One of the nice things about being an ex-pat in Asia is the wide variety of people one has the opportunity to meet. Case in point, a few years ago I worked with a very interesting man. He had, at the time we became acquainted, only recently determined that there probably were no gods and further, that he no longer believed in the Mormon faith in which he had been raised.
Leaving one’s religion is not something one does cavalierly, especially so the LDS for reasons that need not be elucidated – as Sam Harris says, it’s the same as Christianity, but with a whole bunch of really crazy bullshit added on. Considering that this friend had originally arrived in Taiwan as a missionary, I found the story of his theistic liberation incredibly fascinating and we had many lengthy philosophical conversations on a variety of related topics.
More currently I am involved with a magazine here, and I asked my friend if he would agree to do an interview on the subject of becoming a secularist; abandoning his Mormon faith. He agreed.
I sent him five opening questions, which he promptly answered. I expect they will run in the next issue, but I was so impressed with his thoughtful responses, I asked his permission to reproduce them here. Again, he agreed.
Following, the Q&A with my friend from Utah:
1. When you first came to Taiwan as a missionary, did you have deep faith – were your beliefs in the tenets of Mormonism pretty solid, or did you always harbor some sort of doubt?
My faith was strong in some ways – strong enough to keep me out in the mission field, anyway – but I always had doubts. Sometimes I thought the problem was with me, that I just hadn’t yet prayed with enough faith to have the same kinds of “testimony-building” experiences that other people claimed to have. At other times I wondered if so-called “testimonies” were really nothing more than a strong emotional reaction to a good story: a story with a very happy ending for all those who are “faithful.”
Naturally, I wanted the story to be true, because I had a good shot at being one of those faithful who got rewarded. My ego was also strongly attached to the story, for I had been told time and again that it was because of my faithfulness, intelligence, and virtue in the previous life (the “pre-existence”) that I had been given the golden opportunity to be born a Mormon in the first place. But anyway, there was always a nagging doubt in my mind, a part of me that said, “Come on, you don’t really know whether any of this is true.” That feeling intensified as I found myself speaking with more and more non-Mormons (other Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, atheists, agnostics, etc.) whose beliefs sometimes struck me as being just as likely of being true as mine were. I even remember praying to my Heavenly Father one day, asking him with all open-mindedness whether or not Buddhism was true! I didn’t get a clear answer, but then, I rarely got a clear answer about anything from that guy. He’s pretty fickle with his information.
Anyway, I’m rambling on and on, but the point is that, yes, I often had doubts and attempted to use both prayer and reason to resolve those doubts, but I often had to set reason aside and simply “choose” to believe. After all, the ultimate foundation of a Mormon testimony is a feeling – which purportedly comes from the Holy Ghost – so no amount of reasoning could really make my faith stronger. In the final analysis, either I chose to believe that those occasional “good feelings” came from the Holy Ghost, or I didn’t. There’s no denying that LDS teachings and practices can promote good feelings, and do a lot of other good besides! But that didn’t necessarily make all of it true, and that thought was a constant torment for me as a missionary.
2. Presuming that your change from theist to secularist was a gradual process, can you point out any mileposts on that journey? Were there particular moments that stand out in terms of your awareness of “not believing”?
As I said before, I regularly had doubts about the LDS Church, but I worked very hard to set those doubts aside, not only because I wanted to believe, but also because I knew my parents and various other relatives and friends wanted me to be a believer. This is probably the predicament a lot of thoughtful religious people find themselves in. It takes something really big to make such a person willing to set aside personal and filial concerns and really scrutinize their beliefs.
