My Road to Atheism

(Via Secular Skeptic, Part I: What Took Me So Long?)

My road to atheism was long and difficult. I’ve only actively identified myself as an unbeliever for less than a year, but the questioning started long before that. I’d like to explore, for my own benefit, and hopefully the benefit of anyone under similar circumstances, what took me so long.

I come from a family of 7th-generation Mormons. On my mother’s side, the first convert was a man named James Lake, Jr., who was taught and baptized by Brigham Young himself in the late 1830s, shortly after the foundation of the church. On my father’s side it wasn’t much later, as one of my ancestors was taught and baptized over in Europe by one of the early missionaries. People on both sides of my family came across the plains in the wagon train with the pioneers, and much of my family tree around that time is gnarled with polygamy. Today, the vast majority of my extended family is Mormon, and the vast majority of my friends, throughout most of this story, were Mormons.

Growing up, I was extremely devout. I did my best to avoid sex, drugs, and booze, and for the most part didn't even swear. I participated in the church youth activities, including the Boy Scouts, and generally did what I was expected to do. My freshman year of college I argued openly with my biology professor about evolution. I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper in which I mourned the approval of RU-486 (the “abortion pill”), calling it a “triumph for unchaste women.” I was also the Sunday School president of the local congregation during that time.

Then, I embarked on a 2-year mission for the church when I was 19, traveling thousands of miles from home and preaching the gospel to those poor souls who hadn’t yet heard it. I rose through the ranks of trainer, district leader and zone leader to the highest available position for a missionary, that of Assistant to the President, a highly coveted position of great authority. I was known as a pillar of faith, and one of the most knowledgeable “scriptorians” in the mission. I read the entire Bible, front to back, without even noticing the times when God commanded genocide and rape. My faith-filter was highly tuned. Although I did become aware of several important contradictions in the Bible, Mormons believe that the Bible is only true insofar as it is translated correctly, so it didn't pose a challenge. I had scripture verses memorized that I could wield in almost any situation and to answer almost any question.

I attended Brigham Young University, as did my wife, who had also served a full-time mission. We were married in the temple shortly after we graduated on the same day, and were promised that we would be together not just in this life, but for "time and all eternity" in a secret ceremony only open to those Mormons who meet the rigorous standards of temple attendance. There I covenanted with God and my wife to remain ever-faithful, upon pain of hellfire.

As you have probably noticed, my reasons for staying faithful were legion (to borrow the Biblical usage of the word). It was a storybook Mormon life, had I not been so dissatisfied. I was destined for high positions of leadership; indeed, my patriarchal blessing (a special prophetic blessing that Mormon teens receive; basically a glorified fortune-telling) foresaw that I would “preside over the quorums of the church.”

On the inside, however, things were much different. I remember sending letters to my Mission President in the early months of my mission asking unanswerable questions and being told that I just needed to have faith, which I took to heart. I remember telling some other missionaries that if I wasn't a Mormon I would probably be an atheist. I remember noticing contradictions between the supposedly perfect Book of Mormon and the supposedly perfect Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. I remember writing an in-depth paper at BYU about the Mormon persecution in Missouri and discovering that the evidence suggested that the reasons they were driven out of town had nothing to do with their religion, and everything to do with their arrogance, pugnacity, unwillingness to associate with the other townsfolk, and the huge voting bloc that they represented, giving them near absolute power over local political matters. This information was not welcomed by my devout professor, and was certainly not to be found in any of the (what I even then considered to be) white-washed church histories.

I began studying evolution and discovered it to be a supremely elegant explanation for the things that the church used fairy tales to explain. I actually discovered that the church authorities had softened their stance on evolution several decades before, and that it is taught as truth in BYU biology classes, but that it just hadn't caught on among the general membership of the church. This was a relief for me, but I still struggled to understand how to reconcile evolution with the church’s great emphasis on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. If Adam and Eve are only metaphorical, then the entire doctrine of the church crumbles, and yet here was evolution being taught at BYU.

It was during this time that I basically went numb. For several years I stopped thinking deeply about religion, fearing the outcome of doing so. My church attendance went downhill, and when I did show up it was mostly for social reasons. It was during this time that I married my wife, a very devout Mormon. My unwillingness to address the issue extended even to her, as I avoided religious discussion with her on anything more than a superficial level. I finally began to think about things a few months after our wedding, which led me to cautiously express some of my doubts. Despite my care, the mere mention of doubt was shocking enough to my wife that I decided to go back to not thinking about it for another year or so.

