The Happy Atheist #1.

I have a series of posts planned in which I will advocate for the poor maligned and misunderstood atheist. Stay tuned!

Atheists are among the most mistrusted groups of people in the United States. In a Gallup poll that asked about America’s readiness for a president from a variety of backgrounds, only homosexuals fared worse than atheists (who fell just below the Mormons).

It’s difficult for me to reconcile this general antagonism with my experience with individual atheists. They are among the most ethical people I know. There’s a wide range, to be sure, but I know atheists who place such a high value on life that they are pacifists and vegans. One married unbelieving couple adopted two children, and are more devoted and caring than many Christian parents. Most nonbelievers I know care deeply about the earth and politics and devote money and time to help others.

One common value that many of my atheist friends share is integrity. We live in a overwhelmingly religious world. It takes tremendous courage for someone who is deeply embedded in a religious tradition to reject the security of their culture and the comfort of their community and to risk ostracism and vilification for the sake of the truth. Allow me to illustrate with my personal experience.

Integrity led me out of Mormonism. After a decade of concerted effort, I realized that I had stopped trying to believe and was merely pretending to believe. My religion was encouraging me to live a lie. There was tremendous social pressure–without professing orthodox belief (or pretending to do so), I couldn’t enter the temple or attend the marriages of friends and family members. I was encouraged to stay silent on matters of doctrine and church policy that troubled me and to value hagiography over more truthful academic biographies and histories.

Lying for the faith is encouraged at the highest levels, as evinced by Elder Packer’s famous statement that “a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it.” Here’s the quote in context:

It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’ Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! … It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!

I put Packer’s counsel to the test. When I lied and bore witness of things in which I did not believe, I felt incredible guilt for misrepresenting myself (Jana can tell you how much I struggled with this over the years, especially in church teaching positions). When I testified of the things that I did truly believe in, even when they ran counter to the Church’s teachings, I felt at peace with myself and even with those whom I troubled and angered with my words.

My experience is echoed by many others who have left or who are struggling to extricate themselves from their religions of origin. They often do so at incredible social and emotional cost. One of their primary motivators is integrity–the desire to be true to themselves and their conscience.

So to all my atheist friends out there, you have my empathy, my love and respect. Thank you for being candles in the dark.

13 Comments

  1. Miko

    My father is one of those who have an irrational fear of atheists. I learned, growing up in his house, that they were worse than non-Catholic-Christians not because they don’t believe in god but because they believe in no god. It may seem like an odd distinction, but if you can think of Harris’ fear & hatred of fundamentalists, think of it reversed. It’s like matter & antimatter. Many of the atheists I know are actually agnostics for whom the question of the divine is not a pressing one (like my husband): there may be, there may not, either way they live their lives ethically. I think that you will get much more support (or at least less fear) for agnostics among religious.

  2. I hesitate to make a comment to this excellent post because I am a Christian, and thus I will probably be lumped into the group that mistreats you (hopefully not.) I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your willingness to share thoughts about your struggle with religious faith and the ways you tried to reasonably test it. Who can ask for more? If God is reasonable, you’ve got nothing to worry about, if not, well, who cares. 🙂

    I agree with you regarding integrity. My integrity has single-handedly destroyed my reputation in my Christian community. My history in this area has caused me to leave about 6 churches in the past 6 years.

    When I found out the church I attended was involved in something I believed to be very morally wrong, as well as legally wrong, I decided to start discussing it with my study group, and to tell the pastor (though a friend) that if he didn’t shape up, we would report him to the authorities and a lawsuit would be headed his way. He quickly hurried to save his a** legally, but told my friend point blank he had no intention of stopping. My friend and I ended up leaving, and the Church leadership told my study group to stay away from me and came over to my house and demanded I stop meeting with these people in the middle of our bible study. A very angry heated debate insued :). How could I with any integrety stay at a church with men who taught each other and their own congregation that lying and stealing in the name of God is ok? Aren’t we supposed to be moral? How could I in good conscience bring a friend I cared about to such a place, much less raise my baby daughter in such an morally reprehensible atmosphere?

    The next church was even worse. I was told that if I didn’t believe God creates most people as fodder for hell without the ability to love Him and then He gets mad at them for not loving him (Calvinism)- that I will not be able to teach my daughter’s sunday school class. Instead of voicing my dissenting opinions to anybody (I do learn my lessons sometimes), I quietly left without an explaination. Many people there were saddened to see me go. How could I teach such a despicable thing? I would NEVER bring a friend to such a church, nor would I ever be caught dead putting such a contemptible belief in ANY kind of positive spin.

    These are extreme cases, but there are MUCH worse others can tell. Is it ANY wonder thinking people are disgusted with this and throw it out? Is atheism so unreasonable and worthy of rebuke in the face of this? I may not be feeling the same rejection in society as the atheist, but I am now condemned in my religious community as being rebellious – all may old study pals and fellow leaders are doing a good job of spreading that around. I have refused to submit to the religious authorities of that church, and I did I submit myself to their punishment that they threatened to hand out on me through various means of public humiliation. They even threatened to call up the next church I went to convince them to send me back so I could be “disciplined.” My wife and I at one point wished we were non-Christians so that we would at least be treated with more kindness.

