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It troubles me that people tend to interpret atheism as the repudiation of everything that religion happens to represent in their minds rather than simply the principled rejection of the core of religion, belief in the supernatural. While it’s true that someone could be diametrically opposed to absolutely anything even remotely associated with religion, it’s wrong to assume that atheists necessarily are; I certainly have never encountered one who was. As for me, I embrace a number of values which religions commonly profess to promote such as peace, justice, empathy, compassion, honesty, loyalty, responsibility, temperance, introspection and reflection.
I also, however, strongly embrace skepticism, which has led me to disbelieve the supernatural claims of upon which believers (wrongly) claim to derive their moral values, and freethought, which allows me to evaluate the worth of moral values with my own individual judgement rather than deferring to an unquestionable authority such as scripture or a religious leader. These twin values foster others which most religions don’t inherently support and which some even explicitly oppose such as liberty, equality and secularism. They have also led me to reject irrationality, superstition, fear, hatred and ignorance, which most religions support or have supported to varying degrees throughout their histories. It is my skepticism and freethinking which distinguish me from believers, not a lack of virtue.
In truth, I yearn for a community in which I can foster my personal growth through contemplation of, discussion about and action based on my values without any compromise to supernaturalism. My several visits to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and my casual online investigation of Buddhism were part of an as-of-yet unsuccessful quest for such a community and identity. Humanism presents the greatest promise for fidelity to my beliefs, but it lacks the type of formal structure that I desire, perhaps for fear of being too similar to religion, and it’s not distinct enough from increasingly humanistic western culture to provide a unique focus and identity. All I can say is that I’m a naturalist in search of a place to call home.
Although I have previously written about my past experiences with a condition known as scrupulosity when I was a devout Catholic, I would like to go into more detail regarding a particularly torturous element thereof which I endured for a few years, in order to illustrate the absurdity of certain religious prohibitions. As I have discussed in a separate earlier entry, the Catholic Church teaches an especially strict sexual morality which condemns every sexual act except that between a husband and wife without contraception and, per clear scriptural authority, condemns even willful indulgence of sexual thoughts. While the prohibition against actions is severe, it’s not impossible to obey it if one is truly careful to avoid opportunities to succumb to temptation. The prohibition against thoughts, however, proves practically impossible to obey if one takes both it and the threat of eternal damnation seriously. I struggled mightily for years to control my thoughts and, despite my most strenuous efforts, I failed to achieve anything except an unhealthy suppression of my natural desires and the development of violent compulsions against myself.
The most relevant fact about the condemnation of consenting to impure thoughts is that it’s simply impossible to control one’s mental activity, most especially with respect to such a basic animal instinct as sex. It’s almost always on our minds, subconsciously if not consciously. Most people realize this, especially psychologists and advertisers. Healthy adults automatically respond to the sight, sound or smell of attractive individuals by becoming sexually aroused. Now while the church teaches that mere instinctive thoughts aren’t willful and thus aren’t at all sinful, it does teach that to consciously entertain and indulge these thoughts constitutes such a serious offense that you could burn in hell forever if you commit it and die without repenting and confessing it to a priest. That idea in itself is absurdly evil, but notice that there’s nothing even resembling a clear boundary between an event that happens automatically and an action that can condemn one to eternal damnation. That’s just an open invitation for obsession.
Let’s say that a sexual thought enters one’s mind as it does innumerable times each day. If one dwells on it for even a moment, then one risks sinning by “entertaining” or “consenting” to it. If one attempts to banish it from one’s mind, the thought only becomes stronger and more persistent. I found it impossible to simply “let it pass” as I was repeatedly advised by confessors because I was afraid that I had not done enough to avoid sin and had thereby sinned already. My response to this fear was to work harder and harder to banish any sexual thought as soon as it entered my mind. I shouldn’t reveal much detail, but I will say that my attempts to immediately distract my mind from unwanted images became more and more manic over time and that it was simply impossible for me to function properly until my deconversion.
If I saw an attractive woman who aroused any sexual feelings in me, I forced myself to avert my eyes and drive out with a physical response against myself any sexual thoughts that the sight of her generated in my mind. I then thought about whether I was thinking about it and then about whether I had sinned by thinking something lustful about her, often subtly appearing like I suffered from a mental condition, which in retrospect was not entirely inaccurate. This rumination could last from a few seconds to several minutes to the rest of the day and all I had actually done was happen to a see a woman in completely normal and acceptable attire. My mind even seemed to revolt at the suppression of its thoughts. The more I struggled not to think something, the stronger the urge I felt to think it out of frustration and anger. This tendency, by the way, extended to violent and blasphemous thoughts as well, though these caused much less trouble due to far weaker instincts to think them. It’s notable that I came to believe that the vast majority of women dressed immodestly and that I noticed every single inch of cleavage on every woman, perhaps similar to how a Saudi man might feel in a western society.
Contrast that to how simple life has become with respect to sexual thoughts since my belief in God and hell disintegrated. Now when I see an attractive woman, the exact same sexual thoughts arise, but they present no trouble whatsoever. If I want to and have the time, I can indulge in a sexual fantasy for a short time and move on. If I’m busy or focused on something else, I can let it pass because there’s absolutely no fear that I have done anything which might result in neverending torment. Either way it lasts for a few moments at most and I can concentrate on actually living my life, all without any guilt or fear. There’s no obsession; it’s natural and normal. And I’m sure there’s just as much cleavage and as many pairs of tight pants as there were a few years ago, but I hardly notice except in the most exceptional cases, when such a sight most likely presents far more potential pleasure than anguish. It feels so good to be normal again.