Former Mormons Find a Godless Path

Greg Wilcox has a terrific cover story about ex-Mormons who become atheists at City Weekly:

Certain heavy-handed practices required by his mission also made [former LDS missionary Chris] 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, implementing such things as what 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 prospective new members to share their feelings. He says that such methods amounted to manipulation and put pressure on both the missionaries and non-members involved.

“We psychologically manipulated people — it was very clear,” Merris says. “Now that I’ve read about psychological experiments and look at them in that context, I’m like, ‘Yeah, we were clearly manipulating those people.’”

for Atheists of Utah Valley group members who attend BYU, 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. “While attending BYU, it’s better to kind of keep them in the dark,” says one student who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of how her family would react. “I’m not afraid of what they’ll think, it’s purely for money reasons — just scared of the money going away.”

[Former missionary Nick] Godfrey quickly learned that simply displaying one’s status as an atheist can lead to hostile reactions in Utah.

“This summer, I put a bumper sticker on my car which simply read ‘Atheist,’” he says. “It was torn off in less than a week. A couple weeks later, I bought a similar sticker, which I put on my car along with a Human Rights Campaign sticker. They were also torn off in less than a week.”

Unlike a lot of articles, this one actually has a supportive comment thread.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anonymous

    Good for these kids. Being honest with oneself and choosing rationality after an entire childhood of religious brainwashing can’t be an easy task. That they also have to worry about being shunned by their families adds to just how heartbreaking the whole situation is.

  • Amanda

    I’m not surprised all the comments are supportive.  When I was a practicing Mormon, I would have felt a very strong aversion to even reading an article like that.  It’s definitely a conditioned response, to actively shy away from anything that might dare suggest that Joseph Smith wasn’t the prophet he claimed to be.  In fact, a Mormon can be denied a temple recommend (a special little ticket that claims they are worthy to enter the temple) simply for… “support[ing], affiliat[ing] with, or agree[ing] with any group or individual

    whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by

    the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” 

    I remember coming across something an ex-member had written once, while I was still in my questioning and figuring things out stage, and I felt physically ill even trying to read it; that’s how ingrained the idea was that you simply didn’t question the teachings of “the church.”  Even now, fully knowing that the LDS church is based on a stack of lies built on a pile of deceit, I still feel a tiny bit of that conditioned guilt at disparaging it aloud.  But then I’ve also been told that’s a fairly common symptom in a person who has escaped a cult-like situation.

    • Anonymous

      Congratulations for thinking and reasoning your way out. I don’t know you but feel proud of you nonetheless. (And for all of us who think our way out of religious delusions.)
      I hope that losing your religion wasn’t too painful for you and that the “tiny bit of that conditioned guilt” you feel continues to lessen until it disappears all together.

    • Anonymous

      As an outsider what is most revolting to me is the extreme amount of social control and cliquishness. It’s why it can only be described as a cult. As someone said in the comments there, it’s 19th century Scientology.

      Mormon theological teachings are absolute nonsense. But if people only believed nonsense that may be fine. But it seems like Mormons – at least in places where they have an overwhelming majority – actively shun anyone who isn’t in line. People aren’t just kicked out of their families, but entire families in turn can be shunned for not participating in the right activities and clubs. And of course for social activities there is really no alternative but the church. Then you have what are in effect Mormon companies, where non-Mormons, or Mormons who aren’t active enough, are also ostracized and denied opportunities or advancement. It’s like the do their utmost to control every tiny aspect of everyone’s life

  • ff42

    It took me too damn long but I finally (3 years ago) became a rationalist/humanist/atheist after being a Mormon for 47 years.  What triggered it for me (I understand others have different trigger points) was trying to figure out why the LDS church of 1890 wanted government out of marriage and the LDS church of 2007 wanted government in marriage.   Perhaps I was wrong about the 1890 church, I should read the history and find out what really happened.  OH MY! 

    Maybe it is just confirmation bias,  but it does appear to me that more and more Mormons are  setting themselves free.

    • Fitz

      That’s awesome. I’m always amazed when people can reason their way out of the church after so long. I left in my early 20s, so I think I had it much easier. This gives me hope for my parents.

  • http://twitter.com/ErnestValdemar Ernest Valdemar

    I have an ex-Mormon friend who left the church a few months before his mandated mission. As annoying as Mormon missionaries are to those of us who’ve had to endure them, I always think of the incalculable damage mission work does to the Mormons who participate.

  • Secular Planet

    I didn’t “lose” my faith. I forcefully threw into the garbage when I realized how worthless and harmful it was.

    • Randyman72

      What a great statement! I am stealing this!

    • Tim

      That is exactly what I told a life-long friend just last week. He was proselytizing through private  messages on Facebook, sending links to “very logically presented” diatribes on the Christian god’s existence. I replied, “Of all people, you are aware that I received a lifetime of teachings on the Christian religion and my blog post was not a cry for help; it was a statement to the Christians I grew up with who knew of my philosophical change and “don’t get it” (their words, not mine). The fact is that there is no logical way to explain the existence of a god or gods. Your god demands faith and you can’t use logic to explain faith. That defies the definition of ‘faith’. I understand the sentiment of your message but this isn’t a matter of requiring further information or even of me losing my faith…I outright rejected it. I still do, couldn’t be happier with the decision, and never had been prior to the decision. “

  • M G

    “While attending BYU, it’s better to kind of keep them in the dark,” says one student who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of how her family would react. “I’m not afraid of what they’ll think, it’s purely for money reasons — just scared of the money going away.”