For me, that came in the form of a painful marriage ending in divorce. Like many other returned missionaries (or “RMs,” as we were called), I got married fairly quickly during my time at Brigham Young University (BYU), a private university owned by the LDS Church. Because of some of the specific ways I was raised and taught with respect to chastity, I had developed some deep psychological issues with regard to all things sexual and found it extremely difficult to remove those barriers even after I was married. My wife was much more comfortable with herself in this regard, but had other serious emotional issues of her own. Needless to say, our marriage was not a healthy one. After almost two years of torture, we finally got a divorce. The experience wasn’t just depressing, it was devastating. But, the night is always darkest just before the dawn: having been reduced to my bare foundations, I was finally prepared to seriously reevaluate my entire life, including my religious beliefs. I went to Penn State for an internship that summer and, after being away from BYU and virtually all other Mormon influences for only about a month, I simply found myself naturally drifting away from belief. It was wonderful: I felt liberated, like a great weight had been removed from my shoulders! Later, I would once again have to face and overcome the social pressure to be Mormon – and I still face that pressure subconsciously when around my family – but I always carry with me the memory of that first delicious taste of mental freedom.
3. Have there been any negative consequences caused by your loss of religious belief? Has it cost you friends or family?
Yeah, there are definitely costs involved in giving up one’s faith. It’s certainly put a strain on my relationship with certain of my friends and family because now we can’t discuss certain topics for fear of getting into an ugly argument. I also lost the general feeling of strong social cohesion and belonging that comes with being a member of a tight-knit religious organization, and because I’m rather shy (some would say downright socially awkward) I have had difficulty establishing a similar social network in the secular world. Nonetheless, I have opened myself up to a whole new world of possible relationships, ideas, and experiences, so I think it all balances out pretty well.
4. Here’s one in terms of Pascal’s Wager: Is religious faith, in your view, a choice? Or is it something one either has (or lacks) and is thus a quality of which one becomes more or less aware? More to the point: Did you CHOOSE to believe, and then CHOOSE not to believe…or was it more a case of REALIZING that you simply were no longer a believer?
It started out as something I simply realized – like a light suddenly turning on – during an internship at Penn State, but after returning to BYU and once again facing the pressures of LDS society and its resonance with my upbringing, I chose to give Mormonism another chance.
I went through a year-long, careful process of studying things out and feeling things out, during which I went back and forth several times between Mormonism and something in the area of atheism or agnosticism. At one point I became a “faithful member” again and stayed that way for around six months, but then one sunny day, while writing in my journal under some cottonwood trees by the side of the Provo river, I suddenly once again “realized” that all that religious stuff was probably nonsense. Beautiful, good-habit-promoting nonsense in some respects, but nonsense nonetheless. But that kind of experience is more of an emotional, holistic right-hemisphere experience. I still felt I should do a little more studying – more engagement of my left hemisphere – before making a final decision.
What really sealed the deal for me intellectually was Anthropology of Religion: The Unity and Diversity of Religions by Richley H. Crapo of Utah State University. As I read his careful, objective descriptions of religious phenomena – including the origins of the LDS faith – I finally became fully convinced intellectually as well as emotionally that the LDS church was, indeed, just another fascinating product of cultural evolution, and nothing more. I knew then and there that leaving Mormonism behind was the right thing to do and everything I’ve learned since then has only served to reaffirm that knowledge. So, I guess my “apostasy” was largely a matter of realization, but in the end it also came down to making a firm and careful decision.
5. Do you have any advice for people who have strong doubts about the truth of their professed faith?
My advice would be, first of all, to not be afraid of doubt. Doubt is not a sin: it’s the mark of an intelligent, truth-seeking mind, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Read up on the anthropology of religion – and anthropology in general – and see if that helps clarify things for you. If you’ve been taught that biological evolution is false, educate yourself more fully on the topic of evolution (this wasn’t an issue for me, being a biology major and all, but it is for a lot of religious folks, including most Mormons). Don’t ever be afraid of information, and don’t be afraid to “take a break” from your religion once in a while, either. However, if you’re already convinced that many of the teachings of your religious organization are false yet you want to remain part of it for social reasons, I’m not sure what advice to give you. I would encourage you to be honest, but as we all know, sometimes honesty is not the best policy. Commitment to the truth is important, yes, but it’s not the only important thing in life. Goodness, beauty, relationships, happiness: commitment to each of these is also extremely valuable. How you sort out the conflicts among these commitments in your personal life is something I leave to you and your conscience.