Content: religious trauma, prolonged illness, death, grief, also this is really long.
I don’t… actually remember the moment I became an atheist. I don’t think there was one - I know there are folks who feel they had a reckoning, or a lightning bolt moment, or some other dramatic event that triggered a loss of faith. I think mine, though, was more of an erosion over the course of three to four years, in my early 30s.
I was raised in a family that was very evangelical. I was raised as a Biblical literalist, and we spoke in tongues, believed the Earth was six to ten thousand years old, and tithed every week. I very much so bought into all of this. However, for reasons I can’t really figure out, in late high school/early college cracks began to form. By the end of freshman year of college, I was more or less believing but inactive, apart from attending church on Sundays with my family.
Thing is, evangelicalism relies heavily on how you feel, and its structures are oriented in this regard. Having a bad day was Satan attacking your faith. Doubt was unacceptable. Anything bad happening in your life was because you didn’t trust God enough to let Him help you. I realized, in college, that this reliance on feeling was for me a fragile link to evangelical religious culture. Left unattended, it corroded. So when I felt the pull back towards religion in my mid-twenties, I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I knew 1. I wanted it to be a form of Christianity, and 2. I did not want it to be Evangelicalism.
I started attending a Catholic church after work during a particularly rainy fall. I’d attended Catholic school as a kid, and it felt nice to attend the Mass. I told myself and anyone who would listen that I wasn’t converting, I just sort of liked the beauty of the liturgy and the slow, measured approach to experiencing God’s presence. I started lighting candles, reading the Bible, and using a rosary to pray the Jesus prayer in repetition (‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.') I still wasn’t converting - no, really! - but it felt nice to engage in contemplation and quiet ritual practice.
Sufficed to say, I converted within a year.
For me, the Catholic church wasn’t just an antithesis to the religious community I was raised in - it actually spoke to me, quite deeply. I loved the sameness. I loved the symbolism. I loved the intellectual foundations of religious thought, the capital-T Tradition that connected the church backward through time, the rosary and Divine Office and the liturgical calendar. It all was so much more of what I wanted - thoughtful, rather than emotional. Philosophical, rather than reactionary. That’s how I saw it, anyway.
But those cracks, though. Un-repaired, they continued to widen in the face of my experiences and my relationships with others. I found myself questioning why God would choose to do things the way He did. I found myself quietly dissenting on moral teachings of the Church. I felt conflicted and stopped receiving Communion, and I eventually stopped attending Mass all together.
My father’s passing was the end, for me. He died of a long, drawn-out illness that ravaged his body, kept him in home hospice for the end of his life, and pushed my mom to the brink as she tried to take care of him. It was hard to watch, and it’s not super easy to think about. I have regrets around some of it.
A few nights before he died, I heard my father praying. Quietly, but out loud, whispering through cracked lips. I couldn’t make out his words, but the rhythm of prayer was unmistakable - something he’d done with me for over three decades. He was reciting scripture and thanking God for the healing that he knew was already available to him if he could just accept it.
I feel like when I speak with people about this, they think it’s what broke my faith. But the truth is, it didn’t. It just highlighted that my faith had been gone for a while, and that there was nothing there to break. It brought into the light something I was avoiding, hiding, pretending didn’t exist - an emptiness where my belief used to be.
Realizing that I didn’t believe in deities was hard. I had nowhere left to hide. It brought out all the anxieties, all the disappointment and fear that I was feeling but refusing to acknowledge. It forced me to look directly into the hollow that once held a large part of my identity.
I mourned it, of course. I felt grief at the loss, hopelessness and anger and despair. But there was a sense of calm about the whole thing - because it also felt inevitable, insurmountable. I knew I could not fake it, could not get it back. The reality of it was that there was no struggling I could do to reverse it - and with that came a kind of peace about the whole thing.
However, as the weeks became months, became years, I noticed that there were parts that I continued to mourn - specifically the ritual forms and liturgical trappings of Catholicism. While I couldn’t bring myself to in good conscience attend the Mass, I found myself thinking over and over again about the aspects of it that I missed. I couldn’t get it out of my mind - the way ritual was soothing, rich in symbolism, inspiring, helped me connect with the numinous.
I don’t remember what made me think to do so, but I began to explore other forms of ritual practice that I might use to replace it. Could daily meditation help? What about secular rituals? I found myself drawn to occult practices, although I knew I didn’t believe in the supernatural at all (and still don’t).
