My Atheist Conversion, Part 2: Spiritual Experiences

In part one, I talked about coming to the conclusion of deciding to both be an atheist and also remain as bishop a year or so into my time as bishop. Part of the conundrum that I was working through was how I felt about my spiritual experiences. I mentioned in my last post that I was not feeling very content with where those experiences seemed to have led me.

Furthermore, my PhD education had introduced me to some basics of cognitive science as my adviser had shifted her focus to that field. I talked about this in these posts at JI from a few years back, but had felt strongly prompted to work with Ann Taves, whose work had been in religious history, but was then shifting to cognitive science and its uses in studying religion. Again, I’d felt very prompted to work with her but kind of wanted to do more standard religious history and I had no training at all in this brain science stuff.

I also happen to be friends with guys who studied that approach with Ann. One quite close friend liked the approach a lot and was quite an avowed atheist. Conversations were not religious contests, but he enjoyed talking about these things and I picked up some pieces of that he saw as the claims of cognitive scientists: humans have no free will, we are very complicated machines that respond to input the receive from the world based on our DNA and adjustments due to life experiences.

Likewise, the takeaways I got from the claims Ann made in her classes and books were that humans have bodily experiences that they “deem” to be religious ones, or bodily and mental experiences that humans ascribe religious meaning to. These are natural occurrences, but people can choose to interpret such experiences as meaningful if they like. But the underlying assumption is that there is not divinity or spiritual element that humans are in touch with.

Again, I’d felt led and was thus a little uncomfortable in a class or two with Ann as spiritual experiences were something important to me and felt that classes would devolve into ideological clashes.

Likewise, my friend would point out things like drugs that could create major religious experiences (thus not real, just the drug) and there being scales to determine how “susceptible” people might be to such “religious experience” based on things like childhood imagination etc. (Again, these were just conversation of things that interested him and I found interesting to talk about too).

All these gleanings played some role in what I was processing leading up to my atheist conversion. Simply put, I felt like I’d held resolutely to my spiritual experiences during that education, but now was feeling less sure. That was the whole point as I understood it: cognitive scientists acknowledged that religious experiences do feel very real. Now I was feeling less sure about them so that possibility of seeing that atheist point of view started to make more sense.

Apparently I was a person “susceptible” to religious experience (a very imaginative child) and bodily things happened to me that I interpreted in the light of my religious culture: the Holy Ghost etc.

All this caused uncertainty and doubt leading up to the experience, and all this stuff combined to make me feel like atheism was perhaps a better framework. This didn’t feel like a crisis, like I said in the last, post, but more of a choice.

I’d felt frustrated by my experiences leading me to a confusing place, and it felt like dismissing my spiritual experiences could be a relief. There were one of two that I was having a hard time dismissing. Not just because they were strong (again, bodily) but because they did turn out in ways that seemed to have completely transcended my possible human understanding. So in considering atheism, I contemplated placing such experiences “on the shelf,” similar to how doubters were often told to do so with concerns about the church.

So as I chose atheism and church activity (remaining as bishop), my atheism didn’t invoke hostility toward my religion or religion as a whole. If there was no God, that wasn’t something to be mad about. Again, I’d learned about a human propensity towards such belief, and apparently me in particular.

In those hours, I actually felt my atheist choice to have something of a calming effect. Soon I found this thought passing through my mind: “Steve, what will you do now that you don’t believe in a God to blame for your frustrations?” An interesting thought experiment!

Soon I found those frustrations melting away, and even by the end of the day started interpreting such a thought as a message from the Spirit (yeah, a little weird I know). The fact that I’d chosen both to be a Mormon and a bishop also relaxed me: in the short term, not much had changed.

By the end of the day, I started to view the whole process as an enlightening spiritual experience and in so doing confronted my worries about my spiritual experiences not be “real.” “Well, if we really don’t have any free will like the cognitive scientists apparently say, and if humans, especially me, are prone to religious thinking, then why should I worry about believing in religious experience? If the cog sci guys are right (as I understood it) I really have no choice in the matter.” I’m sure there are plenty of cog sci guys who would debate that take away, but that was my conclusion: my DNA seems to point me to a belief in God and spiritual experiences, so why fight it?

