Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Deconversion

This comment inspired me to write an account of my own deconversion from Mormonism to atheism. It's not really a coherent narrative, because it was more of a gradual erosion than any sudden realization, or even a series of sudden realizations (though there were one or two of those). Anyway, here goes a whole bunch of rambling...

It sounds shallow, but the first and perhaps the most significant factor in my move away from theism is that from the time I reached adolescence, I didn't feel any kind of a bond with my fellow Mormons. I just didn't identify with them: I was too intellectually curious, I didn't care for conversational taboos, I never enjoyed church even when I was a True Believing Mormon (TBM) and really tried to enjoy it... Church was boring, long (Mormon sunday services are three hours, folks, not to mention another hour of young men/young women's meetings on Wednesday nights), I didn't like wearing a tie, I hated the music (I still don't care for most choral music), I hated the arbitrary authority afforded to Sunday school teachers and their ilk... In addition, the few peers inside the church that I did identify with were all moving away from TBM status during adolescence -- though some of them did come back in adulthood (maybe all but me? I'm not sure).

Honestly, I think if it weren't for my social/aesthetic incompatibility with Mormonism, it's conceivable I might have stayed a believer my whole life. Probably I would have ultimately been convinced by the evidential problem of evil, but I can't ever be sure.

The first rational argument against god that I accepted, and I'm sure I would have had to buy into this one even without the social/aesthetic issues, is the logical problem of evil. I mean, this one is painfully obvious once you really think about it. However, it only disproves the existence of a god that is simultaneously omnipotent and benevolent. Plantinga's free will defense and similar such apologies are impotent (heh) in justifying a truly omnipotent god, because if this being can do anything, then he could also do things that were logically contradictory, like eliminating evil without eliminating free will. (I find the more nuanced arguments against the free will defense to be interesting but superfluous... Either god can do anything or he can't. If he can, then he's malicious. If he can't, then whether it's logically possible for free will and evil to coexist is irrelevant.)

But you can be a theist without an omnipotent God, and that's just what I did for awhile. Well, actually, I was probably at least 40% agnostic by that point, but I felt that it was still possible there was a very powerful, but not quite omnipotent, god. I even pointed to a passage in the Book of Mormon which I felt justified this belief, though I just searched for it and couldn't find it. Maybe I just imagined it was there. heh...

It was also around this time -- I think in my sophomore or junior year of high school -- that I reasoned myself something along the lines of Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit. I think I was expressing some kind of vague doubts about the existence of God to a friend -- one who was not part of the Mormon church, and who, despite his parents being Bahá'í, I had never before taken for being particularly theistic -- and he suddenly spat, "Where do you think all this came from? Do you think it just fell here?" At that moment, the infinite regress invoked by this line of argumentation suddenly became illuminated, and it became clear that God as a "first cause" was no kind of answer to the "Big Questions" at all.

At least, that's how I remember it now... Perhaps I had been thinking about this for awhile, and his comment only crystallized it in my mind. Or maybe I'd already figured it all out before, and I only think I figured it out on the spot because the conversation was memorable. Meh, anyway, it went something like that.

Of course, dismissing the Cosmological argument, as I now know to call it, does not disprove the existence of god, but it was an important step nonetheless, because it meant the existence of a theistic universe was no more plausible than the existence of an atheistic universe. Or perhaps to put it more succinctly, I no longer felt that there were any existential advantages to theism. It could still be true or false, but it didn't need to be true on an existential basis.

At this point, although I still didn't really think about myself that way, I was firmly agnostic, leaning towards atheistic. What really sealed the deal was my increasing realization that the God of Abraham is a total fucking asshole. I vaguely alluded to this earlier, when I said that if I had somehow enjoyed the social and aesthetic aspects of Mormonism (ick...), the next best hope for my deconversion would have been the evidential problem of evil. Even when I was trying my hardest to be faithful, the hackneyed aphorism that "God works in mysterious ways" could only be swallowed for so long before it started acting as an emetic.

It's not even so much the existence of suffering that got me, because as I said, I can envision a not-quite-omnipotent God doing his best to be benevolent and yet the best he could do ended up being a rather cruel universe anyway. No, it is the absurdity of God's alleged commandments that really tears it. In particular, I found it impossible to accept the juvenile inanity of the sexual restrictions practiced by Mormonism and most other mainstream religions.

Heh, it's funny to say so, but I bet that whole prohibition on masturbation has deconverted more adolescents than one could ever imagine. I mean, it's abundantly clear to nearly any 15-year-old that you don't go blind or get hairy palms from excessively wacking it, in't it? But of course teens can still be made to feel guilty by authority figures. (I had forgotten until recently how terrible I felt about lying to the Bishop when in a temple recommend interview he asked if I ever "abused my body"... What a creep!) By the time one gets to be 19 or 20, though, I would think one would have the perspective to realize how silly it is to think you ought to, or even can, forbid people from masturbating.

