The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-Out

I interviewed for a teaching position at a charter school in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. While I was talking with the principal, she asked me to identify the hardest thing I had ever done. My mind raced as I quickly reviewed some of the more difficult things I’ve done: learning Chinese while working as a missionary in Taiwan (with no phone, no music, no free time, and no freedom), working as Editor-in-Chief of The BYU Political Review.

I’ve been asked this question before, and I usually try to give an appropriately self-promoting response worthy of an interview. This time, my mind fastened onto what I’ve long considered the most mentally and emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and so instead of giving my usual response, I told the simple truth:

The hardest thing I have ever done was telling my father I didn’t believe in God.

I’m the oldest of four children raised by two wonderful Mormon parents. Since I was a child, they impressed on me the importance of always setting a good example for my brothers and sister—and in their minds, this was particularly important when it came to spiritual matters.

So it came as a surprise for my dad, after I’d spent nearly 22 years as an active, enthusiastic church-goer, leader, teacher, and even missionary, when I sent him a letter in February of 2009.

I’ve included it below, with only minor syntactical and grammatical changes.

Dad,

I hope it doesn’t seem too strange that I’d write to you in an email instead of calling you on the phone. I promise there’s a good reason for it.

I couldn’t have better parents. I’ve never thought otherwise, nor do I suppose that I would ever tolerate anyone suggesting anything to the contrary. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved you and Mom more than I’ve ever been able to express. I try sometimes, but usually feel inadequate. Your love is, without question, the greatest source of happiness in my life. I’ve never felt more proud than when you tell me, “We’re so proud of you,” and I’ve never felt worse than when I hear (or even imagine) you say, in that familiar tone, “Son…” Pleasing you, making you proud of me, living up to your expectations—these have been the driving forces behind nearly every good decision I have made in my lifetime. And disappointing you or letting you down breaks my heart just as much (or more) than it breaks yours…which is probably why I’m typing this instead of saying it out loud.

My faith in and love of my parents has rested largely on my confident assurance that neither you nor Mom would ever, under any circumstances, want anything but my safety and happiness. It is for this reason, more than any other, that I have remained active, involved, and faithful in church. Since I was a little boy, I have held (and still hold) the firm belief that you and Mom really do believe in God. And my whole life, I have wanted to believe in God like you do. But I never have.

Let me explain.

I have tried for more than a decade to convince myself that God answers my prayers, to believe in Him, to keep His commandments because of my sincere faith and love in Him. On most days, I’ll easily spend an hour obsessing over this idea. My head is constantly full of confirmations, doubts, arguments (for and against), explanations, etc. I try to focus on other things: music, nature, writing, politics…but I can never rid myself of the pressing doubts I’ve fostered since childhood. In Sunday School, Priesthood meetings, Sacrament meetings, and Stake and General Conferences, I suppress my natural curiosity and skepticism and work to avoid criticizing, correcting, and belittling others’ misunderstandings of church doctrines, concepts, history, etc., and instead find the points of truth and good in their presentations and focus on them. I can argue for God just as easily as I can argue against Him, but I realize that it doesn’t matter which argument is stronger in my mind: ultimately, God exists or He doesn’t, and nothing anybody says or thinks will change that simple fact.

My problem is much more simple than apologetic arguments on points of doctrine. The gospel makes sense to me. There are contradictions and things I don’t understand, but I attribute that to my own limited level of understanding. What is important in religion is the abiding faith, the calming confidence in God, born of personal and intimate spiritual experiences. These are what (more than anything else) I need…and lack.
For more than ten years, I’ve testified, argued, and even proselytized for God. I’ve read the scriptures cover to cover, studied the Bible Dictionary, Jesus the Christ, The Articles of Faith, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Our Search for Happiness, several biographies of Joseph Smith, and a cornucopia of other religious works. I’ve searched and pondered. And prayer. I cannot tell you how many times or for how long I have begged God to let me feel his love, to let me feel faith, confidence, to give me that abiding trust in Him that so many others seem to have. I’ve long felt jealous of so many whose testimonies I’ve heard: they needed an answer from God, asked for it, and received it.

It wasn’t until President Watterson [my mission president in Taiwan] that somebody really managed to see through the façade, and even then only when I had already confessed lying to his face. He commented that I lied like somebody who did it all the time and told me I should start over as an honest man. Somehow, despite my deep resentment of the man, that struck a chord with me. I realized that lying, more than almost anything else, offended me. I had, at that point, lived a duplicitous life for years, and it ate at my soul. The deeper problem, though, was my lack of faith. I had gone on a mission hoping to prove to God that I was willing, despite my doubts, to trust in Him. I hoped that He would be more willing to bless me with faith while I was engaged in His work, 100 percent devoted to Him. But what was I to do when He didn’t? Who could I tell? The question constantly reverberated in my mind then as it does now. Who can I tell? My brother in Spain, who once considered the military over the mission? You and Mom, whose hearts the knowledge would inevitably break? My friends or companions, who looked up to me as a source of strength and example? No. I didn’t have the courage. And so I kept it to myself and begged all the harder for an answer.

