesiveness of the friendship or the tribe. I allow some mistake or wrongdoing in the past to be relegated to the past - I acknowledge that the past is irreversible, and I start afresh. The exile is brought back. I recognize that life can not be creative in the present when it is shackled to past mistakes and wrongdoing. Forgiveness clears away blame, which is its opposite.
Forgiveness of self shares with forgiveness of others the elements of excusing, accepting, allowing, and reassuring. It clears away self-blaming so that I can be friendly toward myself. Whereas self-blaming causes me to feel victimized and inferior, self-forgiveness raises me up to being an equal. Strength and success again become possibilities.
When left unopposed, self-blaming seems to take over a person's whole consciousness, elbowing out possible feelings of good nature. The thought of "I am at fault" acts as a funnel through which related memories are poured. The mind is active remembering instances of being at fault. There seems to be little room for self-forgiveness. Saying the word "self-forgiveness" in one's mind creates a chink through which new possibilities can enter. The amazing variety of life can be mine again, not as I wish it were but as it really is. I can see things as mine, touch things as mine, hear things as mine, taste things as mine, and smell things as mine. Things exist with me and for me. I am in touch with the present. By persistently giving consideration to self-forgiveness, I make room for it and push back the tide of self-blaming. I am more than my self-blaming.
In the background of this direction of one's attention is this attitude: "I forgive myself. I allow what has happened to have happened. I accept the reality of having done something wrong. Life is imperfect, and I am in Nature, not above it. I match the wrongdoing to the time when it occurred. I did wrong, but I am not now doing wrong. By involving myself with past mistakes and wrongs, I am corrupting the present, which is innocent. I relegate to the past those things that were. I live in the present.
"I accept the reality that life is full of mistakes and wrongdoing, which are in the nature of life itself. A person can not be a human being without mistakes and wrongdoing. I accede to the reality of the imperfection of life itself.
"I turn toward instead of away from my self-blaming and guiltiness. I face them. I reestablish a friendly relationship with all parts of my mind, including my self-shamer and self-blamer. I see them not as flooding me but as just one aspect of someone very complex."
A large portion of hatred in one's life seems to make self-forgiveness more difficult to find, as if hatred had hardened the heart and made comforting and reassuring less accessible. People who have experienced strong and enduring feelings of hatred can benefit by recognizing that hatred causes this problem of making self-forgiveness more difficult to find. However, even with this problem, self-forgiveness can still be sought and found, even if the seeking and finding take longer and require more effort.
If a person has broken something, he or she can consider excusing himself or herself. Accidents are in the nature of life. It is only human for one's attention to lapse occasionally. It is unfair to expect perfection. In the background is an attitude of understanding the inevitability of imperfection: "Accidents occur to everyone. Everyone breaks things occasionally. I am equal despite what I did. I accept the reality that life is full of accidents."
Similarly, if a person has behaved irrationally, he or she can consider excusing himself or herself. Everyone behaves irrationally much of the time, despite his or her efforts. For example, people avoid people who resemble disliked people in their past, they are attracted to people who resemble loved ones, they forget appointments they would rather not keep, they take foolish chances, and they buy things they soon regret having bought. Other people are quick to point out irrational behavior, calling the person silly, stupid, and foolish. If one blames oneself for one's irrational behavior, self-blame takes over consciousness, and the person can become dominated by it, with one's whole consciousness caught up in self-blaming, making it difficult for self-liking to take a foothold. However, by saying the words, "I am not silly, stupid, or foolish. I like myself. I am compassionate toward myself. I forgive myself," I begin to break through the domination.
Although an apology is not necessary for forgiveness, forgiveness comes more easily when there is an apology. Saying "I'm sorry" is saying, "I have changed, I see things differently, I wouldn't do that again." I can more easily establish friendliness with someone who is sorry, because the threat of a repetition of the wrong is reduced. In the absence of an apology, overlooking the wrong requires the effort of reminding oneself that the person is much more than the wrong he or she has committed. Consequently, with myself, if I am sorry, I can say, "I wouldn't do that again," along with "There is a place where forgiveness is" and "I am sorry," addressing the image of your victim in the mind.
Many people feel guiltiness for wrongs against their children. It is easy for an adult, whose power is strong, to mistreat a child, whose power is weak, and the consequences can be terrible.
Life can be honored as it is. To dwell on past failings is to turn away from present concerns. Implicit in living in the present is this attitude: "I reach out to my present life, in all its amazing richness. I repudiate dwelling on the past and give attention to present life. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of the present prove the triviality of my regrets, which are now just traces in my mind."
