Image by SugaShane via FlickrA letter from Andy Walters
I severed myself from the faith with all the grace and gradualness of a guillotine drop. Sitting alone in my apartment, I was held captive by the unsettling but undeniable words spilling off the page. Some Christians wait a lifetime to hear the voice of God loud and clear. I settled for Karen Armstrong. Her thesis was undeniable: Fundamentalism, the belief that God has been perceived in exactly the same way throughout the ages, is ahistorical. Each generation of believers has reconstructed what “God” meant for them, regardless of whether their reconstructions required the reinterpretation, deformation, or abandonment of the prevalent beliefs about God. God wasn't one rope that stretched throughout history, tying our religious ancestors together. "God" was actually a long line of dominoes – individual, gradually evolved, mutually exclusive conceptions of God – that stood proudly, if surreptitiously, waiting to be toppled. The moment I realized this, along with a few other factors, I exclaimed "Oh my God, I'm an atheist!" and burst into a paroxysm of tears.
God was never a mere theological abstraction for me; he was at once my raison d'etre, my best – if imaginary – friend, the benevolent savior of the universe, and the hero of all heroes: he was the summum bonum, the highest good which makes life worth living. Now, he was a fairy tale.
What was worth living for if there wasn't a God? For twenty two years, I had sang songs like these with the sincerest conviction:
You are my strength when I am weak
You are the treasure that I seek
You are my all in all
Seeking You as a precious jewel
Lord, to give up I'd be a fool
You are my all in all
What was my "all in all" now? Was there a treasure worth seeking like a precious jewel? What the hell did "precious" even mean to me anymore?
Fast forward a year. I've figured out that meaning, purpose, and morality are not the monopoly of the religious. I've learned that once we disentangle the knot of religion, we find that philosophy, community, and the numinous are strands completely independent of the supernatural. Generally speaking, I've been able to acquire some decent sense of all of the previous.
But that's only generally speaking. Specifically speaking, it feels like reality has delivered some bad news about my stolen sense of meaning, purpose, and morality: I can have some of it back, but a large chunk is unrecoverable. I'll have to exchange the intellectual opulence I once enjoyed for the austerity of reality. For immortal, perfect love, I'll have to settle for its human equivalent. For absolute, objective morality, a human-constructed ethical system. For communion with God, neurophysiological effects. For compassion for the lost, the stark truth that many of them are doing better than I am. For the participation in a battle of absolute Good and Evil, the participation in a world where every cause is a mixed bag. For the worship of an almighty, infallible God, the limited appreciation of a few humans.
Sure, my life has meaning. But it's just as not epic anymore. The difference between now and then isn't a difference of kind, as I first feared. It's a difference of degree. I've managed to keep some sense of meaning, purpose, and morality, but from God to reality has been a tough let-down.
My situation reminds me of a recovering drug addict who has lost their ability to experience happiness in the usual ways because they were used to such strong, though artificial, stimulation. Everything they experience other than that drug seems hopelessly hum-drum. I feel the same way. Kicking strong doses of “my all in all” to whom I could devote my entire being has left me feeling like I am condemned to hopeless hum-drum.
Perhaps my condition is simply my “cross to bear.” Perhaps it is fixable. Perhaps this is normal for everyone. I'm not sure, and that's why I'd like your input. If you are an ex-fundamentalist, have you experienced this disappointment as well? If so, how have you dealt with it?