Sunday, March 3, 2013

My journey from Mormon to Atheist

I used to be a Mormon. I went to church, young mens meetings and I prayed. I would read the scriptures and study them. I graduated from Seminary and attended Institute classes and sang hymns in the choir. When I did these things I felt the "spirit" as many others do. I deny none of these things. When I sang hymns, when I prayed and when I shared my beliefs I felt good.

I remember when a friend of mine passed away tragically I stayed up all night in tears pouring my heart out to my Heavenly Father. I remember feeling reassured that I would see my friend again. I actually felt I had received direct support from God in helping me get through that difficult time. This feeling was a deep motivating force that solidified my testimony and motivated me to go on a mission. I shared that experience again and again to investigators and church members throughout my mission and as a Sunday School teacher in college afterwards. It felt great to share that experience and help others know that they could feel the same.

I do not deny that any of this happened. I experienced those feelings, felt that guidance and support and shared it with others and I am not ashamed of it.

Now, I know what you are thinking. If I believe those feelings were real, if I prayed and felt reassured, if I had felt comfort and love after praying with my whole heart, how could I turn my back on those feelings and deny God? I must be blinded by Satan himself to be able to shrug my shoulders and say that I no longer believe in anything spiritual or in an afterlife. But this isn't so. I don't deny they happened. They did. I do however have an alternative explanation for where those feelings came from, one that Occam's Razor would describe as the most likely of explanations.

Occam's Razor is a principle often used in science to determine the more likely truth in competing ideas.  Occam's Razor states that the hypotheses that makes the least amount of assumptions should be selected.  This means that looking at two different ideas about a subject, the one that is based more in physical evidence and doesn't assume solutions is the one that is likely correct.

This principle was first introduced to me at a very young age in the movie Contact.  In the film, Occam's Razor is mentioned in a scene where a scientist is discussing her disbelief with a preacher.  She asks him, "What is more likely, an all -powerful, mysterious God created the universe and decided not to give any proof of his existence, or, that he simply doesn't exist at all and we created him so we wouldn't feel so small?"  This didn't really sink in when I was a kid.  I loved science but also believed in God, and who cares?  I can do both.  I really believed I could understand the principles of science and still believe in God.  There was no conflict in my mind.  Science had answers, some of which seemed to contradict what was taught at church, but science didn't have all the answers and my religion seemed to fill the gaps.

I do recall one instance in my youth when I got really upset at my religion for contradicting what I learned in science.  I was in fifth grade and we had just had a class about Pangea.  My science teacher had handed out maps of Pangea and we had colored it in and learned about the shifting of continental plates and how the world has changed throughout time.  I remember being fascinated by this.  Once, all the continents were one continent, but now they are many. I went home thrilled and told my mom what I had learned and how exciting it was.  My moms reaction was not what I had anticipated though.  She said, "That's neat, but we don't believe in Pangea." That was it.  I remember asking why, but I don't really remember the answer she gave.  I remember being so angry at my science teacher at first for getting me excited about something that was fake.  But then, I remember how much I loved learning it and how much fun it was.  Even though I was just a kid, I decided that I didn't believe what my mother believed.  I didn't believe what my church taught, in that one thing. I didn't hate the church, nor my mom for not agreeing with science, I simply decided that I did believe it.  I continued on my way with that thought and carried it throughout school.  It wasn't until years later that those initial thoughts that the church might be wrong crept back into my mind.

I have always loved science.  It has always been my favorite subject. I forgot about that in high school.  I got distracted by other things.  I got really interested in creative writing, was involved in marching band, jazz band, wind ensemble and also very distracted by girls.  My love of science got put on the shelf as I approached other subjects that at the time fascinated me.  It wasn't until I went to college that I recalled how much I loved the sciences. I started college as a journalism major and was excited by the ability to write and have my words read by others.  I abandoned the major after my third semester however, as I decided I didn't enjoy the high stress and pressure required in journalism.  I dabbled in other majors, most of them involving writing, but was never grabbed by the potential that they had for me.  I remembered then that I really had a love for science.  I took an Earthquakes and Volcanoes class for a necessary general education credit and was enraptured by how cool our world is.  It refreshed the passion that had laid dormant since middle school. 

I love our universe.  I love learning about how it works, the physical mechanisms and properties that we can observe and the unfathomable vastness of it all.  I began reading scientific journals, not for classes, but on my own time.  I was constantly on the internet viewing articles on Popular Science, Scientific American and I began to realize how much of a passion I have for Astronomy and Planetary Science.  So, I changed my major.  Originally I thought I would major in Science and become an astronomer or astrophysicist.  I took astronomy, planetary science and geology courses almost exclusively.  However, I soon got myself over my head with work and started to fail other courses.  I also realized that my waning attention in High School had affected my math skills, leaving me behind where I should have been mathematically to completely understand the science.

I realized then that I struggle with math and that I would really have to focus to catch up to the level of sciences that I didn't already know everything about. I also decided at that point that my passion was not necessarily in the discovery of new ideas, but in discussing them.  I realized that I loved sharing science, not really performing scientific work.  My love of journalism was a desire to share, and it could not be ignored.  I realized that my true desire was to teach science.  To share that knowledge and discoveries that I am researching with others, not to perform the algorithms that made them possible.