By the end of the day, I was a theist again, having gained some interesting experiences as a result of that “atheist conversion.”

Again, I felt like I learned quite a bit from the experience. I don’t “fear” atheism, believing that I’d behave similarly if that adopted that point of view. I’m quite comfortable in thinking in atheist terms and am also quite comfortable “accepting” my theism despite that. I can still have concerns about spiritual experiences and doubt, but in examining my life, I have decided that I just “do better” when I believe and embrace such experiences. Embracing them just seems to be better for my soul, my outlook on life, worldview etc. Interpreting them can be a confusing thing, but I just think I “do better” embracing that worldview.

The experience did cause some other changes as well. Part 3 next.

14 comments for “My Atheist Conversion, Part 2: Spiritual Experiences

  1. A while back I looked at cognitive approaches closer to my own field and I think there’s a lot of potential there. There were also some issues – like mistaking relatively recent historical contingencies for evolutionary optimization, and our still primitive understanding of how the brain actually works – but it seems like it could be very productive.

    But I don’t think the observation of religious experiences in the brain does anything to show that there is no divine or spiritual reality. Every sensory experience involves the brain. We can observe visual stimuli being processed in the brain, create optical illusions, even build whole industries around showing people things that aren’t really there (it’s called TV), but it would be very strange to take that as evidence that everything we see is just a figment of our imaginations. Instead we understand that the sense of sight tells us something about the real world. In the same way, the detection of religious experience in the brain would seem to suggest that spiritual sensations also tell us something about reality.

    Even if we take the view that cognition doesn’t serve the perception of reality, but only increasing evolutionary fitness, we’re left with the conundrum that the capacity for religious awe is so useful that it’s part of the evolutionary heritage of all human beings and apparently as vitally important as other things we’ve evolved cognitive abilities for, like selfless love and mathematics. Math happens in the brain, and our math is often wrong, but it’s also how we understand the cosmos and we would be helplessly lost in many situations without it. So it seems to me that spiritual experience reflects reality more or less like math does.

  2. As a depressed person I sometimes almost wish for a cessation of consciousness at death. Even so, I cannot abide the thought of my loved ones not continuing. That would be too much black humor to endure–even from a cold, purposeless universe.

  3. Jack – take care of yourself. Depression as you describe along with your rather hermitic life you have alluded to in other comments can be dangerous.

    Stephan, I can see deciding to remain a bishop if your period of atheism as you write lasts a day – but five years? Eventually you have to ask yourself why do it? Why pretend to believe – which would be totally required. Can you imagine how quickly the stake president would intervene if the testimony from the bishop was that god did not exist and that the church was not restored but a nice community that we belong to and nothing more?

    I can see how helpful this experience might be as a basis for empathy and understanding as a bishop when people come to you with doubts and challenges to their faith, but it cannot really be the same as fully losing your faith. lds church really doesn’t have a place for people that want to belong but do not believe. Think of all the ways that you are required as a member to declare and commit your belief – temple recommend interviews, sacrament, callings, priesthood interviews, temple, teaching lessons, and so many more ways. If you don’t believe and abstain from those things what do you have left? The chili cook off and sitting in the back of sacrament and in the hall, cleaning the church on Saturday, the rare service project, basketball and choir maybe? You can get those things other places that don’t require or spend so much time talking about worthiness, the covenant path, scriptures an atheist doesn’t believe in or priesthood authority.

    This is what I don’t get about your secular argument for the church. The church demands more than a cultural allegiance and secular association and as a non-believing member you can exist in the church but you don’t really belong. The church teachings don’t really leave this path as a viable one long term. Eventually you just get tired of having to toe the line and pretend to believe.

  4. Jonathan, I agree that there is plenty of room for cognitive science and religious belief, that just tended not to be the focus in the way I was presented with it. And I suppose that those I heard it from would agree with the reality of evolution and religious sensibilities, but tended to stress there not being “real” divine or spiritual beings out there interacting with us.

    Jack, my combination of life-long depression and religious sensibilities has always made me very okay with death, whatever the afterlife is like. But no doubt religion tends to provide more appealing answers than “a cold, purposeless universe.”

