|I've been posting here (although I mostly just read) for a while now, but what most of you don't know is that I've been a Christian for the majority of my time here - specifically a Mormon. I want to tell you all the story of how that changed. I want to give the full account, so I am sorry if this gets lengthy.|
This might surprise some of you, as I've been seen arguing against theists for a long time on the forums. I thought I had rational reasons to believe in God back then, but saw the theist's arguments as irrational.
Mormons have a tradition on the first Sunday of every month to hold a "fast and testimony" meeting. During these meetings, any member who feels so inclined will stand up in front of the congregation and "bear their testimony," meaning they explain how they know the church is true. There are often tears, and people usually talk about answers to prayers and spiritual experiences. Well, I'm here to do the same thing in reverse.
For those of you not familiar with the Mormon church, there are a lot of misconceptions. Firstly, the bad: there are probably more rituals than in most churches, and there is a strong incentive and regular encouragement to pay 10% of your income to the church.
There are good things too. Mormon metaphysics reject the idea of "immaterial matter" altogether. There is constant encouragement from church leaders to attend college and attain as much education as is possible. In general, Mormons are more independent (vs. collective) than most religions. In many ways, Mormons retain the "rugged individualism" of the early Americas, reinforced by the Pioneer tradition.
I was born into the church. My entire family was active, and we would go to church every Sunday. When I say my entire family, I mean entire. Both sides of my family are descended from the pioneers who came to Utah, and I am, as far as I know, the only member of my entire extended family to leave the church in the last 80+ years. Like many young Mormon males, I served a two-year service mission when I turned 19. I learned Tagalog, and taught people in the Philippines for two years.
On my mission, my ideas were rarely challenged directly. With a semester of college, I was more educated than most people I taught. Furthermore, the Filipinos are polite to a fault. They will avoid direct confrontation at all cost. Most are Catholic, even though most have no idea what they believe. Still, I was involved in some intense study of church doctrines. The more I learned about the church, the more doubts I started to have.
I once asked my mission president - a kind 60-year old man - about some of my concerns. He was able to explain away some of them, usually with phrases like "that could mean..." or "that doesn't necessarily mean..." With my more serious concerns, he told me he didn't know, but he knew the church was true. I was basically told to file it away and not worry about it. I did so, because I was completely convinced that the "church was true," as Mormons like to say.
It was around this time that I learned that my best friend had left the church. While I was on my mission, he was transforming his life. He went from inactive to agnostic to atheist during the time I was gone. You may know him - Doug is also an RoR member. Upon my return, I still "knew" that the church was true. I cannot express to you the depths of my conversion at this point. I thought that God spoke to me in my heart and mind.
Doug and I had many long and sometimes heated conversations about the church, and about god in general. Luckily, our friendship remained strong, and we were both respectful and understanding. This went on for about two years, and we eventually came to understand each others beliefs and our own beliefs more clearly.
I owe Doug, mostly for getting me to define more clearly why I believed in god. I came to the conclusion that I believed in god because the "spirit" had spoken to me. I felt like I had received thoughts and feelings that could not have come from my own head. I was particularly reliant on the feelings. I had felt many things during religious ceremonies and discussions, and I had been taught that these were confirmations from the spirit.
My friend and I came to something of an understanding around Summer of 2009. We did not agree, but we had discussed the topic enough that we knew the other's position on most issues, and we knew how most challenges would be answered. I was nearing graduation from college with a bachelor's degree, and had taken several philosophy and psychology classes. I had read Atlas - a copy that Doug gave to me for a birthday. Believe it or not, Objectivism is quite compatible with Mormon ideology, or at least I found it to be so. Mormons will almost always agree that god's commandments should be followed for our own eternal happiness. On the other hand, altruism does have its fingers in Mormonism. Sometimes "altruism" was taught as being motivated by our own happiness, but sometimes it was taught as just "the right thing to do."
After my introduction to Objectivism, having read Atlas, I joined these forums and had a few not-so-great discussions. I was an amateur to the method and topic of discussion, and aroused some frustration with some RoR members. My apologies for that.
I began to take issue with some of the things I heard at church. I began to see more inconsistencies in the way things were taught. I owe this to Rand. I saw that the definitions of certain words would change based on the argument. These words were "happiness, faith, knowledge, love, etc." At this time, I still believed, but I felt constantly uneasy. I had met several friends at work who were ex-Mormon atheists, and they were at times insulting of my beliefs.
I started praying for some sort of confirmation that the church was true. I wanted something that wasn't a feeling. We had been taught that confirmations could be things like angels appearing, hearing voices, and so on. We were told that these were rare, and that we had to have faith before things like that happened. I reasoned that I had done everything god had asked me to do, including serving him for two years and following his commandments my entire life. I also believe that god knew my thoughts, and he knew how badly I needed a confirmation. I prayed for this confirmation, not knowing what to expect, but fully expecting it.
