Ethical Dilemma: I Was a Muslim. Now I’m an Atheist. But I Crave Religion!

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In/Out Muslim Atheist: I was raised as an observant Muslim. Fasting on Ramadan, five times daily prayer, avoiding alcohol—I did all that. I began to question my religion when I was eighteen, and a year later, I became a deist. But when I turned twenty-one, I tried to become a Muslim again. I thought maybe traditional interpretations of Islam were causing my disbelief, so I tried to embrace modern interpretations of Islam (such as Neo-Mu’tazili, which does not support the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy). It was a very weird process, but I became a Muslim again when I was twenty-two. A couple of months later, I was an apostate again. Muslim, apostate, Muslim, apostate—it was like an on-again, off-again relationship.

Two years ago, I quit my crappy job and returned to college. Although I’m going to graduate in a couple months, I have no idea what to do with my life. If you’re twenty-seven, that is a serious problem.

I live with my parents, and I don’t have economic independence. I’m afraid to tell my parents that I’m atheist. It’s not because they’re going to use violence—they’re not that crazy—but they may disown me and never talk to me again.

I don’t want to leave them because of this stupid faith, and I don’t want to hurt them by telling them their only son will be rotting in hell for eternity. But I’m tired of pretending to be a Muslim. So on Ramadan, I act like I’m fasting, but secretly, I’m eating. On Fridays, I act like I’m going to do mosque for weekly Friday prayer, but I go somewhere else.

On top of all this, I’m always pessimistic about life. I was pessimistic when I was a Muslim too, but at least I was praying and telling my problems to an imaginary dictator. I know I don’t need religion to be happy, but I don’t know how to be happy without religion. I always imagine I’ll ask very hard questions about Islam to some ignorant mullahs I know. I’m always imagining writing a sensational book which disproves Islam, but that is very dangerous. It’s like being an atheist is my job.

Basically, I don’t know what to do with my life. I’m craving for religion even if I know it’s completely human-made. I don’t know how to defeat my depression without religion. I don’t know if I should tell my parents that I’m an atheist.

—In a Love/Hate Relationship with Religion

Dear Love/Hate,

Don’t apologize. Readers of this column will get what you’re going through, and many of us have been or still are there ourselves, in one way or another.

You’ve got some good things going for you: From what I can gather, it seems you live in the US, which is much better for your exploration of alternative faiths or no faith than if you were in a Muslim country. I can assure you that many people have no idea what to do with their lives at age 27, or 37, or 77. The fact that you are completing a college degree is a real plus for whatever you decide to pursue.

It may also be fortunate that you’re still in college if your school offers support services. Check with your college health center about whether they offer psychological counseling to help you sort out all your contradictory emotions and pessimism. Look for campus student atheist/humanist groups, particularly any that specifically help students who have lost their faith —it doesn’t have to be Muslim, although that would be ideal for you.

Another great resource, as you’ve already discovered, is the Internet. Check out atheist websites and blogs, such as this one about how atheists can help ex-Muslims and about the experience of leaving the Muslim faith. The Internet enables you to find a rich community and explore extensively, without revealing your identity unless you’re ready.

Community is probably the most crucial need for anyone like you who is grappling with leaving a group that, for all its drawbacks, provides some sense of structure and belonging. It’s important for you to find places, local or virtual, where you can feel comfortable and welcome. They don’t necessarily have to have anything at all to do with faith. You can plunge into developing your career, sports, social relationships, community service, other interests—anything and everything that enables you to feel you are valued and valuable, and allows you to be yourself and have some fun. The fact is you are not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you or the conflicted feelings you are experiencing. You just need to immerse yourself in venues and activities where you can experience that fact.

Until you feel more grounded about where you stand on religion/atheism—and until you have a means to support yourself and live on your own (if you choose to)—there’s no need to tell your family about your feelings if you fear they will reject you. Being an adult involves becoming independent from your parents physically, economically, emotionally, and philosophically. Once you don’t have to rely on them for food and shelter, you won’t be as reliant on their approval or permission to believe whatever you choose or to act on your convictions. So focus on becoming your own person in all respects, and develop your support network beyond your parents’ home. Getting more of what you need from outside your immediate family will help make you less needy overall.

Take it from those of us who’ve been in and out of religion: You can be happy after you come out. In fact, you can be much happier once you stop focusing on imposed directives and start developing your own internal compass. Your mission is neither bowing down to religion nor denouncing it. It’s finding yourself.