Judy’s Story (Unworthy Series)

When I was in my early teens I decided it was time for me to gain my own testimony. I buckled down and started reading my scriptures daily, praying fervently, and making an effort to be more kind, reverent, patient, meek, etc. When I got to the end of the BoM, and knelt down to fulfill my part in Moroni’s Promise, the response I got was…. nothing. Not a single thing. I still couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say, “I know the church is true.” I had a hard time even saying I believed in God, because I just didn’t know.

Over the next decade or so I fell into a cycle. I would make an effort to finally gain the testimony I so desperately wanted, lunging fully into all-out Molly Mormon mode (starting each cycle with an act designed to get me focused on the gospel, as benign as covering an entire bedroom wall with scriptures and quotes from prophets/apostles I liked, or as insane as transferring across the country to attend a church school). After months of reading my scriptures for hours a day and praying long into the night, I would come away with that big pile of nothing. I would then become severely depressed, because I knew I was doing all the things I was supposed to do, and God still wasn’t answering my prayers. I thought that must mean that I wasn’t being what I was supposed to be, that I was so inherently flawed that the Holy Ghost had abandoned me long ago. Between the ages of 14-20 I attempted suicide three times because I felt so absolutely worthless that I thought if I could just die and go to the Telestial Kingdom then at least the self-loathing and guilt would go away.

Here’s the thing – during this decade of vicious self-hatred and guilt I never once broke the Word of Wisdom. I never even got so far as a french kiss with a boy. I always dressed modestly. I didn’t swear. I paid my tithing. I went years at a time without missing a single day reading my scriptures. I was president of all of my YW groups, president of my seminary class, and on the Institute council. I went to church every week, and to all my activities. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong, even by Mormon standards.

But every time I told someone – a family member, a friend, a church leader – that I was feeling depressed, they told me it was because I wasn’t close enough to God. They told me that if I just put a little more effort in to Choosing The Right then I would feel the comfort of the Savior. Their first question when I said how I felt was always, “Well, are you reading your scriptures? Are you saying your prayers?” It was reinforced again and again that the fault was my own. However hard I thought I was working, I should be working harder. “Jesus is knocking on a door without a handle,” they’d remind me. “It’s up to you to let him in.”

Finally one Sunday afternoon, in my mid-20s, I was sitting on my bed looking over all the notes I had taken in Sacrament meeting and Sunday School that day (as I did every week), writing into my journal yet another idea about how I could finally gain a testimony this time. A thought popped into my head. I don’t know how it got there, exactly. It was just a simple idea – four tiny words – that changed my life forever.

“I’m a good person.”

I had never, EVER thought that about myself before. I was suddenly flooded with warmth. My breath caught in my throat. I let myself think it again. “I’m a good person.” The next thought in my head was likewise unexpected. “I bet if there’s a Heaven, I would get to go. If God is who the Mormon church says he is, I want nothing to do with him.”

I immediately grabbed my Bible. I decided right then and there that I was going to shift the direction of my spiritual studies. I was going to learn all about God – who he was, what he wanted from me, how I could know him – and I wanted to start at the beginning. I opened up Genesis, Chapter 1, and started reading.

I made it 27 verses before shutting the book and saying aloud, “This is all bullshit. I don’t believe in any of it.”

Two minutes. After more than 10 years of torturing myself trying to be better, better, better, all the time, it took less than two minutes for me to abandon religion completely. That tiny spark of self worth – “I’m a good person” – was hot enough and intense enough and bright enough to burn down my entire belief structure, and the thing that rose from the ashes like a phoenix was a new way to look at life. “I’m a good person. That’s what my religion is. To be good. To be nice. To basically not be a dick to people – and especially not to be a dick to myself. To love myself, warts and all, and know that my desire to be kind to others is worth more than any empty promise a God could give me.

(This is part of a series on shame and unworthiness.  Read more people’s experiences here)

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Why “Atheist” and “Agnostic” are stupid titles that make us less intelligent

It’s time to vent about something that has begun to annoy me more and more – the stupid titles we have for people who don’t believe in religion or God.  In this little article, I’m going to argue that our use of these words isn’t only imprecise, but actually makes us all less intelligent.  Hang on, I’ll get there.

Agnostic vs Atheist

When someone says they’re agnostic, what they mean is that they’re not sure whether or not God is real.  They’re likely very uninterested in finding out, because they don’t think it’s possible to find out in the first place, and they just live their lives as they think they should.  If God decides to make himself known somewhere five years down the road, cool.  If not, whatever.  No big deal, but they’re not about to be as presumptuous as to say there isn’t a God.  Who are they to pretend to know one way or the other?

