Leaving the Garden: C. L. Hanson’s Journey

For our latest installment of “Leaving the Garden” (a weekly series in which we ask someone to reflect on their encounters with religion and uncertainty) C. L. Hanson of the blog Letters from A Broad has graciously allowed us to share her post entitled How I Became an Atheist.  

C. L. Hanson describes herself as a “Software engineer and mom by vocation, writer by avocation, C. L. Hanson mostly just likes to have a beer and swap funny stories with fellow exmos, atheists, and anyone else who has a tale to tell.” She certainly moves in many blogging circles, including the unbelieving Atheosphere, the Mormon Bloggernacle, and the ex-Mormon Outer Blogness and has a place of respect in each. Along with the Friendly Atheist, I consider her something of a blogging mentor.

I’ve told the story of my deconversion from Mormonism here, here, and here, but I haven’t quite explained yet how I got from there to atheism.

Before my deconversion, I’d already identified atheism as the main alternate possibility (as explained here: If the church weren’t true I’d be an atheist, and other things I learned in seminary). Either the church is true or it isn’t. Either the spiritual witness is right or it isn’t. Since — if we wipe away what we learned from the spirit — what’s left?

But I was plagued by self-doubt.

Mormonism had convinced me that spiritual witness was valid as evidence for deciding questions about the way the real-world universe functions. So I put a massive amount of heart and effort and prayer into trying to receive that spiritual witness. And several times I managed to generate an emotional/spiritual experience that I hoped was God talking to me.

But “the spirit” always felt sickly and off. Despite what I wrote in my journal about it, I never fully convinced myself that my spiritual experiences weren’t wishful thinking and all in my head. That was why I continued to pray fervently for the “testimony” I didn’t have, right up to the day of my deconversion epiphany.

But my doubts about my own spiritual experiences didn’t extend to doubts about the reality of other people’s spiritual experiences. I though my own were possibly just in my head, but I assumed that it was just because I was unworthy to have real spiritual experiences. I believed that other (more righteous) people were receiving actual communication from God.

That was why it threw me for such a loop when I heard from some faithful Mormons say that people in other religions had spiritual experiences similar to those Mormons have (see my deconversion, part 3). My belief in God was ultimately built on the bedrock of believing trusted friends and family when they said they’d talked to Him. When the same trusted individuals admitted that Mormons didn’t necessarily have a monopoly on spiritual witness, I hardly knew what to think.

Then, when I had my grand epiphany that the claims of Mormonism are false, I didn’t entirely stop believing in other people’s spiritual claims. I merely determined that spiritual witness couldn’t be used to answer real-world questions or questions about the nature of God. I immediately saw the parallels among all of the myths and miracles claimed by all of mankind’s religions, and concluded that all of these details were inventions by people wishing to explain their experiences with the divine.

Thus I became a Deist. I believed that God or gods exist and created the universe and care about people (enough to commune with them), but that the divine powers don’t actually intervene or explain anything specific to anyone. That’s where I was at when I entered BYU as a freshman.

Sometime during my first year at BYU, I attended a devotional. My ward had invited one of the BYU religion professors to tell us the story of his conversion to Mormonism. He told an amazingly moving story that — as far as I could tell — touched everyone in the room, including me. That was the spirit for sure. Since I’d participated in the same spiritual experience with others whose spirituality wasn’t in question, I concluded that that must be the real thing, if anything is. I took the experience as evidence of God’s love and of the fact that God can communicate through Mormonism just as through any other religion.

But weirdly it was the beginning of the end. As long as I wasn’t sure I’d ever received any spiritual witness, I didn’t feel qualified to criticize that type of evidence. But once I had some spiritual evidence of my own, I had something concrete to question. And as soon as I started putting some weight on my evidence — to rely on it for my belief — the doubts started to squeeze out. That guy is a talented speaker. He’s probably given that same devotional hundreds of times. He knows how to tell his story in such a way that it generates an emotional response in his audience. No supernatural explanation required…

Around the same time, someone had posted a cartoon on a door leading to some offices inside the BYU library. I passed the cartoon all the time because the door was along one of the main stairways leading to some of the lower floors of the library. The cartoon was of a stern-looking man (dressed as a scholar) walking down a staircase. I don’t remember exactly what was written on the upper few steps — I think it was a series of things like questioning the literal inerrancy of the Bible — but I remember what was written on the last three steps: Deism, Agnosticism, Atheism.

I was annoyed by this cartoon because I felt like it was just an attempt to scare people away from doubting or interpreting the slightest thing for themselves. It looked like an obvious swipe against the “liberal” and “Sunstone” Mormons (today’s “middle way” people). I thought “Oh, please!! Just because you don’t buy the whole enchilada doesn’t mean you’re on the road to **shudder** atheism.”

