I See Demons!

Question from Alexia:
I would like to know if atheists ever have moments of fear over the idea that they could potentially be wrong, and that there is a nasty afterlife waiting for them? I, as an agnostic theist, do. I feel that if I were to stop believing (the idea has crossed my mind) that I may regret it.

I have had dreams before of seeing hell, and my grandfather had a Near Death Experience where he saw hell and was tortured by evil creatures. I have noticed that in many dreams, near death experiences, and so called revelations, people often report seeing demonic creatures in this so called hell. I would like to get the perspective of atheists. Why is it that if Christians are raised to expect Satan in hell that they never report seeing Satan in these visions, but they commonly report multiple strange beings or creatures attacking them and enjoying it? I read a book from the 1980s about Near Death Experiences by Raymond Moody, and even he says in his research that negative experiencers often report demonic creatures from interviews conducted early on in Near Death research.

What might be the reason for why many of these visions people have involve evil creatures, when the bible says nothing about that? People from the early 1900s have been giving consistent reports with people today in 2017. What would you say, percentage wise, are the odds that a literal hell exists, given the consistency of so many peoples’ “visions” and “revelations” of hell? Is there really going to be multiple reptile looking creatures who enjoy peoples’ misery and torture them forever, swearing at them, taunting them, or is there something else at play here?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists do get these moments of fear, but not usually forever. For those like myself who had faith and lost it, the fear of God’s wrath often outlives the belief even though it’s irrational to be afraid of something you no longer believe in. (It’s part of the phenomenon I call “faithdrawal”.) This is to be expected, since emotions can easily defy rationality. I personally avoided this completely by hardly thinking about religion at all for over a decade before realising I was an atheist; my emotional attachment to God and faith had faded away so it didn’t try to reassert itself.

In previous articles like this one I’ve answered the general argument based on the similarity between people’s visions of the afterlife, so read through the link and also just search the site for ‘nde’ to find more on the subject. Here I’ll address the particular question about Satan and lesser demons in Hell. Most Christians get most of their mental images of Hell not from the Bible but from other media, everything from Dante’s Inferno to Constantine to The Simpsons, and sadistic torturer demons have been a fixture in this material for centuries. While you can imagine individual demons looking and behaving any way you like without challenging your theology much, Satan is a major figure on whose appearance the subconscious might be uncomfortable taking a firm position. Thus Satan conveniently does not put in an appearance for people who are just passing through.

And then there are the Christians who do report seeing Satan, which doesn’t really help any argument based on this not happening.

Where Do Bad Folks Go When They Diiiiiiiiiie

Question from Becky:
I was never a big believer in the Christian God but I did read the Bible which showed me nothing but a vengeful God as oppose to one of love. I considered being a deist but hell has latched into my brain and won’t let go. Worst knowing there is fire underneath the earth seems to support hell even more since Jesus said he was going to the heart of the earth I just want to let the fear go since it was a main reason I believed. How do I let this fear go?

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re suffering from what I call faithdrawal, the continued fear of the wrath of God (including banishment to Hell) after belief in God has faded. As the link shows, I’ve discussed it a lot, because you’re not alone in dealing with it. You realise of course that it’s irrational because in a doctrine where God is responsible for the existence of Hell there can be no Hell without a God, but since when was fear rational all the time?

Let’s look more closely at the apparent piece of support you’ve found for the existence of Hell: Matthew 12:40, where Jesus spends three days “in the heart of the earth”. First of all, that might simply have meant he was physically down in his tomb for that long. If instead it is actually a claim that he was in Hell between his crucifixion and his supposed resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised at the implication that Hell is deep underground. In the same way that it’s easy to imagine Heaven being up in the clouds, the unexplored depths seem like a perfect place for Hell, and may even have been part of the inspiration for the popular image of Hell. People living near volcanoes and elsewhere along fault lines, in Biblical times as in any other, would have seen and documented literal lakes of fire and many varieties of red-hot wrath spewing from fissures in the ground. Miners all over the world would have noticed the increase in temperature in a deep enough cave (though this might often have been caused merely by lack of ventilation). From the science of geology we now know why it happens in great detail, so the God-of-the-gaps has retreated from the subject entirely. Unlike our ancestors, we know the lava isn’t coming from Hell.

