coming out

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.