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For me, the process of walking away from my religion was a long and difficult one. But once I finally came out the other side, I was stunned by just how freeing it felt. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never been religious before just how much of a burden religious belief can put on your psyche without you ever consciously realizing it. But when you believe that there’s an all-powerful, invisible being who scrutinizes your every thought and silently judges every moment of your life, the awareness of that observer’s presence – whether conscious or subconscious – can be overpowering. When I believed that God was watching everything I did and everything I thought, it felt like my life was constantly under a microscope – almost like I had a government chip planted in my head monitoring my brain activity for thoughtcrime or something. Every little mental slip-up (like, say, finding another person physically attractive, or wondering whether what I felt when I worshiped was really God’s presence) was accompanied by a rush of guilt and shame. I never felt free to just let my thoughts wander freely; I always had to make sure they stayed within the confines of what my religion deemed appropriate. And when I inevitably failed to do that, it felt frightening and humiliating to know that God was seeing it all.

When I finally stopped believing, though, those feelings of guilt and shame finally started to vanish. That oppressive feeling of having my every thought constantly monitored finally went away (although it took a few years to fully shake). And the feeling was absolutely liberating. It might sound melodramatic, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe it except to say that it felt like getting out of prison or something.

I’m far from the only person who’s experienced this. Here’s Templeton describing how it felt when he finally stopped believing and left his job as a minister:

The oft-postponed decision irrevocably made, there came a soaring sense of freedom, not least, intellectual freedom. It was not that I had felt constrained in the ministry – other than as the discipline of any commitment restricts – but there were no longer those subliminal parameters to put boundaries around my thinking. My mind could freely quest where it would. I could examine any question without a predisposition to harmonize it with the body of Christian belief. I felt loosed. Set free!

And Robert G. Ingersoll describes it in the same way:

When I became convinced that the universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world – not even in infinite space. I was free – free to think, to express my thoughts – free to live to my own ideal – free to use all my faculties, all my senses – free to spread imagination’s wings – free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope – free to judge and determine for myself – free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past – free from popes and priests – free from all the “called” and “set apart” – free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies – free from the fear of eternal pain – free from the winged monsters of the night – free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought – no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings – no chains for my limbs – no lashes for my back – no fires for my flesh – no master’s frown or threat – no following another’s steps – no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

Of course, there was still a bit of an adjustment period for me. For a long time, I was uncomfortable with terms like “atheist” and even “agnostic,” because I knew what toxic connotations those terms had for believers. When I’d been a believer myself, any time I heard the word “atheist,” part of me immediately thought of someone who was smug, self-absorbed, condescending, bitter, and incapable of having any real sense of meaning in their lives – someone whose existence was just filled with empty pursuits like drugs, alcohol, sex, nihilistic philosophy, heavy metal music, and just generally being a cynical smartass. Even though I never would have said so directly (I would have insisted that atheists deserved love too and that we’re all children of God and so on), the word “atheist” frankly wasn’t that from off from “Satanist” to me – it was the worst possible thing a person could be.

Obviously, though, I now realize how wrong that prejudice was. Admittedly, I do still shy away from the word “atheist” – in part because of its unhelpful connotations (I feel like “nonbeliever” is a less loaded term), but also because using a label like “atheist” makes it sound like atheism is a kind of religion in itself, rather than an absence of religion. (In fact, atheism is no more a religion than “bald” is a hair color, or “off” is a TV channel.) As Harris points out, the word itself may be entirely unnecessary:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But semantics aside, the important thing is that I no longer believe. And as a result of that, I’ve come to realize that all those assumptions I’d made about nonbelief weren’t actually true. Not only are things like kindness and humility and deep meaning still possible without religion – they can actually grow even deeper without it.

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