To answer your final question directly, It’s not a matter of letting the fear go so much as the fear letting you go. An irrational fear, like a belief, must be reinforced artificially in the absence of evidence, by various means: acts of devotion, new personal discoveries in the source texts (like the “heart of the earth” thing) and so on. If you recognise on the face of it, and continue to actively recognise, that all support for the reality of the danger is unfounded, it won’t kill the fear but it will leave it with no reason to remain. Over time, and without emotional reinforcement, the fear will fade and leave you. Though it’s frustrating to hear, the less you worry about it the faster it will go, so engross yourself in something else for a few weeks or months.

Breaking Free

Question from Josh:
I’m making a big decision. For many years, I have been attracted to the same sex, but I have also been a church-goer all my life and a convinced born-again Christian since I was 9. I’m now 17 and have made the decision to stop fighting the “sin” and free myself from the guilt and restrictions of Bible Christianity.

My mom is a Christian and she is very strict when it comes to what I can and cannot do. I see nothing inherently wrong with homosexuality, and the fact that I’ve been attracted to men for so long shows me that it cannot be helped. I see that now!

My problem is that I’m still living at home right now and I’m probably going to end up going to a Bible college. Not that there’s anything bad about that. I can still get a good education, but the rules tend to be very strict. My mom would rather me not go to secular college, but she does say it’s up to me, and my dad couldn’t care less.

My question is: as I decide to switch over to homosexuality and release myself from the bounds of religion, how can I overcome the guilt that comes with going against what the Bible or Christianity says?

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is to hang in there. If it doesn’t quickly wear you down and drag you back to the church, post-religion guilt (I call it faithdrawal) will fade over time. The constant religious reinforcement to which you’ve subjected yourself for eight years is a big part of why you’ll feel guilty; when you’re not getting that anymore and you have a chance to think, you’ll be surprised how differently and how much less strongly you feel about it all.

Speaking of which, I wouldn’t recommend going to a Bible college.
– Depending on your major, being a Bible college degree might be a real liability when you’re going for a job. The most obvious examples are majors in areas with faith-fueled controversy, like biology or meteorology. (If you’re doing law it’s a double-edged sword; some firms might be wary but Liberty Counsel or the Alliance Defense Fund would welcome you.)
– Most everyone around you would be immersed in the kind of fundamentalist Christianity you’ve just chosen to escape. Besides the possibility of being sucked back in through peer pressure and propaganda, it can only be a distraction from your studies. Also, if word gets around that you’re leaning away from “Biblical Christianity”, there could be a general effort by your teachers and peers to re-convert you, avoid you or drive you out.
– Some Bible colleges expressly forbid homosexual orientation or activity, and even those that allow it generally frown upon it. You up for four years in the closet, or four years fending off “ex-gay” recruiters?

I can’t speak from experience, but I gather that starting to live openly as a gay man isn’t easy even without all the religious crap. You’re in for a tough time, but you’re going in with your eyes open so I reckon you’ll be all right.

Afraid and lonely? It happens.

Question from Josh:
I am a somewhat new atheist. I recently finished leaving the fold and feel that I am now very much deconverted in this long drawn out process. However, no matter how many books I read about how hell was invented later I still have a small fear of it in the back of my mind. I was wondering if you had a similiar experience or had advice. Also I am feeling very lonely since deconverting it seems as if it gets harder and harder to find secular friends as an atheist. I feel I have to keep this hidden about myself.

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, Josh. I didn’t invent it, but I did come up with the name. The fears and anxieties instilled in you by your indoctrination (including the fear of Hell) will outlast the core beliefs on which they’re based, possibly by a long time. Such is the nature of psychology and emotion. Be assured, however, that as long as you don’t relapse into the beliefs themselves, you will feel better and less afraid as time goes on. (The opposite happened to me; after not seriously thinking about religion for over a decade, all the associated emotions had faded and no longer supported the beliefs. I mostly base my concept of faithdrawal on what people have told me in their questions.)

