Given that I’m a proud, barely famous atheist and skeptic, people are often surprised and fascinated to learn that I am a former Mormon (or as I like to say, a “Formon”). After the obligatory polygamy jokes and questions about the “magic underwear,” people are generally curious to know why I left the Church. This is not a simple question to answer.
I grew up Mormon. My doubts about the religion didn’t surface until my mid-twenties, when I came to the stunning realization that people of other faiths could be just as devoted, studious, confident, and able to make a compelling case for their beliefs (or lack thereof) as myself. Mormons who grow up in their rather insular faith are often very naïve about such things, and I was no exception. I remember being completely bewildered by a Jewish scholar who made an extremely cogent argument for why the Hebrew Bible, read “properly,” demonstrated that Jesus was most definitely not the Messiah. Such possibilities had never occurred to me.
That Mormonism was the only “true Church” teaching the “true doctrine of Christ” was as clear to me as the noonday sun. I was certain of that because I had a “testimony” (as Mormons call it) of the truthfulness of the Church—a “burning in the bosom” that Mormons hold most sacred. I knew the Church was true because God had “revealed” it to my heart.
Of course, anyone celebrating his or her twenty-first birthday who is still ignorant of just how unreliable the heart is hasn’t really lived. I had—at least enough to know that while the heart is many things, it is anything but infallible. And that single morsel of maturity—more than anything else—is what ended my membership in the Mormon Church.
In my twenties, I began to question the essential epistemology of the Mormon faith: the premise that feelings are a reliable indicator of truth and value. I even grew cynical of the idea, thinking, “Who wouldn’t get a good, warm feeling upon learning that there is a caring, personal god who loves him or her, has a plan for his or her life, and will ultimately right the injustices of mortality; and that death is not the end, but a portal into a domain of infinite joy, creativity, and peace?” I couldn’t help but see that conflating good feelings with truth and value was merely stacking the deck in favor of anyone who could tell a good story—particularly a story that assuages our most profound fears.
And what of the experiences of others? Clearly, people of other faiths had these same deep, warm feelings about their salvation doctrines. Were their good feelings less indicative of truth than mine?
Having grown suspicious of the notion that God could directly reveal the truth of things to me via my heart, I began to look for a more reliable methodology. Fortunately, Mormonism itself offered another way. Like all believers, Mormons who feel they have evidence for their beliefs are quick to push that evidence—and even to prefer it. Over the years, I had read one book after another claiming to provide solid evidence for Mormonism and its revealed truths. From the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library to the archeology of Mesoamerica, Mormon apologists wrote about these amazing new discoveries that confirmed Joseph Smith’s prophetic vision. So I decided to begin looking at this evidence more carefully, not fully understanding that learning the rules of evidence and developing the required skill set needed to better judge that evidence would lead me down a very dark path.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon Church) was founded by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1830. Smith claimed to have had a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ in which they told him that all religions had strayed and that he had been chosen to restore Christ’s True Church to the Earth. As part of that restoration, Smith was directed to a hidden set of golden plates that were said to contain a record of the religious, political, and military histories of the Native Americans called The Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon contains a challenge to those who want to know of its truthfulness. This challenge established the basic “burning bosom” methodology of which I had grown suspicious: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4).
Another revelation from God outlined this methodology in a bit more detail: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong …” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8–9).
My transition from believer to skeptic was hastened by the fact that Mormonism is exceptional among religions in that its most basic tenets are not matters of faith at all but empirically testable claims. Among these are the insistence that Native Americans are Hebrews; that the people of ancient America were an advanced, metal-age people; that there were horses, pigs, and elephants in the ancient Americas; that the Book of Mormon peoples used the wheel and built chariots; that the original forty or so Book of Mormon people came to a land (the Americas) absent “other nations” (i.e., entirely unpopulated) and soon grew to populate the entire face of the land; and most horrifically, that God punishes people by darkening their skin.
By the time I began looking seriously at these issues, scientific evidence (or more correctly, the lack thereof) had resolved most of these claims. Though scientists were (and are) still arguing about exactly when the Native Americans arrived in the Americas, the idea that “other nations” were not here before the Book of Mormon peoples has long since been put to rest. Evidence of human activity in the region showed that modern humans were in the Americas thousands and thousands of years before the Book of Mormon peoples were said to have arrived.
Archeologists had also failed to find any evidence of the advanced metal-age societies, swords, chariots, horses, pigs, elephants, and many of the crops mentioned. By the early 1990s, the DNA evidence was pouring in as well. The Native Americans were clearly and unequivocally not Hebrews—at least not genetically. Things were not looking good for Joseph Smith’s prophetic vision.