Finding psychological-model occult content was difficult. Since I did not come from an atheist or an occult background, I lacked the vocabulary to describe what I was looking for. A lot of discussion of ‘archetypes’ or ‘nontheistic witchcraft’ seemed to include other forms of supernatural belief I did not hold. I had to settle for a lot of podcasts, books, and blogs that required me to ‘filter’ out the parts that were irrelevant to my interest and try to pull out the things I liked.
I looked into ceremonial magic - I thought it was the closest to Catholicism as far as form went. But the “hermetic” traditions didn’t speak much to me. The incorporation of Ancient Egyptian symbolism and Kabbalah wasn’t engaging or relevant. I was inspired by some of the forms and structures, but for the most part never found occult traditions of ceremonial magic that I wanted to pursue.
I also looked into chaos magick. But the focus on belief was outside of my interest as well, and was too similar to my time as an Evangelical (in the sense that faith is so important to Evangelicalism). I did end up learning more about some of the visualization techniques and such that chaos magicians suggest and I do occasionally incorporate them into my contemplative practice, though, so chaos magick has influenced me to some extent.
After about a year of digging without too much luck, I found The Placebo Magick Podcast and it was almost exactly what I was looking for - Gary described using a psychological model of occultism/magic that allowed him to effect change in himself without any belief in the supernatural. It was the first time I found something that matched what I was looking for without compromise.
Eventually, Gary hosted a guest on his podcast named Mark Green, where they talked about a religious path that Mark invented called Atheopaganism. Mark and Gary discussed utilizing the trappings of ritual and religion from a psychological standpoint as a framework for making changes in your life, revering the Earth, and fulfilling the areas of our minds that are responsible for religious awe and experiences of the numinous. I immediately redoubled my search for other content of the same kind, I purchased Mark’s book (as well as another, Godless Paganism, to which Mark and other members of the Atheopaganism community had contributed), and I started to get excited.
I didn’t think I would want to join a community, to be honest. Nothing wrong with it, thought it wasn’t really my thing. But I was so hungry for more, and I felt like it was my only chance to talk to folks who thought like I did. But I’ve found a number of online communities organized around ideas very similar to my own - psychological models of witchcraft, religion, and the occult for people that find it valuable without wanting to compromise their worldviews.
The sense of being among others who thought like me, after feeling like I had lost my religious community, was unlike any experience I’ve had. It was so nice and comforting to really see that I wasn’t alone. And it’s been fantastic. As a result of the community, I have developed a full, lively, and satisfying ritual practice that meets my needs wonderfully. I have begun a gratitude practice to help interrupt negative thought patterns. I’ve even developed my own divinatory system that I utilize to prompt introspection and explore my thoughts.
But most importantly, I realized what I was doing all of this for.
Christianity teaches us that humankind cannot live without God. We are incapable of making the right choices or doing the right thing. It robs us of our Authority - the right and ability to determine what is meaningful, what values we will follow, and what morality we will live by. For so long I had Christianity dictating the terms of my existence to me - what I valued, what was right and wrong, how the Earth came to exist, where my money should go, what behaviors were okay and which were sinful - and it did so by telling me that I was worthless, corrupted, without value unless I followed it. And what’s more, it left me to sort out the subsequent cognitive dissonance all by myself.
My practice is dedicated to reclaiming that Authority. It’s about determining my own value set. It’s about refusing to give up my belief in science and the material world, about declaring what has meaning for me and why. I am re-learning to trust myself, my choices, and my judgment, and re-learning not to let another tell me what is meaningful.
And that’s where I am now. I have been using my practice to explore my mind, my will, and my emotions, and it’s been incredibly rewarding. A fully psychological model of the occult, one without a belief in the supernatural, has been so satisfying to me simply because I’m wired to feel satisfied by it. But what’s more, that satisfaction translates into learning more about myself and understanding some of my emotional patterns and behaviors, and it’s begun to work as a tool for changing these things.
I share this story with the hopes that it will reach others that felt similarly to the way I did - it was tough, at first, but it’s been so rewarding I want to do whatever I can help others who might be looking for this in their search. It feels like the least I can do - I’ve gotten so much from the people who have been putting out atheist occult content, from the books and YouTube videos and facebook posts. I want to get to work, too.