An atheist, on the other hand, is, in the eyes of a lot of society, someone who is certain God doesn’t exist.  They’re often seen as being against religion, actively fighting against dogma with the same kind of religious zeal as the people they’re opposing.

What the words actually mean

Agnostic simply means “without knowledge.”  Gnosis is the Greek noun for “knowledge,” slap on the A and it means the opposite.  To be agnostic about something is to not know whether that thing is true and to believe that it is impossible to ever know.

In same way, Atheism simply means “without theism.”  To be a theist is to believe in a God (specifically, a personal God), and therefore to be an atheist is to not believe in God.  That’s it.

(Side not, you could also be a Deist – someone who believes in god, but doesn’t believe he/she/it is a “personal” god.  In other words, they created the world and are now eating popcorn, watching the cosmic drama of Life, but aren’t involved in it.  There are probably five million other things you could be as well, but these are the main ones.)

Two reasons these words suck

  1. Notice that we don’t have terms in our society for not believing in the myriad other things we don’t believe.  I’m not an a-santa-ist or an a-unicorn-ist simply because I don’t believe a bearded man walked through my front door a few days ago (we don’t have a chimney) to leave a package under our tree, or that a horned horse’s tears can cure any illness I have.  Likewise, my worldview should not be defined by one thing out of a billion in which I do not believe.  We’re defining a person’s worldview by views they don’t have about the world.  That’s dumb.
  2. Atheists do not know there isn’t a god, we just have no good reason to believe in one.  Except for a few extremists and a lot of people who haven’t thought enough about what they believe, there are very few people on this planet who would claim to have an absolute knowledge that God does or does not exist.  The rest of us are somewhere on the continuum from belief to disbelief, accepting uncertainty as a fact of life.  For this reason alone, “agnostic” doesn’t mean anything to me – all of us who think it is impossible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist are agnostic by definition.  Believers feel they have a good reason to believe, unbelievers don’t.

Two reasons using them the way we do makes us stupiderrerr

  1. Most of us in our culture view uncertainty as a bad thing.  Someone’s intelligence, in our minds, can be measured by the number of strong and clear opinions they have on politics, science, religion, and so on.  When in a debate about something we’re not sure about, we’ll often say something bold, pretending to know things we don’t, because to not know something is to be weak, ignorant, and wrong.  We can hardly be blamed for this, we’re surrounded by media filled with opinionated news anchors, spewing facts and statistics that “prove” their positions.  Too often we latch on to a pundit’s positions because to repeat them in the same tone of confidence makes us feel intelligent and clear, even though we really have no idea whether that person’s facts were right, whether they skewed a statistic to meet their agenda, or whether they cited the one study out of 5,000 but didn’t tell us.  We’re easily manipulated because we adore certainty and shun uncertainty.  We’re made less intelligent because we don’t know how to deal with uncertainty.  In this way, if more of us were agnostic and had a healthy dose of cognitive uncertainty, the world would be a better, less virulent place. 
  2. But if we use “agnostic” to say we don’t try to learn about the world, that’s also dumb.  So we can’t prove God does or doesn’t exist.  We also can’t prove a lot of things in science.  Scientists develop a model by which we can understand the world, see if it fits with the rest of our body of knowledge, and then continue to move forward, constantly challenging and tweaking what we already know to fit with new evidence.  To be agnostic doesn’t just mean you don’t know, it means you can’t know.  And while that’s true, it’s also true about nearly everything else in our lives.  Yet we still manage to make decisions and progress intellectually, and those decisions are based on the models we accept about the world.

Now, if someone calls themselves an agnostic, and I call myself an atheist, what difference is there in how we live our lives?  Probably none.  We don’t pray, we don’t attend church, we don’t ask for forgiveness.  We both probably live our lives as if there isn’t a God, trusting in our own moral compass instead of what’s laid out in scripture.  For many people, calling themselves “agnostic” is probably the result of atheism’s negative stigma and from not feeling comfortable with their new doubts enough to give them such an ominous and opinionated-sounding title.  They’re still in flux, so it’s a good word to use because it’s noncommittal.  That’s fine, I just think we should find new words.

In short, it’s dumb that the main word I have to describe my worldview is based in what I don’t believe, we’re all agnostic to varying degrees and therefore to call yourself agnostic is meaningless and counterproductive (although comforting), we should all be more comfortable with the idea that we don’t know a million things in life, and just because we can’t know something doesn’t mean we can’t still make reasonable assumptions and conclusions from the things we observe in the world around us. 

