Letter from the Deep – Healing existential despair

“Damn.”

That’s the first word that came to mind as I read that letter. “Damn” was also the last word I uttered when my eyes rested on the final sentence.

It all began a few days ago as I was cleaning out my email inbox.  There, hidden between old receipts and travel plans I saw an obscure digital letter, penned to a dear friend. The date stamp said it was four years old, but its contents seemed far older, so distant that they had been purged from memory.

As I read the words typed out by my younger self, I was struck by a cacophony of emotions. I saw a younger (and more naive) version of myself, trying to claw his way out of the depths of existential despair brought on by a loss of faith. For the first time in years, I was reminded of the blackness of that night and the depth of that valley. I didn’t want to remember, because its a place I have left in the distance, but this letter forced me to.  It forced me to remember how I handled the death of my best friend, God.

One final note, what follows is completely raw and unfiltered. There is profanity, which I tend to avoid, but in this case, its a requisite part of my story. 

The struggle of a friend

It all began when a dear friend wrote me of his emotional difficulty transitioning out of religion. For those concerned, today he is healthy, happy, and not a nihilist. But at the time, he spoke about the existential vacuum left by his loss of faith, and the dark uncertainty that followed. He spoke of an incessant pursuit of find truth and meaning, saying:

This quest consumes me to such an extent that some nights I cannot sleep. Some days I cannot eat. I become lethargic as a result of the pointlessness of it all and I want to scream, SCREAM until my voice cracks and my throat is torn and the foundations of everything that represents my life are shaken and crumble down, until I have clarity, until I see meaning, until I find a purpose for all this, for these short years on this tiny ass planet in this corner of reality.

My letter from the deep

Dear (Name removed),

Scream.

Go up into the mountains and scream.

I remember being in Canada with my wife who was attending a conference. I had the whole day to think. After trying to work in a coffee shop, I returned to my hotel room, and I sat there, utterly alone, and faced that same darkness. I had just been abandoned by almost everyone I loved because I had began publicly questioning my faith. I’d also been reading and thinking about my own mortality. This sequence of events, thoughts, and emotions made me feel infinitely fragile, insignificant, and inconsequential. And yet, my experience was the only thing I knew. I wanted to live forever, to be happy, to have some marvelous purpose. But all of that was slipping away like soft sand between my fingers. I began to panic knowing that soon I would join every disintegrated person by diving into the empty chasm of fucking oblivion.

I mourned myself.

I comprehended the unyielding reality of death and I wanted God back.

I spent a long time screaming and crying out to God, begging him to “please exist!” I wanted so much for him to be there and to reassure me everything was going to be okay, that I wasn’t alone, that I didn’t have to figure everything out on my own. I wanted it more than I had ever wanted in my life. I even promised him that “I will do anything, just let me live forever, let me continue to exist. Please exist and let there be a purpose and an afterlife.” 

The empty silence embraced me and my tears dried out. God, did not show up, just like before.

I found no answers, and I’m still looking.

My wife returned from her conference, we went to have dinner. Everything went back to normal. It was nice having another person with me, even though she probably wasn’t concerned with such questions, and I couldn’t talk to her about my loss of faith out of fear of losing her too. She still believed I was some kind of “liberal Christian” at the time, and I could not stand her thinking I didn’t believe at all.

Sometimes, I wish I’d never became a freethinker, things would have been much easier. In considering my intellectual journey I realized that I’m not really doing anything good for myself. Idiots around me build small empires, they build construction companies and make loads of money, they buy mansions and live in luxury, even while they can’t string together a few coherent sentences. Their lives are wholly devoted to the hedonistic pursuit of a life of pleasure. Simple, ignorant pleasure, thinly veiled by Christian excuses. And here I am like Qoheleth (The Ecclesiast), I know a lot of utterly depressing facts, but so far the only accomplishment for all my efforts is making 95% of the people in my life hate me.

Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’ve ever fucking accomplished! Sure, I have made a handful of dear friends in this new journey, but almost everyone I know has abandoned me! Up to this moment I’ve wasted all my life investing into the church and studying the Bible instead of building wealth. I live in a small condo and drive a beat up Hyundai, all the while many of my philosophically ignorant friends scoff at me from their mansions. What have I gained? The knowledge that perhaps my life and everything in the universe doesn’t really  matter? What the fucking hell is the point of that?!

At the same time, I am also paradoxically happier than I could have ever been inside my small religious community. I would have felt like a bird in a cage, and every day would have felt as though I am being strangled and smothered. There must be a way out! Maybe there it!

Look, it is a fact that we have lived, we have learned, we have experienced. We exist, damn it, we do! Whatever this existence thing is, we are here, we exist! Whether it was gods or aliens, or just the laws of nature that produce universes, I don’t know, but I am here, I exist, and that fact I do know! And to live seeking out the truth is better than to live a comforting lie, even if that lie comes with nice feelings, community appreciation, and a wealthy lifestyle.

In the end, I don’t know much. I admit that, but I’m learning. Even if there is no transcendental purpose from the outside, one concrete fact is that no matter what happened: I was here. I fucking existed. It’s likely that one day when I will be dead,  I won’t be able to think or be self-aware, but still I know that I have stood here, lived my life, done the best damn job I could have, and tried to make some kind of fucking difference.

And if the universe is like a giant videocassette, I know my life was a damn good frame, even if nobody is watching it anymore, I know that if someone rewinds it to that frame called 2014, I will be there. Damn it, I am there, and that matters. That will never be erased. It cannot be erased. Even if we are the last creatures to ever exist. Even if our universe quietly disappears into the dark night, and another one is born in a distant bubble, and that universe will evolve sentient creatures who will never know my struggles nor look at the stars and think of me, I still have existed. I still have existed! And I will be here.

Even if I am just another droplet in the infinite ocean of space and to others it may seem as though I am totally insignificant, from my perspective, my comprehension of the cosmos is the only thing I know, it’s the only reality I can know, to me it is all that matters. I am just one tiny speck of sand on the seashore, that is true, but I am the speck that stares back at the sea. I am just one tiny bundle of molecules in a vast expanding universe, but I am also the damn astronomer. Existence matters!

We matter,

Yuriy

What now?

I looked at the letter and hesitated.  Should I share it with others or bury it even deeper? After all, it shows an unflattering picture. It shows me at my most vulnerable and suggests that some people who lose their religious foundation/community can experience a time of existential despair and turbulence. But I as I reread it a second time, I knew what I had to do. I had to share it.

This letter showed something encouraging and promising, the fact that this despair is short lived and can be replaced by a happy and fulfilling life. Leaving your religion is not easy, but with time and effort, that narrow path will be worthwhile for those brave enough to tread upon its unmolested wilderness. 

If you are daring to make that trek, here are some worthwhile lessons I have learned through it all:

1. The road to truth is hard and its travelers should be prepared, but its well worth it

Its often said that staying committed ones religion is like following a difficult path, and that its much “easier” to leave the faith and enjoy various forms of debauchery. This is demonstrably not true. This glimpse into my past is evidence that willing to accept truth, whatever it may be, is a weighty thing. It is unquestionably the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It would have been so much easier to stay a submissive Christian than deal with the fallout. In the end I think it was absolutely worth it, but it was like undergoing a painful surgery. It hurt. A lot. And the unprepared traveler may be horrified to experience this without expectation. But in the end, “to live seeking out the truth is better than to live a comforting lie.”

2. Losing your social support hurts, but some friendships will heal, others are better off lost

Probably one of the most difficult things was the feeling of being completely alone in this struggle, yet, as the years went by, I have met over two hundred people from my own Slavic community (many still in the closet, a few even having leadership positions within Slavic churches), who have also began walking this journey. In addition, I have rekindled a few friendships with people who once shunned me. Others, I’m rather glad to have lost. Seeing their irate and disrespectful treatment of others has shown me that I’m better off alone than in a den of gossips.

