The Ethical Dilemma: I’m an Atheist, but I’m Losing My Lack of Faith!

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Atheist Losing Lack Of Faith: I’ve been an atheist for almost sixty years and a very ardent secular humanist for decades. After going to Mass for the first time ever with my Catholic fiancée, I’m finding myself compelled to become Catholic. I don’t want to believe in God but am doing everything to become a believer. I can’t stop it and haven’t missed Mass since (this has been going on since March). I’ve even started praying for belief, to hear God. It’s very identity dissonant but feels almost like an addiction, like I MUST do this. My fiancée doesn’t help in that she’s encouraging this and even giggles about it sometimes. I’ve been keeping it all a secret as I find it embarrassing, given all my previous words about believers, etc.

When I’m in church I become like another person and feel a depth of connection similar to what I’ve felt when in love. It’s totally non-intellectual and, so, my cognitive self doesn’t know how to handle this.

Can you share any ideas you may have about my quandary? Have you ever heard of this odd thing happening and have you any ideas why it can happen?

—Hearing the Siren Song Of Religion

Dear Siren,

Your question is, in my experience, unusual. I’ve heard of people who leave their faith for a while and then return to it. In fact, that’s quite common among people during their teens and twenties—they tend to reject religion right up until it’s time to send their own kids to Sunday School, and then suddenly it all comes back. There are also many stories of people who felt they were lost until they found religion, particularly among those who had hit bottom before embracing a faith and crediting it with turning their lives around. I also have a friend who was raised in a religion, became atheist for decades, and then describes the comfort of returning to his old traditions (including a sense of god) in his senior years.

But I find what you describe a bit more unusual. First of all, you have never been Catholic before. Secondly, you describe an irresistible attraction to religion without an accompanying sense of god (other than longing for that missing component).

Perhaps you are drawn to the ritual, the setting, the music, the community—all the trappings of religion—without belief in the deity all those trappings are supposed to be about. Frankly, I suspect that’s what keeps most people going to their houses of worship, regardless of any feeling for any god. Even spiritual leaders of houses of worship often don’t believe, but they are dedicated to keeping the whole thing going because so many lives are structured around it and would experience a terrible void without it (and they’d be out of a job with extraordinary benefits, including mindboggling tax exemptions).

You say you are embarking on a new marriage, and you describe your attraction to the church as akin to being in love. Marriage, love, and religious belief all require a leap of faith. So maybe in embracing your fiancée and your feelings for her, you are also embracing her church and your feelings for that.

Of course, I’m not a shrink and could be way off on what’s going on with you. If you are really bothered by your ambivalence and irrational ideas, you might seek out a therapist to try to understand where this is coming from or at least how to feel less conflicted. Or even talk to a priest if what you really want is to reinforce your newfound passion.

Unless you have a physical or psychological malady warping your perspective, I suggest you just relax and experience whatever you’re feeling, without overthinking it. If you can’t escape the impulse to explain yourself as a formerly “devout” secular humanist, or you get questions from people who want to know what’s up with this, you can shrug your shoulders and honestly say you’re in the midst of a process you don’t really understand and are allowing yourself to go along for the ride, wherever it leads. Your thoughts belong to no one but you, and you don’t have to sort them out or make them all consistent or explain them to anyone, including yourself. If going to church gives you joy or just feels like what you want to do, go and enjoy. It’s not like you’re breaking any laws or hurting anyone.

Just please don’t start trying to drag your secular humanist friends along with you.