To end, here’s a ridiculously awesome quote about uncertainty and science:

There is a widely held notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proved.”  Nearly an oxymoron.  The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.  Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge.  Therefore a good scientist is never “certain.”  Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain, because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better evidence or novel arguments emerge.

Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society.  Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up if we don’t do anything?  Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution?  Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones?  No, we are not, in any of these cases.  But if, from this lack of certainty, we jump to the conviction that we had better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective than modern medicine–well, we are simply stupid.  Still, many people do make these inferences, because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness instead of being what it is–the first source of our knowledge.

– Carlo Rovelli, Physicist, The Uselessness of Certainty

After note – in the spirit of embracing uncertainty, I have to admit the high possibility that I asserted things in the article above which aren’t correct.  For that, we have debate!  I would love to adjust my views on the subject above so they’re more accurate. Please leave your thoughts below 🙂

The Day I Left the Church . . . Journal Entry

mormon to atheist journal

02/10/2008

Well, Sarah* and I have officially broken up.  Wow, this is going to be tough.  I continued to be way depressed on Thursday and Friday, way doubtful, and decided (once again), that I HAD to break it off with Sarah because I could not go on feeling this and I couldn’t just repress my questions or find satisfying answers so I had to just end the relationship.  We went to the photographer on Friday, then went back to her parent’s house and did some stuff.  I finally got myself to tell her I’m still doubting, or actually, that the doubts had come back and I wasn’t through this.  She was really confused, angry, sad, and everything else.  We talked more and she gave me the ring back and went upstairs crying.  She talked to her parents, Nate (on phone), we texted a bit and she came back down and we talked for a long, long time.  We decided I’d try some depression medication — because, like I wrote earlier, I’m POSITIVE I’ve been depressed a lot.  I told her, though, that what I wondered is whether that depression CAUSED or AMPLIFIED my doubts, or whether my doubts caused the depression.  We both hoped it was the former and that being more emotionally stable would help me be more stable in my testimony as well.  Then Saturday was great.  We got depression meds – but they don’t kick in for 3 or 4 weeks sometimes** — we had a really fun day together, and went to a Valentine’s party at night.  I love and respect her so much.  She is truly one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

Also, I went and talked to Nate.  He’s a great brother.  He also talked with me and sought for some of my strength with an issue he’s struggling with — that was nice.  I gave him a blessing this morning.

So — today, after I gave Nate the blessing, Sarah and I drove down and went to her ward.  Sunday School and Sacrament meeting were both on temples —- and I realized I COULD NOT … it WOULD NOT be possible for me to believe that again.  So — I set myself firm in my mind, and when we got in her car after church I told her I couldn’t do it, and explained a little bit of why.  Wow, that was tough.  It was so hard to see her SO DEVASTATED.  She was so frustrated, mad, sad, and everything again.  She stated “I’m losing you right now and there’s nothing I can do about it!”  It was extremely tough, I drove her back to her apartment, she gave me the ring back, we cried a little more and she left.

I am SO SORRY that I did that to her.

This is going to be really hard on both of us, but it’ll probably be even harder on her — because she doesn’t understand why I’ve oscillated SO MUCH and given her so much hope, and in a lot of ways I’ve already suffered through a lot of it because I’ve thought about it so much before.

I called Nate — he’s very understanding and supportive.  He made me promise, though, that I’d never give up the search for truth — that if I didn’t find anything through all my efforts that I’d retrace my steps and try this church again.

I called Mom – WOW, there is not a more amazing woman on this planet.  She just listened, trusted me, said she knows I’m a truthseeker, that if we believed in Joseph Smith’s story we had to give other people the freedom as well to follow God as they felt he was guiding them, and she understood I HAVE to be honest with myself.***  She did warn me, however, that if I begin to live unworthily she’ll begin to question whether I was being inspired of God or of Satan.  She asked to write down WHY for the purpose of UNDERSTANDING — not so I could convince her or she could try to convince me.  I agreed.  I owe it to  her and Nate and Sarah and others.  I’m not sure what I’m going to write though — I don’t want to appear bitter or hardened … but I don’t want to appear foolish or deceived or weak either.  Maybe the 2nd part is because of pride.

I think I did the right thing, no matter how hard it was and will be.

—————–

*Different name . . . I’m hoping that will keep her from killing me when she finds this, lol.

**I never took the depression meds, because I believed my doubts were causing the depression, not the other way around.  I was right.

***I didn’t mention the feeling I had when I finally made that tough decision.  Simply put, a huge burden was lifted off of me.  I felt free, no longer having to put new information through the strain of LDS doctrine to see if I could believe it or not.  I could look at politics, evolution, homosexuality, everything in a new light.  I was also afraid, because I didn’t want to be deceived.