3. Rebuilding your foundation is frightening because you’ve been indoctrinated to think there can be no other way

People who grow up in secular countries like Sweden do not experience these types of existential crises. Why? Because they have not been indoctrinated with a lifetime of slogans such as “without God there is no meaning!” I was. You probably were too. Thus, each time you even begin to think about a loss of God and a divine meaning to life, you will be inclined to believe your upbringing. It took me at least six months to reevaluate everything and come up with new answer to the existential vacuum left by Christianity. If you’d like to know how I find meaning to life, see this. In retrospect, I was able to heal and find that the “truths” I’ve been indoctrinated with were not so true, but it took a long time to rebuild a new foundation and find newer, better answers.

4. Jettisoning your belief in an afterlife is hard, but you will heal as you mature in your thoughts about life and death.

I really do understand the fear of death, perhaps more than any Christian. After all, someone who is a Christian doesn’t actually have to confront their mortality, they believe there is no such a thing as death. To a Christian, death is the act of waking up in a new place with new friends. To an atheist, death is not that exciting. It’s very likely to be the end of everything beautiful in life. I love life and I recognize it is short and precious. It took a long time to transition from the fear of loosing something so beautiful, to the focus on enjoying it. But this happened. I promise you it happened. The fear and angst I once had is gone.

If you would like to know how I discovered ways to deal with the thought of death, see this post which draws on a wealth of wisdom from the ancient Stoics.

Even in Westeros, winter ends. If you are going through a difficult transition, I promise you, it gets better.

Is secularism evil? six lessons from a darker era

I don’t know of anyone who routinely walks around killing people. I just don’t. Like, it’s not from a lack of trying either. I have a pretty diverse set of friends, some aren’t exactly model citizens either. Still, no murder. And yet some of my Christian friends say that atheists are so nihilistic and Stalinist, that I would expect to see at least a few murder photos lurking in between the Instagram shots of artisan breakfast. And yet, I see none.

On the other side, some atheists say that a literal reading of the Bible allows genocide and murder, and given that most of my Christian friends claim to believe the Bible, I would think that there would be at least a few people stoned to death in between the 67th repetition of “Come now is the time to worship.” And sure, there always are a few stoned dudes in the back, but they are very much alive.

So what’s the deal?

It seems that whatever our views of the opposing party are, their behavior doesn’t always match up to our nefarious extrapolations, even though religious people and atheists have indeed committed some horrific atrocities in the past. So whats the deal? Is atheism the cause of atrocities and evil or not? Here are six things you must know to answer that question.

1. Yes there were some evil atheists, and we loathe them as much as Christians do.

I want to acknowledge there were people that shared some of my beliefs about God who were also assholes. That’s right, I’m not going to sit here for 30 pages and turn blue in the face arguing “Stalin wasn’t a truly true atheist” as the apologists are prone to do when presented with examples of Christian fascists and psychopaths.

As far as I can tell Stalin thought there was no God, something I also think.

But unlike me he was also psychopathic, genocidal dictator who had no empathy for his fellow man. I have almost nothing in common with him. For almost all ethical/philosophical views he held, mine are the opposite.

The same goes for any other secular dictator or mass murderer you can find. I think they are horrible and am nothing like them.

You see where I am going with this? We share one belief, but are polar opposites about… pretty much everything else! Simply thinking that theism or atheism is true gets us nowhere. Each of us must also decide ‘what’ to believe about our morals, values, and how we ought to treat others.

Proclivity to violence is not grounded in your religious beliefs, but in the level of psychopathy and disregard for human life. A religious psychopath is just as dangerous as a secular one.

But in case you still don’t believe me, allow me to continue walking you through the dark halls of history.

2. Before atheism was a thing, all violence in history was perpetrated by religious people, and there was lots of violence

Some religious people frequently point out that atheism is a very new phenomenon, implying that it’s just a temporary fad that will go away. (This is not true by the way, there are veins of atheistic thought among Indian, Greek, and Chinese philosophers over the last few thousand years, though admittedly they are in the minority.)