You haven’t said where you’re from or where you’re living, but it can certainly be problematic or even downright dangerous to identify yourself as an atheist in some places. That said, there are few places in the world where you’re likely to be entirely alone in your atheism. Think about it: if you feel you have to keep it hidden, other atheists around you probably feel they have to hide it too, including from you. A community sometimes needs a few brave folks to “come out” before the rest will be open about it. I’m not necessarily encouraging you to do this, I’m just acknowledging that it would take courage, and for good reason.

While you’re waiting for the local atheist contingent to hit that “critical mass”, you can look for local groups with “Atheist”, “Humanist”, “Secular” and/or “Freethinker” in the title. If you’re in America, for example, American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance are all over the place these days. If you’re in Great Britain, look for the British Humanist Association. If you comment and say where you are, even to within a state or equivalent, we might be able to help with this.

Cheer up, it seriously only seems like you’re alone.


Question from Emma:
I am not sure if I am brave enough to be an atheist. I am pretty cowardly and I fear death, however the only logical explanation I can reach is that God doesn’t exist, at least not in the way people think. Are most Christians only Christians because they are scared?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’ve reached the conclusion that God doesn’t exist then you’re an atheist, whether or not you like it or you think you’re brave enough. Nobody said atheists had to be happy about the absence of gods; some actively wish there were a god, while others are relieved that there apparently isn’t.

Some Christians really are Christians because of fear, or at least they continue to believe in God because they want God to exist. They don’t consider that this isn’t a good reason to believe something, or that it makes it no more likely to be true, because they have become emotionally dependent on the idea of a personal god. I know this from personal experience – not my own former beliefs, really, but the beliefs of some of those close enough to me to admit the nature of their belief. (It’s simple enough to ask, “Why do you believe that?” but someone might need to be very open to answer it truthfully.)

Of course it’s not as simple as belief assuaging one’s fears and atheism leaving one defenceless. Christianity is itself as much a source of fear as any religion. The adjective “God-fearing” is usually meant as a compliment, for crying out loud. The idea of nothing after death isn’t the only reason to fear it; fear of Hell is part and parcel of the core doctrine of Christianity, and the Church’s main method of keeping and controlling its adherents. This is why so many ex-believers feel a huge sense of relief when they let it all go.

If you leave your religion, your fear of death probably won’t change much. Your real worry will be guilt, and the added fear of retribution by God, during and/or after your mortal life. It’s an irrational fear for someone who doesn’t think there’s a God, but it happens all the same. It’s a symptom of what I call “faithdrawal”, the psychological fallout of the loss of faith. Believe me, it fades over time.

Finally, you’re not cowardly just because you’re afraid of something. Bravery is about facing and overcoming fear, so if you weren’t afraid you’d have no way to be brave. You’re well on your way to courage if you’re delving into this issue, working to make your peace with the concept of death.

“I wanna be like you-woo-woo…”

Question from AJ:
Dear atheists,
I would like to be an atheist because it makes sense logically, but I have been raised to have blind faith in a few different belief systems — some mainstream and some non-mainstream.

I have been trying to let go of my beliefs, but I find I am holding onto even the most irrational parts of them.

Even if there is only a 2% or less chance of something being real, I seem to latch onto it anyway unless it has a 0% chance which never happens in science, so I am miserable.

My beliefs don’t make me happy anymore which is why I want to abandon them. But I realized there is something comforting about them that I hadn’t been aware of, and perhaps this is what is holding me back. So I am struggling between my believing and non-believing self.

What do I do with the part of myself who believes so readily the most ridiculous things? And how do I shift the way I find comfort – so that it’s not in supernatural things?

I don’t want to just shut off this part of me who wants comfort and has a big imagination, but I want to find new ways to incorporate it into my new non-belief system.

I have to admit, I’m a sensitive person so I need to find a way to do this gently because I feel like I’m losing something that was once special to me.

I do want to make the change, though, I just don’t know how.

Answer by Andrea:

It’s nice that you want to embrace the scientific over the mystical, and I commend you for that. It takes courage to overcome the indoctrination many of us former Christians have had to undergo since our earliest memories.