"I forgive the self-blamer in me. It has become overblown, but I do not run from it. I deal with it. I allow its existence as part of reality."
As one continues to deal with the self-blamer, it comes to take its rightful place in one's mind, evaluating and suggesting but not continually hurting one's feelings. One learns to accept that he or she has a self-critic and that it doesn't have to be a monster.
The religious solution
The Christian religion promises its followers eternal life. Death is merely a transition from living this life to living the next life. Our death in this world is the opening to a much more wonderful world in the afterlife.
The atheist solution
Just as no one knows what it is that adds life to matter, no one knows what it is that subtracts it. All we know is that it is subtracted, as one of the features of Nature.
The energies that were coordinated to make an organism are dissipated at death, and the organism no longer exists.
What we do know is that we cannot give ourselves credit for who we are. We can give ourselves credit for acknowledging that each of us is one of Nature's creations.
These truths lack the beauty of the religious solution, but they are superior in laying aside delusion.
The religious solution
Some people get an ego boost just from "being a child of God." The ego boost is even greater in Judaism and in end-of-the-world religions. The Jews believe that they are God's chosen people with a special place in God's affections. End-of-the-world religions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, believe that they might be among the "remnant" mentioned in the Book of Revelations.
Most religious people identify first with their religion. To them, their religion says the most about "who they are." Ask, "who are you," and the Jew will respond, "I am a Jew," the Roman Catholic will respond, "I am a Catholic," etc., even before they say, I am an accountant or a teacher or a doctor, etc. They advertise who they are by wearing a cross, putting a mezzuzah on the door frame, etc. Some religious people even wear special costumes to show others who they are - religious habits, Jewish men's black hats, Moslem women's veils, etc.
The atheist solution
Whereas the religious person gives himself or herself credit for being a child of God, the atheist gives himself or herself credit for being a rational person. Whereas the religious person is out of tune with reality, believing in myth and superstition, the rational person is in tune with reality, having learned to appreciate the contributions of scientists, particularly Darwin. We recognize the inferiority of the religious position and the superiority of being a modern, educated person, and we give ourselves credit for our superiority. Our minds are free of the tangles of superstition and ignorance.
Achieving philosophical maturity is no small thing. We human beings are curious and eager for knowledge. So far, so good. However, in our eagerness we are sometimes willing to settle for knowledge that is false. We can't endure the discomfort of not knowing.
When we see how vulnerable people are to proseletizing, we realize that philosophical naivete is the norm. Some people, in their discomfort with not knowing, are ready to believe almost any notion, including astrology, spiritualism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Bible fundamentalism, saints, miracles, reincarnation, transmutation of bread and wine into flesh and blood, assumption of a person bodily into heaven, being among a chosen people, etc. The person who sees the foolishness in all of this and who holds to rationality is an unusual person.
The atheist is a free person in a way that no religious person can be. Our self-respect (also called self-confidence) grows out of the recognition that WE are at the summit of creation. We purposely test limits, because we know that they come not from on high but from human beings, like ourselves. We grow in self-knowledge, not bowing to conditioning and dogma but always learning, about ourselves and about our world.
Doonesbury Cartoon by Garry Trudeau
The religious solution
Religious people can be heard saying, "Praise the Lord" and "Thank you, Jesus." By so doing they are counting the blessings which the Lord has given them. They are in God's own family. By showing gratitude, they honor the gifts, which gain significance by being the gifts of God.
The atheist solution
We can learn from religious people to have a sunnier outlook on life. Although life is absolutely awful, it is also absolutely wonderful. We can search for the bright side of things and be grateful for the good things that life has given us. Worry and anxiety are of no value in themselves. Recognizing this, we can take steps in our minds to downplay them.
The religious solution
Many churches have the advantages of great art and great architecture. Visiting St. Peter's, for example, one is surrounded by architectural and artistic magnificence. Even modest churches have their beautiful aspects - stained-glass windows and the handsome costumes of their priests. Some churches waft incense at their congregants. Virtually all churches have a display of flowers.
The atheist solution
Some of the greatest art and music are religious art and religious music. Is the fact that this art is religious to exclude us from the enjoyment of it? Not at all. We atheists can enjoy religious art and religious music just as much as religious persons. On a visit to Venice I visited the church of I Frari, with its marvelous altarpiece of the Virgin Mary being transported to heaven. This gorgeous painting has subject matter that nowadays seems ridiculous, but I nevertheless enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the wonderful interior of the church, with its splendid vaulted ceilings.
