My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

Something like once a year, I spend a night wanting nothing but to curl up and die. It’s not that I think of killing myself, though way back it did come to that – just that those nights, under what feels like the crushing weight of conscious thought, I long not to exist. Some hungry pit in my chest drains all colour from the world, refusing to swallow the rest of me, and being awake hurts. Social contact becomes like prodding a cracked rib, everyday tasks an uphill slog: I sit for what feels like an age trying to find the will to tie my shoes, fall apart making tea. These are, I’m acutely aware, insane things to find hard – because I am insane.

At twenty-four, the dark spells come and go quickly. When the worst hit, I fight the urge to smash myself to bits – to skin my knuckles on the wall, claw at my forearms, beat my head against the window pane till either cracks – but nowadays those fits of self-loathing happen years apart. (The last, in April, was my first since university.) Most days I’m fine, and it feels like yesterday the urge to self-destruct lasted months rather than hours. I was ten when I first wanted to die, fourteen when I decided how, fifteen on first attempting it. Nine years and counting without incident, it seems to me, is a good run.

For the short time I took them on the quiet, antidepressants only did so much, but atheism has helped me no end. You might expect me to report that as a churchgoer, being called a sinner in a hopeless world did my head in; actually, hope was the problem. As a believer in the risen Christ, it can be hard not to feel ashamed of existential gloom, as if the grace of salvation has bypassed you through some fault of your own. There must, I felt, be some turmoil in my soul if being saved didn’t make me feel any less wretched, some failure in my faith that warranted further self-punishment. As an atheist, I feel differently.

As an atheist, I don’t think my soul’s in turmoil – or that I have one, or that my bad days mean anything except that my brain sometimes lets me down, as other people’s hearts and joints do them. As an atheist, I’m aware I don’t really hate myself – that the will to expire some nights is a malfunction of the circuitry, not evidence of self-knowledge – and rather than feeling inadequate, I’m amazed the software works as well as it does. Writing a blog on a brain best evolved for climbing trees hundreds of thousands of years in the past feels like being a BMX rider, performing stunningly agile feats on a bicycle that looks designed for a five-year-old.

In adulthood I’ve come to terms with the jerkbrain – not caged or slain the beast, but trained it not to savage me in exchange for being allowed to vomit on the carpet once a year. I’m still confused when asked if I’m happy, unsure what people mean, what the answer is and how to find out. The mark of sanity for me has become the lack of a conscious emotional state – not being frigid or numb, but simply being. Days when I don’t instantly know how I feel are my best days. That calm neutrality, I’m glad to say, is now the norm, yet it can prove isolating: in what feels like a world of emotional hyperexpression, even being well alienates me.

Alcohol and religion have much in common, including that people who find out I abstain tend to assume some formative trauma. In the first case, the truth is just that I’ve never wanted to be anything less than totally sober: the composure everyone seems so desperate to lose is something I worked for years to achieve, and mind-altering drugs are the last thing I need. Atheism strikes me as sobriety in spiritual form, a stance with no obligatory euphoria, in which it is okay to feel small, meaningless and unhappy – the only worldview that doesn’t require I deny my insanity. This is, I think, part of why humanism turns me off.

I recently watched Chris Johnson’s documentary A Better Life, which counters the religious right’s portrayal of atheists by interviewing seventeen on the subject of happiness in a world without God. It’s a well-made film that achieves its goals, with contributions from several people worth noticing, and yet I find the messages of hope and wonder don’t resonate. With their rejoicing mascot and exuberance, humanists seem desperate to prove they too can achieve ecstasy – failing to ask how religion’s culture of joy might have its flaws before trying to live up to it. I’m not drawn to blissed out atheism – I want a philosophy that validates me.

I’ve heard many an ex-believer say that after they lost faith, funerals got harder, then got easier – harder because they could no longer deny death was real, easier because they no longer had to. For me life is sometimes a bit like death, difficult, dark and inescapable – and while this outlook is delusional, it’s also my reality.

I’m done denying reality.

My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

14 thoughts on “My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

  1. 1

    I have thought since I read one of Sagan’s books that finding moderate joy in humanism was both feasible and desirable for most non religious people – and therefor it was a good idea.

    But I have long suspected that “most” does not include most of us who suffer from severe depression – so while I do once in a while participate in order to be with friends, for the most part I keep that movement at arm’s length.

    Until my late 20s, I avoided alcohol and other drugs on the grounds that rationality was far too difficult as it was. But then I thought – “how much worse will it really make things? Why not find out what it is like?” It turns out, I enjoy some beers, and some whiskys, though it has now been about 6 months since I have had any, for monetary reasons. I do find it is much less difficult to enjoy movies and social situations while intoxicated – in fact, given the choice, I will never watch another movie while sober again. That’s not to say that you or anyone else would gain any benefits from trying alcohol.

  2. 2

    “Spiritual sobriety” is a term I’m going to begin using regularly now. I have often remarked how being an atheist in a majority-Christian culture is like hitching a ride on a cross-country road trip with a carful of drunks, and being told I’m not responsible enough to drive.

  3. 3

    So much insight for such a young person. I am 60 and I was so clueless when I was 24. I really liked this Alex, good job 🙂

  4. 4

    Excellent, thoughtful, and compassionate to yourself. Sounds as though you might be done with internalizing wrongness, or blaming yourself regularly for the fuckedupness of life. I love your blog and your brave writing.

  5. 8

    I understand what you mean about the peace of neutral emotions. I’ve been dealing with depression all my life. But I find that there are times of real joy, and they come at rather strange moments. Last weekend most of my family got together to celebrate the life of my Dad, who died last month. I adored my Dad, “warts and all”, and his death at 85 made me pretty sad. It was the first time I’d seem my niece since she was diagnosed with MS, and seeing the destruction wrot on the body of that vibrant and wonderful young woman was hard.

    Yet I found a moment of enormous though quiet joy, seeing my father’s goodness reaching out through his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and I saw a family calmly dealing with serious illnesses (not just the MS). My mother has accepted the death of her husband with grace, though they had been happily married for 65 years, and though she has no illusions about ever being with him again. We even dealt with a couple of deeply religious family members talking about seeing him in heaven (though they knew he was an atheist) without more than mild annoyance, and with some compassion. It was a time of quiet but very real joy to see my family operating in that moment.

    I’m never sure how real the wild joy that people claim for religion is, but I know the quiet joy of simply being alive is real. I prefer it.

  6. 10

    Thank you, thank you, for writing this. It really hit home for me. Knowing that there isn’t any meaning to my depression, and that there doesn’t need to be, that it’s just slightly faulty wiring, has been hugely liberating for me. Sometimes I have days where I feel shitty. It doesn’t need to have any more or bigger significance than that. I’ll just take the day off, hang out with my cat on the couch and do self-care stuff, and hope that tomorrow I feel better. Accepting that sometimes things just suck, there’s no reason or meaning for it, has been really helpful for me in dealing with my depression. And I think acknowledging our own realities is important for destigmatizing mental illness. Again, thank you for writing this.

  7. 13

    […] once, I haven’t managed to lose faith. At the moment, I feel much better than I did in June. What living with depression means for me is that my emotions aren’t linked to external events, that how okay I am doesn’t […]

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