How I became and 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.

Cross-posted here. 

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

12 thoughts on “How I became and atheist

  1. I have felt some very similar things — especially the naive, surprised realization that – hang on – Mormons don’t corner the market on sincere heartfelt spiritual experiences with the divine. Even the (gasp) evil Muslims do (weird!). I deconstructed a lot of belief – most of it probably. If I am honest with myself, I would say that I do believe that a God exists, although I can absolutely see why people would say that he doesn’t. I have carved out some middle ground for myself between the “it’s either real or it isn’t” poles, and I admit it is very tenuous middle ground, and it is built on my desire for parts of both poles to be true. Maybe in a few years I’ll find myself further down the cartoon path you described. You mentioned that your brother is atheist as well, so I assume you have a lot of support and acceptance from him. How has your atheism impacted the rest of your family and social relationships?

  2. 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.

  3. Kullervo, help me understand this. Why does the absence of spiritual feelings lead you to the belief that there is no God? Isn’t it possible that there is a God, but he is much more distant than mainstream mormonism imagines? That there is a God who sits back and let’s us hash it out all (or mostly) on our own? I recognize it’s still a stretch — a choice and a conscious construction to believe it like that — and it may be hard to do without recognizing that you are forcing the belief, or “kiddding yourself.” But my experience has been to throw away a lot of misconceptions I had about spirituality but not go further on towards atheism. Even when I pray and I feel like I am just praying to a blank wall, I still don’t go all the way to thinking there is no God.

  4. It only leads me to believe there is no God because my basis for believing in God for my whole life was spiritual feelings that I now discount. Couple that with a strong sense that truth should be confirmed by spiritual feelings, and you’ve got a problem. A paradox. I won’t accept vague spiritual feelings as a basis for truth, but that’s the way I’ve been taught to seek and recognize truth for my whole life.

    The trick is to find other reasons to believe, other than spiritual feelings. It’s what my entire blog is about these days, so it’s tough to cram into one post. I don’t want to base my belief system on wishful thinking. There are a lot of strands of thought and belief that are conflicting (modernism vs. post-modernism, mysticism vs. reason, etc.), and I’m in the process of sorting it all out.

  5. Great post, chanson! My path from Mormonism to atheism was pretty similar. Almost immediately after giving up Mormonism I realized Christianity was no better (Catholicism, Protestantism, and every other derivation). What followed was a short stop at deism followed by about a year of considering myself an agnostic. That lasted until I realized that if you don’t BELIEVE there is a god, you are an atheist. It’s logically indefensible to say that there is absolutely no god – no atheist worth his/her philosophical salt would make such a claim. But the gods described by the extant world religions are absolutely non-existent – they are logically inconsistent and worthless.

    One thing that helped me find my way out was making the acquaintance of a former evangelical Christian who left about the same time. It was him telling me that he had felt the exact same feelings confirming that his brand of Christianity was right and Mormonism was wrong that helped me realize that that epistemological method was also worthless. If someone could receive a “spiritual” conviction that Mormonism was a fraud while I received the same conviction that it wasn’t, then this means of arriving at “knowledge” was worthless.

    As for the discussion between Kullervo and Glenn, I just want to add this thought. Most atheists would readily admit that they hope there is a god. In the recent BBC documentary on atheism a prominent Irish-American stated it really well, (paraphrasing) “I really hope there is a god. I’d like to live forever and I think some people should be punished for being dicks during mortality. But hope doesn’t make it so. I don’t BELIEVE there is a god and I don’t live my life worrying about it. I’m a good person because I believe that is the right thing to do, not because I believe some supernatural entity is keeping score.” You can hope for whatever you want, but hope isn’t knowledge. Hope isn’t even belief. If you don’t BELIEVE there is a god, you’re an atheist.

  6. Glen — My family is an even split on religion: Mom and my two sisters are LDS, my brothers and I are atheists, and my Dad is Christian. The various factions have all basically agreed to disagree, so we all get along great. 😀

    Exmoron — Exactly!!!

    That’s wild that your path out of the church was so similar to mine, including comparing the spiritual evidence for Mormonism with the spiritual evidence for other religions.

  7. I would like to add that I had plenty of “spiritual” experiences. What made me doubt them was when they were replicated at concerts.

    Having a “spritual” expereince at a Dead Milkman concert really made me doubt the experiences I had at church.

  8. Very good stuff. I find the rational to be good because it is the right things regardless of whether or not a God is keeping score to be such a refreshing and liberating approach. It always annoys me to no end when I hear someone say something like “well, if there’s not God, then why should I do my hometeaching?” Ugh. Do your hometeaching because you want to support and care for the people you hometeach, not because the quorum needs a better percentage to look good in the eyes of God.

    I also see the dangers (I won’t go so far as to say “worthlessness” because there is clearly an operating function to it) of the epistemological method, but I still don’t see — for myself — the human inability to prove there is a god as sufficient reason to beleive there is no God.

    I hate to admit my own judmental bias here, but I don’t really buy it when I hear an atheist say “I hope there is a God.” That seems almost pandering or condescending to me. I should probably adjust my attitude there and accept that they could be sincere (although even that is an excersize in wishful thinking — my wish to be fair).

    Nevertheless, a very interesting discussion.

  9. Glenn — I don’t think it’s pandering or condescending at all.

    It’s true that everyone has their biases, and people tend to seek out evidence that backs up the things they want to believe. It is intelligent of you to acknowledge your bias when you say that your belief is built on your desire for parts of both poles to be true.

    I’m not going to pretend that all atheists have looked at the evidence in a completely objective and unbiased manner. On the other hand, the fact that people are biased doesn’t mean that all or even most atheists are happy that there’s no God, and would choose for the the universe to be that way, given the choice.

    Personally I am horrified by the idea that one day my conscienceless — my thoughts, my self — will simply cease to exist. This thought upsets me every single day. I’ve written about it on my blog here. And like the atheist Exmoron quoted, I would love it if there were some sort of real assurance that justice will prevail in the end and life will be made truly fair. That would make life a whole lot simpler and more relaxing. But wanting something to be true and it actually being true are two different things. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending, but I mean it very sincerely, and it is a key component to why I believe as I do.

  10. Yeah, I definitely don’t see it as condescending. Think about it this way: I live my life as morally and upright as possible, not because of the fear of a supernatural being but because I believe (for other reasons) it is the right thing to do. Now, couple that with my “hope” there is a god. I live a good life and some supernatural entity rewards me for it, great. But why live my life based on such a belief when there is absolutely no evidence that such an entity exists? If he/she/it exists, it will reward me for living a good life, regardless of whether I believe in he/she/it. If it didn’t, and it demanded that I spend my short life in obeisance to its unknown and unknowable will (subject, all the while, to dishonest hucksters and thieves who claim to know its will but never agree on what it is), I’d just as soon not spend eternity with that deity. That deity would be an asshole. I’d rather go to hell; at least I’d be in the company of many wonderful atheists: Samuel Clemens, Carl Sagan, chanson, etc.

  11. That’s so sweet!!! I’d rather spend eternity with you (and my many atheist friends and family) than with an evil, capricious omnipotent being too!!!

    On a tangentially related note, did you see the war prayer by our hell-mate Samuel Clemens?

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