Monday, February 18, 2013

How I became an atheist

I already posted once about my logical reasons for not believing in God, but I did not give the history of how I got there. It's a long one, and very personal, but I think a few people might be interested in it.
I'm going to share a few experiences I remember illustrating how my beliefs and doubts have changed over time.

When I was young, I received a lot of positive feedback for bearing my testimony. I set a goal to bear my testimony every month, and did so.

In high school I placed a lot of trust in my teachers, always attended seminary, and enjoyed it very much. I kept a 4.0 in seminary.

Around high school graduation, I became interested in whether evolution was true. I read two books on the subject: one was Faith of a Scientist by Henry Eyering, the other was Answers to Gospel Questions by Joseph McConkie. I learned that Henry Eyering believed strongly in the evolution of man, while Joseph McConkie said evolution was not compatible with Mormon doctrine. I concluded that either position was acceptable, because they were both prominent members of the church, so it didn't matter if evolution was true or not. I didn't read anything at the time about the evidence for evolution.

At BYU, my good friend James and I frequently discussed evolution. I read BYU's packet on statements from general authorities about evolution, and again concluded that it was fine to believe in evolution.

In the MTC, I read the entire missionary library, and bought interesting institute manuals from the MTC bookstore. Some things, like A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and other people's testimonies, bolstered my testimony. Some things, like the Pearl of Great Price study guide, thinking about the Atonement, and stories about the Joseph Smith Papyri, caused some doubts.

I was sometimes skeptical of people's supernatural experiences. My trainer in Cambodia told me he had seen someone be possessed, and that the Cambodian witch doctors had the power of the devil, and I thought there was probably a more natural explanation for the stories he told me. I was skeptical about many people's amazing stories, if they involved angels or the devil, unless they were officially sanctioned by the church. I still believed strongly in spiritual promptings and inspiration. At one point during my mission, I decided that I would read an anti-Mormon book someday, because I wanted to know both sides. I didn't fulfill that goal until several years later.

After my mission my time and attention basically was devoted to girls and classes until my last semester at BYU. I received a certain copy of Wired magazine with an article about the "new atheism." It really piqued my curiosity, but I didn't dare read more about atheism while I was at BYU. It really appealed to the skeptical side of me, because I had long thought natural explanations of many stories were more likely than supernatural explanations, although I had not yet applied that logic to church history or God. Just after graduating, while on a road trip with some friends at Disneyland, I purchased The God Delusion. I hid it from my Mormon friends, but was excited to read it when I got back.

After returning from the trip, I began to read The God Delusion. I found it totally devastating to my faith. I found it totally convincing, and very depressing. Some mornings I was so crushed I couldn't even get out of bed. The thought of admitting to my parents that I was losing my faith made me feel sick. It was a very sad time in my life, and hard on my self-esteem.

I told my bishop I didn't want a calling, but a week later the First Counselor asked me to serve as a Family Home Evening (FHE) group leader. I would organize Monday night meetings for a few members of our singles ward. I had been taught never to turn down a calling, and I didn't have the courage to leave the church, so I accepted it. In retrospect this was a mistake, as it kept me in the church for years longer than I should have been. I often felt sick before FHE, terrified about bearing my testimony, terrified that someone would question whether I was being honest, even though I knew that would never happen. I also avoided dating until I decided whether to stay in the church or leave.

After about 2 years, I knew I was wasting my life with indecision, so I decided I would put more effort into having faith, start dating, and pursue marriage. At the time, I thought I wanted to remain in the church forever, even if I never believed with the level of conviction I once had. During this time I would occasionally admit of serious doubts to my parents, my bishop, close friends, or whoever I was dating. Sometimes I would think "you're really an atheist and lying about your beliefs," but I would try to push these thoughts aside and tell myself I had faith.

After about two more years, I decided to marry Sarah. At the time, I was not honest with her about how serious my doubts were. After we had been married a few months, I was serving in the Young Mens' Presidency, and I felt like the young men in the ward didn't have the self-confidence I thought they ought to have. I thought about how the church's teachings about masturbation hurt my self-confidence when I was a young man, and I was concerned about how the church was affecting them. I continued to feel sick when I had to teach gospel lessons. Eventually I admitted to my wife that I did not believe in God, and asked the Bishop to be released of my calling.

Admitting that I was an atheist was very hard on my wife, but liberating to me. She was at first angry that I had not been honest with her, but supported me being honest now. My self-confidence was largely restored when I found the courage to defend my true beliefs, even though virtually all of my friends and family disagreed with me. I finally didn't feel the need to hide or lie anymore.


NeverTooYoungToBeCrazy said...

I'm glad that you are so confident of your decisions that you are willing to share them. Honestly, I think you are still the same Bennion I knew that used to hang out with me and argue over who had to do the ordering at the drive-thru at Wendy's ;) I'm glad you're getting peace and are able to discuss what you have gone through.

Bennion said...