  5. Brian, yes, I talked about doubting being able to pull off being an atheist and bishop long term in my last post, but not for the reasons you list.

    Again, my beliefs while I was bishop varied considerably from standard LDS beliefs the entire time I was bishop. Atheism would have been a somewhat minor change compared to the degree to which I differed/differ from standard beliefs. But those changes were gradual for me over a couple of decades and I always came around to adjusting my beliefs and staying in. I talk about that in my blog post at the JI.

    But I think Jonathan addresses what I think you are misunderstanding about my argument for a secular case for the church. It’s the religious aspects that are so vital at binding people together, creating commitment, and working toward unity. Creating the “village” that we’re losing in our society and that loss is having devastating effects. John Dehlin’s list (that I keep quoting) works BECAUSE of the religious beliefs and high level and commitment that come from those beliefs.

    I had become convinced of how important these aspects were in religious communities prior to this atheist experience and thus my question to myself when I decided to be an atheist was “now what?” Again, I’d decided that commitment to community, religious pathways, meaning, purpose, lay ministry, etc etc. were vital and that our church did these things particularly well (though not perfectly!) So I decided in that moment, “Though this bishop thing is really hard for me, I think it’s the most moral thing I can do as a newly minted atheist. Keep being bishop.” So that’s why I decided not to change anything.

    Again, I get that people will see such a decision as me deciding to be dishonest. But day one of being bishop, I really may have flunked the temple recommend interview with full and frank answers. Some may feel that I was obliged to flunk the interview if that’s how I felt, but I disagree. Perhaps I’ll post more about this, but for me, a big part of my “adjusting beliefs” that I mentioned in the link, is what I call “translation” of beliefs. Basically, “well, I don’t believe that particular thing in the standard way, but I DO believe it in a less standard way.” I “translate” the claim to something I DO believe.

    And that goes with probably the majority of the temple recommend interview questions: I have quite different beliefs about most of those.

    And that would be easy for me to apply to God as well in my short atheist state: Do I believe in Father, Son, HG? Like I said, I viewed even that question quite differently before I was an atheist, so I would see atheism as a minor adjustment. Something like, “I think Feuerbach’s claims as God as the embodiment of the highest human ideals is a powerful and valuable ideal that I very much ascribe to and think all humans should regardless of their theist beliefs.” I could go on and on about what I did/do believe that would have made me feel totally fine with simply saying yes to that question, and I would have equally long, non-standard answers for many of the other questions. But I DON’T go on and on, I just say yes and no at the right places.

    So I would not have found such interviews to have been prohibitive to staying as bishop. Again, they said they needed me, and I was convinced that such community service was highly moral. What would have been tough is trying to get through the process without belief in a God being there to help me through it. Again, I had a very hard time as a theist, so I probably wouldn’t have been able to hang in there as an atheist.

  6. Belief is a complicated thing, and often not a binary question as the temple recommend questions might imply. I sympathize with Stephen’s approach to answering these questions. I also think it is quite possible to be a fully engaged member while holding nontraditional beliefs, provided certain things are compatible. For example, you probably have to at least consider Jesus’ teachings to be good. But beyond that, a whole range of belief is possible, although it probably depends on how vocal you are and what your ward is like.

    By the way, I find “evolutionary” explanations in psychology and the social sciences to be frustratingly circular.

  7. Jonathan I also understood it lasted a short time like a day.

    I understand the argument that religion builds community. But so does all the religions. My Muslim colleagues have a lovely supportive community through the Muslim community center and mosque. I just dont see anything in your argument to justify staying Mormon or that makes Mormon church the one to stay in besides that is where you and I grew up and have history and culture.

    There is a secular case for “A church” but not “The Church.”

    I am glad to see that there is room to vary in beliefs I just wish that such translation wasn’t necessary.

  8. Brian, I attempted to give my thoughts on why I see our church as a particularly good church in my response to Chadwick in this post:

    I’ll repost it here:

    “Chadwick, let me try to be more succinct.

    1) Yes, the loss of community it a big loss so those communities we have have value, including the church.

    2) Religious institutions often provide greater sense of commitment and religious meaning that are also quite important. That’s probably a big reason why Dehlin said he didn’t felt like his attempts at “secular community” worked as well as churches or our church in particular.