    So John, just wanted you to know that I’m on your side, and in some ways, I can even relate to the intense emotional and social costs involved in living up to your integrity. My respect goes out to all who have been in your situation and ones much worse than yours or mine.

  3. Thank you, John.

    There’s a poetic unity in the realization that we are utterly alone and yet that we have each other for this moment. As an atheist one discovers how much we all desperately need each other and need to embrace this life.

  4. Most of my friends are atheists, and I completely agree with your observations. As someone who shares in the struggles you speak of, thanks.

  5. Miko

    Jonathan—similar insults to morality have caused me to abandon churches altogether. When I was young, I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t the same religion as me, so when I grew up slightly, and realized that it was indeed possible for people to be moral without being religious, I was ecstatic! I told this recently to a sister, who asked me if I hadn’t seen that being religious made people moral. My response was that, unfortunately, I knew more moral unreligious than moral religious. I’ve never been kicked out of a church, but I have gotten to the point where I’ve stopped trying to find a “good” church.

    My husband’s family is Buddhist & I was discussing its appeal to me with his stepmom (brought up southern baptist). She told me of a friend of hers, brought up Buddhist, who converted to Christianity for the same reasons that I liked Buddhism. I guess hypocrisy, religious or not, is in the eye of the beholder.

  6. Barbara

    John:
    I’m a blog virgin (never blogged before), but I had to respond to what you said about your experience as an “unbelieving” Mormon.
    I’m kind of in the same place you once were, only I’m an Evangelical Christian. I find myself with so many questions and doubts about my religiion and yet realize there is no one I can share these with within my circle of family and friends; in doing so, I would be, as you said, ostracized. I could ask the questions, but if I didn’t change my way of thinking, sadly, I would lose every one of them; perhaps even my husband. That reality is scary for me to think about, but it is so difficult to keep my mouth shut. I am living a lie and I believe the leadership of my church would encourage me to do so, if I wanted to continue attending there. It is becoming increasingly difficult not to say anything, I feel like a fraud and a hypocrite…I lack peace. I’m not really sure how it’s all going to turn out in the end, but I do know it’s not my nature to remain silent. It has helped my just to say all this outloud, so to speak. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

  7. John

    Jonathan, I admire your integrity. I feel that I have so much in common with you and other believers who value doubt and questioning (I am as turned off by dogmatic skeptics as dogmatic believers).

  8. John

    Barbara, welcome!

    Thank you for de-lurking! 🙂

    I can understand your feeling of isolation and empathize with the tremendous pressure you must feel to put up a false front. It’s difficult to be placed in a situation where you feel that you have to choose between those you love and being true to yourself.

    I hope we can hear more from you, and I encourage you to find other blogs by others in your situation. I think that the blogs (like this one, and Jonathan’s) might be a great medium for finding companions and strength on your journey.

    Hang in there!

  9. Barbara

    Thank you and I will do that. It’s amazing how much better I feel in just verbalizing some of what’s been going on in my head. I do feel very alone, but also excited because I’ve discovered this huge world of thought out there that I never knew existed because of the isolated bubble I lived in for fear of being “corrupted by the world.” I feel like I’m finally using the brain that I have and am not so haunted by the fear of “burning in hell” for questioning what I’ve always believed to be true.

  10. Barbara,
    Your in good company here in questioning religious beliefs! The term “using my brain” is kind of my mantra when it comes to understanding the spiritual life. I figure that if God is reasonable, He’s hoping we’ll use the brain he gave us. Humbly embracing doubt and questioning traditional beliefs is the first step away from blind religious indoctrination and towards learning how to think for yourself. It is lonely at times and I have lost a lot of friends in the process, but I believe that there is no other way to live.

  11. Hey John,

    Nice to hear a friendly voice in the dark.

    It was way strange, but just as I finished reading your post the bishopric knocked on the door. Perhaps they felt a disturbance in the force ;).

    I really admire your decision to take the path you did. it would be interesting to talk for a while about why it may or may not have been easier for you to leave than it would be for someone born and raised in the Church. I’m sure there are a lot complexities to that question.

    I admire people with integrity in general. People who are willing to forego the comforts offered to them in exchange for their obedience. I have a friend whose integrity shines for me like a flame in the night. She had a son who was getting married in the temple. For months beforehand she jumped through all the hoops and said all the right things to get her temple recommend. It was amazing what she went through. Then, just minutes before entering the temple, she decided she couldn’t go through with it. She waited out her son’s wedding in the foyer. And all the relatives saw her there.

    Amazing. Just amazing, to allow your deepest convictions lead you through such thorny places.

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