    Okay, that bothers me. Being deceitful for money is never going to fly with me, no matter who does it.  But I know these people are quite young and maybe aren’t sure of their ethical path yet. Here’s hoping they find one.

    • Anonymous

      I think in the case of obtaining an education it’s justified. She isn’t a late 20s women scamming her parents out of money she doesn’t really need. She wants a proper education and that costs money she otherwise wouldn’t have. Without a college degree she would be seriously hampered for the rest of her life

    • jose

      You can pay for her food, shelter and education the way their parents would until she’s economically independent.

      • Annie

        Or the young woman could pay for her food, shelter and education… the way many, many people do in this country for various reasons.  It is quite possible to live simply, hold down a job and attend school at the same time.  She is not a middle school minor, she is a legal adult.  To imply that she would end up uneducated unless she deceive her parents to get their money is a bit offensive. 

        I agree with MG on this.  Where do we draw the line of when it is OK to deceive others for financial gain?  I also think breaking away from parents who would disown you for coming to your own conclusions on religion could be nothing but a good thing.

        • an infidel

          So its ok to discriminate against others, even your own children because of their faith?  Would you add this question to  loan applications?
          Doesn’t sound like she lied to them, did they ever ask her? 
          Why is it deceitful to not give non-relevant information, not asked for?
          Besides the good BYU religious education might just convert her, which would then make her parents very happy.

          • Annie

            I’m unsure how you reached those conclusions from my comment.

            1) Well, of course I would never discriminate against my own child because of this (but my child is a more vocal atheist than I am, so I can’t speak through experience.)
            2) I never said she was lying.  I used the word deceitful, which is misleading others.  A bit different.
            3) I agree.  A BYU education may very well deconvert her (though it sounds like she already deconverted).

            My point was that I don’t think it is right for anyone to deceive or stay in unhealthy relationships for the sole purpose of monetary gain.  I also think that young adults (and perhaps particularly young women) today are led to believe that they must suck it up in order to just get through school, even if that means dealing with unrealistic parents or unhealthy relationships.  I give this young woman more credit than that.  I think, if she needed to, she could find a way to get through school on her own.  Perhaps no one has ever helped her see that.  If she knew she could do it on her own, just think how empowering that would be? We can not always change those around us, be we do have the ability to move forward in our lives and find a plan B when necessary.  Sure, it’s much easier if mom and dad pick up the bill, but paying your own way through college allows one the freedom to choose where to go and also gives a sense of satisfaction of paying your own way.  Now, in some religions, outing yourself as an atheist becomes more than just an inconvenience or a financial strain… it could threaten a person’s safety.  My position would be much different if this were the case.  Perhaps it is with this woman?

            • Virgin Rose

              This is a subject that hits close to home for me. I also grew up Mormon, and thankfully never attended BYU, but I saw considerable fallout for those who went there and decided that the religion wasn’t for them.

              The first thing to realize about BYU is that the vast majority of students there are Mormon. The main reason for this is that A) the tuition is MUCH cheaper for Mormons vs other religious people, and B) the school is not taken seriously by most institutions, even within Utah. That isn’t to say that you can’t get a quality education there, you just have to complete your degree to leave with anything worthwhile. Most of the courses taught there don’t transfer to other colleges, so if you decide to leave it means starting over for many people. And while I agree that paying for my own education was ultimately a good experience, it would have been much less emotionally scarring if my parents had helped me out a little. Even attending a public university in Utah where the cost of living is reasonable, it took considerable luck, a little anorexia, and a very marketable major for me to get through without taking on a crushing debt load. 

              The other thing to recognize is that while you may not be in physical danger from your family for leaving Mormonism, there is a real danger of being disowned. Coming out as an atheist means leaving the only social system you may have ever known, being ostracized by your friends and family, having your reputation dragged through the mud regardless of what you have ever said or done, and being the target of relentless pressure to become destitute and miserable so that your former friends can tell themselves ‘gee, The Church was right, you can only be miserable if you leave’.

              Annie, I definitely agree with you that taking charge of your own life is incredibly rewarding, and having sacrificed to reject my childhood religion and pursue a career independent of my parents wishes I would definitely encourage others to do the same. But I would be lying if I said that it came without costs to my physical and emotional health, and I had a much easier time of it than many.

            • Virgin Rose

              This is a subject that hits close to home for me. I also grew up Mormon, and thankfully never attended BYU, but I saw considerable fallout for those who went there and decided that the religion wasn’t for them.