    3) Our church, I believe, especially provides these key aspects. High levels of commitment and lay leadership without paid clergy (at the local level) and expectations for lots of people to be involved and to give a lot. A belief system and history that both help to enhance those aspects as well.

    I believe it’s those traits that led to Dehlin’s summation I quoted in the OP: “Is there a system” or “package” that does as well at the very vital list as the church? he asked, and said the answer was “No.”

    I can’t make the argument that such a package is unique, but I would argue very strongly that it’s hardly a dime a dozen, and thus quite worthy to embrace and celebrate even, in my opinion.

    And just to state again, this is not to claim that there aren’t flaws and real hurt. That’s the risk of human interaction. But as the Ezra Klein podcast that I linked to above stated at minute 50: “I choose the problems of community over the problems of not having community.” And that’s how I feel too.

  9. But I do very much want to acknowledge the value of other religious communities and that there isn’t a clear-cut, concrete way to prove from a secular standpoint that one is “better” than another. The amount of choice we have in our world (not only religion, but everything) can be overwhelming, but I do think that making a choice is still worthwhile.

    Mormonism is my choice for the reasons I’ve listed in these various posts, but this one in particular:

    And as I gave my paraphrase of Erasmus’s response to Martin Luther: “I will therefore stick with this church (Catholicism) until I see a better one.” That’s how I feel about my own choice.

  10. Sorry to have three comments to your one, Brian, but I saw I missed responding to your last sentence, which relates to what Food Allergy said also. And that’s the tricky issue of what binds the community together. I very much like Joseph Smith’s statement of saying he wanted to believe what he wanted without feeling “trammeled,” but there can certainly be a loss not only of unity, but also of any kind of centralizing purpose if there isn’t some sense of a group feeling that they are bound together by core beliefs.

    If people start to have doubts or questions about some of those beliefs (I do!) I’ve made attempts to help people rethink some of those with the hope such people can still see the value of staying. That can be a challenge, and I also want to point out for myself and others who find themselves in that situation that its good not to go around attacking the beliefs of the group if you want to try to stay in the group. That is, I personally feel that it’s my responsibility to work to get along with others when I do not see things exactly like they do. I don’t feel that I need to insist that others constantly validate and accept my alternative believes.

    So I generally keep such views to myself, but they do come out occasionally. And when that happens, sometimes people are upset, and I hope try to explain myself and hope that I can show them that I am committed to the church despite such variance. That can be a long process (I’ve had some practice!) but like I said, I see such a process as my responsibility if I want to be part of the group. Which I do.

    And as I’ve stated a number of times in these posts here, I do think that variant beliefs are only going to increase among members of the church so that learning to all get along will become increasingly important.

  11. Thank you so much for continuing to write these posts and actively respond in the comments. I think my view of religion, community and temple recommend questions lines up very much with yours. I also enjoy cognitive neuroscience conversations.

    So when my 15 year old came home from a trip 2 weeks ago saying he had listed to an interview with Roberts Sapolsky and was excited to discuss why free will doesn’t exist I totally geeked out with him. We’ve had lots of fun conversations since then and your experiences are a positive addition to conversations. Thank you.

  12. Stephen, your experience definitely resonates with mine, though you got the grad-level version and mine was undergrad at best. (Some of the episodes happened while I was in grad school, but my studies weren’t terribly relevant).

    I’m less interested in orthodoxy than…well, I’d call it loyalty but that has negative connotations in some quarters. Faithfulness is better, but likely to be misunderstood. Whatever we call it, it’s pretty easy to ascertain. Do you think the Church’s leaders are basically good people trying to do an impossible job? Then I’m not too worried about exactly how much you agree or disagree with them. Do you think people should join the Church? Then I’m not too worried about why you think they should. (I’ll give a pass for thinking maybe LGBT people shouldn’t.) In my experience, people who answer no to questions like those are the people to worry about.

  13. Thanks, Tori. Sounds like interesting family discussions and glad I could add something.

    RLD, that’s a great list of “faithfulness” and one I’d answer very strongly, yes. Again, feel quite committed to the church even with some variant beliefs and am happy to try to help make space for others who might feel similarly.

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