Fear of the Devil – as an atheist

Question from Evelyn:
So I recently accepted being an atheist and I’m fine with it. But even though it’s easy for me to accept that there probably isn’t any God and I’ve been praying to dust this whole time, I still find myself panicking at the thought of Satan. I still have the same fears as when I was religious, and I find myself quickly making sure I didn’t commit blasphemy, or praise the devil. I figure it’s from all the fear techniques people from my religion used to get people to follow them. I wasn’t in any cult religion or anything, just Christian. But looking back the way it was fed to me was quite like the manner of a cult. Anyway, I just want to know if you have any tips for my irrational fear of the devil coming to eat my soul. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is the best word I’ve ever invented.

This happens to a lot of people because fear of Hell and Satan goes beyond the intellectual. You’re not frightened of him just because they’ve told you he’s there, or else you’d have stopped being frightened when you became an atheist. Rather it’s been drilled into your subconscious to the point where your emotions bypass rational thought entirely and you simply behave as if there’s a devil. There’s no particularly insidious technique the religious use to achieve this, they just speak and preach to you as if it’s all true until you internalise it as an unspoken assumption.

Fortunately, this kind of conditioned fear needs regular reinforcement to persist at the same strength, and as an atheist you’re not getting that reinforcement anymore. (Some evangelists threaten atheists with hell in an attempt to reach lapsed believers with some last-minute reinforcement, and sometimes it probably works on individuals, but generally speaking it’s a futile effort.) It’s still bad now, I know, but it will fade over time until you calmly look back on your prior fear and see it for what it was, namely unjustified and needless.

If you want to try to speed up the process to save yourself some stress in the long term, equip yourself with a little ridicule. Satan has shown up in popular culture quite a lot recently (try this list), and in nearly every case some aspect of the concept of Satan is held up to the light and found to be silly in some way. There’s not that much media openly ridiculing all religious faith (yet), but criticising and lampooning specific ideas within specific doctrines is fine, and the Devil is a prime target. Go check out some different takes on the character. My personal favourite is Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, who makes a raucous but really quite robust case that he’s actually the good guy.

Finally, just take a moment of self-awareness whenever you find yourself afraid of something you don’t really think is there. The more you catch yourself at it, the less you’ll end up doing it. And don’t worry, because right now is worse than it’s ever going to feel again.