Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How I became an atheist

I've told the story of my deconversion from Mormonism here, here, and here, but I haven't quite explained yet how I got from there to atheism.

Before my deconversion, I'd already identified atheism as the main alternate possibility (as explained here: If the church weren't true I'd be an atheist, and other things I learned in seminary). Either the church is true or it isn't. Either the spiritual witness is right or it isn't. Since -- if we wipe away what we learned from the spirit -- what's left?

But I was plagued by self-doubt.

Mormonism had convinced me that spiritual witness was valid as evidence for deciding questions about the way the real-world universe functions. So I put a massive amount of heart and effort and prayer into trying to receive that spiritual witness. And several times I managed to generate an emotional/spiritual experience that I hoped was God talking to me.

But "the spirit" always felt sickly and off. Despite what I wrote in my journal about it, I never fully convinced myself that my spiritual experiences weren't wishful thinking and all in my head. That was why I continued to pray fervently for the "testimony" I didn't have, right up to the day of my deconversion epiphany.

But my doubts about my own spiritual experiences didn't extend to doubts about the reality of other people's spiritual experiences. I though my own were possibly just in my head, but I assumed that it was just because I was unworthy to have real spiritual experiences. I believed that other (more righteous) people were receiving actual communication from God.

That was why it threw me for such a loop when I heard from some faithful Mormons say that people in other religions had spiritual experiences similar to those Mormons have (see my deconversion, part 3). My belief in God was ultimately built on the bedrock of believing trusted friends and family when they said they'd talked to Him. When the same trusted individuals admitted that Mormons didn't necessarily have a monopoly on spiritual witness, I hardly knew what to think.

Then, when I had my grand epiphany that the claims of Mormonism are false, I didn't entirely stop believing in other people's spiritual claims. I merely determined that spiritual witness couldn't be used to answer real-world questions or questions about the nature of God. I immediately saw the parallels among all of the myths and miracles claimed by all of mankind's religions, and concluded that all of these details were inventions by people wishing to explain their experiences with the divine.

Thus I became a Deist. I believed that God or gods exist and created the universe and care about people (enough to commune with them), but that the divine powers don't actually intervene or explain anything specific to anyone. That's where I was at when I entered BYU as a freshman.

Sometime during my first year at BYU, I attended a devotional. My ward had invited one of the BYU religion professors to tell us the story of his conversion to Mormonism. He told an amazingly moving story that -- as far as I could tell -- touched everyone in the room, including me. That was the spirit for sure. Since I'd participated in the same spiritual experience with others whose spirituality wasn't in question, I concluded that that must be the real thing, if anything is. I took the experience as evidence of God's love and of the fact that God can communicate through Mormonism just as through any other religion.

But weirdly it was the beginning of the end. As long as I wasn't sure I'd ever received any spiritual witness, I didn't feel qualified to criticize that type of evidence. But once I had some spiritual evidence of my own, I had something concrete to question. And as soon as I started putting some weight on my evidence -- to rely on it for my belief -- the doubts started to squeeze out. That guy is a talented speaker. He's probably given that same devotional hundreds of times. He knows how to tell his story in such a way that it generates an emotional response in his audience. No supernatural explanation required...

Around the same time, someone had posted a cartoon on a door leading to some offices inside the BYU library. I passed the cartoon all the time because the door was along one of the main stairways leading to some of the lower floors of the library. The cartoon was of a stern-looking man (dressed as a scholar) walking down a staircase. I don't remember exactly what was written on the upper few steps -- I think it was a series of things like questioning the literal inerrancy of the Bible -- but I remember what was written on the last three steps: Deism, Agnosticism, Atheism.

I was annoyed by this cartoon because I felt like it was just an attempt to scare people away from doubting or interpreting the slightest thing for themselves. It looked like an obvious swipe against the "liberal" and "Sunstone" Mormons (today's "middle way" people). I thought "Oh, please!! Just because you don't buy the whole enchilada doesn't mean you're on the road to **shudder** atheism."

But the more I passed that cartoon -- and the more I thought about it -- the more I thought, "Well, actually... Maybe this path does lead to atheism..."