Yeah, I think writing this blog has really helped out with feeling better about everything. I still sometimes have strong negative feelings towards the church, and I'm still trying to work through those. I might post about that later as well.

And I'm sure you're still the same too, and we would still have fun hanging out now too.

Emily said...

I really appreciated reading this -- I respect your honesty & admire your journey. It was obviously difficult and painful, but I'm so glad you've come to a place where you feel peace. Also, I understand & agree about the church's policies on masturbation seeming to cause shame/pain in youth. But obviously I come from a different place on it, and while there are things I don't agree with in our cultural church, I still believe in the Gospel.

The last paragraph especially made me happy -- it must have been difficult, but I am glad you two were able to grow together through your journey towards atheism.

Bennion said...

Thank you Emily :)

Daniel said...

Bennion, I can totally relate. I was a fence sitter atheist for most of my college education at BYU. I tried over and over to date with the hope that somehow I'd magically be converted. I'd been told often, fake it til you make it. I kept admitting to my girlfriends that I had trouble believing in god. This generally led down paths of them being mad at me for being honest, betrayed etc. About a year ago I finally admitted to everyone I was atheist. It was probably the most liberating feeling in the world.

Interestingly life isn't easier per say. I feel a million times better about my relationships though. I'm not hiding what's considered a very big deal to people. I'm also much more honest with myself.

I realize you are part of AofU as well, but if you haven't seen this, it's worth a watch (even for your wife, and our mutual friend Caitlin who is slacking in her duty of watching it).

gavinomics said...

So how did evolution factor into your becoming an atheist? I don't think you followed through with that part of the story. Did it just open the door for more doubt?

On that point, I am so frustrated with the McConkies for being so anti-evolution. It is a cause of confusion for many latter-day saints. I once heard a story of a seminary teacher telling students that they will go to hell if they believe in evolution. That makes me so mad.

If I can be blunt, I feel frustrated that anyone is convinced by The God Delusion. It is really poor philosophy. I think you are smarter than that. Maybe I shouldn't come across so strongly about this because most people tend to take an even firmer position when their beliefs are attacked. I am just telling you what I think is true about Dawkin's philosophical books—they just aren't that good. This is kind of weird to say, but I want you to be an atheist more like Stephen Law and less like Dawkins. Speaking of which, I got my hands on Stephen Law's rebuttal to Plantinga's argument. I'll have to send it to you.

By the way, there are many spiritual stories that I don't believe either. When I was companions with Elder Lim he said that a demon caused him to levitate above his bed. I don't think he was lying, but I don't think it was true. I have recently been thinking about why some spiritual stories are not very believable and why some stories are believable. I think it has to do with type of story and the character of the person telling the story. If someone is living in a way that I want to live, I intuitively feel much more open to believing their stories. Also, I am much more open to believing a spiritual story if I have experienced the same thing. Anyway, the point of this paragraph is to say that I empathize with you about being skeptical of some of those stories you mentioned.

James said...

I remember those discussions. Good times. I remember that at the time I was more of a creationist then I am now. Evolution could have been and probably was/is a tool to bring about what we observe today. It's not hard to see how it is a tool, evolution is a tool used by plant scientists to produce more productive plants/food for an ever growing population. Science is simply a set of observations on how we see the world; science will probably never explain the metaphysical "why" the observations are the way they are. Though science will probably never describe the metaphysical "why", it doesn't have to; science exists to explain the physical why.

I agree that many people make spiritual experiences out of natural occurrences (which may have indeed occurred because of supernatural interventions but the proof of such is so difficult that those occurrences cannot be the basis for a sound faith). There are some occurrences, however, that cannot be explained by traditional science such as knowledge of a persons thoughts or of future events (unless for some reason the human brain is transmitting brain waves that others randomly tune into and read the thoughts, which would be really cool/dangerous science).

Honesty is extremely important and if someone is 100% atheist then they should not pretend to be something else. However, if someone is 99% one thing and 1% another then let them live as they will on either side of the fence as they work at discovering who they 100% are. Such work may take a life time for some and yet be quick for others. During this process individuals may hop the fence several times. I believe that during the fence hopping people may be of help to the undecided but should in no way treat the person as anything other than human.

It is difficult for anybody to be 100% atheist because it is the knowledge that something does not exist; however, likewise it is difficult for somebody to be 100% theist for that requires faith no longer but a perfect knowledge so most (>99%) are entitled to consider hopping the fence to the other side (to whatever side it may be) as we mature. I have seen people go both ways over this fence (some even crossing back and forth several times).

Bennion said...

Daniel, I relate very strongly to what you're saying. That's a long video, but I'll try to get around to watching it. Are we friends on Facebook? If not, please add me.

Gavin, evolution played into my early questioning, but ended up not being a determining factor. By my mission, I strongly believed in evolution, though I don't recall if I strongly believed in human evolution yet. I don't think I fully appreciated the magnitude of the evidence for human evolution until later, possibly after I became atheist.