So fine, I will grant you that atheism as a populist movement IS indeed a new phenomenon, but you know what is not new? War, murder, rape, violence, torture, and genocide. Turbulent rivers of blood have been spilled for as long as we have recorded history, and the hands holding the swords have usually been religious people, including Christians. (And of course, as you read this list, you will be muttering something like “those are not genuine Christians.” But they were certainly not atheists either, especially since many of these self-identified Christians actually killed atheists for being atheists.)

To be fair, I do note that its estimated that only 13 of the worst 100 mass killings in history were specifically motivated by religion. We should not exaggerate the role of religion to be the cause of all wars, that’s obviously false. But I want to point out that all humans can do horrible things. Many of those 100 mass killings were perpetrated by secular people, but even more were done by religious people, including Christians. Now, you might say, Christianity didn’t cause these self-identified Christians to do these things, but it certainly didn’t prevent them either.

  • The Conquest of the Americas, where an estimated 10 to 75 million natives died due to the efforts of the Christians who invaded the Americas in search of religious freedom (and even more importanly, gold). There are some horrific stories of torture by the Christians armies, as recorded by the priest Bartolome de Las Casas. Strangely enough, these Christian soldiers were given a Papal decree that validated these violent actions.
  • The Colonial democides perpetrated by European Christians. It’s really hard to estimate these numbers, but numerous European nations (remember, all officially Christian) displaced and massacred millions through the East and Africa. Some examples are the Mahdist revolt, where some 5 million were killed, the various Colonial wars/rebellions in India, where  up to 10 million civilians were killed, though some estimates are as high as 35 million. Other examples are King Leopold’s destruction of the Congo stage, which led to an estimated 5-10 million deaths and the French Conquest of Algeria, with over 1 million deaths.
  • The Atlantic slave trade, which brought over 5 million slaves to the new world, and resulted in the death of 8 million slaves during capture and transportation. While its true that a Christian helped end the slave state, one must remember slaves were captured, transported, and purchased by other Christians and Muslims for over 500 years (in an era where atheists were killed) before one Christian stood up to do something about slavery.
  • The Chinese Democide during the Chinese Civil War led by Christian dictator Chiang Kai-shek, resulted in over 10 million deaths. While many other political leaders identified themselves as Christian, few spoke of their faith as passionately as Kai-Shek. He claimed a born again conversion experience, read the Bible and prayed daily, and gave money to support Christian missionaries. Oh, and tortured and killed people.
  • The Rhwandan Genocide happened in a country where over 94% of the population self-identify as Christians. Its estimated that 1 to 2 million people were massacred in 1994, but what is truly horrifying is that some churches even sanctioned this massacre.
  • The Second Congo War, which resulted in 7 to 5.4 million deaths occurred in a country that is over 80% Christian, and includes participants like the Lords Resistance Army, a Christian based militia that routinely mass murders people and uses the Old Testament as justification.
  • Most wars in pre modern Europe were fought by Christian armies. These armies were blessed by Christian priests, and led in prayer by Christian kings. Some medieval wars were fought against people of other religions, but most are against other types of Christians. Also, do remember that the rate of open atheism during these years was very small. The few intellectuals that were openly atheistic, like Marlowe (1593), Łyszczyński (1689), and de la Barre (1766), were frequently burned or killed (by Christians). Thus we can deduce that most European wars were fought by Christians, against Christians.

Wikipedia lists more than 400 of such wars from the 6th to 18th century. Some of these wars were smaller, others like the hundreds year’s war, were massive bloodbaths that resulted in over 3 million deaths.

Whats the lesson? History is ugly, because it reminds us of the billions of people who were butchered by others. And in many cases, this happened by armies carrying the banner of Christ, Muhammad, or other religious ideologues.

3. There are some pretty bad people who did bad things because of religion

Most mass killings were done by religious people (and often blessed by religious leaders) and yet were ultimately for non-religious reasons. Still there are plenty of atrocities that were sparked and fueled by religious fervor or beliefs.

