I’ve really appreciated the posts of my friend Jared on this site, and one of his comments made me think a lot about the connection between my belief in organized religion and my belief in God. Also, I had a wonderful late-night conversation with my oldest brother a couple of weeks ago where we reopened the topic of my “de-conversion” from Mormonism, something I haven’t been able to really discuss with anyone else in the family in the five years since I began this journey.
I’ve spent a couple of years now thinking, retracing my steps, trying to decipher my motivations for leaving Mormonism at a time in my life when doing so meant giving up so much I had hoped and dreamed of since childhood. I’ve come up with quite a list of “push” and “pull” factors (which I hope to detail in a later post). However, never along that path of introspection did I stop to consider how the demise of my belief in the LDS church was related to my subsequent rejection of belief in God. In the wreckage of my failed faith, I found no room for a divine purpose, and hence, no room for God.
The question Jared posed to me was:
May I ask why your disenchantment with an organized religion disenchanted you with the idea of an existing God? Were the two that conflated in your mind? For my part, I have often thought that as my attachment with an organized religion waxed, my attachment to God waned – like the one substituted for the other in the same way that language substitutes for an idea – like the short-cut served as a diversion from the ultimate goal: a relationship with God.
My response to Jared is that yes, Mormonism and God were so intricately intertwined in my mind prior to 2001 that to reject one was to reject the other. I remember briefly believing that although the church was “not true”, surely Jesus and God were still there, waiting in the background to receive me after my fall from organized religion (my bishop at the time counselled me not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”) I found it nearly impossible to follow this advice. I had been so faithful, so believing, that the emotional blow of leaving Mormonism shattered my entire spiritual universe into a thousand pieces. I’ve spent the last five years trying to reconstruct my moral and spiritual life, all the while trying to peer back into those turbulent times to understand my true motivations for doing what I did.
I found the following post extremely helpful in articulating a central piece in this puzzle. This was posted by a user named Janey at Nauvoo.com, an informal bulletin board for Mormons. The subject of the thread is “people who study their way out of the church”.
I think some people run into difficulties when religion starts making factual claims. Suddenly, the religion isn’t entirely based on “faith”. It’s based on facts that ought to be scientifically verifiable – such as DNA or geography. If the church quit claiming that certain “facts” also needed to be taken on faith, then maybe you wouldn’t see so many people studying their way out of the Church. The thinking goes that if the Church claimed the facts were true, and it turns out the facts are false, then why wouldn’t some of the other claims (spiritual claims) be false too?
Not that I think anyone should leave the Church over unproven facts, but you did ask how people could have their faith shaken by facts, and I think that may be the thought process – that some people can’t take what appear to be scientific facts on faith.
And one other idea. I’ve heard talks on testimony where the speaker claims that every true principle in the Church is inter-connected. For example, if you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, then that means you also know Joseph Smith was a prophet because he translated the BOM, and so you also have a testimony of the priesthood restoration because Joseph Smith experienced that as well. This inter-connectedness may backfire when someone starts experiencing doubts or uncertainty. If one thing being true means everything is true, then one thing being false means everything is false.
You understand I’m not advocating that these are good ways to think. But you did ask how someone could “study” their way out of the Church, and these are a few thought processes that could plausibly lead a well-meaning person to serious problems with a testimony.
I found Janey’s comment to be very helpful, as both of these reasons were central to my move toward atheism. Because my faith had been so strong in Mormonism, I had invested my entire spiritual bank account in the doctrines, teachings and leadership of the LDS church. I had no room in my beliefs for other viewpoints on the fundamental “facts” of existence. I believed that what the church taught was all literally true, both things “factual” and things spiritual. When questions on Biblical authenticity arose, I always took the literal view: Noah did indeed carry a genetic sample of every land-based creature in a boat constructed and maintained by no more than eight people. Adam and Eve were placed on this earth 6,000 years ago, prior to which no evolution or death occurred. Joseph Smith received and translated golden plates, then founded a church at the behest of God and Jesus.
I see now that my reliance on Mormonism for facts about science, history, geology, and culture began to cause big problems when I discovered conflicting explanations for these facts. When I began reading original Mormon documents from the 1800’s in BYU’s archives, I was confronted with a mass of historical contradiction, mostly related to Joseph Smith and the difference between the sanitized Sunday school version of church history and the view one gets from reading unedited first-hand accounts. My classes in comparative religion debunked my view of the origin of various religious traditions as explained in common church dogma. My biology professor frankly stated that evolution was an accepted fact of life, without giving any guidance as to how this would fit into the creation story as promulgated in Mormon scripture.
Suddenly the basis for my factual approach to religious dogma disintegrated. I found myself stripped of any way to use religion as a method for approaching fact. Instead, religion was now relegated the sole task of explaining the supernatural (in the literal definition of that word). The omnipotent Creator was reduced to a “God of the gaps”. This approach couldn’t last, not at a place like BYU, where religious practice and education are one and the same. My mind achieved peace only when it threw out the whole structure, religion and God, which in my mind at the time were inseparable.
I think I’ve learned that belief and experience are the same thing. My beliefs today are a direct result of my experiences, good and bad, with religion. Hopefully those beliefs have been tempered somewhat by introspection and honest seeking, but at the end of the day, we believe certain things because of our experiences in the past. I don’t believe that God exists, primarily because of my experience with Mormonism. Ironically, if I had not been as strong in my LDS faith prior to college, I may have come through those years with my belief in God intact. I’m willing now to admit that there are a lot of things I don’t know, and I need help, lots of it. Everything around me serves to teach me about the nature of existence. If I’m lucky enough to be granted a long life, I hope to spend that life seeking to understand myself and the part humanity plays in the universe. Will I ever find something to call God? I don’t know. I can only start with who I am today, and advance with the bravery spoken of by Bertrand Russell when he wrote:
Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.