A friend of mine recently left her religion. I’m happy for her, but at the same time I hurt for her. I remember when I first left my religion, the confusion and terror that overwhelmed me when I realized I had been brainwashed my entire life — brainwashed in the most loving manner, by people who did not mean me harm and were doing it with good intentions, but brainwashed nonetheless. I remember my sorrow and anger as I read through (approved) church histories and texts, as I re-read scriptures and saw unfulfilled prophecy after unfulfilled prophecy. I remember the terror I felt, the unmoored feeling as I realized I had been misled regarding the facts and history of our church.
My friend was panicking on the phone. She asked, “How will I raised my children? How do I teach them? What am I supposed to say?”
I said, “You know right from wrong. Be kind, be honest, be forgiving, be generous. You don’t need a church for that.”
I started thinking about it more after our conversation, and my own discontent with the church. It started when I was in my teens. As a mormon, I had been taught the three-kingdom belief. I was taught that the most righteous went to the celestial kingdom, to sit on the right hand of god. I was also taught that the less righteous and the unbelievers went to one of the lower kingdoms, and that they did not remember their earthly lives.
At the time, my older brother was inactive. Not completely — he went to church on Sundays (lived in the house and all), but it was pretty obvious he thought it was all ridiculous. It really bothered me that not only would he not go to the celestial kingdom, but he wouldn’t even remember his earthly life or family. I asked about it once in Sunday school — would I be able to visit him, I asked. In the lower kingdoms — could I visit my family and friends? My Sunday school teacher said I could, but they would not remember their earthly lives. They would not remember me. They would greet me as an old friend, but they would not know who I was or how they knew me or why they loved me.
I was appalled. If anything, it sounded like a punishment to me, the one who made it to the celestial kingdom. I decided my best bet was to shoot for a lower kingdom — at least I wouldn’t have the misery of losing my brother, then.
Over the years, my faith waxed and waned. I often felt guilty for not having a stronger testimony of the church, for being too questioning and inquisitive. I felt as though there was something essentially wrong with me because I asked things like, “Why would god damn me for smoking a cigarette,” or “What makes coffee evil?” I felt as though I was missing some key component of the faith, as though I didn’t have the whole picture, but just a very small piece of it — so small a piece, I couldn’t justify the rules.
I’m the first to admit it’s difficult for me to follow orders without reasonable cause. It’s very difficult for me to blindly say, “Oh, okay,” when someone says, “Don’t do that, it’s bad.” My response is more along the lines of, “Why is it bad? How did you learn it was bad? What is the character of your source? How do you know the character of your source?”
I felt uncomfortable with my desire to know more about religion and faith in general and the church specifically — I felt as though I was innately evil because I wanted to pursue knowledge and all the sides of the argument with religion, just as I did in every other aspect of my life. I couldn’t understand why questioning religion and my church should be so bad — my dad taught me that questions are the way to knowledge, and knowledge is truth. So how could questioning the church be bad?
But I didn’t want to lose this, my only surety and anchor in a world I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to lose my faith, no matter how weak it was. The reality of god was the only insurance I had against the world, and my desire for the church to be right was my talisman. It wasn’t even certainty — it was just a really strong desire for the church to be true. I figured no religion had it right, not even mormonism (it is impossible, as mortal and fallible beings, to comprehend the mind of an immortal and infallible being, and to claim we can is a horrible conceit) — but mormonism had to be the closest approximation of that truth. And then my mom died.
In the months after her death, my dad and his new wife and several church members would often come to me with a comforting story about how they had “felt” mom’s presence in the temple, or how mom had “come to them” in a dream and told them how happy and at peace she was now. I would be told these stories on average once a week. They were beautiful. During this same time period, I was having horrific, terrifying nightmares that my mom shambled into my home, a rotting zombie with purpled bruises around her neck and gravedirt embedded in her skin and nails. She would hold her hands out to me, the nails and fingers cracked and broken from digging out of the grave, and beg to know why I had left her there, why I had let dad remarry, why I had forgotten her.
I started taking sleep medications, trying to avoid the dreams, but they got worse — now I couldn’t jerk myself awake. I felt angry and terrified and sad. I felt as though I was so bad, as though my lack of faith was so horrible, that mom was punishing me. And then I realized, mom wouldn’t do that. They were just dreams — all of them, the good ones dad and his wife were having, and the nightmares I was having. Mom had never, ever played favorites in life, and she wouldn’t do it in death. And if mom couldn’t visit me because I lacked religious faith, but she could visit others, that made no sense. Logically, visiting me would make me faithful, while it only verified the faith of the others — by not visiting me, my long-term spirituality was in danger.
Then I thought maybe it was a test of my faith, that mom was prevented from visiting me because god was testing me. Then I realized if that was the case, mom would ignore god and comfort me, because she could never stand to see us suffer. And if god was preventing mom from coming to me in my time of emotional turmoil and grieving, then he was not the god I had been taught about. I began to ponder the nature of god, and I realized if god was omnipotent and chose not to prevent evil, god was evil. If god could not prevent evil, god was not omnipotent and was not god. And I realized that if I accepted the premise this life is a test of god, then either I was really egotistical (you mean all these people died and all this horror and tragedy and sickness happens to test me?!?) or god was really awful and nobody I particularly wanted to spend eternity with. I realized if god is good, god does not exist, because a good god would prevent sickness and natural disasters — or at the very least warn us. If god is malevolent, god would not exist, because a malevolent god would make the world nothing but terror, with no love or hope or joy. Ergo, god was neutral, and if a god created us it was probably on accident and it didn’t really care, or perhaps even know, that we are here.
And I realized I was an atheist.