agnostic

The Rest of the Story

In preparation for applying to law school, I spent hours today working on drafts of personal statements in various forms. While working just now, I was inspired to share something I should have posted years ago.

In April of 2011, I published the post “The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-out”. In it, I shared the letter I wrote to my father in February of 2009 where I confessed my disbelief in God. Writing that letter was, perhaps, one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. What I neglected to mention in 2011, however, was that reading my father’s response affected me more powerfully than my writing him in the first place.

Until that point in my life, friends, family, and my entire worldview had been shaped by my membership in the Mormon Church. I worried that leaving it would mean losing friends, expulsion from the university, and—worse by far—wounding my younger brothers and sister, my mom, and my dad, who all believed that with faith in God and worthy membership in His church, family ties would endure beyond the grave and into eternity. Confessing my burgeoning atheism would, to them, come as a rejection of more than just faith—it would come as a rejection of their love and eternal companionship. I imagined telling my father—the man who had baptized me; the doctor who had once, full of faith, laid his hands on my head, and commanded me to be healed by the power of God; who had taken me aside as a boy and showed me a painting of Jesus calming the storm and said, “Son, I believe this really happened.” I imagined telling him that all my professions of faith had been lies. I imagined his disappointment, and it broke my heart.

It took more than a year to find the courage, but with shaking, clammy hands I finally wrote him that letter in February of 2009 and confessed my disbelief. At first the words were halting and awkward, but shortly pages of the most honest and cathartic prose I have ever written came pouring out of me. He responded simply:

Ryan,

I love you little man. Many people, including me, have found themselves in your position. We will work through it. I don’t have any doubt of that. Be your cheerful, optimistic self and do what you know is right. I can’t wait to see you.

Dad

Instead of addressing my concerns or asking why I hadn’t said something earlier or even telling me he was sorry I felt so conflicted, he told me exactly what I needed to hear, even though I didn’t know it was what I needed when I wrote him in the first place. He reaffirmed what was, to us both, so much more important than religion: he understood me, and he loved me. Absolutely and without question, he loved me. And nothing I had said or done had changed that or ever would. Reading that made me feel shallow-minded. I had worried, whether I knew it or not, that my family’s love for me would be, at least in part, dependent on our sharing a similar religious belief. Reading his response put my mind back into perspective. It reminded me that my family loved me dearly and always would, and it reminded me that there was nothing that could be more important.

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“Religion Makes Me Happy”

Not long after opening up (somewhat) to friends and family about my agnosticism, I was called into my bishop’s office after our regular Sunday meetings in the BYU 108 ward. The bishop was conducting interviews with members of the ward, and my turn was up. We chatted for a bit about life, school, and my post-graduate plans, and then he asked if I held a current temple recommend. I told him I didn’t, and so he began to ask me the standard set of questions associated with a temple recommend interview.

He asked, “Do you believe in God, the Eternal Father?”

And I told him no. It was the first time I’d given that answer to any bishop—and he was perhaps the fourth or fifth person I’d ever told I didn’t believe in God. He asked me why I felt that way, and we discussed it for a while. Surprisingly though, the interview didn’t end with that question. He asked if we could continue the temple recommend interview, and when I consented, he went through the questions one by one. And one by one, I denied faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement, Christ as Savior and Redeemer, and the Restoration of the Gospel. I denied that there was a prophet on the earth, and I refused to sustain the leadership of the church. Finally, I told him I didn’t consider myself worthy to enter the temple. But when we reached the end of the interview, what he said caught me by surprise.

“Well, Ryan, I know you feel like you don’t believe in any of this, but you served a full mission, you’re active in the church, you do your home teaching, you’re keeping the commandments as best you can, and I feel like all of that demonstrates faith—even if you don’t recognize it.” Then he signed his name on the temple recommend and gave it to me to sign.

I almost laughed at him. Explaining my smiles, I said, “I can’t sign this. Signing means I think I’m worthy to go into the temple, right? I just told you I don’t think I’m worthy, and if I meant that honestly, I can’t sign this. If I do sign it, then I lied when I told you that I was honest with my fellow men, which means I shouldn’t sign it.”

