Atheist – A Naughty Word

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My original post about leaving Mormonism was already too long, so I didn’t talk about how I came to identify as an Agnostic Atheist.  I’ll try to explain it here.  I am Atheist because I don’t believe God exists.  I hope there is an afterlife, where I can spend the rest of eternity with my wife and kids but hope is a far cry from faith.  I’m Agnostic because while I don’t believe in God, I can’t prove that such a deity isn’t out there.  I really like the “I don’t know” creed of Agnosticism.  I would say I’m more Agnostic than Atheist but both are accurate.

Atheists have such a stigma in our American culture.  It’s almost a bad word.  I was watching Fox News last week and they were discussing how Atheists and secularism are destroying our moral system.  I was highly offended, as I felt they were speaking from a place of ignorance.  While every segment of society has its share of assholes, virtually all the Atheists I personally know are very moral people.  Their morals are rooted in equality, fair treatment of others, ending suffering throughout the world and tolerance.  We respect the right to believe and worship a God and simply ask the same respect in return.  When you believe this is the only life you have, you want to make the most of it and treat people well.  I stand corrected by Fox News, if these are the morals they are so afraid of and would even say, “They should be.  We’re coming.”

When I was religious I attributed all my good behavior to my belief and the organization that gave me those rules and principles to live by.  I thought that if I didn’t have those religious guidelines then I would have no reason to be a good person.  I feel like this is the trap that many religious people fall victim too.  They give their particular institution too much credit for their decisions.

When I left my religion behind, I had to assess what I believed and how I wanted to act.  I realized I was a good person because I made that choice.  It had always been that way.  I had a choice my whole life and I chose to act with human decency.  Did my religion shape my morals?  Yes.  However, not always in good ways.  I was prejudice against homosexuality, women’s role in society and family and I judged those who didn’t share the same “morals” as I did, seeing them as lesser.  It hurts to admit this but it’s true.  I thought I was better because of my belief and certain actions like not drinking alcohol or abstaining from premarital sex.  I wasn’t.  Religion often defines morals and actions as black and white, “good” or “bad.”  While certain deeds can be defined that way (lying, cheating, stealing, abuse and etc.), it can also be taken to the extreme, as you add to the list of “Sins.”  Then there is a natural tendency to judge those who don’t have the same list as you.

Obviously not all religious people fall victim to this mentality.  I personally know many who were/are a better example of love and tolerance than I ever was.  My wife being one of them.  I previously quoted Rob Bell from his book “Love Wins.”  He’s a Christian pastor and his book was one of the few that left me with the desire to be a better person after reading it.  If I could believe in Christianity, I’d follow his version of it.  I will say, I attend a nondenominational church in my area with my wife and kids, from time to time, called Community of Faith.  I really enjoy it and haven’t disagreed with much said… other than the whole, “You are saved through Jesus” thing.  It’s usually a good experience for me, when I go.

A friend of mine, Lindsay, did a blog post about how agnostic/atheist people form their morals and I thought it was wonderful.  I’ll share it here, as it goes with this conversation, plus she gives me a shout out, which always helps:

Formerly Sanctioned – Beautiful Agnostic/Atheist Viewpoints: Morality & Faith.

Ok, enough about the ideals of atheism.  I’m far from a scholar anyways, so I don’t want to go beyond my depth and fear I may have already done so.  Onto the story of how I came to this belief.

I discussed in my faith crisis post about how one of the keys to unraveling my Mormon faith was seeing the logical fallacies with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.  I simply can’t believe in the stories of Adam & Eve, Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark and etc. Science unequivocally disproves those stories as being literal; therefore I took a metaphorical outlook.  This worked for a time.

When I left Mormonism, it took a tremendous amount of critical thinking and research into the truth claims.  I felt deceived and tricked when I discovered the true history of the LDS church, as opposed to how it was presented to me my whole life.  I refused to fall into that deception again, so I took the same approach to Christianity, since that would be my natural fallback religious belief, Post-Mormon.  The information is intriguing.  I have and continue to read everything surrounding the historicity of the Bible and Jesus.  I must admit, I find the critics arguments much more credible.  I could get into details and discuss people like Bart Ehrman, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Elaine Pagels, Richard Carrier and so forth.  One of the only Christian viewpoints that resonated with me was the person I mentioned above, Rob Bell, and that’s not for lack of trying.  Even Rob Bell receives a good amount of protest and hate from his Christian counterparts.  I find the discussion of whether Jesus even existed as a historical figure particularly fascinating.  (see this debate between Ehrman and Carrier).  Then you add the fact that the gospels of the New Testament (NT) were written decades after Christ’s death and even the authors themselves come into question for not just the gospels but the entire NT.  Then also the contradictory nature of the Bible itself and so forth.  My mind isn’t fully made up, as I have quite a bit more reading to do and I’m open to being wrong but this is where I stand now.

The idea that there is ONE way to “salvation” bothers me a great deal.  The world is extremely diverse and when I look at the evolution of religions, I can’t see just one way.  I see beliefs created by man, in an effort to understand the ancient world around them.  Through the centuries smart, gifted, convincing and sometimes powerful men used that religious belief to win the hearts and minds of those around them.  Giving them more control, power and wealth.  I see this trend even today.  Humans want to believe in something.  Is that because it’s just how our brain works or because God put it there?  I don’t know but I think it’s the former.

