Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Wasting your life?

We received a letter from a theist who sent us the following question:

I came across [a Youtube Video] where one of the gentlemen on your show said that spending time, “in prayer or in church is a waste of your one precious life”…If atheism is correct and the end of life is oblivion of one's consciousness, then how is anything one does during their "precious" life a waste of time? If [2+4+75+15]*0 does equal 0 and [43-58-1002-67]*0 also equals 0 then in what real way are these problems different?... whether or not one is a theist or an atheist/agnostic there are many things you can do in this lifetime to further progress or hinder future generations. But the personal end result is always the same so I can not understand how anything you do could, at the end, be viewed as wasted.

This was the kernel of the question. The writer also pointed out that some ritualistic behaviors, such as prayer, can make some people feel good, and offered that perhaps these activities may not be a “waste” from that perspective, even if the god isn’t actually there. I replied to this particular query, and was asked to post my response to the blog. So, here it is:

Most people who put any effort, time, or resources toward attaining a goal, and then find the effort did nothing to help them get any closer to that goal, would use the term “waste” to describe that expenditure of effort. It’s simply the definition of the word “waste”—inefficient, ineffective efforts.

All we have in life are time, energy and resources. So, if those are wasted, it’s not really outside the bounds of standard definitions to call that “wasted life.” If we send money to buy a product that promises to make our clothes whiter, and we use it, and it doesn’t work—then we say it was a “waste” of our money. There’s nothing semantically or philosophically tricky about it. And whether we have no end of money (an eternal afterlife) or that was all the money we had (no eternal afterlife)—in fact, especially if that was all the money we had—the transaction is fairly, honestly, and understandably (to most people), labeled “a waste of money.”

If I hired Jim to work for me for a year for $75,000, and at the end of the year Jim came by to get paid, and I had cleared out of town without a trace, Jim would be very reasonable to conclude that he wasted a year of his life on doing work for me for nothing. He worked hard in an effort he believed would help him net a desired goal of $75k—but really the effort was fruitless in getting him anywhere close to his personal goal of $75k.

If I tell Jim to cheer up, that one day he will be dead, so the year and the money don’t actually matter—Jim probably wouldn't like that advice very much. And I have no trouble grasping that Jim would want that year back in a bad way and feel it was “wasted” and stolen from him—even if Jim didn’t believe in an afterlife (in fact, especially if Jim didn’t believe in an afterlife—and this life/time is all he gets). I suspect Jim would spend at least some time trying to hunt me down (with a blazing vengeance) to get at least some of that compensation of which I defrauded him, so that his year wouldn't be a "total waste" in his estimation.

For someone in my position, there is an ethical obligation if I have any regard for my fellow humans, if I meet Jim, to explain to him that caution is in order, since there is no valid evidence this company has ever paid out a dime to anyone it has ever employed, and to alert him that working for the company is a waste of his life, if he sincerely believes he will receive the promised compensation for his efforts. I won't physically try to stop Jim, but certainly issuing a warning is a fair and reasonable effort.

The question to Jim, then, is this: "Would you work for this company for a year even if they didn't pay you at the end of the year?" If the answer is "no," then working for the company would constitute a waste of life for Jim--based on Jim's own assessment. If the answer is "yes," then Jim has some other motivation beyond the $75k that he hasn't told me about yet, that needs to be revealed before an evaluation of "waste" could be made.

I have yet to see a person who felt anything but robbed in Jim’s situation—regardless of their religious or nonreligious leanings; and a great many ex-theists who contact us express that they feel like Jim (that their time involved with religion represents wasted life of which they often describe that they feel defrauded), and for exactly the same reasons Jim would. I hope this helps to clarify the position.

This is the end of the e-mail response. But I would like to add the following thoughts:

First of all, kudos to this theist, who replied to my e-mail to say that it helped him greatly to understand the meaning of what was said, and that he appreciated my effort to explain it. I will fully admit that I was braced for some petty semantic argument—but instead I received a nice response showing that he’d read and understood. That’s a wonderful change of pace in dealing with correspondences from theists.

But his original letter actually made me think further. Anyone could easily see my $75k analogy as being related to an afterlife promise. But actually, it is only intended to represent “motive.” In the question of theism versus atheism, everything hinges on whether or not a god exists. So, the question to Jim would translate to, “If there was no god, would you still do this?”