When I did begin thinking about religion again, it was not Mormon doctrine that dominated my thoughts, but the existence of God at all. I had come to be a logical, reasonable person except when it came to religion, and I wondered if I wasn't compromising my personal integrity in order to believe in it. I began thinking about the odds that any religion was true, let alone the one that I happened to be born into. I began exploring the origins of religion, and came to the conclusion that they were all most likely fiction. Still, I resisted. It was not enough to allow me to liberate myself. I felt like I had too much at stake and risked throwing nearly everything away. It did cause me to reopen a bit of dialogue with my wife, however, albeit to mixed results. The consequences of "coming out" loomed large, and I went back into my numb little shell, refusing to think about it.

A few months later, I happened upon a speech given by Richard Dawkins. I can't be sure, but I think it was his reading and subsequent Q&A session at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in October of last year. It resonated with me, and I sought out more. I ended up watching and reading everything I could find on the internet by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. It was during this time (I think October or November of last year), that I announced to my wife that I no longer believed in God, although I had really stopped believing some several months before, and had lived a virtually faith-free life for even longer than that.

While the arguments of Dawkins and Harris were certainly useful in battling my seemingly never-ending stream of internal religious justification, their effect on me was not necessarily one of convincing, but one of encouragement. I later read The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation, and the End of Faith, further solidifying my desire to be an out-of-the-closet rationalist.

The experience of finally acknowledging my lack of belief, of finally accepting the feelings that had been welling up for so long, of finally putting religious belief behind me for good, is one I’ll never forget. The feelings that accompanied my deconversion are strikingly similar to the feelings described by many of those people who I personally converted to Mormonism. It was a great relief; a giant weight lifted; a rush of excitement. The flood of intellectual nourishment that followed as I sought out knowledge and explored evidence without fear of where it might lead was, and is, constantly exciting.

You see, it wasn’t the rules and restrictions of Mormonism that most bothered me. For the most part I didn’t really mind them. It was the intellectual bondage and the requisite distrust of science that was, to a scientific mind, unbearable.

(Via Secular Skeptic, Part II: The Aftermath)

I still have respect for Mormons, and not just because I remain married to one. Mormonism has a reputation of being a kooky religion that requires extreme credulity to believe. While I find that this is true of all religions, I find that Mormonism is no more, and perhaps even less, crazy than any of the more mainstream religions. The reason it is seen as so crazy is likely at least partially due to the fact that the fog of time hasn’t had as long to afford it the legitimacy that other religions enjoy.

Mormon doctrine is much more deep and complex than that of any of the mainstream Christian religions. It includes stories about humanity’s pre-existence, a much more detailed version of heaven (which I discussed briefly here), and also answers to many of the more difficult doctrinal questions such as “what happens to those who died without the opportunity to believe in Jesus?” Catholicism is still struggling with this question today, having just recently changed their stance on “limbo.” This question is the source of many of the strange doctrines of Mormonism – The genealogy, the baptism and temple ordinances for the dead, etc. It is unwieldy, but it makes sense within the (admittedly nonsensical) framework of Christianity, which cannot be said for the stance that many other Christian religions take on the issue.

Mormons even have an explanation for the existence of God, which is supremely rare. Mormon doctrine states that the purpose of life is not only to prove one’s worthiness to return to God, but to prepare to become like Him. “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become,” is the oft-repeated aphorism. So, Mormons believe that God was once a human like any one of us, and that only through righteous living and eternal progression did he become God. We may presume that the God of the man that became our God achieved his status in the same way. We soon realize that this doctrine turns into “Turtles all the way down,” meaning that there is still no explanation for the first God, if there was one, but at least they go further than anyone else.

Although my infidelic admission to my wife went over in my household like a lead balloon, she’s been a real trooper about it. She has always been fairly liberal, unlike the majority of Mormons*, and has been able to accept my transition with open arms. She even reads all of the content of this space, which has served as good discussion fodder. All told, the consequences of my transition haven’t been as bad as I’d feared, although I must admit that I still haven’t mentioned it to my parents or siblings. Small moves.