I didn't really have a moment of epiphany the way I did with my deconversion from Mormonism. I just gradually started calling myself an agnostic when I wasn't sure anymore. Meanwhile, the evidence for God's existence started looking weaker and weaker.

Then one day I was explaining to an atheist friend (probably my brother) about how I'm an agnostic because I don't claim to have a proof that God doesn't exist.

He then asked me "But which do you think it is? God exists or God doesn't exist?"

Without hesitation I said "I think God doesn't exist."

He laughed and said, "Then you're an atheist! Admit it!"

I thought about it a second and said, "You're right, I'm an atheist."

And I've been an atheist ever since.

27 comments:

C. L. Hanson said...

Cross-posted here.

Kullervo said...

I can definitely hear where you're coming from, chanson. One of the issues I've had in leaving Mormonism is that all my reasons to doubt Mormonism ultimately lead me to doubt the existence of God.

Mormonism has you base your entire belief system on spiritual experiences. So when questioning the validity of those experiences, if I'm honest, I have to throw the whole pot out.

However, I realize that mysticism isn't the only basis for god-belief (at the same time, I'm conditioned to feel like it should be). Most non-Mormons don't base their beliefs on a "testimony they received from the Holy Ghost."

Ayway, I don't have the answers I'd like it have. I'm at the bottom of that staircase right now, trying to figure out how to get back up it somehow without kidding myself. I don't necessarily like being an atheist.

aerin said...

thanks for posting this chanson.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kullervo!!!

It's true that people in other religions may base their God-belief on something other than mysticism and spiritual experiences. But none of these other reasons seem terribly convincing. Even spiritual witness is a rather questionable reason for believing in God -- the only reason I thought it was valid evidence was because I'd been conditioned to believe it was valid evidence.

I've been following your situation over on your blog, and while your beliefs are in flux, I really don't want to try to push you either way. Writing down your thoughts at a time like thins is a great way to clarify your own ideas to yourself. The only problem with blogging about it is that when people sense you're undecided, they can't help but want to help you (to see things exactly the way they see them...) ;^)

But I'm sure you'll settle on something that works for you. This whole story is about what little I remember about that stage when my worldview was in transition, and you see it all worked out in the end. :D

Hey Aerin!!!

Glad you liked it!!! :D

Rebecca said...

I felt much the same way - when praying and listening for "the Spirit" or God or whatever, I kind of always felt like whatever I heard was coming directly from me. So then I felt like I was talking to myself, and then I felt kind of idiotic. I heart your blog.

Rebecca said...

And it makes me laugh whenever I say I heart something.

Wayne said...

Maybe there is a God and it/she/he just likes to mess with people.

When you start thinking about any religion they all seem a bit off.

I had some of the same thoughts about Mormonism that you had, mine was "If this is the only true Church how come
my Catholic friends are just as righteous as me and happier." (It must be the wine and coffee)

I have never been able call myself an atheist because I am afraid to. So, instead, I practice Zen Buddhism where the existence of God
or non-existence makes no difference. Being a fence sitter seems like a copout to a lot of people but that is just the nature of duality.

Thanks again for all your great posts.

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

When I left the Mormons, I felt that I should go straight to atheism... but I couldn't...

So I am a Joseph Campbellist. ;-) --on the left-hand path.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

LOL, exactly!!!

Hey Wayne!!!

That's wild that one can be a Zen Buddhist without necessarily believing in God. Did you notice that there was an atheist Zen Buddhist included in my episode of the Carnival of the Godless? here

Hey Cynthia!!!

Not everyone has exactly the same path -- it's fun to have some diversity in the exmo community!!! :D

Wayne said...

I did read the Zen athiests article.
He sure sounds like a Buddhist. lol

Tom Clark said...

Fascinating thoughts Chanson. I love the way you take a thought and explore it so succinctly. There's something so clean in the way you write that it's a slam dunk following where you're going.

I wonder sometimes if it's even necessary anymore to have a "label" for what I am or am not. Beyond just being Tom, I'm not sure about anything anymore and have lost my desire to be identified with any group of any kind when it comes to spirituality or existential belief.