Interestingly, the response to the question results in a Catch-22 I had never previously considered. If the theist says, “Yes, I would still pray—even if I was convinced there is no god,” that means that for this particular theist, praying serves a primarily secular function, since whatever benefit he derives from prayer would still be there—according to him—even without a belief in god.

Alternately, if the theist says, “No, I would not continue to pray if I did not believe god exists,” then it’s fair to say that if no god exists, and if I were to help him recognize that, I would be helping him avoid wasting some portion of his life—in the same way warning Jim could salvage a year of Jim’s life.

I have heard from ex-theists who have written to our list to say things like, “I still stress over some things—like coming to grips with my own mortality,” but I have yet to get the letter that says, “My life was wonderful as a theist, and you ruined everything by convincing me god does not exist.” On the contrary, I have seen countless letters come through our list from ex-theists who want to thank us and express heavy gratitude to us for helping them get their lives back and escape from the bonds of delusional thinking. Honestly, the only people who write to us to express that taking away someone’s belief in god has ruinous results, are people who believe in god and, for whatever reason, are convinced that losing that belief would be ruinous—I assume to them? But their imagined fear contradicts the real feedback from every ex-theist who has ever contacted us.

Ironically, people who write to tell us they’ve gotten their lives “back,” must have been people who were expending a great deal of their lives on their belief in god—otherwise, why write to thank us? What have we really done for them if they weren’t devoting much, or anything, to god? They write because they were devoting quite a lot to belief in god, and now they can redirect their energy, time and resources toward something that will yield actual results in reality for them and others—not just in their minds. So, taking a person who is putting a lot of energy into belief in god, and stripping him of that belief, in reality results in a profuse “thank you,” despite the theists who claim it will result in a loveless, bleak, meaningless, doubt-filled, fear-based existence that offers a person no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The theist who offers this prophecy of doom, though, is only speaking from his own fear—the real cord that keeps him bound to his belief. And he is so strongly gripped by this fear that it’s beyond his capacity to imagine anyone else not being held sway by such terror. So, he projects those fears onto others because that’s all he is honestly capable of. He really, and sadly, has accepted the childhood indoctrination message that a life without god would be an awful and meaningless existence.

If you are a theist, and you think this way, please understand that this is a big, flashing sign that you are in the iron grip of irrational, mind-twisting fear that was drilled into your brain during indoctrination as a child. The fear you feel is real, I understand, but the basis for it is a lie your tiny child mind was pressured to accept by well-meaning, misguided adults. You’re accepting a lot of religious rubbish because you’ve been convinced that to not do so would have catastrophic results in your life. It’s hard to take that first step, when you’re gripped by the terror that one false move can doom you for all eternity. To be honest, many theists don’t have the nerve. When push comes to shove, a lot of them cave and just accept belief in god as best they can, in order to stop the pressure they think will never stop otherwise. Don’t believe the lie that the only choice is to accept god or live forever in fear and doubt. There is another option.

What you fear exists only in your mind. The religious claim that the only escape from it is to accept all these beliefs about god, is a lie. There are ex-theists who have rejected these beliefs and who have worked through these same fears and made it out, very successfully—to bright futures where their lives have been fully restored to them. Consider talking to some ex-theists. Don’t tell them that their lives without god are meaningless and terrible, ask them if their lives did, in fact, become terrible and meaningless after letting go of faith.

If you will listen and learn, it could save you from a wasted life.


  1. I would argue that if there is no afterlife then time here is all the more precious. One has a finite amount of it and won't ever get it back. And when one is done, that's it.

  2. Yay! Thanks for answering this, Tracie, because it has been in my "starred" items that I meant to reply to for days.

  3. Kazim: No trouble!

  4. Bravo. Nail on the head right there. To people who do grow up in that mindset it certainly is freeing, albeit you have a bitter taste leftover from wasted years.

    But I honestly look back and how I grew as a person overall was shaped during those years too, being part of that helped me in many ways (non-religious of course...that I very well could find elsewhere, it just happened to come from that for me). So I look back on those years as not a total waste, just waste in terms of the money I gave over and the mental torment of doing anything remotely wrong that I would endure God's wrath.

    Now that it's all behind, I can take the good and the bad from it and form it into a current mindset and use that experience when talking to people of faith.