In the process of getting things worked out between us, my wife and I arranged a deal wherein I attend church with her every other week. While I don’t enjoy it, my outsider’s perspective can make it intermittently interesting. Even when I was faithful I disliked that the complex, uniquely Mormon doctrine was rarely discussed among the members of the church, and it is even more perturbing now. I still find religious belief and doctrine to be fascinating, which only enhances my frustration at the lack of substance at the meetings. At church you don’t hear much about the doctrine of eternal progression, or even the doctrine of salvation, or even doctrine at all, for that matter. What dominates the lessons is generally various scriptural myths, or more often, it is the simple association of the divine with the mundane.

Stories and personal experiences are bandied about and related to deity in any way the teller sees fit without interjection from present leadership. Coincidences are seen as answers to prayers, good luck is seen as miraculous, bad luck as divine testing. More than anything, though, what dominates the discussion is the relentless expression of conviction. The reality of Mormonism is that doubt is not welcome. The members express certainty about things it is not possible to be certain about, and encourage others to do the same; they ensure each other that they have no doubt about things that should require doubt, and invite others to do likewise. It becomes a contest to see who believes the baseless doctrine with the least amount of reservation. One Sunday each month is dedicated solely for this purpose, and it comprises a good amount of the teaching the rest of the Sundays too.

So, despite the rich and interesting doctrine of the church, its meetings are mostly just boring: Gut-wrenchingly, mind-numbingly, face-plantingly boring. I sometimes wonder why my wife even wants me to go at all, since I usually end up just looking for things to make fun of, that is, the times I stay awake. Even the semi-annual General Conference, in which the leaders of the church (who the members consider to be prophets) speak, very rarely is doctrine explicated. It is nearly always the same trite subjects that are addressed: Faith, sin, repentance, salvation, etc. Those who are interested in Mormon doctrine and belief will find much more satisfaction in the literature of the church’s early scholars and leaders than from any church meetings. It is in those old writings that we learn about our existence as spirits in the presence of God before we were born, the war in heaven in which Jesus and Satan presented opposing plans to God, how Adam helped Jesus create the earth, the various kingdoms and degrees of heaven, our path to Godhood, and more.

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, Mormonism’s rare and attractive willingness to make specific and detailed truth-claims, combined with its relatively recent heritage, also means that it is more readily falsifiable than most religions. I will avoid going into specifics here, as I don’t seek to contribute any additional fuel to the fire in that regard, although I won’t rule out the possibility of addressing some of those issues in the future.

In the end, religion for me was a limiting factor and I was happy to be rid of it. It forced me to submit to the opinions of authorities rather than allowing me to seek for truth and to understand the world and universe as they really are. For many others, however, religion is a way of allowing themselves to feel comfortable about the unknown, while simultaneously fulfilling some of the social and ritualistic needs inherent in our species. As far as this brand of happy wishful-thinking goes, one could do worse than Mormonism. I can only hope that more and more people come to realize that none of the religions are necessary in order to live a happy life, that we don’t need to lie to ourselves in order to deal with reality, and that religion is ultimately an obstacle on the path toward enlightenment.

Here's a short followup.


*Mormons comprise one of the most consistently Republican voting blocs in the nation. See the 2004 electoral results here, and the 2000 electoral results here, and notice how Utah doesn’t have even a single blue county, and how the differential between the percentage that voted for Bush and the percentage that voted for his opponent in both elections was greater in Utah (which is predominantly Mormon) than in any other state. This is at odds with the Mormons’ liberal heritage, and also seems generally incongruent, since their underlying philosophy seems to match much more closely to that of the Democrats today. I’ll give Christianity’s association with the Republican Party and some possible explanations behind this union a full treatment soon.


David Littlefield said...

I can completely relate to the road that lead to where you are. I have been to meeting of no substance, and know too well the silliness that goes on. I have followed a similar road that leads me to understand evolution.

But, I came to different conclusions.

I came to understand that these silly people were the salt of the earth, good people doing the best they could to understand great questions that stump even the best theologian or scientist. These people were giving help to those who need it (an action not fully logical in atheism).

I have read writings of church leaders who understood and accepted what might be called theistic evolution, these are great minds.

The gospel is general presented in simple terms for the greater masses, but deeper things are there for those who seek.

I think you have ascribed many negative things to Mormonism that just are not there. And, I think you left too soon. Come on back, voice your disagreements and doubts. I suspect you will find yourself welcomed.

Bring a book to read just in case 8-)


Klea said...

"Small moves."

Have you seen the movie "Contact," by any chance? :-)