atheism

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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Happy Atheism

Often, the same individuals who argue belief in God because it makes them happy think that belief in no God should make me sad. They ask me—words gushing with sympathy and confident they know my answer before I give it—whether my worldview makes me depressed:

“If there’s no God, there is no right and wrong. So you don’t believe in morality, do you?”

“If there’s no God, then there’s no real purpose in life, is there?”

“Doesn’t it make you sad to think that there’s no life after death?”

Coming from theists, these questions are somewhat understandable, but what truly depresses me is hearing other atheists ask the same questions (or answer in the affirmative)!

But atheism does not imply absolute nihilism, and (rather than making me depressed) atheism makes me happy!

Atheism≠Nihilism

Nihilism is a multi-faceted concept with many meanings. Nietzsche himself described the concept in both positive and negative lights. I am a moral nihilist, as far as I understand the term. I do not believe there is a higher law that determines absolute right and wrong. And, consequently, there is no objective “good” and “evil”. But this is not to say I don’t believe in morality; I simply believe that morality is a subjective word, fluid in its meaning across national borders, situations, circumstances, and time.

I think most people (theists and atheists alike) are moral nihilists, though most theists would be loath to apply the term to themselves. Consider one of the great American moral debates: abortion. Moral conservatives (mostly religious) oppose abortion vehemently and consider Roe v. Wade an abysmal failure of the Supreme Court to protect basic human rights. However, the majority of these moral conservatives who oppose abortion agree that, in certain instances (e.g. if the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother, the fetus is nonviable, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape), abortion should be permitted as a legal and moral option. Those who hold this view cannot claim that abortion itself is an immoral act; rather, it is circumstance and motivation that determines morality. Killing works much the same. If person A shoots person B and takes his wallet, it’s an immoral action. But if person A shoots person B while person B is holding a gun to the head of person A’s wife, thereby saving her life, it’s heroic.

But simply because we cannot establish clear lines between absolute right and wrong does not mean that we are unable to live moral lives or make moral judgments. As individuals, we judge morality mostly by the Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

I’ll wager that, were we to establish strict laws and punishments based solely on the Bible, most Americans would find Biblically-sanctioned practices (selling our daughters into slavery, killing everyone who works on the Sabbath or plants different crops side-by-side or wears clothing made from different thread) as abhorrent as they find the concept of Sharia Law.

In short, atheistic moral relativism is more moral than Biblical or Koranic law, and most Americans recognize that without thinking twice. The only attraction a theistic understanding of law and punishment brings to the table is the hope that evildoers who are never caught and punished in this life will get what they deserve later. (Which means that atheism, if accepted generally, would actually encourage a more effective justice system.)

Stepping beyond morality, atheism does not preclude the possibility for purpose in life. Asserting that if something ends (life in this case), therefore it is worthless, demonstrates absolute ignorance. Thousands of counterexamples to this sort of nihilism present themselves on a day-to-day basis—and none of them have anything to do with God.

Think about what you eat, what you wear, where you live, and the thousands of choices you made since waking this morning. Everything you do is, from your perspective, calculated to make you happy. Yet it is mostly transient. You enjoy and look for better sources of satisfaction. You want to wear more comfortable shoes or more fashionable clothing. You want to ride a roller coaster or play a video game. And yet, after the day is done, you have gained absolutely no long-term benefit from picking the apricot jam over the strawberry jam. The flavor lasts a few moments and fades. But because the flavor fades does not mean choosing the apricot was worthless. It made you happy.

If you were told right now that you have exactly one week to live, what would you do? Perhaps do what you can to put your family and financial affairs in order, but I’m confident you’d eat your favorite food, indulge in a bit more ice cream than usual, visit your parents and siblings.

We seek our own happiness in everything that we do—even when we don’t realize it. We choose to donate to charities because it makes us happy. We go to work for terrible employers because the long-term consequences are better than if we didn’t go to work.

The only difference between atheists and theists in this regard is that theists are impossibly optimistic in how long their happiness-seeking behavior will endure…and also in their ultimate effectiveness at achieving happiness.

Which brings me to my final point.

Life After Death, Unicorns, and Why Atheism Makes Me Happy

Asking if I worry that there is no life after death is like asking if I am actively dismayed that there isn’t a magical, time-travelling unicorn waiting outside my apartment. That more people believe in life after death than the magical unicorn does not make me regret its non-existence any more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I have no recollection of existing for the billions of years before I was born, and it was of no inconvenience to me then. I don’t suppose I’ll care much when I’m dead either.

What I do care about is wrenching every last bit of happiness I can out of the world I’m in. This is where atheism makes life so much sweeter. Knowing that there is no tomorrow makes today particularly precious. Understanding the improbability of life makes me appreciate its impossible beauty. Believing that there is nothing about the universe that prevents us from understanding its mysteries makes me want even more desperately to satisfy my curiosity about quantum mechanics, the origin of our species, the history of human thought. And knowing that I’m too small, too short-lived, and too limited to learn everything I want to makes me yearn for a unified species of global intellectual cooperation and specialization.

Accepting and understanding my own atheism has driven me to a singular religious conclusion: Life is short. And then it ends. Happiness will not be doled out posthumously by a benevolent being to those who never had it here. Find it now. Cultivate it. And share it.

“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.

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.

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.