And so here I am. Return missionary. Oldest son. Example for the kids. Priesthood teacher. BYU undergrad. My entire life revolves around a concept that I only pretend to believe, and whenever I’m not busy enough to keep the thought from my mind, my own conscience screams “Hypocrite!” at me until I find music loud enough to replace it.

To make things worse, I’m supposed to be in the middle of the great Mormon bride-hunt that is the BYU undergraduate experience. How can I, in good conscience, marry a woman I truly love, knowing that I’m lying to her about what should be the most important thing in her life? Can I kneel across the altar from her and promise to love her for eternity when I don’t believe in such a thing? Then I wouldn’t just be lying to myself, my family, and my friends—I’d be lying to the one person with whom, more than anyone else, I should be completely open and honest. No. I can’t get married until I either find faith in God or stop trying.

But on the other hand, what if, somewhere down the road, I finally do receive a witness from God and I’m still single…or married to a girl that doesn’t?

Dad, I’m so lost, and I can’t be a liar anymore. I can’t respect myself or expect anyone else to do the same if I keep pretending. I need an answer from God, and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I have fasted and prayed for little else this past decade, but I’ve never felt anything like the warm comfort I’ve heard described in so many different ways. I’ve held on to hope this long out of a desire to prove you right. I know you wouldn’t lie to me about this, and that’s brought me this far. If I could, I would trick myself into believing. What could be better for me? Even if it were wrong, I could be happy. I could be satisfied with myself, keep the commandments (many of which I know keep me happy), get married, have children, raise them in the church with its good principles, and die content. If I could hire a hypnotist to make me believe, I might be satisfied. Never have I been willing to sacrifice truth for convenience, except in this case: it would be so much easier for me if I could believe somehow…even if it were wrong. Then I wouldn’t have to break my parents’ hearts. Then I could still be the example I want to be for my siblings. Then I could go to church, teach and testify as usual, and feel at peace. Instead, I’m turning to you (which is probably the first thing I should have done) as a last resort.

I don’t know what else to do besides ask you for a blessing, which is something I do only on the rarest of circumstances: blessings are supposed to work according to faith, and if I haven’t any, what’s the use? But I want to do everything in my power to find an answer. I hope you’ll be willing to give me a priesthood blessing this weekend when I come home. And we’ll find some time (perhaps while golfing, if the weather’s good) to talk about these things.

Rest assured, in the meantime, that I’m in good hands. There are a handful of people who know how I feel, and all are very supportive. Alyssa has been more of an angel to me than any I could have hoped for had God Himself sent one (and perhaps, in this case, He has). I don’t know what made me tell her how I feel about things… “Hey, I really like you and—oh!—by the way, I don’t believe in God” isn’t usually my favorite pickup line. But she has been loving, kind, and faithful enough to spend hours on end talking it through with me, encouraging me to keep praying, keep asking. In fact, she even developed what she calls “The Plan”: it’s a two-week spiritual boot camp of sorts. We started with a fast two Sundays ago and will end with another this next Sunday. Every day since we started, we’ve read scriptures and talks daily, hoping that such powerful testimonies of God and Christ would spark some ember of faith deep within me. I pray morning, night, and whenever else I get a moment to myself, asking God to give me faith. It was Alyssa who suggested that I ask you for a blessing, actually. I had almost resigned myself to giving up my quest for spiritual enlightenment when she convinced me to give it one last go. It took a bit of convincing. Not giving it one last go…talking to you about this. Even now, I hesitate to send this to you, knowing the catharsis of emotions you’re likely to feel. My hands are shaking as I type because I have no idea how you’ll take this. I’m afraid you’ll lose confidence in me, worry obsessively, or (God forbid) feel like a failed parent. But I trust you. I love you. And I want your help.

I hope you’ll understand this for what it is. I’m not rebelling or reviling. I’m finally telling you what I want to say every time you close our phone conversations with, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I don’t mean to belittle anybody else’s belief in God. I’m not atheist—just agnostic. I want (and need) to know the truth. And I want God’s existence to be true. But no amount of desire can change reality—and I cannot believe in something simply by wanting to. I just need something more than what I have.

And I hope I don’t sound detached or unemotional. Realize that I have spent a good portion of each day for the last decade mulling this over and over in my mind. If I sound more logical than emotional, I’m sorry. For you, this is a sudden confession, an unpleasant surprise, but for me, talking to you about this is another step in the long evolution of my faith. And I’m not depressed, just unhappy.