As I delved into the sciences in this fashion, questions began to arise again that were in conflict with what I had learned in church.  I began to see gaps, holes and outright contradictions in the doctrine to what I was discovering in my studies.  While this was going on in my head, my wife Amber was intensely studying anthropology and archaeology.  She was also starting to get questions that she couldn't answer or justify either.  The main idea that really got to us both was evolution.  The church had no direct stance on the matter, but the scriptures clearly stated that man and woman were created by God roughly 6000 years ago in the garden of Eden.  Our studies of science said something vastly different.  Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years or more and the world is much older than that, stretching back nearly 4 billion years!  4 billion vs. 6000.  The difference is staggering.  Amber was learning about early proto-humans from many thousands of years before the Earth should have existed and I was learning about natural processes that helped form the Earth and even the universe itself nearly 14 billion years ago!

This increased knowledge from multiple sources began to pile up in our minds.  How could we deny the things we were learning when they were coming from completely different sources and were hard, undeniable facts that have been scrutinized and reconfirmed multiple times?  Our beliefs had been with us our whole lives, and we couldn't just deny them.  At first, we made excuses.  The scriptures aren't literal.  They are stories to teach us lessons.  God didn't create the world in seven days, what's a day to God?  Days are just periods of time is all.  Well what about the fossils of early humans?  Well, they seem to be as old as they appear, but maybe God didn't create man instantly, maybe he did it by natural processes and when they had evolved to a state that they could support our spirits he took two of them, put them in the garden and gave them their spirits.
We started to make more and more excuses for the contradictions until we realized that we didn't really even have a proper explanation for our own beliefs.  Science had cold hard facts as answers to almost any question.  We began to see these questions and look for answers in a different way. Those answers began to require more than just blind faith.  We needed facts to truly understand.  How do we know the earth is that old?  Well, here are 75 independent studies and their results that were retested and confirmed multiple times by different people of different backgrounds, races and beliefs over many different time periods and they all say the same thing.  But, this one scripture says otherwise and it is apparently what God himself has to say. And I have to believe God, right? 

Well, no.  I don't.  But what about those feelings I had.  I have prayed!  I have listened to talks, given lessons, born my testimony and even sworn to devote my life, time and energy to God and his cause.  How can I turn my back on those things?  Well, what did I feel when I prayed?  I felt comforted.  Ok, what comforted me?  The spirit, right?  What was I doing that made me feel good?  I was talking about my problem, going over it in my head, begging for help and dealing with it in my mind. Could I have achieved the same result by just focusing on the issue in the first place and instead of praying to God for help, simply deciding I had the strength and ability to deal with this on my own? Well, yes. I think I could.  So, what did I actually feel?  I felt reassured that I would be okay, and I came to that conclusion not from outside blessings or knowledge, but by confronting the problem and being strong enough to take the time to acknowledge the problem and be active in overcoming it.

Well, what about when I feel the spirit in hymns?!  Surely that is a gift from God to feel that power in music.  Well, do I ever get that feeling with other songs?  Well, yes.  Is that music also from God? Maybe.  Do I ever get those feelings from music that is completely unrelated to religion or even music that is in direct conflict with religious teachings?  Well...yes!  So, is God in charge of all music, or is this just a physical reaction to the power of the human voice and how I react to hearing it in positive, stimulating tones?

By applying my scientific reasoning to religion in this manner I began to pick apart the beliefs that I had grown up with.  I began to see the contradictions and instead of brushing them off or looking to my religious institution for an answer, I began to look to science and its repeated testing and results.  I began to see that religion offered answers, but required you to blindly believe them.  Science offered answers, but those answers were subject to the scrutiny of everyone and would only become facts once there was enough evidence and enough tests that were conclusively pointing to the proper solution.  And more, once that solution was discovered it could be completely disproved by future evidence and discoveries.  Religion offered answers from one source that was incontrovertible.  God says it is this way and so you need to believe it.  Don't question God.

But wait, who says that God truly said this?  Well, the Bible is the word of God.  The Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith and is the word of God. The prophet has also confirmed this.  Okay, so we have three sources here.  The Bible, which was written by men, none of whom are proven to be the men they say they are or known to have truly done the things written.  It was also put together by many groups of religious men debating which things were truly from God and which were not.  The Book of Mormon, which is a translations from a form of Egyptian by a man from New York who let very few people see the plates and even if he did truly find them has no idea if the people who wrote in them even had a clue what they were talking about. The prophet, who is a man who was raised to believe these things and then being so good at repeating them beautifully that we cannot deny that God himself is inspiring him to say them so we will make him the prophet. Because a person would never lie about talking to God after being raised up to the highest power in a group of religious zealots and being the literal mouthpiece to a giant megachurch that brings in billions of dollars in revenue each year from its members.

This brings me back to Occam's Razor.  Which is more likely?  Everything said in the scriptures and said by prophets is true. The claims made by these sources are completely inspired by an all-knowing, all-powerful being who has the power to create worlds, life and punish you eternally for sins. All evidence that is in conflict with these limited and obscure teachings are there to test our faith and prove to God that we will believe in him no matter what so that he can reward that blind faith. Or, these physical, tangible, testable discoveries of science are real and describe a world that has no divine creator, no exact purpose and is completely at the mercy of the physical nature of the universe. Physics, chemistry, geology and many other properties of the natural universe, unguided, frightening and wonderful.

Once I asked the questions and began to look for answers beyond the approved sources the whole charade ended.  I had seen behind the curtain and realized that there was no great and powerful wizard, just a man terrified of being exposed.

Well, that's my story. I will be focusing my next post on a similar line as this, discussing faith and how faith is the keystone to religion.

I'll end again with a quote and a comic:

"It's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong." - Richard Feynman