I received nothing. I tried again and again, and carried these doubts around for maybe six months. I still believed, but I needed answers that I wasn't getting. I thought that I was being tested, but I felt like god should know where my breaking points were. I felt like I had nothing but years-old experiences of feelings to rely on, and I just needed more to keep believing.
There was one moment where everything changed. I remember it clearly. I was leaving my college campus at 9:00 one night, as I was working and going to school full time. It was late in the fall, about three years since I had returned from my mission. I was driving, half praying and half thinking. I recalled something from a psychology class about feelings, and told god about it. "If you believe something is true, important, and intensely personal," I said to him in my mind, "of course you will have strong feelings about it."
That was the moment that I opened myself to the possibility that the church was not true, that god might not exist, and my doubts might be shadows of truth rather than trials. You must understand, I had been taught to believe that feelings told us the truth since I was a child. If someone had told me we had feeling about what we believe is true, I would have agreed, not realizing what this meant for my faith. At this moment, the full implications of the nature of feelings hit me. I had been taught that I had to go on believing the church was true, and then God would tell me. There is a scripture that says "Ye receive no confirmation until the trial of your faith." In this moment, I realized we could be feeling things just because we believed them.
At this point, it seems like something a rational human being should not need to come to a grand realization of. It's simple. I don't feel foolish for taking so long to see it. I was dealing with a lifetime of psychological conditioning. I saw how confirmation bias, selective perception, cognitive dissonance, and escalation of commitment had taken their tole on me. Every time I saw an answer to a prayer, I ignored five that went unanswered. Every argument in favor of god seemed to hold more weight than the arguments against. For every miserable Mormon I saw, I saw five miserable atheists. The church had become such a big part of my life that I couldn't imagine life without it. I had devoted thousands of hours to it, and with each hour I devoted it became harder to disbelieve.
I didn't stop believing right away, of course. I approached Doug, and told him what I had been thinking. I was expecting him to jump on it, but he just nodded and asked what I was going to do. I soon came to the conclusion that feelings could not be trusted, but that I had to look at the facts. The Book of Mormon was particularly easy to disprove with facts. When approached with these facts, the church leaders I trusted as authority figures did nothing but "bear their testemonies" to me. They told me they knew it was true because the spirit had revealed it to them. This seemed like an idiotic response to me, given that I had just finished telling them how I could not rely on feelings to tell me the truth.
Being disillusioned with church leaders, I turned to church scholars. I compared Mormon and anti-Mormon approached to some problems, and found that the responses of these Mormon scholars were embarrassing. I won't get into the specifics, but I felt like I was able to step back and look at the matter objectively.
I explored the concept of god briefly, though it didn't take me too long to see that the argument for god was the same smoke-and-mirrors argument that Mormons had. I looked at other religions, and found similar reasons to believe. Since the Christian god makes no sense in the Hindu god's universe, both could not be true - and yet both use similar language to describe how they know about god. The best argument that anyone gave me for God was the complexity of life, but natural selection provides an empirical explanation for that. Furthermore, the complexity of life provides no relevant information for a Christian, Hindu, or Muslim god. Indeed, there are stories and traditions surrounding each that simply don't make any logical sense. I chose not to believe in God simply because I saw no rational reason for such a belief.
In December, I had been an active, church-going, 10-percent-paying, temple-attending Mormon, albeit one full of doubt. By late January, I was calling myself an atheist. I had made my decision earlier, but it took me a few weeks to be able to act on it and to let it be known to everyone.
Since this transformation, much has changed in my life. I lost my girlfriend a couple months ago. She said she could not be with someone who wasn't a member of the church. I have yet to enter into a relationship with a girl that isn't Mormon, but I look forward to it with some trepidation and a great deal of excitement. Some of my neighbors cannot believe the stories they hear about me becoming an atheist. "Too smart for your own good," said one man recently, "thought you knew better than God, and thought yourself right out of the church." I took this as high praise. My family seems intent on pegging the change on my failure to follow god's commandments. It is difficult for them to accept that I changed my mind based on rational reasons and facts. Luckily, my family still accepts me, even if they think I'm making a mistake. I think they are being deceived, and they think the same of me. Perhaps there is still time for them.
I am grateful to Doug for causing my to define my beliefs and reasons to believe. I am grateful to Rand for introducing me to rational discussion on a deeper level, and for showing me how meaning is not something we look for something or someone to give us. I thank those of you on RoR who helped me with some issues and were patient. An old conversation about sacrifice and acts being motivated internally comes to mind, specifically some comments Ed made. I know now that I am, that the world is, and that I control my own life, in my own name. (Amen)
The greatest changes have made it all worth it. I am free of the curse of forever seeking a truth that isn't there. I am free of guilt for every little transgression against god's commandments. I feel free to think without boundaries. I no longer feel the need to try to fit the full sphere of the world as I see it into the square peg of religion. I don't look for a second coming to make things right, but feel like I can help to create a better world of our own making. I am living for this life. I am shamelessly living for myself.
(Edited by Joseph Funk on 9/09, 5:58pm)