              The first thing to realize about BYU is that the vast majority of students there are Mormon. The main reason for this is that A) the tuition is MUCH cheaper for Mormons vs other religious people, and B) the school is not taken seriously by most institutions, even within Utah. That isn’t to say that you can’t get a quality education there, you just have to complete your degree to leave with anything worthwhile. Most of the courses taught there don’t transfer to other colleges, so if you decide to leave it means starting over for many people. And while I agree that paying for my own education was ultimately a good experience, it would have been much less emotionally scarring if my parents had helped me out a little. Even attending a public university in Utah where the cost of living is reasonable, it took considerable luck, a little anorexia, and a very marketable major for me to get through without taking on a crushing debt load. 

              The other thing to recognize is that while you may not be in physical danger from your family for leaving Mormonism, there is a real danger of being disowned. Coming out as an atheist means leaving the only social system you may have ever known, being ostracized by your friends and family, having your reputation dragged through the mud regardless of what you have ever said or done, and being the target of relentless pressure to become destitute and miserable so that your former friends can tell themselves ‘gee, The Church was right, you can only be miserable if you leave’.

              Annie, I definitely agree with you that taking charge of your own life is incredibly rewarding, and having sacrificed to reject my childhood religion and pursue a career independent of my parents wishes I would definitely encourage others to do the same. But I would be lying if I said that it came without costs to my physical and emotional health, and I had a much easier time of it than many.

    • SeniorSkeptik

      I’d consider 4 years of room, board, tuition, books, etc. as minimal payment for 18 years of indoctrination and brainwashing an innocent child.

  • AmberR

    Getting away from that type of environment was one of the reasons I moved across the country for college.

    I stopped believing in the Mormon church when I was 14, but it took me a couple of more years to get the guts to admit it to everyone and stop going to Sacrament Meeting, Young Women’s during the week, Seminary class M-F, and all of the other things they throw at you to eat up all of your time and make sure that you are associating with “good, church approved” people.

    The church in the town I am now got my phone number from a true believing relative, and would call me and try to  get me to come to meetings or other church events. They even tracked down my profile on Facebook and invited me to a youth meeting (which must have taken some doing since I have a very common name). They didn’t stop until I threatened legal action.

    I’m so glad I got out of the church and out of that area.

    • Amanda

      Their abilities to track “inactive” members down is a little scary.  I’ve moved 5 times since I last attended a church, live in a different state, and am remarried so I don’t even have the same name as I used to have, and they still manage to find me.  And I also have a very common first and last name.

      • Anonymous

        These stories of being tracked down to the point of having to threaten legal action even, are quite unnerving. How sad for those being tracked and how rude of those doing the tracking.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    Would one of you discuss the Eliz. Smart phenomenon?
    She’s put through hell by a man her religious mother charitably 
    brings to her home to do odd jobs.
    After all this, and therapy, she goes to a distant country to 
    win Mormon converts. Yikes!

    • Fitzy

      Have you read “Under the Banner of Heaven?” It discusses her situation and how it deals with Mormon mentality. You’d probably find it interesting.

      • Anonymous

        It’s a great book and does describe in intense detail with the whole situation and mentality.

  • Anonymous

    Love that this is in a Utah newspaper.

    I don’t like the phrases that get tossed around:

    “Losing Faith”: I always feel like the implication that this should be sad, like losing a loved one, or losing your mind or losing your keys. Why can’t I have it back?

    “Something – something without God”: The implication is that God is real, and you’ve turned your back on him, or he’s faded away.

    I know that I could reading more into this than is there, but still I feel like there are some bad presuppositions at work. I need to look up how the talk about recovering alcoholics, to see how they phrase things.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      You dump your faith, and regain your freedom.

  • Anonymous

    As a former Mormon (temple married and served a 2 year mission) who is now a non-believer (over 16 years now), this was a great article. Well written and very factual in so many ways.

  • Lover of God

    Very sad about many comments on this site. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does a lot of good in the communities local and world wide, see:http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700124060/2010-Mormon-church-welfare-statistics.html?pg=all and/or http://www.lds.org/service/welfare-75th-anniversary/the-church-welfare-plan/providing-in-the-lords-way?lang=eng. The members of this church are not perfect, but trying their best. They care as Jesus did and strive to follow his example. Faith is beautiful and wonderful and brings about much good in the world. I ask what have you done to help your fellowman today? For those trying to fill the hole that is left in your soul (after leaving God) with hate and darkness….try filling it with service and kindness to your neighbor and quit thinking only about yourself!

    • Kelly

      Amen! The people who leave the church and speak out against it never seem “happier” to me….

      • Kelly

        Everyone sounds so self absorbed…always playing the victim, whining about what someone did to you and how you were wronged! Regardless of your religion just forget yourselves and go out in the world and go do good!! Stop tearing people and their beliefs down. Deceiving people to have your college paid for is despicable. She should give up her spot for someone who deserves to be there. Very sad.

  • perti

    so sad for you all atheists.. someone say that there is no GOD is a very foolish person.. you cannot even explain where you are here.. I hope the love of GOD be with you all…

  • raku

    mormons adopted wrong beliefs… read the history of mormons.. they have been fooled by the enemy.. their founder and also other false religious founders are former mason… Hope they will find the true faith with God..

  • mengapakayli

    atheist how pitiful they are… There are no man itself can explain the existence of the world and life… over knowledge of man in the world can be the worst moment in his life as like as you the atheist!!


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