  • The Bible speaks of about 8 million deaths, ordered by God, (and the number is about 24 million, once the flood is included). However, I don’t know of any historian who thinks these numbers are real. So from the secular perspective this is mostly an amusing tidbit. For a Christian who believes it truly happened, this is a sobering reminder that you believe your God instigated numerous genocides that were theological in nature.
  • The Baltic Crusades (against Scandinavian Paganism) resulted in an estimated 1 million deaths, and were led by a Christian coalition, whose agenda included the wiping out of paganism and the spread of Christianity..
  • The Islamic Crusades, which resulted in an estimated 15 million deaths. There are historical documents that mention whole cities, including women and children that were wiped out by the crusaders.
  • Albigensian Crusade, was a 13th century genocide initiated by Pope Innocent III to crush the Cathars, a heretical Christian group. Over 1 million Cathars were mercilessly butchered by Christian knights.
  • The Spanish Inquisition, which is usually explained as only affecting a small number of people that were formally tried and executed, somewhere around 10,000. However, historians say that hundreds of thousands also were starved in prison or killed without trial, and this bumps up estimates up to 350,000 deaths overall.
  • European Wars of Religion that resulted from the Reformation, have a combined death toll of 5 million to 19 million deaths. These include the French Wars of Religions, Thirty Years War, War of the Three Kingdom, Eighty Years War, and German Peasants War, all fought between Protestants and Catholics over theology.
  • Taiping Rebellion, where between 20-50 million people died during a rebellion resulting from a new Christian movement, led by prophet Hong Xiuquan, that attempted to establish a new heavenly Kingdom in China. This religious war took place at the same time as WW1, and had nearly double the death toll, and it was caused by a variant of Christianity.
  • Witch trials, there are estimates that range from 30,000 deaths to up to 500,000 once including worldwide church activity, not just Europe.
  • The Ustase Serbian Genocide where over half a million were murdered or and some 200,000 were forced to convert to Catholicism under threat of death.

4. Not all those “atheist” dictators were actually as atheist as you’ve been told

Most people tend to oversimplify the world and view everything as a set of binary choices, black vs white, cold vs hot, with us or against us. My fellow Evangelicals often tend to take this kind of view on Hitler, essentially saying because “he’s not with us Evangelicals” therefore, “you atheists can have him.” Not so fast. Adolf was a baptized Catholic, his book Mein Kamp is filled with a plethora of affirmations towards Christianity, he mentioned Jesus in many speeches, he publicly called himself a Christian, and used biblical imagery to promote his war.

 

Does that sound like something an atheist does? Really?

Now in the interest of being honest (I’m not going to do that thing Christian apologists do, by only giving you half the story), I will note that some historians debate Hitlers complicated religious views. Some have argued that Hitler became an atheist towards the end of the war, because of some purported secondhand conversation that is recorded in a compilation called “Hitler’s table talk.” This book that is claimed to present secret conversations between him and his staff, some of which show great dissent for traditional Christianity. Yet, many parts of it are deemed controversial as they were edited, revised, and created from memories of those present, without any documentation. The historian Richard Steigmann-Gall, among many others (cited in the book chapter linked here) argues that leading Nazis, including Hitler in Table Talk, identified as Christian and it is contemporary Christian revisionists who have tried to redraw the Nazi party as anti-Christian in order to distance their faith and the Church from it.

In any case, if Hitler did chance his stance on religion, these secret conversations would indicate this transformation happened a few years into WW2, and a decade after the first concentration camp was built by the Nazis. Furthermore, that same secret conversations also shows Hitler saying he did not want to encourage anyone to atheism either. It is plausible that mid-war Hitler may have transitioned from his nationalist Christianity to another form of quasi-religious deism or etc, after confrontations with certain clergy (some supported him, others did not), but he was not an atheist.

Whats more insightful is that every bit of hard evidence (film, autobiography, radio recordings, etc) shows us that Hitler constantly used Christian imagery to engage the Nazis to action. This highlights an important fact: Nazi fascism was not an atheist ideology, but lived almost exclusively in the minds of German Christians.