For laughs I used to say I was an apathetic agnostic: I didn't know if god existed and I didn't care that I didn't know. But that saddled me with two labels so I had to let go of that one too.

In truth, I'm all about today and that's as far as I can see anymore. What that makes me is still just Tom and for 53 years now Tom seems to have worked out just fine. I think I'll stick with that. :-)

I'm so glad you have a blog. You and Sideon keep me so stimulated and entertained.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Tom!!!

I think that's actually pretty common. For a lot of people, the existence/non-existence of God is just not a central question for them. If you want a label for that, a fun one is "apatheist." Otherwise you could stick with "just Tom." :D

Kullervo said...

"It's true that people in other religions may base their God-belief on something other than mysticism and spiritual experiences. But none of these other reasons seem terribly convincing."

I wonder if other reasons are unconvincing precisely because you came out of Mormonism, which stresses the spiritual experience as basis of faith so explicitly and relentlessly?

Just one of many said...

I am an atheist with a mystical leaning. I loved the movie The Fountain. It exemplified my thoughts on the matter. I LOVE Hugh Jackman!
I believe I am a part of a whole. Whether it includes a dead-beat "Father", is not relevant. I believe in a cycle of life. When I die, I give back to the earth my body. But while alive, I bring life to others (my children) and the earth sustains us.
OMG, what a ramble! Loved your post!!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kullervo!!!

I think it's really quite the opposite.

Before I will believe a proposition, it has to have a certain amount of real-world evidence to back it up. My parents (who are very intelligent people) taught me from the cradle that spiritual witness is a more valid form of evidence than the evidence that one takes in through one's senses and reasoning. And I believed that for a long time because people don't generally question their basic assumptions until it occurs to them to do so.

No other type of evidence/arguments for God's existence has passed muster as real, concrete evidence nor have any of them gotten fast-tracked to bypass my skepticism the way "spiritual witness" once was.

Thanks JOOM!!!

A whole lot of atheists has a spiritual/mystical side. I've learned quite a lot about atheists who value their spiritual/mystical side since I've started blogging. In this very thread of comments we have Zen atheists. Also, I would recommend you have a look at mind on fire if you haven't already.

Freckle Face Girl said...

I think it is funny that it happened at BYU in the middle of Happy Valley. Going there probably drives people away from the church because they get way too much of it. Otherwise, they might not take the time to even question it.

JohnR said...

I can relate to almost everything you wrote, but this really hits home:

That was why it threw me for such a loop when I heard from some faithful Mormons say that people in other religions had spiritual experiences similar to those Mormons have

My ascent to unbelief began on my mission when a Jehovah's Witness my age bore testimony to me that he had prayed to God to know if his religion was true.

JohnR said...

Ooh, just notice the little plug for MoF above. Thanks! :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Freckle Face Girl!!!

Yeah, it's funny, isn't it? In this case, Happy Valley itself wasn't really the catalyst, but I've read other people talking about first becoming disillusioned upon arriving in the Mormon corridor and seeing what things are like there. Maybe Wry Catcher?

Hey John!!!

Exactly!!! The idea that through prayer God will tell you Mormonism is true starts looking suspicious if the same technique also proves other religions true...

Shishberg said...

Hi chanson... This post got me thinking, and the result is here. Thanks for the spur, I've been a lazy blogger lately. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Shishberg!!!

That's fabulous!!! Glad to see I'm helping inspire my fellow atheist bloggers. ;^)

Anonymous said...

I was a BAC (Born Again Christian) before switching cults to become a Mormon. Before becoming a Mo I would NEVER have thought I could come to a point in my life where I doubted the existance of god. That was just never an option for me. In fact, I was sure that allthose evil atheists would wind up in Hell.

Well here I am - an atheist. Mormonism made me question my beliefs. Once I found out mormonism was a sham, I started to question my former beliefs as well. Eventually I "received the revelation": There is no god.

I find it scary as I'm sort of a "crutch" type of person, but I just can't find any iota of proof that there is a god out there. I usually tell people I'm an agnostic, but i generally try to avoid the topic of religion now. In the past i would proudly say "I'm a Christian" and later "I'm LDS" but the reactions I receive from saying "I'm agnostic" or worse "I'm an atheist" make me want to retreat into my shell. My Lutheran/Catholic family would die if they knew I had lost faith in god. It's one thing to have a different faith; it's an entirely different matter to have no faith in god. It's still scary for me to admit to myself let alone admitting it to them.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

I think that's a fairly common situation.