I have read one Stephen Law book, and I think his arguments are very sound and thorough. He's more of a philosopher, but I still relate to the scientists more. Some of the philosophers you quote believe things that seem so crazy to me that it makes me question whether philosophy can be a decent guide to truth at all. It seems like they're often confusing themselves with very subtle logical errors, that I don't want to dig through to disprove. I have some of the disdainful attitude towards philosophy that a lot of scientists have (Stephen Hawking, for example).

A lot of the feelings you describe are similar to my feelings, in the reverse direction. It seems like the evidence and logic for atheism is so strong sometimes I can't believe any smart people believe in God. It's amazing that intelligent, well-informed people can feel so confident of such opposite conclusions.

I'll have more to say about the McConkies and evolution in a later blog post about Mormonism and evolution. But I think if you based your beliefs solely on scripture, without consideration of scientific evidence, you'd end up believing what they believe on the subject.

James, I'm not sure the metaphysical "whys" exist at all, but I do think the scientific method can assist us in determining whether they exist. The scientific method is the best tool I know of for determining what is true, and I'm not convinced there are any others that are anywhere near as reliable. I think some psychological concepts like confirmation bias can explain those events when someone seems to have knowledge of future events, and there is no other natural explanation available.

I totally agree with your third paragraph, and your fourth. It is theoretically impossible to be 100% certain that God does not exist, but I estimate the likelihood of God existing to be so low as to be entirely negligible. Something like 1/(10^30) or something ridiculous like that. My certainty is way above the certainty that I ever felt in the opposite direction, and doesn't oscillate like it did when I believed in God. I'm confident I'm never going over the fence again.

gavinomics said...

If you are skeptical of philosophy, then you should be skeptical of the God Delusion because all of his conclusions are philosophical.

But, if you like science, then you shouldn't be skeptical of philosophy, because science is founded upon philosophical assumptions. As Daniel Dennett has written in Darwin's Dangerous Idea: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”
I personally favor clear examination over just trusting whatever the scientists say.

Bennion said...

The funny thing about science is that is has worked well regardless of the philosophical or theological views of its practitioners. Scientists may have a lot of different philosophical views, but they (nearly) all agree on the basic laws of physics, the existence of atoms, reality of evolution, etc. Philosophers seem to have a lot less conformity in their conclusions.

Yes, I do have to engage in some philosophy. But I try to stick to the basics and stay close to the evidence. I don't trust philosophers on the basis of authority, and I'm suspicious of complicated philosophical arguments or very non-intuitive results. The truths revealed by science seem far more reliable. Part of this is probably because philosophy lacks the experiment-and-feedback mechanism of science.

Sarah Kate said...

so wait, atheists worship satan, right? or is that satanists? big foot? i'm a wizard, so i don't judge or anything. get back to me.

Bennion said...

That's only in secret. In public, we claim not to worship Satan ;)

gavinomics said...

I totally agree that it is a remarkable to see the progress of science. It is simply amazing to see all of the wonderful technology that would not exist without science. I think that this progress to some extent provides a pragmatic justification for many of the assumptions behind the scientific enterprise even though nailing down exactly what those assumptions are may be open for debate.

The problem with people like Dawkins is that they write about philosophical issues and pretend that they are talking about science. When I implied that Stephen Law was better than Dawkins, I didn't mean to imply that it is simply because Law is a philosopher. Its just that Law is reputable regarding those issues and Dawkins is not.

Anyway, I believe we live in a complex world. Man's knowledge of that world is fallible. Therefore it isn't surprising to me that intelligent people often disagree. It is really easy for me to grant sincerity to those who I think are mistaken. I think it is much harder for a dogmatic thinker like Dawkins to grant the same sincerity and intelligence to those who disagree with him.

Bennion said...

I agree with you. While I think that Dawkins' arguments are correct, I also understand how they are less philosophically thorough than I'm sure someone like you would prefer. He doesn't answer a lot of potential objections. I think part of it is that the new atheists like Dawkins and Harris have really targeted common beliefs, and given simplified versions of arguments, rather than grapple more thoroughly with the more complicated arguments of sophisticated theologians. They're targeting lay people, not philosophers.

I also realize that most people who disagree with me are being sincere and honest. Although it's interesting that religious people feel pressure to hide their doubts (like Mother Theresa, who I think was quite dishonest to hide her doubts, being in the position she was in). But in general, yes, I assume everyone really believes what they say they believe, and I think those who are not being honest are the exception rather than the rule.

gavinomics said...

You are being too generous to Dawkin's arguments to put it mildly. I am really curious to find out what you found so convincing about The God Delusion.

Also, It seems apparent that atheists feel just as much pressure to hide their doubts. I think that is just human nature. The tighter the tribe, the more pressure to conform. I think that academia in higher education illustrates this point. Anyway, I don't know why that point was relevant to your post, but I felt an urge to respond to it.

A few things you said about philosophy and science prompted me to write this post:

cbligerman said...

Thank you for posting this, I can really relate to so much of your experiences and I wish we had been in closer contact when you left the church which I imagine was around the same time as myself.

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