Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Atheists and Depression

A few days ago, I was spending some quality time with some of my (Christian) friends. One of them, who's requested to remain nameless, asked me what he probably thought was a very insightful question: "Max, being an atheist as well as somebody who tries to keep abreast of current events, how is it that you're not depressed? I mean, look at the world around you, and at all the wrongs you see being perpetuated by organized religion. Doesn't that get you down?" Well...no, not really. I don't get depressed, I get mad.

This mad.

     I could go on for a while about all the things that get me mad (have you read Greta Christina's book yet? Seriously, go read it), but despite the reasons for my anger, I have to wonder--how do other atheists deal with the reality of the world around them? Almost all atheists, after all, are realist enough to realize the world around them is far from perfect, and we realize that pulling the wool over our eyes isn't going to make the world a better place. However, and very unfortunately, my friend's question about depression is a disturbingly valid one for many atheists. Some studies have shown that religious affiliation is correlated with decreased risk of suicide attempts. This isn't surprising. Religious people have the security and comfort of religion to make their moral decisions for them, and religious people are more likely to have a morality system that views suicide as inherently immoral. Atheists, on the other hand, have a lot to be depressed about, and are more likely to have a subjective view of morality.

So what can we do about this? Well I, even as an atheist, don't get depressed; I get mad, and I think one of the reasons that I (and other members of ISSA) get mad about the misdeeds of religions is that we have a wonderful group of peers to support us when we try to confront reality. I know that in high school, when I didn't have an atheist group to draw strength from, I often felt powerless to change the reality of the religious world around me, and it wasn't pleasant. But ISSA is not powerless. We give our members outlets for their frustration, from poking fun at religious blowhards on campus to doing good deeds around town. I think this sense of community (the very same sense of community that keeps agnostics and otherwise reasonable people attending church) is what allows ISSA's members to be productive with their frustration where an atheist alone would only be despondent. In addition to our meetings, we reach out to the community through activism--whether it's raising thousands of dollars through our Light the Night walk, selling hot dogs to drunkards and donating the profits toward secular adoption agencies, or volunteering right here in Champaign at the Orpheum Children's Museum. Besides giving its members a place to get mad, ISSA provides a much more important service: we let our members make a difference. That feeling of empowerment is what lets me turn my anger into something productive, and it's the most essential part of our group.

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