Perhaps ironically, it was the Boston Church of Christ, the most fervent of believers I had met by that point in my life, that were most responsible for jolting me out of my slumber and making me think more critically. But change is often not just slow, but can also progress alternately on both conscious and unconscious levels. The arc of progress is only, then, traceable in retrospect.
And so after having my faith briefly shaken by true believers, I found myself headed to Utah to start my first full-time job. This was 1999. At that time, I did not understand Mormonism to be anything other than yet another flavor of Christianity. I’d seen LDS commercials on TV now and again while growing up in Indiana, but I never quite made the connection that these people were serious in their beliefs, and Utah was truly was a different culture than anything I’d seen before.
When I arrived in Utah, I leased on apartment in “Happy Valley” (that is, Utah County, the hotbed of Mormonism). Not surprisingly, I didn’t attend church. After work, I would obliviously walk to the nearby gas station and buy some cheap beer, and drink it while sitting on my porch watching the hot summer sun go down.
My neighbor quickly stopped talking to me. I may be oblivious, but I did make that connection.
At work, I interacted with a QA intern, Herrick. Herrick was freshly back from his LDS mission in Japan. We were young, and he was full of energy and belief and passion. For a while, he seemed to pick me for his next conversion project. In some ways, I obliged. We had multiple discussions over work lunches during which he shared his beliefs. The conversations were civil but I always politely declined to take any next steps towards sharing his faith.
And yet somehow he had burrowed crucial bits of guilt and fear into my mind. I started to worry: What if the Mormons were actually right? Here I was, being presented with “The Truth” from “The One True Church”, and what if I turned it down? What if I turned away? What could be more damning than that?
Then I realized it was the BCC all over again. At that moment, something clicked. BCC are convinced they are the one true church. Mormons are convinced likewise. They can’t all be right. So at least some, or perhaps all, must be wrong.
After breaking the spell and being able to step back to look at Mormonism objectively, I became interested in getting other, historical views on it. I read books: “Secret Ceremonies” by Deborah Laake. “The Mormon Hierarchy” by Quinn. The historical views of Mormonism awakened my logical side and therefore drove me away from it, but I was still grasping for something, so I read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. I am embarrassed to say that this book influenced my thinking for several years. During that time I stated repeatedly that the details of the multitude of Christian faiths didn’t matter, but the shared core beliefs were likely correct.
I think this is the practical position that many Christians are in. They find the official details of their particular religion to be too burdensome to face full-on, so they wave off the details and merely state “I’m Christian”. There was this Jesus dude, he was god’s son, he died for my sins (whatever that quite means), and if you don’t look much deeper than that it can work. As long as it remains just background noise, or hocus-pocus, it’s plausible enough.
But as soon as you look it full in the face… not so much.
This was the uneasy truce in my head until June 2009. Perhaps somewhat on a whim, I picked up Christopher Hitchens’ book “god is not Great” while at the library. It’s a striking book in many respects – it’s not just the eye-catching yellow of the cover, but the e e cummings-esque lack of capitalization of “god” ruffles feathers even before one absorbs the full title. To be honest, I was shy to read it in front of my wife. The book became almost a guilty pleasure, one I hoped she wouldn’t see, because I didn’t want her to think less of me and I didn’t want to offend her. (She had grown up in Utah, after all.) But it’s not a book that can be read quietly. I’m not an English major, so I had to read it armed with a web browser with tabs open for both a dictionary and Wikipedia, to be able to catch and understand all of Hitchens’ references. Hitch is not easy to read, but he is certainly witty and intellectual. After having been trapped in a religion-infused culture of Utah for a decade (and variations on the theme for my lifetime prior to that), which is anything but witty and intellectual, I was thirsting more than I realized for someone to cut through the crap and say what I had been suspicious of for several years.
It was October of 2009 when the damn broke wide open. My mother came to Utah to visit for my 34th birthday. (As I’ve said and alluded to many times before, she’s a hardcore born-again Christian.) One evening my wife and I left the boys with my mother while we went to dinner. It came out later that while we were gone, she told my oldest son Bryson (7, at the time) that he was a “dirty rag” in God’s eyes and needed to be saved.
Bryson told me all this later when we were alone together. He was crying: “How can this be?” From his point of view, that was a good question. Bryson is honestly a good-natured kid. I should also point out that Bryson is from a prior marriage, and is therefore largely being raised as a Mormon. Yet here he was told that not only does he need to be “saved” by “god”, but he needs to be “saved” by the “right” “god” in the “right” way.
Any remaining shreds of the C.S. Lewis bullshit I might still have believed flew out the window.
At that moment, the thing I needed to say to Bryson to comfort him was that this was not true, he was not a dirty rag in god’s eyes, and to add weight to my statement, I also said, “I do not believe in god”. So there. This was the first time I had said this aloud, and I shocked myself as much as I shocked Bryson with that sentence. But the moment it left my mouth, I knew it to be true. I didn’t believe, and probably hadn’t for quite a while. But stating it aloud was quite another matter. The shame and pressure and fear that immediately descended upon me caused me to realize how much of the entire religious belief system is due to conditioning and upbringing. In that moment, when I viscerally felt the lightning bolt trained upon me for my heresy, the entire belief system collapsed under its own weight.
I have been coming out little by little. I am “out of the closet” with my wife, my children, a few co-workers, some family, an ex-Mormon friend, and a few others. That’s not to say I’m accepted by all, but that’s not the point.
It’s not easy. I am idealistic. I am a humanist. I yearn for advancing humanity, for advancing knowledge and justice. I crave truth, and I hate the perpetuation of untruths regardless of the reason. I believe in science and reason. I love, yet hate the hate and inequality taught by religions. But, sadly, our society is just not there yet.
Towards the end of 2010, I had a small breakdown. My childhood memories violently swept across me. The brainwashing, the guilt, and inconsistent and illogical claims. It’s debilitating, and the marks are slow to fade. I threw out all bibles from my childhood. Their actual demise was the recycling bin, following the path of the Book of Mormon I’d been gifted years earlier. I’m generally earth-conscious and recycle, but this meant more. By recycling, I felt I was turning a specific bad into a general good. I kept one large bible with apocrypha, well annotated, for reference. I am armed for future discussions.
And since then? What else can I say? I am a Growing Atheist.