  5. And of course, for some people, religion not only provides no pay out, but does immeasurable harm to their quality of life. Great analogy!

  6. What a great post. I always like your analogies, Tracie. They're always so insightful, even to an atheist like me who feels like he's read every analogy for god-belief in print.

    You definitely have a unique perspective on these things, and I greatly appreciate your posts :D

  7. You know, I'm a theist who's currently struggling with the whole "God" thing. I have devoted the past 8 years of my life to formal church ministry, and I am now at the point of believing that I have wasted a good portion of those 8 years; I'm a little ticked off at that too! As I'm trying to rediscover who I am and what I truly believe, I certainly don't feel like I'm beginning to miss out on anything by pulling away from my current beliefs. I don't know if I'll ever go atheist or not, and I'm not concerned about it at this point, but I appreciate the thoughts shared in this blog; truly.

  8. This reminds me of something I read recently that I totally agree with. A philosopher named Kai Neilson said:

    "A man who says, 'If God is dead, nothing matters', is a spoilt child who has never looked at his fellow man with compassion."

  9. I'd like to add that if the man 'wasted' a year of his life expecting a payout, and didn't get paid, all is not necessarily lost.

    If he learned from the experience (learned how not to get conned again, and why he got conned to begin with) then he has lost a year of his life but gained some very valuable experience, which he could definitely use to help others (it may not be as valuable as the 75k he expected, or it might be more valuable; you decide).

    Jason, if you believe that you 'wasted' most of those 8 years believing things you no longer believe, perhaps you should realize that those years helped shape you up to be how you are today, which I am assuming is a better, more critical thinker than you were 8 years ago.

    Once you settle what it is you believe and why (it seems that maybe you are in some sort of transition?) then you may want to consider using the skills you developed in the ministry to doing [what you now consider to be] good. In that case, those years would not be wasted at all, but would be of great use to you.

    I am of course assuming you learned some skills, be they public speaking skills, people skills, etc.

  10. It was such a great post until you started calling things "lies". They are not spreading "lies". Something is a lie if the person spreading the lie knows what they're saying is false. If they accept these things to be true, when they are not, then they are spreading falsehoods. But not lies! I pick on this because it's a big statement that if used against a clever person could get you in a pretty embarrassing situation where you're shot down for calling something a "lie" when it isn't.

  11. Count me as one of those ex-theists who was robbed of not only time, but experiences due to my religious beliefs. I am so much happier and more fulfilled now that I've realized that life is what I make of it. You are 100% correct -- you are doing a service to help others not waste their lives or suffer emotionally (when I believed in Hell, I was very distraught at the idea that many of the people I love would end up there) for irrational beliefs that are long overdue for universal dismissal.

  12. Aardvark:

    It's not that I don't get what you're saying. But in this case, the people spreading these "falsehoods" are making bold statements about other people that don't align with reality, and they haven't even bothered to ask the people they're talking about. If their "falsehoods" were sincere misunderstanding, I'd be less harsh. But to frighten little children that life without god will be plagued by doubt and fear until they die, could be dispelled by simply asking an ex-theist if that's actually the case.

    If a person spreads a falsehood that is pulled out of their ass and doesn't bother to check on something this simple, their blatant willful ignorance in this case, and the ensuing harm, do not inspire "benefit of the doubt" in me. This is not some scientific issue that might be overcomplex to them--like evolution or big bang. It's not some abstract incoherency like "god exists" that might be confusing. It's a flagrant positive statement about reality to a child that flies in the face of observable reality that anyone can see. Again, I know of _no_ ex-theist who has ever testified that he regrets losing his faith and his life has become a dark void. There is zero evidence this is so, and overwhelming evidence it's false. It requires a unique--and willful--level of ignorance that cannot possibly be accidental. It is a lie that serves only to make sure young people--who lack life experience--believe that if they don't accept god, they will be plagued throughout their lifetimes with the childhood fears drilled into them by indoctrination.

    If someone (not you, but whomever may come along) wants to attack my logic here, and the best they can do is quibble over whether this harmful deceit is intentional or the result of sincere ignorance and stupidity--I can live with that.