I’ve been an atheist since high school and still have pesky supernatural thoughts. For example, my life is so good right now that I feel like things are too good to continue, and so chances are better that my plane will likely crash with my next trip.

Now there’s nothing rational in this belief, since it’s safer to go by plane than by road (in the US, anyway), but I’ve been trained into these thought patterns my whole life by just watching and listening to my father.

What do I do about these thoughts? Just accept them and then let them go. Thought patterns have a tendency to entrench themselves in the brain. Its normal and natural and nothing to be afraid of or annoyed by.

Zen training has really helped me along in this manner. Zen is not a religion, it’s a way of life, and it has taught me to appreciate the now and live a calmer more accepting life of myself and those around me. It’s a way of quieting your mind. I like to call myself a Zen atheist, though I am unfortunately pretty far away from any ideal of Zenhood.

Your heart is in a rational, right (in my opinion) place, and don’t force yourself to be anything, whether atheist or Buddhist or Christian or Pastafarian (Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster). Just do what feels right to you, your gut feelings, and try to find something you like to do — a purpose in your life.

Why I love being an atheist? Because I no longer have to wonder if there is a god, I am 99.999999 etc. sure that there isn’t. This frees my mind up for other questions and thoughts, since I love science and nature and am always trying to think up how to make things better. It is also more comforting, because I found it quite disturbing to believe in a supernatural being that has the power to end suffering yet lets the majority of the world’s people suffer anyway. Regarding working with other atheists, I love doing charity work with people who do good things not in the hopes of gaining entry into heaven or evading hell, but simply because it is the decent thing to do.

You mentioned that you find something comforting in religion. It might be community you need, and if so atheism is the fastest growing ideology in the world and there are atheist groups springing up in many countries. I’m not sure where you live, but check out this page:


It lists groups from all over the world.

I find it wonderful that you are a sensitive person and there’s no reason you need to lose anything. Atheism should make you feel you have gained. I am a firm believer in gut feelings, esp. after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” and I think your gut feelings are steering you in the right direction. You don’t need to give up things just because they have religious overtones. I have Jesus Christ Superstar CDs for example, and I know the words of every song. Keep your rituals. Send xmas cards and give gifts, you can even call them solstice festivities if you want. Go to Church — what the hell!

Don’t push yourself, and your answer will come to you eventually. Enjoy life in the meantime.

And if things are going too good, be very careful. You never when things will come to a crashing halt.

Just kidding. Best to you and thank you so much for your intelligent question.


Undoing Brainwashing

Question from Scott:
A bit about myself first.
I’ve been an atheist for a short time now, about a year now, to be honest i don’t even really call myself an atheist, as i am not really worried about belonging to a “group” or religion, it’s just Christians ask me If you don’t belong to a group you must lead an empty existence. So just to keep them quiet i just answer atheist, as it’s the closest group l would belong to.

I used to be Christian, but i also think very scientifically, but for some reason l never really questioned that religion, even though l always had a gut feeling something was very wrong, but l never questioned it. Until one day i took a step back and realized i was just part of a brainwashed group of people, so l left that religion, started asking questions, i didn’t get any answers, only riddles and only more questions.

My question is, since religion has been around a very long time and has been drilled into our brains since birth, even though i’ve left the religion, the religion has yet to leave me, how do we undo all those years of brain washing and lies?? I still find myself thinking like a Christian, don’t get me wrong, i’m still a nice person, very friendly, i wouldn’t hurt a fly (and that’s not because of Christianity, it was that’s how l was brought up) i just find my Christian brain washing is still holding me back from being a better person.

Sorry for the long email.

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Scott,
Thank you for your email. It’s an important question, since one of the basic instincts of human nature is the tendency to form groups.