He seemed frustrated, but he understood. And then he said something that really disturbed me at the time, though it took more than a year (and reading Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion) to understand why. He said, “Well, Ryan, I understand where you’re coming from. I think we all have doubts sometimes—and particularly those of us who, by nature or by education, think critically about everything we’re taught. I’m a scientist, and I’m used to having concrete evidence before accepting hypotheses. But in this case, believing in God and following his commandments has always made me happy, and to me, that’s evidence enough.”

It’s been a few years since our interview, but I have heard his words echoed many, many times by those who believe in God. Not just “It makes me happy”, but “It makes me happy, and that’s enough.” It makes me want to scream, to type in enormous font—bolded, italicized, and underlined: That it makes you happy does not make it true! That it makes you happy does not make it good for you!

That believing in something makes us happy does not make it true.

Believing in Santa Claus as a child made me as happy as I suppose it makes any other child. And it’s natural, of course. Consider the idea: a single, magical, bearded, jolly man who, out of sheer good will and holiday spirit, flies about the world in a single night, delivering elven-made toys to young boys and girls (but only so long as their names are on the “nice” list).

But St. Nick is nothing but God dumbed down for children! Too young to fear death and wish for eternal life, they get candy and toys instead. Too short-sighted to wait till the end of their lives for reward, they wait till Christmas. More easily threatened than their parents, their naughty behavior receives lumps of coal instead of an eternity of burning and suffering at the hands of sadistic monsters.

Happy as it made me, it was a lie—a lie that hid a much more beautiful and believable truth: my parents loved me dearly, buying gifts with money that could have been spent on themselves and giving them anonymously.

That the ideas of life after death and an all-powerful, benevolent being make us happy is no surprise. Of course these things give us hope and courage to face our own mortality. But that they bring happiness does not make them true…or even good for us.

Einstein Believed in God and Hitler was an Atheist!

Perhaps one of the most frustratingly illogical (and yet commonplace) “proofs” of God is celebrity endorsement. Too often, if I cite reasonable, scientific doubt as to the existence of God, I’m quickly met with some comment about how Einstein believed in God or how Hitler was atheist.

Numerous other celebrities can be used to replace Einstein and Hitler, but the logical fallacy remains: Regardless of X’s qualities (good or bad), X’s views on the existence of God have absolutely nothing to do with God’s actual existence.

Reductio ad Hitlerum (The Argument to Hitler)

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the reductio ad Hitlerum in this case is its poor choice of example. Hitler’s religiosity is one of the more trivial (but interesting!) question marks in recent history. Raised Catholic, he alluded to his faith in God and particularly the Catholic religion in public speeches. And in Mein Kampf, he uses language that seems to indicate he is a religious man:

The folkish-minded man, in particular, has the sacred duty, each in his own denomination, of making people stop just talking superficially of God’s will, and actually fulfill God’s will, and not let God’s word be desecrated. For God’s will gave men their form, their essence and their abilities. Anyone who destroys His work is declaring war on the Lord’s creation, the divine will.

Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Ralph Manheim, ed. New York: Mariner Books, 1999, p. 562.

In private, however, Hitler’s views regarding religion were often conflicting and confusing. Goebbels’ diary notes that Hitler felt revulsion toward Christianity and wanted to express that openly. But Nazi General Gerhart Engel’s diary records this statement of Hitler’s:

I am now as before Catholic and will always remain so.

John Toland. Adolf Hitler. New York: Anchor Publishing, 1992, p. 507.

Much better examples of evil (and confirmed) atheists include Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, who both sought to stamp out religion and those who practiced it, killing millions of their own citizens in the process. (Both, by the way, were responsible for many times more of their own dead citizens than was Hitler.)

Reductio ad Einsteinum (The Argument to Einstein)

The most frustrating part of the reductio ad Einsteinum is that it displays exactly the same lack of research as the reductio ad Hitlerum. In his own time, Einstein was criticized by multiple American religious groups for his statements against religion, including these:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side (1982) edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These…interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Randerson, James (2008-05-13). “Childish superstition: Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear”. The Guardian (London). Retrieved May 18, 2011.

