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Growing up as an atheist Mormon

December 16, 2009

I feel that my upbringing in the church was just so different from everyone else’s…but in a silent, private way. This foreignness or alienation wasn’t about a difference in locations or labelings…because up until recently, I was in the *same pews* and the *same classes* as everyone else…and I took the same identifications as everyone else. I thought I was like everyone else, but it has only been recently that I’ve realized that other people — and particularly, other  Mormons — had different experiences.

I didn’t even know what atheism was so I could not articulate it (but as I said, growing up, I didn’t think there was any difference. I didn’t think there was any distinction between my peers and myself, so I had no reason to articulate anything.) So, I didn’t so much ‘become’ atheist as I realized 1) that I was atheist and 2) that theism means something different to theists.

What was it like to grow up?

Reading the scriptures was not engaging. I just assumed that everyone was as disengaged. I thought testimonies about finding parts of the scriptures being “amazingly relevant and timely” were just puffed up testimony-talk. The scriptures did not speak out to me; they did not accurately describe what I saw and perceived reality was. So, there was little way to relate them to the world, much less to my struggles.

(What I realized was the difference later on was that…my peers were disengaged because little kids and teenagers are disengaged. They were disengaged because antiquated language is disengaging. But I wasn’t engaged simply for these reasons. I was disengaged because the books, the words, were never appealing. I didn’t believe. I was an atheist.)

Prayer was not engaging. When people said they got answers to prayers, I had no idea what this could mean, so I assumed that people meant it to be rather vague things. People told faith promoting rumors, I thought, under the assumption that everyone knew they were rumor. I thought that everyone, like I did, would go home and laugh about the ridiculous and implausible stories they had heard…the answers they had gotten, and so forth.

(What I realized later on here was that some people did get what they felt were answers to prayers. They didn’t think these were “vague” at all, and they had true belief and hope in great stories happening to them. People *do* feel burnings in bosoms and are inclined to source these to deity; they *do* feel something they describe as God’s presence. Again, the difference is theism and atheism.)

When I was blissfully ignorant of these differences (and others), I didn’t even sweat. But as I became aware of the differences, that caused me some panic and stress. It was only when I realized that not feeling anything special from the Scriptures is abnormal that I began to lament my abnormality. Oh, how is it that I do not believe? How is it that I am not aware of God’s presence? How is it that I cannot see how “purposeful” this world, this universe, my life is? And so on.

Eventually, I decided that I had enough of that. I realized this was all counterproductive. I didn’t believe, so I didn’t need to castrate myself to this believer’s suffering. And I went on life as I had been before, aware of the difference and not lamenting it.

Even today, I recognize some differences. For example, ex-Mormons who didn’t simply realize atheism, but *became* atheist. As in, people who once had been ‘engaged’ by the Scriptures, felt the Holy Ghost, and on and on, and yet eventually came to disbelieve in this. When I speak about my experiences, I often implicitly forget about these very people who are my compatriots.

And of course, believers of all stripes. It is still utterly foreign when people say that they “feel an undeniable thing” that convinces them to believe in something they label as divine. It is still utterly foreign, incomprehensible to me even, when people say atheism makes (or made) them “miserable,” or that they don’t understand how atheists can be good people, and on and on.

UPDATE: I just remembered that I wrote a previous post about this similar topic at Main Street Plaza.

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17 Comments
  1. (What I realized later on heree was that some people did get what they felt were answers to prayers. They didn’t think these were “vague” at all, and they had true belief and hope in great stories happening to them. People *do* feel burnings in bosoms and are inclined to source these to deity; they *do* feel something they describe as God’s presence.

    I was just the opposite from you. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that there were people who didn’t sense God’s presence or feel that he communicated with them. It was so ordinary to me, I thought everybody did it. It really surprised me to learn otherwise.

    …ex-Mormons who didn’t simply realize atheism, but *became* atheist. As in, people who once had been ‘engaged’ by the Scriptures, felt the Holy Ghost, and on and on, and yet eventually came to disbelieve in this.

    (Raises hand) That’s me. 😉

  2. kuri:

    That’s exactly what I mean. I couldn’t even comprehend growing up like that and then “switching.” FASCINATING!