  13. Jason:

    I didn't add this to the post, since my posts often go very long already. But just to share that when I was a young adult, and I was in the throes of the stress of fearing that rejecting god would result in horrible consequences (whether a horrible life or eventual hell), I caved. I was desperate to accept anything that would justify belief, because I accepted that the choice was believe or forever fear I was wrong.

    I don't get from your post that you are in that position. You are probably older than I was then. But we have in common that we both ultimately accepted belief.

    Since I opted to believe, I then embraced all the "reasons" for belief that I was given as more justification. Ultimately my deconversion was the undoing of my conversion. First, I lost belief in my brand of religion when I studied the Bible history. Then, I began to lose faith in my model of god--wondering if what I thought god "was" was actually what god was. So, I floated as a theist for many years. Ultimately my search yielded that I was unable to define any coherent or reasonable god model that wasn't compatible with part or all of existence--basically the pantheist position. And I held there for about a week before I recognized that was atheism repackaged.

    For you, I have no problem accepting you are currently operating without fear. And that's all anyone can ask. As long as you have the capacity to investigate and question without the mental pressure that indoctrination puts on the mind, you can think freely. Eventually you'll figure out what you consider to be most reasonable.

    I appreciate from you what I consider to be a sincere and very open post from a theist at this blog.

  14. Wonderful post Tracie, that really does explain it perfectly. It truly is freeing to get away from that fear, those first few steps are the hardest.

  15. @Tracieh
    "that means that for this particular theist, praying serves a primarily secular function"

    Please don't let Bill O'Reilly read this. I'm not ready for a "we need prayer in school...it's not religious at all." argument.

    Also, I like your reply about lying. Blatant willful ignorance, that is, the ability to make an assertion, and to have such little regard for the truth that you don't even bother checking, is a deception. To say that it isn't a lie is splitting hairs at best.

  16. Lurker, yes of course you're right; I have developed and taken many valuable skills from my past 8 years of ministry experience, so they're not wasted in that sense. And yes, you're correct in assuming that I'm in a "belief transition" (my words not yours), and I'm definitely taking my skills and transitioning into a new vocation where they'll be very useful, and have hopes of using those skills in yet an additional line of work down the road. Thanks.

  17. tracieh, I was 23 when I came into this life of faith. I was a happy person at the time, but God seemed to be the only "thing" (if you will) that made sense for our being in the world; you know, the whole rhyme and reason of life, the big questions (i.e. "Why are we here?" "What's the point of our existence?" etc.)

    My fundamentalist worldview was seriously dismantled when I (like you it sounds) began doing critical studies of the biblical texts. That was the beginning of me looking at God differently.

    A couple years ago I "stepped out in faith" big time, and two years later I'm am at the point where all the promises of such a step have come null and void and have nearly ruined my marriage.

    I have been meditating more critically on the biblical teachings and have been listening to others' biblical messages. I'm becoming more and more convinced of the almost sillyness of such drastic devotion to God.

    You're right about the whole God model thing; how does anyone know? What's right and wrong? In all sincerity, the Old Testament texts in particular were written by the religious elite; those in power; thus, the motives behind those writings (especially) are highly suspect, and in my opinion completely biased for the good of the ones in power; not for the masses.

    Suffice to say, all my belief is being slowly dismantled; it's been a 4 year process now. I was royally pissed and in complete angst when I came to the reality of the corruption of the biblical texts; I got over that.

    As I am rediscovering who I really am (instead of what I've allowed the church to tell me to be), I am finding your post to be true so far. My becoming dead toward faith is not jeapordizing my life; in fact so far I'm beginning to live again.

    I'm in the process of something right now; not exactly sure what it is. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post. Truly it speaks truth. (And FYI, yes, a pantheistic position is simply atheism repackaged; kudos to you for seeing that! ha!)

  18. Tracie, your posts here and appearances on the AE show are always my favorites. Has someone tried to talk you into being on the NP show too?

    One thing I'd like to see with blog posts here, is the by-line at the top instead of the bottom. I can almost always tell Martin's writings without scrolling down to look who it is, and I can usually tell Kazim. But I got halfway through this one and found myself reading it in Jeff Dee's voice. I scrolled down, saw your name, and had to back up a little to get the right mental picture.

  19. The analogy really holds up.

    It's not just time that is wasted, if it was then the vatican would just be a wooden hut.

    Some of us also object to our hard earned taxes being used to pay for the religionists whims.