I was brought up in a Mennonite type of sect, and it took me quite a long time to overcome the Christian brainwashing I was subjected to even after I decided I was an atheist (high school). My advice is to question everything that automatically pops into your mind in that Christian vein since much of thinking is habitual, which means it may be a knee-jerk reaction rather than reality. This particularly applies to Christianity, since there is no evidence of a Jesus, 12 disciples or most of the stories of the stories found in the Bible. What the evidence does show is that the Christian mythology was “plagiarized” from earlier religions, Horus (the Krst), Buddha, Krishna (Christ-na), Prometheus… many comparative mythologists and historical scholars say these “saviors” of the history found in the Middle East and Europe have hundreds of similarities in common with that of the Christ story, one of the later religions. Most of them had 12 disciples as well, and walked on water, healed the sick including lepers, preached “the truth,” came from above to “save” mankind, featured a talking serpent, were born of a virgin on Dec. 25, dying in April only to be resurrected three days later.

One reason religions are so successful is not that they hold “the truth,” which each of them hold claim to, but the feeling of community that they provide. Fortunately, there are at least 20 different groups of atheists, and all you have to do is choose one that best fits your needs or views. Try running an internet search on each of the following secular groups and take a look at their mission statements (many will have such groups in your area):

atheists, agnostics, brights, empiricists, freethinkers, materialists, naturalists, objectivists, rationalists, secular humanists, scientific humanists, skeptics and Zen Buddhists.

You didn’t say where you live, but Meetup.com also has a plethora of different secular groups that may hold meet-ups in your area.

You sound like a very caring, intellectual person. There are so many ways you can help. You may also want to check out my website, PresentsForThePlanet.org. I don’t accept cash, but do furnish information on helping to fix this planet, which seems to be messed up in so many ways.

Best to you and thank you again for your email.


Faithdrawal Symptoms

“There are things outside of religion to fill the hole you feel, despite what religions say.”

Question from Former Believa:
I was formerly a hard core, truly devoted, sincere believer.

Then “pop” … awareness, englightenment….and emptiness.

When your whole life is grounded in the belief in a supreme being, and you remove the premise of god and eternity. It changes your perspective. That’s a huge gap you’ve got all of a sudden.

It’s heartbreaking and depressing. I feel judged and misunderstood by practically all believers and “spiritual” people.

Where do I go from here?

Sometimes, when people stop believing in gods, certain assumptions related to their former belief stay in place. It sounds obvious but it’s important to specifically consider that if you were wrong about the existence of the god you once worshipped, you were also wrong if you thought that this god was the only possible source of love, happiness, logic, purpose, fulfillment or anything else, as long as these things exist in any sense. There are things outside of religion to fill the hole you feel, despite what religions say.

You’ve realised that your life has no purpose which is predetermined by some absolute authority. If you’re explicitly looking for a new purpose in life, you could let it come to you in a similar way: externally, from non-absolute authorities (but at least ones you know exist) such as peer groups and organisations which could use you in their plans. Before you resign yourself to that, though, why not see whether you have your own goals to achieve? Is there perhaps something you wanted to do when you were younger, but put aside in favour of religious pursuits? Maybe you could pick it up again. If you don’t find a new purpose immediately, you can take heart from the fact that when you do find something real to which you want to devote your time, you’ll be free to do so.

An eternity in Heaven can be comforting to look forward to, but it’s also a lot of pressure. One step out of line, according to the old dogma, and you swap it for an eternity of torment. You never really know what constitutes a step out of line, at that, so if you’ve made one you might not know to make up for it.

That’s all behind you now. There is great relief in the realisation that you don’t have to please some overlord who doesn’t tell you what he wants and condemns you if you fail him. You can get on with the business of living this one life for all it’s worth.

Believers in gods and other supernatural stuff often do judge and misunderstand non-believers, sometimes more than they do followers of different faiths. If you want that to stop, you need to talk to the believers you know. You might not bring them round to your position, but chances are you’ll be able to clear up some misconceptions about it. (There are many.) It’s difficult to get people to seriously consider the tenability of their own positions, but it’s much easier to help them see a certain amount of sense in other people’s positions, for example yours. Empathy is easier than self-analysis.

I can’t tell you how to live your life and I wouldn’t presume to, but I’ve spoken to a lot of people while they go through this transitional phase you’re in. (It’s why many feel the need to Ask the Atheist.) I can tell you that it is just a phase, which I’ve decided to name faithdrawal. Those who don’t relapse into belief do eventually get more comfortable with its absence. I know I did.