About the Author

Josh Bails grew up in the Detroit suburbs of Sterling Heights, in a house usually full of his and his younger sister's friends. Despite his love of and background in mechanical engineering, he is studying cognitive science as part of the MIT class of 2011, because that's what he wants to learn more about. He is also currently a D.J. at MIT's radio station, WMBR 88.1 FM, and the closest thing he has to a religion is his music. He values logic, progress, helping one's fellow man, and vinyl. Especially vinyl.

How to Lose Your Religion

by Josh Bails

To lose your religion, you need one in the first place. You don't necessarily need to have one by choice. It can be decided for you by your family or community long before you develop coherent enough thought to consider choosing a religion yourself, and can be taught to you throughout your entire childhood with no competition from conflicting ideas. Your family can even go so far as to send you to a Catholic school where you go to religion class every day and are told that everything you are being taught is unquestionable.

Your religious school can teach you many things, such as the importance of having faith in things you can't see and the danger in questioning things that they guarantee you are indisputable truths. They can teach you that your religion should always be one of the most important aspects of your life, right up there next to family. They can teach you that you must do everything your God tells you to avoid an unthinkably dreadful eternal fate, but since your God loves all his creations, if you are truly sorry when your time comes, no matter what you've done, your God can forgive you and save you from that fate.

Your faith can be strengthened through various ceremonies and rituals throughout your youth, such as First Communion, Confession and Confirmation, all preceded by special classes to understand and appreciate the supposed importance of the rites you are about to go through. You can spend the majority of your childhood having the validity of your faith reconfirmed by your relatives and teachers, and not question any part of it for quite some time. You can get to the point where you pray every night before bed, say the rosary in class once a week, and go to church at least once a week. By the time all of this has happened, you'll probably be in junior high school, where your whole world seems to change for no reason whatsoever and you start thinking very differently than you ever have before. This is a perfect time to start losing your religion.

By now, you have a really close group of friends, including two or three that you'll stay close to throughout high school, and even if you end up going to a public high school because your parents can no longer afford to send you to private school, chances are your friends will be stuck in a Catholic high school, possibly even a boys-only high school. While some things in junior high religion class had you wondering if everything in the class was indisputable—such as masturbation being inherently sinful—the real doubts will come when you and your friends spend hours laughing at their high school religion books that you now find to be absolutely ridiculous. You might also start hanging out with people who drink and smoke and use drugs and have sex, and even if you decide not to join them in any of these activities, you'll come to understand them and really wonder if your friends, who you know to be truly good people in their own way, will really be punished for all eternity just for doing these things.

You may find yourself unable to comprehend how a religion that claims to condemn violence in all forms and seeks world peace can be the cause of the deaths of so many in its long history.

Now, if you've gotten this far, it's pretty safe to say that you're someone who likes to learn about and better understand everything around you more than most people. If you like to learn things and are naturally curious, then high school is where you will reach the next step in this process: encountering and comprehending challenges to your faith. High school is the first opportunity for different ways of thinking to make themselves visible to you. As you learn more about science and beliefs from around the world, you realize that many of these things contradict things you've been taught for as long as you can remember. At first, you won't have a particularly hard time with other religions, because your religion promised you that it is the one true religion that will be rewarded in the afterlife, so it's very easy to quickly dismiss these as wrong on pure principle. Science, on the other hand, you might find much more difficult to ignore. Science gives logical, proven explanations to the unknown while your religion's explanation is always, "That is how things are because we have been told that our God has made it this way and His will is unquestionable." You will probably find it more difficult to brush off scientific arguments than most religious people do, just on the principle of you being a curious person.

By now multiple seeds of doubt have been planted in your mind about your faith, and all it will take is one thing to really irk you and get you to truly start questioning what you believe. Chances are that this might happen when you spend a little free time studying the history of your religion, and you discover the paradox of belief in the idea of holy wars, in particular holy wars spearheaded by your religion. You may find yourself unable to comprehend how a religion that claims to condemn violence in all forms and seeks world peace can be the cause of the deaths of so many in its long history. You may find what follows to be difficult, depressing, and possibly terrifying, but your mind has already made the decision that it is too late to go back now.

You will most likely find yourself awake in bed for hours trying to rationalize your faith, trying to find anything logical to hold onto in your mind, anything that can tell you that everything you have grown up believing isn't a lie. You will eventually come to the conclusion that while the stories you have been told are probably at least not all true, you can still hold onto your practical beliefs, the basic morals that you set for yourself when you were religious that, if you follow, will let you think of yourself as an at least halfway-decent person.

At this point, there's obviously one looming question you're afraid to answer: If I no longer believe in all the details of my religion, do I still believe in God? You'll find it very troubling to even ask yourself this question, let alone actually attempt to answer it. Even the possibility of God not existing will be absolutely traumatizing to you at this point, like when you were little and your friend told you Santa wasn't real, but infinitely worse because God existing is the one thing you have known to be undeniably true throughout your whole life.

At this point, there's obviously one looming question you're afraid to answer: If I no longer believe in all the details of my religion, do I still believe in God?

In this time of confusion, the advice of a close friend who has already lost his or her religion can actually be very comforting. If you're lucky, you'll have a rather wise friend who can tell you something along the lines of "whether or not there is a God doesn't really matter right now. If we live assuming there is no God, that this life is all we have, then we can focus on making the best out of this life as we can for us and others instead of attempting to improve things through prayers and rituals, and if there is a God, then all that matters is we did our best to improve the world around us, and if we aren't rewarded for that in the hypothetical afterlife, then I don't want to be rewarded." This will be particularly comforting if this is someone close to you whom you've trusted for quite sometime.

During this time of self-discovery, it is important to remember that certain people would not appreciate you questioning your religion, such as your parents and extended family who are particularly religious. Around these kinds of individuals, it is important to maintain your usual religious facade to avoid mass panic and questioning on their parts. This includes continuing to go to church, at least for a few months until you are comfortable enough to let your parents know that you are no longer particularly religious, but under no circumstances informing them that you are even questioning the existence of God, because it goes without saying that this could lead to mass chaos. Even when you become ready to share your uncertainty with your parents, you will still want to hide it from your extended family, in particular your Catholic extremist grandma, so to keep things civil you will still have to go to church when you are visiting certain relatives.

You're probably now wondering what you'd be classified as in religious terms. You don't necessarily believe in God, you don't necessarily not believe in God, you see no conclusive evidence that suggests either answer, and you don't believe the answer to be overly essential or relevant in this lifetime. This is known to be agnostic. You don't have any established beliefs, not even any established disbeliefs. You can't bring yourself to have blind faith, so even if you wanted to return to your religion just to have something to believe in, you don't have the mental capability to do so. You can only hope that you influence the people and the world around you in a positive way, and that everything works out in the end. You have now successfully lost your religion, for better or worse.

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