As I began to voice my concerns to my ecclesiastical superiors (local and regional leaders), I hit a wall. I soon learned that these questions had no good answers, and worse yet, I had become suspect simply for asking. “You’re thinking too much,” I was told by one leader. Suddenly, the religion that had taught me that “the Glory of God is intelligence” was asking me to check my brain at the door.
After listening to the problems I’d discovered, another Church leader, fairly high up in the chain of command, suggested that I was evil (or more accurately, that I had been led astray by an evil spirit) simply for looking into claims and having doubts! The logic was simple, I guess. If good feelings were the sign of God’s hand, then clearly the bad feelings this leader experienced while hearing the evidence I presented was the
work of Satan. Sadly, he was not alone. Many of my closest friends in the Church were deeply troubled by my questioning, and people in our ward (local congregation) began to put distance between themselves and me, lest they appear guilty by association. I was being marginalized.
For quite a while after that, I continued going to church. But I stopped asking questions or making public comments. Sitting in church listening to people talk about things that I knew weren’t true made me realize that I was no longer a part of that community. I was the odd man out but strangely so.
It was a very confusing time. I experienced a deep sense of betrayal—not because I felt I’d been deceived (though clearly I had been) but because the journey I’d taken was (to me) the logical and moral extension of the values the Church had taught me: Be open to truth and embrace it from wherever it comes. Be honest and forthright. “Seek and ye shall find.” The thirteenth article of the Mormon faith begins, “We believe in being honest, true. . . .” Jesus said, “The truth shall make you free.” But suddenly, I was the bad guy simply for continuing down the path they had put me on?
I had followed the path a bit too far, in their estimation, but only because I was so certain of my “testimony”—because I knew the truth and was confident that anything I could find would only confirm what I already knew. When this assumption proved false, I was told simply to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
And why not? Aren’t these exactly the times when faith is most required—when all the facts seem stacked against you, threatening all that you’ve come to know and love? If ever there was a time to double down, this was it! Indeed, for one leader, the solution was just that simple: I needed to get down on my knees, pray to God, and ask him to restore my testimony.
But what exactly was God supposed to do? I could see how, theoretically, prayer might be a conduit to theological truth—that makes sense within the internal logic of a given theology. But what was God supposed to do for me in this situation? Change the DNA of Native Americans? Plant swords, chariots, and horse fossils throughout North, Central, and South America? A memory wipe perhaps? If you’re praying to God and the Holy Spirit is telling you that the Native Americans are Hebrews, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, might it not be time to rethink what one can know via prayer, the Holy Spirit, and/or one’s heart?
Shortly thereafter, I stopped going to church altogether. It was only then that I realized what a stink I’d made. In most cases, Mormons waste no time going after the “lost sheep.” Had I stopped going to church because of a battle with smoking, drinking, or “immorality” (that is, sex), I’m sure I would have received a tremendous outpouring of attention, encouragement, warmth, and understanding. But my problems were not so simple, and having other Church members attempt to persuade me of my error would have put the testimonies of others at risk. I quickly became persona non grata.
At the time, I had no intention of officially leaving the Church. I couldn’t quite see the point. But in 1992, the Church began excommunicating various scholars, feminists, historians, and other intellectuals. It was a “Galileo” moment for me, and I could no longer allow my continued membership to communicate tacit approval for such behavior. As required by the Church, I wrote a formal letter requesting that my name be removed from the records of the Church, and I hand-delivered that letter to my bishop in March of 1993. With the exception of a letter notifying me of my impending emancipation/doom, I never heard another word from any official of the Mormon Church.
In the aftermath, I came to see Mormonism as a microcosm of the origins and evolution of all religions and myths. Where understanding is absent, someone will fill that vacuum with either knowledge or lore. When Europeans came to the Americas, they found a people whose origins and existence they did not understand (and which was not accounted for in their holy book). So they extrapolated from what they thought they knew, taking the biblical story of the lost tribes of Israel and superimposing that tale onto the newly discovered peoples of North, Central, and South America. Joseph Smith was hardly the first to suggest a biblical connection. But most Mormons don’t know that this “Lost Tribes” theory predates the Book of Mormon.
Having been so utterly convinced of the truth of something so completely false, my first priority was to figure out how to figure things out. I now understood, perhaps as well as anyone, why extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. I quickly developed a profound respect for skepticism and the methods of science. I learned to discipline my mind—to be patient when the evidence was inconclusive and to be suspicious of emotional appeals. I learned about confirmation bias, that arguments are not evidence, and the importance of remaining open to the possibility that I could be wrong.
But most important, I learned that faith is not a virtue and that doubt is not a sin.