Are de-converts doomed to live in the pit of existentialist despair?
Oftentimes, those of us who have left religion behind are asked to define what keeps us going, what motivates us, what rescues us from the pit of existentialist despair now that we no longer believe in god. Some of us do not seem to have much of a positive belief system, others have adopted skepticism or humanism, others excavate their own philosophies of life.
A new member of an ex-fundy support group I help moderate addressed this topic recently and his answer was so interesting that I asked him if I could re-post it to this group and he graciously consented.
I wanted to share an epiphany I’ve had after many years of wandering a post-fundamentalist wasteland. Maybe it will have meaning for some of you.
My Southern Baptist fundamentalist belief began disintegrating right around the time I went off to college. This was very painful for me (as I’m sure comes as no surprise to most of you). I fought it every step of the way as my faith slowly bled from me — my belief in Christ had formed the core of my self image, and my view of myself collapsed along with the elaborate theological construction that had undergirded it.
This was triggered not by liberal intellectual college professors, but by my inability to rationalize the failure of my earnest prayers to head off my parents’ divorce. First my belief in the effectiveness of prayer inexorably eroded, and eventually my dogmatic mind could no longer hold my rational mind at bay. For about 30 years I struggled in my search for meaning. I couldn’t escape the influence of that fundamental Christian tenet that without God, life has no meaning. I was agnostic, but I kept looking for some alternative way to believe in God so that I could recover the sense of meaning I’d felt as a fundamentalist.
I was caught up in the idea that I had to first decide whether I believed in God before I could build a new system of belief. I was never able to get beyond that first step. Yet after the painful experience of losing my faith, the last thing I wanted to do was to build my view of the world and sense of meaning on top of another rug that could be pulled out from under me. I’m happy to say that, in the end, I found a way of understanding that made that first step unnecessary.
A couple of years ago, as I was shaving one morning before going to work, I was thinking about a book I’d been reading on evolution. I have some educational background in biology, and I started thinking about some of what I remembered about the molecular basis for life — the fact that we (and the living things all around us) are mind-bogglingly elaborate constructions, assembled from raw materials drawn from the environment by the cells that comprise us. Beyond this, we each begin life in the form of a single cell that contains all the information needed to drive a developmental process over many years that eventually leads to conscious beings capable of experiencing love, and beauty, and wonder. In one revelatory instant I realized ! — whether or not God exists, our existence is a wonder. As I thought about this, it became clear to me that although many of us spend much of our lives in “the fog of the ordinary,” feeling that each day is pretty much like the last and wishing for something more, we are in fact swimming in, and even composed of, a sea of wonder. I developed a strong conviction that this is actually the more accurate way of viewing our circumstances.
As my conviction concerning this view grew, a sense of meaning began growing within me. I struggled for some time to find a way to concisely express what was, for me, a new way of viewing our place in the universe, and eventually boiled it down to the statement that my aim is to fully cherish the wonder of our existence. I’ve found this to be a powerful statement that can elicit a sense of conviction and meaning like what I once felt when meditating on Biblical declarations. Thinking about this naturally led me into thinking about how I should live in light of this conviction, and I eventually boiled this down to a simple dictum: promote well-being.
During the 30 years that led up to my epiphany, I was searching for something I could believe in without fearing that future experiences or discoveries would invalidate my belief. Believing in, and feeling, the wonder of our existence has accomplished that for me. It is valid whether or not there is a God. This view carries emotional import. In the two years since coming to this view, there have been many times in the midst of daily experience when I’ve repeated those simple phrases to myself (fully cherish the wonder of our existence, promote well-being) and found that they uplifted me and helped me re-orient my thinking (just as repeating scripture to myself once did). I don’t know whether this will be meaningful to any of you, but for me this view has come to have real emotional power, despite the fact that I have no certainty concerning our origin or the ultimate nature of the universe. I hope that some of you might find this helpful in your own search for meaning.