If we are to credit Einstein for any contribution toward our understanding of religion, it is for his support of what I have been proposing with all these posts on the illogic of arguing for/against God logically:

I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

Frankenberry, Nancy K. The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words. Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 153.

We are indeed like children in a massive library. The world around us is filled with evidence of the past and the true workings of the greatest forces in the universe. It would be naive to say that we can understand what, if anything, gave rise to these laws and patterns. And, if some of us must assume a creator, it would be a shame to spend our lives praising the creator without understanding the creation. My greatest worry regarding the religious is that they spend too much time in the library praising the author and too little reading the texts.

Guest Post: How Complex is God?

I received a message yesterday from one of my dearest friends debating a point I made in Illogical Proof of God #2: Argument from Design. In it, my friend makes a very valid point and introduces a thought that I had yet to consider. Needless to say, cogent debate gets me all tingly inside, so, with his permission, I post his message here in its near entirety.

I almost posted this on your blog, but decided to message you instead, owing to the extremely dim view my professional colleagues take of public discussion of politics and religion.

I thought for a while about your post yesterday on argument from design, and while I ended up in the same place I usually do—that attempting to argue the God question one way or the other from pure logic or probability is a waste of time—there were a few interesting thoughts along the way.

The Ultimate 747 argument is pretty foolish, as we have no way of knowing how many worlds, how many universes, and how much “time” has elapsed before a single world like ours, with physical laws like ours, emerged. At the same time, I don’t find “God must be even more complex and improbable” to be a compelling counterargument either. It seems entirely possible to me that, if our universe was created, it could have been created by someone or something on a completely different plane of existence than the one we experience. Think SimCity; the “people” in your city have no way of knowing, or ever finding out, that they are just part of a simulation, but that doesn’t make it any less so. We can write computer programs with behaviors far too complex for any human to understand, but would you say the human is more complex than the program?

There are sort of 2 parts to that question. First, how do you (or can you) compare the complexity of a human and a program (or a God and its creation) apples-to-apples? Second, the complexity that arises in the observable behavior of a system often results from the interactions of a much, much smaller set of underlying rules. In the case of our universe as we know it, a few laws of physics (some of which we still don’t quite get, but bear with me) can explain what goes on around us. While the fact that these underlying rules don’t seem very complex when laid bare sort of debunks the Argument From Creation, it similarly detracts from the argument that God is even more unlikely.

I seem to have run myself in a circle, but it was an interesting thought experiment that led me to reinforce my thought that pretty much every purported “proof” for or against God should be treated with great suspicion. You either believe or you don’t, and there’s plenty of evidence to convince smart people either way they want to be convinced. The other interesting question for me then becomes: Is the choice to believe in a God and the choice to follow religion A, B, or C, fundamentally the same kind of choice, or are they something different? Believing in a God and purporting to know what he’s like, what he wants you to do (if anything), and why seem to be fairly different things. There is a similar abundance of evidence and dearth of proof in both cases. The former choice you can mostly keep to yourself; the latter tends to influence the way you interact with and think about others (at least if you go whole-hog with it). If you believe in God but can’t figure which, if any, religion is the “true” one, should you abstain? Should you narrow it down and then use earthly cues (e.g., “my family goes to church X” or “church Y has great food”) as tiebreakers? In my opinion, not enough attention is paid to the religion question relative to the existence-of-God question. In my opinion, the reason is this: The existence of God is important theologically and on a grand scale, but in our day-to-day lives it doesn’t affect us much one way or the other, so it’s easier to talk about than the religions that visibly impact the way people think and act. In other contexts, we call this bikesheddding.

Understanding the Origin of Evil

I hesitate to broach the subject of religion from a logical perspective (mostly because religious tenets are seldom accepted on the basis of logical reasoning). However, I’m hoping to encourage some thoughtful feedback from readers by sparking a small discussion.

I often oversimplify, making sweeping generalizations when I’m too hasty in my writing. I’ve written on several occasions that I can recall that “I can argue logically for God as well as I can argue against Him.” I still mostly believe that to be true, but while I was a missionary in Taiwan, I was once asked a question, the logical theist response to which still eludes me:

“Where did evil come from?”

