Why I Chucked My Mormon Faith and Became an Atheist
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My faith died in a public library.
It was a sunny day -- Perfect weather to have your faith crushed. I had biked the short ride from my house to the San Clemente Library, a small building in one of Southern California's last small towns. With a hand-scribbled slip of paper in one hand, I walked the stacks looking for a book I had read about on the Internet: Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith.
I sought the book to find confirmation of something that had troubled me for nearly two years. See, as a lifelong Mormon, I understood that the church's founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., was martyred by an armed mob in a jail cell in Carthage, Ill. But something I read in a magazine article and later researched online told me I didn't have the whole story. Brodie's book held the answer I desperately needed.
I was about to join the record numbers of young Americans who are lose their faith each year. Preachers and pastors lament the loss of faith of 30-something and younger Americans. They debate how to best reach out to an entire generation that, for the first time in our country's history, is becoming nonreligious.
What they don't understand is that we're not just leaving because church services aren't hip enough or because their sermons against homosexuality are just a little too harsh; we're leaving because we've discovered that when it comes to biology, geography and history, our conservative pastors and holy texts are dead wrong. It's important to recognize the role that the Internet plays in our abandoning doctrine for disbelief.
My own story highlights the role that technology and information play in my transition from faith to atheism. To illustrate that, let me back up a couple of decades.
I was the first of seven children to two Brigham Young University students. The day I was born, my mother opened up a copy of the Book of Mormon, the most important book of scripture in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and began reading to me. Mom and Dad named me after a prominent local church elder.
Childhood memories include lessons on Noah and the ark and Wednesday night youth group activities. My family followed church mandates as though they came straight from God himself: my first date wasn't until I turned 16; R-rated movies were banned from the house.
Okay, well, most edicts were followed -- A dirty VHS tape I found in a street gutter introduced me to pornography and gave my left hand something to do besides flipping scripture pages. (By the way, you kids these days don't know how good you have it with Internet porn.)
When I left the U.S. in 1996 for a 2-year mission in the Republic of Peru, the Internet was little more than a frivolous novelty. Only once had I gone online, and that was with two high school friends to harass people in a dating chat room.
In Peru, mission rules forbade us from watching TV or reading newspapers. Official church materials and letters from home were the only source of news. I just happened to be in a barber shop with a blaring television the day Princess Diana was killed in a traffic accident; Otherwise I probably wouldn't have heard the news until I returned home.
One day, though, Mom sent me a Time magazine article profiling the church's vast media and agribusiness empire. Living in a poverty-stricken country, with children sometimes playing barfeoot or naked in the filthy dirt roads, learning about the church's wealth bothered me.
But a smaller piece of information in a sidebar grabbed me by the necktie and wouldn't let go: According to the sidebar, when that angry mob burst into Smith's jail cell, he raised a gun and fired back.
Wait, a gun? What gun?
Nobody had ever told me about Smith carrying a gun. I had been a faithful church member all my life. I attended Sunday School almost every Sunday for over two decades. Why hadn't I heard about this gun before?
Let me clarify something: It didn't bother me that Smith had a gun or that he fired back. Hell, can you blame the guy? What bothered me was that this significant detail had been omitted in every version of the story I had heard since childhood.
I returned to the U.S. in 1999. My bishop assigned me to be the adult Sunday School teacher in the singles congregation. It was a cool gig, and not just because it got me a few dates.
But the position required plenty of research. And as I spent hours at my school's Internet stations preparing for each lesson, I discovered more bits of information that my church had kept out of the official manuals.
Sure, I knew early Mormon leaders practiced polygamy (I'm directly descended from a Mormon bigamist), but I believed that like the Old Testament prophets, God had kept strict watch over the practice. The Internet, though, showed me that one of Smith's plural wives included 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball; Did that make God a pervert?
The omissions piled up. Little by little, a pattern emerged: church leaders were hiding embarrassing information. Anything that painted Joseph Smith in a bad light -- besides, you knowing, claiming to have seen God and Jesus when he was 14 years old -- got scrubbed from the official, approved history. After just a few months of research, my faith was suddenly in crisis.
But I found more than information online. Quickly I discovered forums where other doubters struggled with the information they found. As I the read the questions had about Mormon history and doctrine, I soon realized I wasn't crazy.
The forum members were supportive. They encouraged me -- Not to ditch the church, but to earnestly seek information.
I sought counsel from my bishop. He discouraged me from seeking unapproved church material. "Ted, don't read that stuff."
But I couldn't stop. I couldn't forget what I was learning. I felt like Dorothy peaking behind the curtain.
So on a sunny afternoon I pedaled down the Pacific Coast Highway towards the library. I knew Fawn Brodie's book was at that branch -- the Internet told me so.
I don't currently own the book. And I'm too lazy right now to look up the exact quote. But I remember the feeling as I read the the eyewitness account of Smith's death. Yes, he had a gun. Yes, he fired back. Yes, my church lied to me.
I checked out the book. I never taught another Sunday School lesson.
Ten years have passed since that afternoon. The number of websites telling a more complete story of Mormonism's early years has exploded. Google "mormon" and exmormon.org shows up in the top results. I sincerely feel bad for today's missionaries preaching the gospel to today's always-connected generation.
In October, when Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer told the semi-annual gathering of the world's Mormons that homosexuality was "unnatural", bulletin boards lit up with links to articles and studies showing that homosexual acts have been documented in more than 1,500 species.
As governments use their influence to block, censor, or defund Wikileaks, I wonder about the future of censorship and net neutrality. What if the Mormon church used its billions to take down sites that criticize it? Where would I be if I couldn't find information backing up that Time magazine article? Married with five kids? Shudder.
(By the way: Thanks, elementary school teachers, for teaching me the Dewey Decimal System.)