Every time I interact with atheists or critics of religion, I usually find myself having one of three reactions: 1) I agree with the criticism, 2) I consider the criticism misunderstanding, and 3) I learn something new.

  1. I agree with the criticism. For instance, it is true that throughout history many religious people have used God as a pretext for their violent actions. However, whether God actually sanctions the violence is another topic altogether. I also agree that religion does provide some psychological benefits and relief (even though I disagree with the conclusion that this is why religion was “invented”).
  2. I consider the criticism a misunderstanding. Sometimes the criticism is a misrepresentation of religious teaching. For instance, some atheists maintain that it is hypocritical for Christians to go to the hospital when sick since the Bible says we should pray for healing. This is a misunderstanding of the fact that the Bible also teaches Christians to also visit the sick in hospital, and that God is sovereign over all the means of healing available to human beings.
  3. I learn something new. No single religious person knows everything about their religion. In the same way, no atheist can explain every phenomenon in the universe. To insist otherwise is arrogance on both sides. At some point, we all have to take some things by faith (albeit tentatively) until we acquire new knowledge about them. So in the moment, it is always advisable to take a posture of humility and learn, even from your strongest critics.

You will notice that “becoming an atheist” is not one of the options listed. That’s not because I think it is impossible or improbable that I will ever abandon my belief in God. It is simply a fact of my life that my interactions with atheists have never tipped me over to atheism.

Yet, lately I have noticed an emerging aspect of atheism discourse that I had entirely missed before. It manifests itself especially on social media platforms. As you may already be aware, a large majority of the most vocal atheists online are people who were once religious.

From silent participants to loud critics

These people either experienced some hurt by religious institutions, witnessed rampant hypocrisy and abuse by religious people, or they simply found the religious life too untenable. For many post-religious people, believing in God simply stopped making sense to them.

But I find it surprising how many ex-religious people suddenly seem to have so many things to say about what is wrong with religion. Many people will spend their day pointing out incidents of abuse and hypocrisy that they see in religious institutions. They will move from silent participants in religion to loud critics of the same religion. You would almost think they experienced a personality shift with the shift of belief.

Some will even write entire books about their religious life and how “horrible” it was. Yet what I find especially interesting is that the shift from supporting religion to finding everything wrong with religion seems to have happened overnight.

It is not like they had started speaking out (as insiders) about a few things they found wrong with their religion, religious leaders or institutions; and then over time found more problems before finally getting to a tipping point where they couldn’t tolerate it anymore.

Of course their experience was probably progressive in this way, but you couldn’t tell it from their former public posts (or even private conversations with friends). It is like they kept all these criticisms to themselves until the day they “came out”, and it all came gushing like a flood. Now all they seem to talk about are the problems about religion and God.

No doubts allowed

It is as if they have been freed from bottling up all these issues and they are finally free to vent and speak them out. For many of these ex-religious people, they would say that their religion did not allow them to express any doubts or find fault with religious teaching and practise. So they resorted to keeping it all in until they couldn’t any more.

The decision to become an atheist was thus a life-and-death decision. Instead of facing a mental breakdown from the cognitive dissonance of pretending to embrace teachings that did not reflect reality, they opted for the liberating option of leaving their religion.

The freedom to think and doubt and ask questions

Now they are free to speak their mind and voice their doubts. Now they no longer have to pretend to agree with teachings that they found problematic.

Atheism, thus, provides the safe space they needed to vocalize all the doubts and problems they had with their religion. Atheism thus comes to the rescue, not as an alternative to religion, but as therapy. Atheists’ groups and meetings become group therapy sessions where one can verbalize their biggest fears and darkest thoughts without fear of judgment .

That’s why many of these ex-religious people and groups will be quick to point out that atheism is not a point of view as much as it is a rejection of one specific point of view.

I note with particular concern that this is the reason I find myself, as a Christian, agreeing with many criticisms aimed at religion (though unlike them, I don’t feel the need to abandon my belief in God). For instance:

  • I find myself nodding in agreement when an atheist points out that many Christian colleges have replaced the call to ministry with academic excellence.
  • I agree with the atheist who says many religious leaders are quick to cover up sexual abuse in church and invoke grace where the law and due process ought to step in.
  • I agree with the atheist who says that religious people are quick to speak against abortion but evasive when it comes to adopting or caring for the child that is the product of an unwanted pregnancy.
  • I agree with the atheist who says that prayer doesn’t work because I know what it feels like to pray for something and only get silence from the heavens.
  • I agree with the atheist who exposes the false and fabricated miracles that religious leaders use to get people to follow them and give up their last shilling in the name of faith.
  • I agree with the atheist who cannot bring him or herself to reconcile the fact of a good, kind and loving God with the existence of holocausts, child rape and natural disasters.

I find that, even though I agree with many of these criticisms, the church is not usually the first place I will think of taking my struggles. Religious leaders will not be top of my list if I needed to share some of my darkest thoughts because I can almost predict what many will say.

This is because many of them will be quick to fix me even before they hear the end of my sentences. Many will already presume I am heading towards apostasy (abandoning faith) when all I was doing was venting and processing my thoughts out loud. Some will provide pat answers and explanations to some of the questions raise. Few will dare admit they don’t have answers to my questions.

Atheism as therapy

Eventually, like many before me, I may find myself paying a therapist in order to find relief for my psychosis. And if I cannot afford a therapist, I may eventually find myself abandoning God and all religious institutions and ranting online about all the things that are wrong with God and religion.

I will not be doing this because I am particularly bitter or have a bone to pick with religious people. More often than not, I will simply be doing it in order to catch a breath. The retweets from my new atheists friends will console me and reassure me that I am not insane, that it is not all in my head.

I will finally be in a space where my doubts will be a normal part of life, and my concerns about God and religion will finally be validated by the “fact” that God does not exist in the first place.

Therapy exists because authentic community doesn’t.