Who were the Nazis that actually picked up arms and fought the war? Who were they that that ran the camps? Who made the bullets and filled capsules with poison gas? Were they atheists? No.

 

5. The rate of deaths per 1,000 people did not get worse with secularization

One of the best ways some people lie with statistics is focusing on the raw numbers of victims, to obscure the influence of rising population. The fact is high death tolls are not from atheism but an explosion of population and technology.

As gruesome of a thought experiment as this is, consider how much more efficient it is to kill a million people with machine guns, atomic bombs, and poison gas than it is to physically chase down each victim and slash them with a sword. Technology definitely played a role here, but even more so the world’s population exploded in the early 20th-21st centuries, and thus armies and the number of possible victims also increased.

The world’s population for most of Christian European history was 10 times smaller than during the modern secular era, and this is the key reason why larger amounts of people suffered and died.

We must note that the actual rate of violent deaths per 1000 people has stayed roughly the same for the last thousand years of history. In fact, it’s only improvement happened after WW2, and as the world became more secularized than ever before. And today, as secularization is increasing the rate of violent deaths is decreasing.

In the chart below, notice that the rate of deaths per 1,000 people (red line) has stayed pretty consistent during the periods of Christian dominance and secularization. We do not see a higher rate in the last 80 years of secularization.

Finally here is a rather morbid “fun fact.” One of the bloodiest wars of all time was the Thirty Years War, which was a religious war fought between Protestants/Catholics during the Reformation. During During this war, 1 of every 1,000 living persons were killed, about the same number of persons per 1000 that were killed during World War II!  Let that sink in, accounting for population growth, the war between Protestants and Catholics was just as bloody as World War 2. I’ll bet you a dollar you did not know that.

6. Truth is not found piles of bodies

That was a difficult blog to write, congratulations if you’ve made it this far. I don’t like talking about the negative side of religion. I don’t care to make someone or something look bad. But the only thing I like less, is dishonesty, and I am tired of hearing the repeated dishonest assertions that atheism  causes violence, while religion is always rainbows and unicorns. I see this far too often.

It seems that every time I mention Christianity someone will come along and to the boredom of everyone involved, follow the same two step dance. First they quietly dodge any legitimate criticism against their side, and then they just try to one-up me by saying something like “well your side is even worse because Hitler and Stalin were atheists!

Okay, let’s assume that were true, what does that mean? Are we really going to play the game of “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!”? Has no one realized that if group A is bad, then pointing out that group B is worse, means no one gets to win a goodness award.  If one serial killer points to a second and says “aha! he killed twice as many people as I did!” does that make the first one into Ghandi?

Besides, if we were actually trying to find the least violent worldview, I’m pretty sure the pacifist Jains have us all outgunned… or out-pacified at least.

I digress. The greatest thing we miss by pointing fingers at each other is that truth is not discovered by stacking up two piles of bodies to see which one is smaller. Perhaps we can discover which worldview leads to more a peaceful life, but attributable violence is certainly not correlated to the truth. History shows us that a religion like Jainism produces the least amount of violence, and yet, it appears neither you nor I have just acknowledged it as the one true religion.

Violence has no correlation to truth. Just because someone is nice or mean, doesn’t tell us whether their belief is actually true. It tells us everything about what kind of person they are, but not if they’re right. And trust me, there are assholes who are right, and sweethearts who are not.

So, again, violence does not correlate to truth. God forbid, if the ultimate truth of the universe was that a sadistic being was the creator and she wanted to instantiate the most suffering possible, then the side with the highest pile of bodies might actually be in the right.

In the end, there are tons of variants of Christianity, Islam, etc that are horrific, violent, and indiscriminately should be rejected as rubbish. There are some pretty dark and nihilistic atheist philosophies that should also be exterminated with the same kind of extreme prejudice. So yes, there are bad people on all sides. Please don’t be like them.