My Atheist Conversion, Part 1

This post got a little long so I decided to break it in two.

The title is a little bit click bait as I am not an atheist, but I do want to tell a story of what I call (in my head) “my atheist conversion.” Real atheists may find this disingenuous as my atheism lasted a very short period of time (half a day), but nonetheless it had a significant impact on me and I don’t know what else to call it. The impact was in a “pro-church direction,” and allow me to explain as such an experience frames a lot of my thinking on things I’d like to share on the blog.

All of us can have challenges to our beliefs and perhaps mine are a bit unusual. Back around 2010, I shared at “Mormon Scholars Testify” about dealing with getting into scholarship and getting comfortable with the unknown. As I shared in a recent post at the JI, I’ve also worked to make adjustments to faith assumptions along the way.

Yet academia led me on an unforeseen path as my own personal historical research led me to some unorthodox conclusions. In short, in my upcoming book I will be arguing that JS had access to all Mormon ideas in books that I believe he read (long story and a big book that I’m working on). I was always okay with that idea. As I say in the write up for Mormon scholars testify, “Whatever means God used to facilitate the Restoration was fine.”

Yet over time, I became increasingly uneasy about how my research comes across to other members. That plus professional (or the lack thereof) frustrations led a moment a few years before being called as bishop where I thought that perhaps atheism is what made sense (this was NOT my atheist conversion, but a prequel.) Bottom line, I was doubting my spiritual experiences and felling that I could “account” for Mormonism through my research.

That experience of worrying about atheism rattled me a bit though only last a few hours. Though I was back to theism pretty quickly, I still had a lot of stuff unresolved, and was in that state when I was called as bishop a few years later. I would describe my state prior to being called as bishop as “a low level faith crisis”: questions and discomfort but soldering on. The moment I said yes to serving as bishop, the faith crisis went from low level to what I’d called “mid level”: feeling all that stuff but a lot worse (Yes I believe there is a stage beyond that, got a little taste of, but a story for another time). The “crisis” was a little different than more standard concerns of most faith crisis (though related) as mine was more of a sense of how to make sense of these things I’d felt “called” to do: bishop and my personal scholarship.

So I’d said yes to being bishop and I had a problem. I struggled with the calling on many levels, and a big issue was the feeling I was supposed to proceed with my scholarship. Not only did I know what I knew, but I felt called to share it, which I knew could be quite controversial and upsetting. I felt terribly uneasy my first six months.

I got some resolution after that (I’m doing much better now), but I continued to really struggle to make sense of my faith and spiritual experiences for a while. So much so that I started thinking about atheism as an answer again. Yet, now as I considered atheism, I did so in the context of the prompting I’d felt about making a secular case for the church. As I mentioned in that post, I felt like I started seeing evidence for the case that the church for a good and helpful institution for people and society, in addition to the problems that “atomization” (our disconnection from each other) is causing.

That led me to another thought: if I came down on the side of atheism, this Mormon thing may still be the best way to live. That John Delhin list I keep quoting seems pretty vital whether people believe in God or not.

And that started me on another unusual thought: serving this community the way I did as bishop may be a good thing based on the community being a good thing. Yeah, it was really hard for me, but I’d become convinced that happiness wasn’t found in avoiding hard tasks but in showing that commitment that Brooks (and Jesus) talk about.

So these factors came together for me, I think about a year and a half into being bishop (I keep a journal, but alas didn’t write this down). I felt frustrated enough with my attempts to make sense of things that I decided that I no longer believed in God. I remember the moment will when I came to that conclusion. This time was a little different than my previous brush with atheism, because that time I felt worried there was no God, this time it felt more like my own decision.

“Now what?” I thought, and at that point I made the other determination as well: based on everything I’d studied and my own moral conviction, I thought the best thing for me to do was to remain as bishop. No doubt that could be concerning to some readers, but as I said in previous posts, I had some pretty unorthodox beliefs even as a theist anyway, and as I said in this previous post, there was the feeling that the ward needed me. Being committed to what Mormonism did seemed very worthwhile even from that atheist point of view.

This round of atheism didn’t last long either (half a day) but it was a meaningful experience that I felt I learned a lot from. More on that in my next post, but that basic realization that in the moment I felt like that right things was not only to remain active, but also the bishop is what I would call “my atheist conversion”: my true conviction that serving in Mormonism was a good thing with or without theism.

I had a hard enough time as bishop as a (mostly) theist, that trying to pull that off being bishop for years as a convicted atheist seems unlikely, but my conversion was nonetheless quite meaningful to me.

Part 2 next.

11 comments for “My Atheist Conversion, Part 1

  1. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to the rest. I had a mini faith crisis while serving as Bishop. Having peoples personal dirty laundry on my desk was always exhausting. It wore me out mentally (while I prayerfully hoped they felt some relief). Then to see fellow members with whom I thought shared a common faith basis go crazy during COVID was disorienting.

  2. Stephen, I’m enjoying these posts and looking forward to the next one. It seems like the secular argument for church membership (because it enables a kind of community that does good and essential things) also implies a secular argument for belief (because the kind of close community relationships that enable doing good and essential things require a foundation of shared, thick, concrete belief). That’s again not an argument for belief in our particular church, but it does seem to require a church that makes strong truth claims and assertions about correct teachings and appropriate behavior.