A couple things: first (and I’ll leave this to your discretion, but please think about it), I haven’t said anything about this to Mom. I don’t know why. I guess I imagine her beating herself up over this. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m still afraid of that possibility. I hope that I’ll get an answer from God, gain faith in Him, and keep going the direction I’m headed. If that happens, I’d rather Mom never knew about this. But, like I said, I’ll leave that up to you. You’re my father and I trust your judgment. Second, I’ve talked to Alyssa about visiting our family this weekend and hope you won’t mind if I invite her to come stay with us for the holiday. I talked to Mom, and she told me it was fine, but I should check with you.

I love you, Dad. Thank you for your constant support and everything you do for me. Sorry for making you work so hard at the whole “dad” thing. It really ought to be easier.

xoxo
ryan

If you’re curious or interested, my father’s response was even more life-changing than writing this letter. Read it here. 

Advertisements

8 comments

  1. Incredible read, thank you. I’m Joesph’s cousin and I was directed here to check this out since I also grew up in an LDS-household but without a true testimony of my own. My experiences are a bit different as I haven’t actively tried to find out for myself if the church is true; I believe apathy is the bigger issue. Either way, I look forward to reading more : )

  2. Ryan-

    I think I might still have the picture of us together at the MTC. It seems like a long time ago that we were both missionaries at the MTC- you leaving to Taiwan to speak Mandarin and I leaving to speak Hmong in California.

    Great post. Your letter was obviously the fruit of careful, well reasoned thought. It seems like our first and last name are not the only thing we share.

    I can empathize with your agnostic conflict. I barely decided to go on a mission, and i remember just a week or so before I left I was kneeling in the snow a few miles from my provo home asking if god existed. I never thought god would answer me, especially not with a testimony. My friends provided me with answers that just didn’t make very much sense, or provide the inspiration I so desperately sought. I had spent a lot of my youth living the standards of the church, but seeing all of the weaknesses of an argument for faith and seeing very little evidence of God existing.

    And completely against my expectations, a few weeks after entering the MTC I had “that experience” – of kneeling and praying and just having the intellectual struggles of the past years swept away with joy, like I had never felt before.

    Still i wondered at that time, and was innerly tormented with lingering doubts just a few days afterwards. It overwhelmed me to the point that I was very strongly considering going home. I think one of the only things that kept me there was the difficulty of facing my family.

    Still I persisted on and my mission was an experience that is not easy to forget both for its challenges and its joys.

    So I end this reply to your post not quite sure what to say. I will say this- I wish you luck in the journey of your faith because I know the membership of the church does not have a corner on the goodness market in people or ideas.

    Good luck Ryan

    -RB

  3. I feel ya, man. I’ve been in the thick of it for several months now. It seems like we think a lot alike.

    Where I’m at: whichever way the doubt and questions lead–toward faith or toward giving up–if I ever want to be really, truly, deeply happy, this is the most necessary experience of my life. Wherever it leads you, I hope you’re happy too.

    I might be paying NYC a visit soon–I’ll call you if it happens,

    bryce

  4. dude! just find what makes you happy!

    and don’t call it giving up. it sounds so depressing and pejorative. you’re not giving up on faith if you give up religion…just turning to other sources for truth and happiness in your life. better sources, if god doesn’t actually exist. and, btw, now 2.5 of the 4 BYUPR EICs have been atheist. haha. let me know if i should bump that up to 3 or down to 2.

  5. Hello, I ran into your website from mixx. It is not something I would typically read, but I liked your perspective on it. Thank you for creating a piece worth reading!

  6. Ryan, I appreciated what you wrote. I believe spirituality exists in an infinite variety of forms. That you are interested enough in your own metaphysical nature speaks more (to me) of your spirituality than ignoring your own feelings. Ultimately, I believe a just God is more interested in an individual’s search for understanding and truth than having one more follower who has no desire to know. After all, weren’t we taught that the purpose of this life is to learn? Personal development is personal. I don’t believe that there exists some sort of ultimate path of development. Meh, I feel like I’m rambling. Basically, I support your decision. We should all be interested in finding truth, no matter where it takes us.

  7. Really beautiful letter to your dad. The love in Mormon families has always blown me away. I was a little teary eyed at one point. Coming out so to speak to your parents is one of the hardest things one can do. Lying to yourself for a decade is even harder though. You can’t force yourself to believe in a made up lie. I hope you gave up fasting trying to make god somehow reveal himself to you. At bible college I fasted for four days. What did that do for me? Study the bible more? Love god more? No. Sadly the true eventually catches up to you. Evolution is fact and god is about as real as zenu.
    Atheists are much more attractive. It shows you can stand up for yourself. I am sorry it took you this long Ryan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s