  3. Wow, I just noticed that those falling white things — snow? stars? — pass right through the text as well. Freaky! 😀

    Anyway, I could still feel all that stuff if I wanted to. It’s easy for me. But I no longer believe that what I felt and experienced indicates the presence of a being that exists outside my own mind.

    • That’s even more interesting. Do you sometimes “feel all that stuff” just for the fun of it, despite not believing that this indicates any external presence?

      • It’s a long time since I’ve actively tried to feel that way outside of a church context, but lately I’ve actually been thinking about ways I might feel those things again, outside religious experiences. Immersing myself in (usually classical) music often comes close, but it’s not quite the same thing.

  4. See, I grew up in a devout LDS family never feeling stuff like a “burning in the bosom” or anything I could definitively point to as religious. I always sat there “not getting it” in Fast and Testimony meeting as some lady got up and went all weepy on us. And I never really “got” youth testimony marathons around the campfire either.

    Truth is – I just liked the narrative, identity, theology, and stories.

    I still do.

    So I’m still Mormon. And maybe that’s what it boils down to for me.

    • Well, there’s still a difference.

      I mean, even I say I’m a Mormon. I don’t necessarily think it’s about “liking” the narrative, identity, theology, and stories. Rather, it’s because this *is* the narrative I’ve been raised with, the identity I’ve been steampressed into, the theology I’m most familiar with, and the stories I know first-hand. It is a matter of ethnicity or culture.

      But as my post title says…”atheist Mormon.” I would suspect that this is still a difference; would you say that you believe in God or do not believe in God?

  5. Your post was like reading about my own life. Church was such a drag: unchallenging, boring, repetitive, dull. I thought being a missionary would finally light the fire that everyone seemed to talk about, but that never happened, it just intensified the dullness.
    The first time I used the word “atheist” to describe myself was liberating. The world became so much more beautiful and knowable after that.

    • I had some novel ideas about missionary work and my preconceived notions on its ability to “whip me into shape.” (In fact, I wrote a post describing my thought process at Main Street Plaza a long time ago…) Fortunately, I didn’t go, because even I suspected that that would be the wrong spirit for missionary work.

      I agree though…using the word “atheist” made everything click into place for me. I didn’t have to make things fit an LDS mold that — from all I could see and experience — the world just simply didn’t fit into.

  6. One thing I never did feel was a “burning in the bosom.” I thought that was figurative for the longest time, until somebody explained it to me as a physical sensation.

    • I have…hints…of burning in bosoms. But not from church or LDS things.

      I totally know about stupors of thoughts though. Plenty of those from church.

  7. Thanks for this post Andrew. I really identified with it. I had started to write a much longer comment earlier but it ended up too long so I made it a blog post of my own.

    • Cool; will check out your post then!

  8. Ah, yes the stupor of thought you mentioned seemed to be a constant companion of mine during my stay in Mormonism. So, you have lots of people that share that experience.

  9. I probably fall somewhat into the middle. I certainly did have experiences which I thought at the time to be clearly divine, but the vast majority of the time I didn’t get anything useful or meaningful from reading scriptures or praying or church, etc. I always had serious doubts which ended up leading me to atheism, but they were for a time kept at bay by very occasional emotional experience which I at the time interpreted to be spiritual because I had no concept of emotional manipulation/abuse, brainwashing, and psychosomatic reactions.

  10. Same for me as Kuri. I still have what I used to describe as “spiritual experiences.” Actually the fact that I continued to have certain feelings, in spite of my progressive “spiritual decline,” helped me to eventually disbelieve my former worldview and adopt a new one.

    I no longer consider those feelings as “spiritual.” It’s just my body’s way of responding to ideas and principles that resonate deeply within me.

    I still find it fascinating that we can all experience things so uniquely. Narrative really is huge, and yet still not as unifying as we think?

    • Actually the fact that I continued to have certain feelings, in spite of my progressive “spiritual decline,” helped me to eventually disbelieve my former worldview and adopt a new one.

      It was partly my ability to feel those feelings in church that got me to convert (when I was 20). I’d felt them all my life, but never before in the context of an organized religion. That strongly reinforced the “This is it” feelings I had.

      OTOH, even at my most devout, I never could get behind the concept of “worthiness,” because, like you I think, my level of “worthiness” never had much effect on the frequency or intensity of my “spiritual” experiences.

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