Remember that atheists don't believe that people have souls that need to be saved, so you don't have to feel pressured to evangelize...

Anonymous said...

This is great,, im going threw a revelation at the moment you'll have to excuse my spelling its 6am ive been up all night with my mind a wandering. im writing a concept album on my years how i became atheist btw im using one of the comments here as a lyrical line apathetic agnostic its soo hilarious i peed myself a little laughing at it. .. anyway thanks for sharing your revelations its good to hear.. btw i was once happy just ignoring the topic of religion because telling people you don't believe is worse than saying you believe in SATAN lol. however i think we should make a stand i firmly believe in "reincarnation" in that i mean exactly like a comment here said we live breed well some of us the rest i guess help to keep i dunno people going anyway i digress we live we die we become earth that is the feeding ground of many living life etc and its just a big mad circle of life.. etc im digressing again this stuff keeps me up all night my mind won't shut off i think we need to live in the now . fight for liberation

Anonymous said...

From the blog: Letters from a broad...
"How I became an atheist"
(http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2007/05/how-i-became-atheist.html)
-----
Mormonism had convinced me that spiritual witness was valid as evidence for deciding questions about the way the real-world universe functions. So I put a massive amount of heart and effort and prayer into trying to receive that spiritual witness. And several times I managed to generate an emotional/spiritual experience that I hoped was God talking to me.

But "the spirit" always felt sickly and off. Despite what I wrote in my journal about it, I never fully convinced myself that my spiritual experiences weren't wishful thinking and all in my head. That was why I continued to pray fervently for the "testimony" I didn't have, right up to the day of my deconversion epiphany.
-----

Here we see what is actually a typical "deconversion" experience: Someone raised in a proper religious environment expecting God to speak to him or her as He spoke to the Prophets, and becoming discontented when the Lord chooses not to do so.

This is the germ of evil. The first example given in Scripture is in Genesis: When Cain realized that his sacrifices were not as pleasing to the Lord as the sacrifices of his brother Abel, he was driven to jealousy and murder. God had not praised Cain, though of course God expected the same reverence and obedience from Cain as from his brother. The Lord certainly had no obligation to give to Cain what He gave to Abel. We each are given more or less, and never in proportion to what we expect.

We are not in a position to dictate to God to whom He should give favors! We are not in the position to expect any favors at all! Insisting that we need them in order to believe and obey His authority, is the height of arrogance. It is the germ of evil.

And as seen by the exemplar in Genesis, the heart of an unbeliever is the heart of a murderer.

C. L. Hanson said...

Anonymous -- Even if your holy book tells you that "the heart of an unbeliever is the heart of a murderer," it is totally inappropriate and offensive to post such a statement in response to a personal anecdote on a non-believer's blog. I would never go to the blog of a person of faith and reply to their conversion story by suggesting the writer is on the road to becoming a suicide bomber for God. By the same token, you're welcome to read my blog and comment, but I expect the people who leave comments on my blog to demonstrate a little common decency and think before they hit "publish."

Ritchie Annand said...

Apologies in advance for the rant!

Wow, holier-than-thou Anonymous, you managed to put together a small, pig-ignorant 'atheists are evil' rant and even screw that up in the telling.

For one, calling Cain an "unbeliever" in the Genesis story is utterly laughable.

Genesis 4:6 "And the LORD said unto Cain..."

You wouldn't consider that the same sort of sign that those who ended up deconverting were looking for?

Do not equate knowledge-with-disobedience with unbelief. Or murder, for ____'s sake.

If you have grown up believing that all atheists "really know God but are choosing to disobey" or "mad at God", then I am sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. No, really.

Same for "if you don't believe in God, there's nothing to stop you from murdering and raping".

There's a lot more to the story than my seemingly bald assertions, but this is a short post and I'm not sure you're interested.

In the meantime, cut the slander.

Way to miss any point the Cain and Abel story had to tell, too.