Homosexuality and premarital sex were also no-brainers. Any mature adult ought to be able to see that there's nothing inherently wrong with either of those things. The arguments that seek to attack them on a practical level (e.g. premarital sex leading to teen pregnancy) do nothing but conflate an irresponsible behavior with an unrelated and perfectly innocuous behavior. Hell, premarital sex isn't just innocuous, it's a damn good idea! If someday my son tries to marry a woman (or man) who he hasn't been intimate with first, I'm gonna smack that boy upside the head and ask him what the hell he is thinking!

It was around this time, in mid-college, that I began half-jokingly referring to myself as a "non-practicing agnostic": In theory, I believed one could never really know -- but in practice, I could not bring myself to accept even the possibility of the existence of a god. It was too infuriating. Hence, the "non-practicing" aspect of my professed agnosticism.

As many people do in college, I flirted with some quasi-mystical beliefs, but I never really believed them more than metaphorically. Actually, ahem, my mystical experiences were pretty much inextricably tied to, uh, erm, certain other "experiences" that people often do "in college". Enough said about that...

I gradually moved away from this "non-practicing agnostic" position towards one that was, at least at a rational level, purely atheistic. It seemed rather silly to insist on the unknowability of God's existence, when I could make the same argument about the unknowability of, say, my car's existence. Sure, if you want to go and put too fine a point on it, one can never really say anything exists -- but that's an existential dead end. It's solipsism, and it's stupid. (Side note: For a brief period I referred to myself as a "psuedo-solipsist scientific methodist", but the less said about that awkward construction the better...)

But while I fully rejected the existence of God on a rational level, there was still a trace that remained on an emotional level. I used to say, "I don't believe in God, but I also believe He hates me." I was only half-joking when I said that, too. I guess on a subconscious level, the stories of my youth still had some influence over me, yet at the same time my adult knowledge of ethics and morality made those stories viscerally revolting. Or something like that, who knows.

So that takes me all the way until last year, when I saw Religulous and started being exposed to the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins, etc. You know, it's always really funny to me when people talk about how the so-called "New Atheists" are so bitter and are "obviously angry at God." I actually was an angry-at-God quasi-atheist for nearly a decade, and what made me not angry at God anymore was reading those dudes' books. I'm not quite sure exactly how to put it, but I guess that it made me view my atheism as not just the inevitable conclusion of a rational mind, but as a distinctly good thing.

Well, it was more than that even. It sort of turned my anti-theistic feelings upside down. Rather than being angry at the idea of God and religion, instead I became passionate about the idea of freedom from religion. Don't get me wrong, I still have plenty of righteous indignation (heh) reserved for theism. But I'm less focused on the badness of what is, and more on the goodness of what could be.

Maybe my blog doesn't always make it seem like that, but given the distrust and vitriol reserved for atheists in this country, I guess it shouldn't be too surprising that even when I'm trying to be positive I end up mostly complaining. The difference is, somehow, I feel good about it now.

At the risk of feeding the "atheism is just another religion" crowd, I guess I could say that being passionate about atheism makes me feel like I'm a part of something larger than myself. I know a lot of people fulfill that need through religion. I myself never got that from Mormonism (though you better damn well believe I tried) but even if I had, isn't it better to find fulfillment via something that is actually true?

The "New Atheists" are not bitter and angry. In my opinion, the ones who are the most bitter and angry are fundamentalists, disillusioned theists, and yes, the closeted atheists who know the truth but somehow view that as a negative. Coming out about one's atheism is a way of letting go of the damage done by religion. I only wish more people could see that.


  1. College experiments, eh? I wonder which the religious right would pick for their kids, if they absolutely had to: drugs (which might lead to a "religious epiphany" of some kind), or gay sex (which is slightly less likely to do so).

  2. What a lovely post. And I wish more people were open about this:

    "Hell, premarital sex isn't just innocuous, it's a damn good idea!"

    I get so sick of all the "family values" arguments where one side ends up apologizing, and saying that OF COURSE we're ALL AGAINST TEEN/PREMARITAL SEX... because I'm not! I want my daughter to wait -- not for marriage -- but until she's old enough to handle the potential physical and emotional consequences of sex, because that's her best chance of having a healthy intimate life in all her relationships. What do I care if she's 18 and unmarried when that happens, so long as she's fully educated on the matter?


  3. Re: Tina

    Drug use or being gay? They'd probably be dealt with similarly since UberChristianity claims to possess the ability to cure both.