But the more I passed that cartoon — and the more I thought about it — the more I thought, “Well, actually… Maybe this path does lead to atheism…”

I didn’t really have a moment of epiphany the way I did with my deconversion from Mormonism. I just gradually started calling myself an agnostic when I wasn’t sure anymore. Meanwhile, the evidence for God’s existence started looking weaker and weaker.

Then one day I was explaining to an atheist friend (probably my brother) about how I’m an agnostic because I don’t claim to have a proof that God doesn’t exist.

He then asked me “But which do you think it is? God exists or God doesn’t exist?”

Without hesitation I said “I think God doesn’t exist.”

He laughed and said, “Then you’re an atheist! Admit it!”

I thought about it a second and said, “You’re right, I’m an atheist.”

And I’ve been an atheist ever since.

4 Comments

  1. Let me just say that Chanson is my favorite exmo-atheist crush … maybe my favorite extra-marital crush. It’s really hand not to love her, what with that French-expat-exmo-atheist-startrekStarring-coding-nudist-mothering-authoring-deweyDecimalWildThinging quan she’s got going. Breathless.

    Thanks for the thrill, Chanson. 🙂

  2. The thing about “the Spirit” has been a thorn in my side. Even when I was a committed ldser, I wondered, who am I to say others are wrong if “the Spirit” answers them differently than me?

    My family members who are Catholic are very at peace in their belief in the Pope as God’s mouthpiece. Who’s to say they’re wrong. And who’s to say they’re right? There’s plenty of people getting the same answer and plenty getting a different answer. If there is god could deity be that much of an ass make “truth” so ambiguous?

    And what of “the Spirit” that answers the Jim Jones and David Koreshes of the world with the admonishment to harm? Even within scriptures we see people do rather jacked up things because “God” told them to. Somehow I think the recipients of their treatment would beg to differ. Hell, we don’t have to go back to ancient times. There’s stuff happening all over the world today in the name of “God”.

    I’m left with no choice but to make my choices on what seems right and does no harm. If deity is not the author of confusion then “the Spirit” is not party of deity.

  3. I really like the image of that cartoon; it reminds me of Good Omens, the lead character in which is a demon who “didn’t fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards”. I think a lot of people are on that staircase but whether or not it’s a bad thing depends on which side you’re on: the hallway leading up to the stairs or that leading away from it.

  4. sheila hunter

    So very sad. You’ve basically just doubted your way to not believing in God, although you are in the same boat. You STILL do not have any proof that there is NO God. Even Carl Sagan (one of my favorite scientist, I’m a Chemist and adore cosmology and LOVE Carl Sagan) not to be confused w/ his atheist wife, said there is a Divine Creator, else Evolution would have created other creature from various substances or perhaps another earth somewhere in our Galaxy or beyond. So fine, how does this earth have every single perfect gas, element etc for our lives and the lives of other living creatures, fish, insects to exist? Think of SPACE, I’ve taken some basic physics courses and genetics courses and even the men who have helped code the DNA sequences had to admit this was PROGRAMMED, created somehow by an intelligence of some sort, not willy nilly. Young lady, you need to go back to the drawing board and take a basic physics and chemistry class etc, and then tell me that all of the sub orbitals and intricacies of atoms and matter and states of matter etc are all just random and chaotic. I promise you there is order as in mathematical order to the Universe. I am active LDS, convert from Jewish background. I can tell you that as you seek so shall you find. You gave up way to early. I have had profound spiritually personal experiences that tell me that for me, there is no more doubt. Not as a scientist or a latter day saint, I know that God exists. I cannot download this knowledge to you my dear, although I wish I could. Sometimes I feel that way about chemistry, so many people tell me “i just don’t get chemistry!” I tell them: well, memorizing the periodic table it the first step, but it is hours and hours of study, practice, study, practice etc.. same w/ religion and belief. Just listening to others testimonies is NOT enough. Being on ones knees for hours, as I have done, going to the Temple each week, reading the Book of Mormon and Bible and most of all, living my religion, forgiving, loving trying my best: that is when the spiritual experience happened which changed my life. I am sorry that I cannot tell you the experience, I will tell you it was a NDE. I was just as surprised as anyone to have it, and it profoundly changed my life. I don’t know why some have these experiences and are prone to more spirituality then others. It is not a question of being ‘better’ it is just a question of faith, seeking, and working very hard at solving the question you want answered. God bless you in your future, I mean that sincerely, I hope you will study more about the Universe and Matter and the components of Science and Math that most assuredly will lead you to say as many of we scientists DO say: that the Elegant, Beauty and precision of life and the Universe, is Designed by a Designer as any other great work of Art is.

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