This is extremely cynical, I admit.  I was part of a religion that teaches you from the time you are 3 years old, that it is “The Only True Church On The Face Of The Earth.”  Attend a testimony meeting which is held each first Sunday at every LDS Church and you’ll hear that phrase and others like it in virtually every testimony shared by its members.  Mormons don’t think they are arrogant and many actually aren’t.  However, it’s tough to not be when you are part of an organization that professes to be The One and Only.  One has to make a concerted effort to be humble, which is very tough.

I fell victim to that pride and once I looked at everything, I gravitated to Agnosticism because of the lack of arrogance.  I don’t know how one can be more humble than to say, “I Don’t Know.”  I like that quite a bit.  I do think much of it is unknowable, as the prominent way of gaining a “testimony” of any religion is through subjective feelings.   The problems arise when you look at other people’s experiences.  Why is a Christian’s emotional testimony more valid than a Jewish or Muslim person’s?  The world is littered with people with religious conviction and it’s not always put to good use, as we all know.  I simply couldn’t validate my experience because it caused me to invalidate someone else’s.  I did that for 34 years.  I’m over it.

That includes validating religious people’s experiences.  Members of my family have had some incredible spiritual experiences and I can’t deny them.  They are real to them and I get that.  Sure, I can look at psychology and the brain, take into account the stress they had in their life, at that time, and reasonably determine their mind gave them that experience to help them cope with a given situation or attain a belief they badly wanted to believe.  However, I really have no idea.  I wasn’t there.  They say it’s real.  That’s not for me to take away from them.  Faith is personal and should be cherish, so long as it brings happiness and doesn’t hurt others.

Which brings me to another reason I chose to live this way.  I have become an advocate for equality in our society/world.  I am very much for gay marriage and equal rights for women and everyone.  I struggle to find a religion that promotes my values.  You see, those are my morals and values, which goes back to the earlier discussion of atheistic morals.  I see many religions as causing unneeded harm to people in our society.  Look no further than gay marriage and even the Boy Scouts of America.  The only reason LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to marry that can’t be refuted though logic and proof is because someone’s particular religion or book says so.  Literally, that’s it.  Actually, even that is a current debate, as some biblical scholars think those few specific verses in the Bible are being misused and misunderstood.  I can’t stand by and allow discrimination to take place, even when it’s disguised as “God’s Will.”  I will admit that many forms of Christianity are starting to be more tolerant and I believe it’s happening because the people participating in those churches are forcing them to evolve.  I love watching the trend!  Kudos to those who are fighting for change within their religious organizations!

OK, this is getting long.  Now you see why I needed to start a blog.  I can write forever.  Too much going on in my head.

Lastly, one of the motivating factors for my decision was my kids.  Bonnie and I searched and are searching for the best and most effective way to raise and teach them morals.  Through some incredible books like Raising Freethinkers and Parenting Beyond Belief, we feel like we have a good guideline.  We are focused on teaching our kids how to be independent critical thinkers, which is great for our mixed faith family, as Bonnie is Christian.  We don’t care what they decide to believe in when they are older, so long as they come to that conclusion through plenty of research, critical thinking and it espouses their values.  I would be equally proud to have raised Atheist, Christian, Humanist or Buddhist children.   Oddly, there was something that Joseph Smith taught which I wholeheartedly agree with and still believe today (at least he’s credited with saying it):

“Teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”  

That’s what we are doing with our kids.  Teaching them our principles, how we formed them and allowing them to choose for themselves.

I hope this explains thoroughly enough why I am an agnostic atheist and I’ll pretend for a minute that y’all actually cared.  Thank you for reading.  I’ll leave you with something I wrote on Facebook, explaining what I have Faith in:

People ask me “What do I have faith in?” The answer is simple. I have faith in science, humanity, my friends, family, wife, children and that my moral concepts of equality and acceptance will find a way into everyone’s heart through time and passing generations, thus I even have faith in our society.

My wife and I were discussing my love for her, now that I no longer believe in an eternal commitment or even an afterlife. One of her fears when I left Mormonism is that she was worried that my love for her would also fade, without that “eternal commitment before God.” She feared that if I only believe in this life, that I wouldn’t want to work hard and fight during the hard moments of our marriage…. any marriage. That’s a very natural fear when in our situation. Once again, the answer was easy.

When I lost my faith in religion and God, the love for my wife immediately rose to the top. An emotional realization hit me that she is my world, life and purpose. Those aren’t just words or platitudes but my literal reality. I want to spend the rest of my existence celebrating, cherishing, fighting, working, lusting, loving and seeking after her, our happiness and our children’s happiness. Nothing else could or would surpass that. I was fully and completely committed to HER. Not because of a covenant I made in a temple, church or courthouse but because I chose to be with her and with each new day, I choose again and again and again until my last breath escapes me. This is what my faith is in. It is in the love I possess and nurture every time we talk, fight or make love. This is who I am.