A Mormon missionary who loses his faith while he’s out in the field has picked a strange time to abandon his beliefs. Yet, for Andrew Johnson, this is precisely what happened.
Johnson says he started doubting Mormonism when he was 18, but out of a desire to please his family, and still not knowing who he was, he turned in his mission papers and set out to serve a mission. After 18 months, however, he was exposed to contraband by a secular humanist, stuff like the movie Religulous and Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.
“I remember having a distinct moment where I was like, ‘There is no God,’ and that was a liberating moment,” Johnson says. “I tried to do the rest of my mission without being too much of a hypocrite.”
Johnson felt like he couldn’t keep pretending he was a believer. He resolved to share his disbelief with his family even though he knew it wouldn’t be easy.
When Johnson mustered the courage to divulge his revelation, it wasn’t well received at first, especially by Johnson’s disappointed mother. But after a while, he says, things calmed down. That’s when he discovered a support group for ex-Mormons-turned-atheists in Salt Lake City.
After attending a few meetings, Johnson realized he couldn’t be alone in his religious skepticism, even in the heart of Mormon country. With help from others, Johnson formed the Atheists of Utah Valley, where like-minded individuals convene to support each other. Meeting over coffee in Provo, they plan group discussions, occasionally with guest speakers, and they plot group activities like hiking trips and sky-diving jaunts. They’ve talked about joining the Adopt A Highway program and lobbying the Utah Valley University library to stay open on Sundays.
According to Johnson, such a group is vitally important in a religiously charged environment. Those who leave the Mormon religion often don’t know where to turn, and they can quickly be overcome with feelings of desperation.
“When I [became] an atheist, I thought I was the only one,” Johnson says.
He’s not. It’s common for young adults to become uninterested in religion and to pursue their own goals and interests, and this increasing “spiritual disengagement” is drawing the attention of researchers. The percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” doubled in about two decades, up from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, according to a 2010 article in Christianity Today that cites various studies. A substantial 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. Also, 73 percent of these younger people came from religious homes.
The same article cites the research of Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, authors of a 2010 study that shows the younger generation is dropping out of religion at five to six times the historic rate.
For ex-Mormon missionary and Brigham Young University graduate Chris Merris, the idea of forging a new relationship with a church he no longer believes in isn’t plausible. In fact, he says he resents those who try to instigate reconciliation and those who try to change the church while remaining members.
“I think I have more problems with those who stick around in it and want to reform it, as if it’s some sort of democratic thing,” Merris says. “There’s this whole movement, like ‘New Order Mormons,’ for people who have become intellectually disenchanted with the church, but they still want to be a part of it. But it’s an invalid organization from the foundations up. Why reform that? Just leave it.”
Merris’ own falling away, like Johnson’s, began on his mission. He began getting into books of deep doctrine, exploring controversial issues about the Mormon faith that weren’t necessarily church-approved. This eventually led him to anti-Mormon literature.
Certain heavy-handed practices required by his mission also made Merris feel uneasy about his religion. He says that he and other missionaries were encouraged to go beyond the normal missionary discussions with prospective new members, including, for instance, a practice they called the “Joseph Smith pray now.” This involved getting missionaries and prospective new members to pray in a circle about the reality of Joseph Smith’s status as a seer, and then, after the missionaries testified about feeling the spirit, asking the prospects to share their feelings. “We psychologically manipulated people—it was very clear,” Merris says.
It wasn’t too long before Merris’ mind, which still couldn’t make sense out of much of the church’s doctrine and history, gave up trying to justify and rationalize his faith.
“I think I’ve known logically it’s not true for a long time,” Merris says. “But it’s still the emotional attachment that’s there.”
Merris believes this realization can only come after one leaves his or her faith behind. Even as Merris believes he manipulated people, he believes he was manipulated, leaving him without the necessary skills, at the time, to leave the church.
“I think I couldn’t see problems before because I didn’t have the right critical-thinking tools,” Merris says.
For ex-Mormon missionary and Atheists of Utah Valley group member Nick Godfrey, similar problems were fundamental to his loss of faith.
Doubts began to circle in Godfrey’s mind about one year after he returned home from his mission. Frustrations with the church culture and its rules regarding morality, which he found confusing, led to disillusionment. One day, in a moment of introspection, Godfrey considered the possibility that the Mormon Church wasn’t true. “In that moment, my entire worldview shifted,” Godfrey says. “Everything that had ever troubled me about the church suddenly made sense. I no longer had to square evolution with the story of Adam and Eve that I had to take literally as a Mormon. I no longer had to play mental gymnastics trying to justify the belief that God made the priesthood conditional on race [a policy the church ended in 1978], or that the story in the Book of Mormon is contradicted by archaeology, linguistics, genetics, and pretty much every other scientific field.”
After six weeks, Godfrey talked with his parents and explained to them his issues. Even though his mother and father are devout Mormons, Godfrey says, they have accepted his departure from the church.
Godfrey is lucky in this regard. For most people, talking to their family members about their lack of belief is too intense or painful. And for Atheists of Utah Valley group members who attend the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, being open with their families is usually not a viable option, as they could either lose their ecclesiastical endorsement or lose money from their parents.
This illustrates a problematic, conditional acceptance within families, says Johnson.
“I think it’s a little indicative of our relationship to our parents that the church puts more importance on being a member and believing in God than the actual family itself,” Johnson says. “That’s what scared me, thinking that my parents would think of me second to their religion. I think that’s what scares a lot of members. They’re scared of losing their family.”
Nascent groups like the Atheists of Utah Valley can use as much support as they can get, according to Johnson. It can be very difficult for individuals to make a leap away from their churches, families, and lifelong support systems, and they need to connect and engage in meaningful activities with other people who have left religion behind.
“A lot of people have come and actually told me that they’ve felt some kind of desperation or dismalness. And once the group had been started and they could come to meetings and express their feelings and have a better experience socially, their life has improved,” Johnson says.
Diego Ibanez, an organizer of the group, says people realize after attending a post-Mormon group that “it’s OK to be happy as an atheist,” and that they “can be comfortable being atheist in a society that doesn’t tolerate that or doesn’t like having us here.”
Leaving the Mormon Church, especially for returned missionaries, doesn’t always make sense to their families and others, and as Ibanez points out, many still don’t take the decision very seriously.
“One of the things we face is that if you don’t go to church, you must be dumb, you must not understand life, you don’t know what you’re doing,” Ibanez says. “That’s something that pushes a lot of us to further understand what it means to be atheist and try to imagine what a secular society looks like.”
Greg Wilcox is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City. Excerpted from Salt Lake City Weekly (January 12, 2012), an alternative weekly with a watchful eye trained on politics, religion, and urban life in Utah.