The simple answer from a Judeo-Christian point of view comes naturally enough from any five-year-old in Sunday school: “Satan!” Called the father of lies, Satan is accepted as the father of all other undesirable qualities, and he is the father of evil above all else. It was Satan who first tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and her acquiescence gave birth to the fallibility and mortality of mankind. Now Satan and his minions tempt the sons and daughters of Eve, drawing them away from God by introducing them to evil.

The Taiwanese gentleman who asked me about the origin of evil was not interested in the origin of evil in this world, however, and neither am I. What he wanted to understand was the origin of evil in the universe. When did evil come into existence?

This requires a much more involved and complex series of considerations if we are to attempt to answer this from a Mormon point of view, so let me first address it from a more non-denominational Christian perspective. We’ll turn to Mormonism shortly.

Non-Denominational Christian POV:

Most Christians claim little (if any) knowledge regarding the universe prior to the moment of creation. Taking the book of Genesis at its word, the universe does indeed have a beginning. (The word genesis means beginning, after all.) And at the beginning of the beginning, “God created the heaven and the earth.” Then, over the course of six days, God created light and darkness, divided water from land, and made plants and animals to live and grow on the earth.

And this is key: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)

To this point, all that God made from the beginning was good. Very good, in fact.

Then on the seventh day, God made man from the dust of the earth, breathing into him the breath of life, making him a living soul. He put the man in the Garden of Eden, commanded him to tend the garden, and told him that he could eat of every tree in the garden save one—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God names the tree and commands the man not to eat its fruit.

Here, in naming the tree, God (who is omniscient and infallible) indicates that there is such a thing in the universe as evil. And yet, God has seen to it that all his creations to this point have been “very good.”

To me, this makes perfect sense. God, if he were perfectly and ultimately good, would not and could not create evil. It must have existed, then, before God began the creation of the earth. It must have begun before Genesis—before “the beginning.”

But this is where our assumptions regarding the nature of God come into conflict. St. John taught that God created all things, saying: “All things were made by him [God]; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) Yet, if we believe the Bible, evil exists, and, assuming that God is without beginning or end, we are left with few logical explanations:

  1. God created evil
  2. Evil came into existence but was not created
  3. Evil has always existed and is also without beginning

Let me address these in turn.

  1. I believe most Christians will be offended that I have suggested option 1 and dismiss it out of hand. And true, if God is wholly benevolent, he could not have the capacity to create evil (omnipotence notwithstanding).
  2. If we are to believe St. John, this option is impossible, as God created all things that are, which would include Satan and evil—unless, somehow, we can argue that these things are not. And yet, for God to name evil in the Garden of Evil is to acknowledge its existence and power.
  3. This seems, to me, the most logical explanation of the origin of evil. It seems blasphemous to suggest that evil has existed as long as God (forever), but suggesting that God created it or that it is self-existent (as is God; Jehovah or Yaweh means “self-existent one”).

There is, obviously, the possibility that Genesis refers to the beginning of this earth only when it says “in the beginning.” It may not refer to the beginning of the universe. This point is irrelevant, however, as ultimately the question remains constant: where did evil come from?

Mormon POV:

Mormon theology delves much more deeply into the pre-earth universe than any other Christian philosophy of which I am aware. Most of my readers will also be more familiar with Mormon philosophy than with most other religious dogmas, so it seems fair to address this question from that more interesting point of view.

(Warning: for those of you unacquainted with Mormon theology, this is about to get REALLY confusing!)

Perhaps one of the most unique bits of Mormon doctrine is also one of the most controversial: the nature of God. In short, Mormon doctrine indicates that God is an exalted man and was once human in the sense that you or I are human.

The following is Joseph Smith’s explanation of the nature of God:

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man. . . .

. . . It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did. (History of the Church, 6:305)

And this from Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be. (Quoted in LeRoi C. Snow, “Devotion to a Divine Inspiration,” Improvement Era, June 1919, 656)

Taking this understanding of the nature of God as truth, evil must have existed before God began creating the world on which we live. However, our question remains unanswered. Where did it come from? And with a Mormon’s understanding of the nature of God, is it possible to say that evil has not existed longer than God?