  20. >A couple years ago I "stepped out in faith" big time, and two years later I'm am at the point where all the promises of such a step have come null and void and have nearly ruined my marriage.

    I have a friend who was a Church of Christ preacher. He lost his faith and his wife was trying hard to keep up, but ultimately, a lot of the reasons for their marriage revolved around their shared beliefs. And when that died, there was just no salvaging it. Ironically, it was _him_, not her, who initiated an affair and later a divorce—but mainly because he felt the relationship was fubar at that point due to his loss of faith and reasons for the marriage.

    I am actually married to a nonreligious theist. And we certainly do our share of “grrrr” about the topic, and passive/aggressive addressing of it. But it’s really not the main point of our relationship and never was. So, it’s a totally different situation—even though I was also a theist when I was married (also nonreligious by that time).

    I don’t know your situation; but whatever happens, I am sure you will handle it well. You sound like a sane enough person.

    >was royally pissed and in complete angst when I came to the reality of the corruption of the biblical texts;

    Funny, true story. When I found out about this, I all but ran to my preacher to tell him—since I thought it would rock the church. His response to me was “I have to believe god had a hand in creating the Bible—whatever the process.”

    After all the sermons on truth, and after hearing over and over that it’s wrong to listen to the Catholic Pope, because he’s just a man—I was FLOORED. If you have a fundamentalist background, you probably see the irony I’m driving at—that if men built the Bible without any claim to divine guidance or instruction to do so, from god, Jesus, the apostles or at the very least, recorded in the Bible itself, then we _were_ doing exactly what the Catholics were doing—setting up some product of non-divine origins, made by people, and giving it divine authority. The hypocrisy was just too much.

    When I told him I was reading Buddhism, and that what our church said about Buddhism wasn’t right, I was told that I shouldn’t be reading these texts from other religious outside of a church study!!! And this from the Church of Christ, who says that if you want to know what the Bible says, you read it for yourself, and don’t accept the Pope, or the Watch Tower, or Joseph Smith, etc. Wow, so it’s OK to read the Bible without influence and decide what it means—in fact that’s best(?)—but reading things outside the Bible, I need a church group to “guide” me about what it means? That’s everything we professed to be against.

    Again, just FLOORED.

    >My becoming dead toward faith is not jeapordizing my life; in fact so far I'm beginning to live again.

    Thank you for this affirmation. I suspect that if someone finds this post one day, the numbers of people who wrote in to affirm it might help some child who fears that he won’t ever stop fearing if he doesn’t “believe.”


    The NP thing was only very casually discussed awhile back. Time is a premium when you’re a volunteer, and my impression is that NP has a different feel to it than AE. I’m not sure how I’d do.

    As far as your note about Jeff—what a hoot. I respect Jeff’s role on the show, but I would say our styles are night and day. So, that would be like one of those movies where you get to the end, and there’s a big surprise—and you have to think back about what you saw and how you interpreted it, vs. what was actually going on! Too funny.

  21. There is in fact an option on blogger to rearrange posts so that the author appears first instead of last. By all appearances I have just set it this way, but I don't see any change. Maybe it takes some time for the changes to propagate to the posts?

  22. Thanks, Tracie. I got tears in my eyes reading your post as I recalled the emotions I felt while gradually liberated myself from Catholicism. As the truth finally dawned on me, I felt anger combined with the desire to hunt down all the priests and nuns who disseminated all that false information into the mind of a child who would just as easily believe in Santa Claus.

    Later I relaxed and realized the enormous amount of freedom I possessed since the weight had been lifted from me. It was, indeed, as if my eyes had been opened, just like in Genesis, and that it was a liberating feeling. I began to realize that there were many other irrational areas of my life that needed to be repaired like notions of UFOs, homeopathy, multi-level marketing, etc. For me, the faith of religion seemed to go hand in hand with faith in the other woo-woo, because priests had preached the "virtue" of faith.

    For a year or so I kept my deconversion to myself, smiling silently, as Christians spoke to me as if I shared their beliefs. No longer do I remain silent now that I know there are many other rational people with whom I feel a kinship. Thank you for your responses, blogs, podcasts, and your efforts. It is helping people. I thought you should know.

  23. That's a very powerful article, Tracie. Keep it up!


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