Even more than art and music, though, atheists can enjoy nature. The wonderful discoveries made with the Hubbell telescope are perfect for us - we can enjoy the immensity of the heavens, knowing that so much lies beyond what we see. We can enjoy the wilderness, gardens, seashore and ocean, and mountains and valleys.
The religious solution
Religions offer society to their adherents. At the least, there are church services, where everyone in the congregation sits together. Many churches now have gone beyond just sitting together and have taken to holding hands at some point in the church service, while other churches hold hands and sway and sing, all at the same time. Many churches offer society in other ways, including young people's groups, Bible study groups, sewing circles, committees, etc.
The atheist solution
Although it is true that we atheists can't belong to a church without being hypocrites, we can belong to other groups. Unfortunately, these groups are not the rollicking, hugging, loving groups that some church groups are. They tend to be intellectual, or else they are sports oriented.
Theists have recognized that love, kindliness, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy are the highest virtues, and so they have made them their mainstay. We atheists shouldn't let these virtues be just the province of religion. We can make them our mainstay, as well. Our atheist groups can be just as idealistic about them as the religious groups. Will other atheists criticize us for being soft? Maybe, because they will (mistakenly) be thinking that these virtues are religious. However, they will be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. These virtues are indeed the highest, for both atheists and theists.
A personal story
I have two sons, one of whom has children. My sons mean the world to me, and I want to be close to my grandchildren, as well.
Right from the first there have been problems with my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren's mother. She has seemed to want to keep my wife and me at arm's length, not letting us participate in our son's and grandchildren's lives, as we would like to. My wife and I have tried not to expect too much. We don't think that we have been pests.
My daughter-in-law is a devotee of a religion. My grandchildren are being brought up in that religion. My wife and I have attended all of the religious ceremonies for all of the children and have not objected to them. However, when the time came for our oldest grandchild to apply to colleges, we learned that she was applying to religious colleges. She decided to go to one of them. This is where the terrible part of this story (for me) begins.
At a family party following a religious ceremony for one of my grandchildren I took my granddaughter aside and explained to her that she was making a poor choice. The college she was going to is fundamentalist, I told her, and quite different from the more liberal church she has been attending.
My granddaughter seemed to take our grandfather-granddaughter talk well, but I learned later that she burst into tears and summoned her mother. From that time to this (many months) her mother has refused to talk with me, and my son has accused me of interfering. The invitation to my granddaughter's high school graduation party was addressed only to my wife, and my son and his family boycotted Thanksgiving dinner with us. Only my wife is being invited to his house for Christmas Eve.
I recognize my daughter's-in-law behavior as typical dogmatic thinking: when someone disagrees with you, reject and punish that person. It's the same thinking as was evident in the persecution of heretics, Galileo's imprisonment, and the Inquisition - don't tolerate opposing views.
How has all this rejection affected me? I have been obsessed with it. My mind goes over and over my conversation with my granddaughter and several conversations with my son. I think and rethink what I wish I'd said. I imagine throwing paint in my daughter's-in-law face. I awaken at approximately 3 a.m. every night with these thoughts in my mind.
How have I survived? By making a great effort to oppose the insane workings of my mind. When the thought of my daughter-in-law comes to my mind, I say to myself, "Please go back." I repeat these words so that they occupy my mind in place of the thought of my daughter-in-law.
I say to myself, "That's the way it is." I work to accept the reality of my daughter-in-law and what she has done.
I say to myself, "I don't HAVE to have my son and his family." This is a hard thought, but it is true, and it is a better adjustment than being a victim. I say, "My life is OK. I can handle this problem."
When I awaken in the middle of the night, I use the touching exercise.
When I weaken, I say, "More effort. More effort. More effort," thus strengthening my opposition to my insanity.
If you can stand more detail on this topic, see Impossible Daughter-in-Law.
Because of our intellectual maturity, we atheists are especially well equipped to notice beliefs that are ridiculous (to us, at least) in an age of science. In addition to religious beliefs, what about the following?
What about kowtowing to "aristocracy" (particularly British aristocracy)? Shouldn't we say, yes, Charles Windsor is an idler, living disgracefully off ill-gotten wealth he doesn't deserve? A "prince?" Not in America! Let's join Thomas Paine, who wrote that "titles mark a sort of foppery in the human character." Let's stand up for abolishing the use of titles of nobility from America's newpapers! Clicking here takes you to a sample letter to the editor.For your delectation, here is a Doonesbury cartoon on the subject.
Are Confederate generals, such as Robert E. Lee, heroes? Listening to many Civil War commentators, you'd think so! These men were utterly wrongheaded with respect to slavery. Their shameful loyalty to the Southern cause cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Heroes? Not in my book!
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