Setting this aside for a moment, let’s deal with the more immediate religious history of our world. In Mormon theology, Jesus and God are separate and distinct beings of immortal and perfected bodies of flesh and bone. God is the father of our spirits, and we are his children. Christ, as the firstborn of God, was chosen in the pre-mortal life to be a savior for mankind. Satan, or Lucifer, rebelled against this decision, was cast out of heaven, and one-third of the sons and daughters of God followed him into exile, from whence they tempt the two-thirds who remained loyal to God, receive physical bodies, and live on the earth.

With this chronology in mind, it becomes apparent that Satan was evil enough not only to rebel against a perfectly wise and benevolent God, but also to draw one-third of God’s children to follow him into the endless torment and misery of the damned. Significantly evil, in my opinion. But where did Satan learn evil and rebellion? This is where Mormon theology becomes confusing to me.

First, according to Mormon doctrine, no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God. That means it is absolutely impossible to be in the presence of God unless you are completely pure. (See Boyd K. Packer’s famous 1977 Conference talk entitled “The Mediator”.) Therefore, if Satan lived in the presence of God with the rest of God’s children before he was cast out for rebellion, where (between the time of his creation as a spirit and his rebellion against his Father) did he learn the concepts of rebellion and evil? It does not seem possible that he did.

In short, I do not believe it is possible to logically answer the simple question, “Where did evil come from?” from either a general Christian point of view or from a Mormon point of view. The only answer I’m able to supply (and the one I gave the Taiwanese gentleman who so thoroughly stumped me) is this: I don’t know. Maybe God does.

Finding Happiness in Doubt and Honesty

Not too many months after writing the letter I included in my last post, I finally stopped trying to convince myself to believe in God. Instead, I embraced what came much more naturally to me: honest, open skepticism. At first, I felt a confusing and almost constant undercurrent of anger toward all things religious—and particularly toward people who attempted to encourage belief in God by appealing to logic. I found myself seething inside, angry at what I thought were unreasonable arguments, faulty logic, and invalid assumptions.

It took nearly a year, but I finally recognized where that anger was coming from. I had, without much thought, assumed that it was religion and religious people that had been the source of so much confusion and embarrassment—that somehow the duplicity and hypocrisy that I felt were necessary to maintain others’ image of me as a “good kid” were their fault.

I was ashamed when I realized that it wasn’t.

The thing that made me most unhappy between the ages of about 14 and 22 wasn’t doubting God’s existence or even the confusing mire of emotions that brought with it. It wasn’t my jealousy—wanting so badly what others seemed to have gained so easily.

What really made me unhappy (and what pushed me to share my experiences) was me. If there is one thing that I could go back and tell 14-year-old me, it would be this:

There is absolutely, unequivocally no reason to pretend to something out of shame, embarrassment, or loyalty. Honesty will reward you time and time again, but lying to yourself and those you love (no matter the reason) leaves you feeling Janus-faced and empty.

In My Beef with Audible (pressed Apr 20), I mentioned that my blog had only 507 views since I published my first post in July of 2010. Since I posted The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-Out (early yesterday morning), this blog has received 156 visits. I have received numerous emails, Facebook messages, and text messages—some from dear friends and some from complete strangers—thanking me for posting something so intimate and moving. I have been deeply touched by many of their comments and responses, which makes writing more rewarding than I had previously thought possible.

With so many welcome readers, I want to be crystal clear in my intentions. I am firmly and hopelessly entrenched in a single philosophy: life is about discovering, cultivating, and sharing happiness. In this regard, religion has been an intrinsic part of the human experience for millennia. I am happier without it, but many of my closest family members and dearest friends are happier because of their faith in God, which most of them consider the basic foundation of enduring happiness.

If believing in God makes you happy, believe in God! If you’re not confident that God exists, but going to church regularly uplifts you, go to church and hope!

All I hope to accomplish with regard to religion is to share experiences that have changed my life and, if I can manage it, give others who find themselves in similar positions the advice I wish I had received so many years ago:

Doubt is healthy. It pushes you to learn, to explore, to overcome. Don’t ignore it, avoid it, or deny it. Address it and grow.

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.