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.