  3. I do agree that belief is at the heart of the value of religious community. I remember learning in my religious studies class the the Latin word the “religion” comes from means something like “that which binds the community/society together.” I’m seeing more and more commentary on our fractured society and more on the problems of secularization on creating the loss of community.

    Here’s one from this week:

    And like I’ve said in previous posts, I do think that our church has quite a good combination of helpful traits, just like Dehlin said. I think out “plan of salvation” really provides a powerful way of framing our life with a particular sense of purpose. So, yeah, lots of good stuff here.

  4. Really enjoying and identifying with these posts. Thanks so much for your candor and thoughtful, yet practical approach to both lived faith and faith itself.

  5. I am enjoying these Bishop-related posts, and the ensuing discussions they engender.

    Stephen just posted ” It seems like the secular argument for church membership (because it enables a kind of community that does good and essential things) also implies a secular argument for belief (because the kind of close community relationships that enable doing good and essential things require a foundation of shared, thick, concrete belief). That’s again not an argument for belief in our particular church, but it does seem to require a church that makes strong truth claims and assertions about correct teachings and appropriate behavior.”

    I recently had occasion to witness the teachings and activities of another loosely-religion-based group, the Universal Unitarian Church (or ‘Congregation’, as some units prefer to be known) They seem to be promoting ‘doing good and essential things’ but without requiring a particular eschatological straitness. One recent sermon did lay down 5 restrictions, however, that would prevent a person from uniting with a UU congregation, and I was interested to see how signifcantly they differed from what we hear in LDS preaching:

    1) “You can’t believe anything you want” – i.e. you can’t believe in bad things and bad attitudes

    2) “You can’t join if you only want to associate with your own kind” – i.e. UU encourages diversity and acceptance of all

    3) “You can’t join if you have thin skin” – i.e. your idea of ‘correctness’ may not be universal

    4) “You can’t join if you are ‘saved’ ” – i.e. that implies that you were ‘lost’ before needing to be ‘saved’ from your lostness

    5) “You can’t join if you don’t want to become more generous and sharing – i.e. a helpful, open attitude is needed to be a real ‘community’.

  6. It is not uncommon for those who have a faith crisis in our church and leave, to eventually leave God as well, meaning there must not be one. I am guessing when one gets to a level of belief that the religious org they belong to is the only true org to belong to, and that belief leaves them, it is an easy transition to think there is no true org. Then no God. In a way I dont believe in the “church” like traditional members believe but I do believe in the restoration of the gospel that the church is a steward over. This comes from my study of our history and a mind that has questioned all things mormon since childhood.

    Bishop Stephen I am glad you worked this out while serving. I could not imagine what that was like for you to go through. The book you are writing sounds very interesting. Are you concerned that the church will give you crap when you publish it? Are you concerned that some members may lose the faith if they read it? I sometimes wonder how scholars that write without bias (if even possible) about church history, worry about readers and their testimonies. Bushman comes to mind.

    I certainly hope Holland writes a book about his NDE! Would love to read what an apostle experienced.

  7. Thanks, Warno and Anonymous.

    That’s an interesting attempt at boundary maintenance, Raymond.

    REC, your questions in your second paragraph are ones that I’ve wrestled with a lot and I worry that I’ll sound flippant if I try to give them short answers. I’ll probably post more on those topics, but here are the short answers nonetheless. 1) Am I worried about leader pushback? There may be some, but that doesn’t worry me.

    2) Am I worried about how it will effect other members? That is something that’s given me a lot of concern, but something I’ve become comfortable with. I hope that through the book and online materials I plan to put together (will try to test out some of the ideas here) that I can present some models of belief that have been helpful to me. Such models could bother leaders and get me back to point 1, but like I said, that doesn’t worry me much.

    Like I said, I don’t mean to sound flippant. These are big topics I’ve wrestled with for years.

  8. Thanks for being willing to share this–I can identify with it.

    It’s always seemed to me that Korihor’s one solid argument was “it is the effect of a frenzied mind”: the possibility that all my spiritual experiences, evidences, etc. are the result of less than perfect rationality (motivated reasoning, finding patterns in random data, etc.). There have been times when the probability of that has felt larger than the probability that the restored gospel is true, though for me the quirks and warts of the restoration itself have always seemed less implausible than the bold assertion that life does not end at death and there’s a whole spiritual world out there that exists even though we can’t reproducibly derive evidence of it.

    Two things got me through those moments. First, if my mind is flawed, how can I trust it to pick some alternative to the restored gospel? How can I be sure of my reasoning that the gospel is so implausible? (In other words, doubt your doubts.) Second, living the gospel has made me happy, so why change even if I’m not sure it’s true? (I think of this as the Puddleglum argument.) This ties to your thinking–though it’s a lot shallower than yours and I doubt it could have kept me going as a Bishop.

    And those moments always passed. For me they were never tied to gaining new information or hearing new arguments, which just highlights that those doubts weren’t driven rational processes. And on reflection, it hasn’t happened to me for many years now, which is interesting.

  9. I’m super excited to read the book when you finally publish it. I hope you will tease out some more details in the coming posts.

  10. Thanks for sharing, RLD. I’ll tell more about my process of thinking about similar things in my next post.

    Perhaps, Dave. Of course, you know more about this stuff than anyone, so do you just want me to advertise more? :)

Comments are closed.