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Why So Many Mormons Become Atheists

Started by Solitary, August 26, 2014, 03:31:58 PM

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When young Mormons are sent around the world to attract new adherents to the Church, sometimes they end up questioning their own faith.

Seventeen-year-old Matthew Timion was smoking a cigarette out his bedroom window when he heard a knock at the door. He’d just moved across the country with his mother and stepfather, a militant atheist. The recent death of his alcoholic father had left him with many questions about life, death and faith. Without looking, he somehow knew the visitors at the door were Mormon missionaries. He later interpreted this as a sign from God.

“Mormonism came as a white horse,” Timion says. “They talked about families that can be together forever, life after death, the purpose of life. And there was an instant community. [For] someone like myself, who has father issues, this church run by men ready to give you a pat on the back filled every need I had.”

The missionaries Timion met that day guided him through the conversion process. Two years later, Timion embarked on a mission himself.
* * *

Non-Mormons are used to hiding from pairs of clean-cut young men in name tags and dark suits. But few of us understand what it’s like to be inside those suits, knocking on doors and approaching strangers in public to discuss their most deeply held beliefs.

Since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830, over one million Mormons have gone on missions. In March 2014 alone, there were 85,039 full-time missionaries serving at 405 missions around the world. Sixty-four percent of those missionaries were young men, 28 percent were young women, and 8 percent were seniors, who are defined in church literature to be worshippers who have left the workforce.

For young men growing up in Mormon communities, the pressure to go on a mission is enormous. Open any newspaper in Utah and you’ll find farewell and homecoming announcements. An advertisement in The Universe , Brigham Young University’s campus newspaper, offers a free pre-mission dental exam. One missionary we spoke to had his wisdom teeth removed as a farewell gift from his Mormon dentist.

Russell Beckstead is the ninth of ten siblings, six of whom had served before Russell was old enough to serve on a mission. In the small Idaho town where he grew up, 66 percent of the county was Mormon, and time was marked by the comings and goings of missionaries.

“If you’re a man in the church and you didn’t serve a mission, that immediately raises eyebrows,” Beckstead explains. “Your prospects of getting a mate are linked directly to whether or not you served an honorable mission. A common joke is that the more people you preach the gospel to, the more attractive your future wife will be.”
Even more than mainstream Christianity, Mormonism emphasizes the importance of evangelism. One of Joseph Smith’s revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants , an LDS foundational document, reads, “Ye shall go forth in the power of my Spirit, preaching my gospel [...], declaring my word like unto angels.”

During our interview, Beckstead pulls a laminated card from his pocket. “This is a priesthood line of authority. Jesus gave the priesthood to Peter, James, and John, who gave it to Joseph Smith, who gave it to these guys, and these guys gave it to these guys, all the way down to me. There’s a direct line of authority from Jesus Christ to me. And so I really believed, on my mission, that I was an official, legal representative of Jesus Christ.”
* * *

All missionaries report to one of 15 missionary training centers throughout the world at the start of their mission. The largest training center, in Provo, Utah, stretches several miles alongside BYU and accommodates up to 4,000 missionaries-in-training who are called “Elders” and “Sisters.” For up to 12 weeks, they receive classroom instruction in foreign languages, theology, and conversational strategies, guided by Preach My Gospel , while the Missionary Handbook outlines acceptable language, dress, conduct, tithing, and relationships.

Several missionaries described the training center as “boot camp” for its spiritual and emotional “breakdowns” and highlighted its rigorous sixteen-hour scheduleâ€"the same hours missionaries keep throughout their time abroad.

“It was like a college dorm with a bunch of clean-cut men that all look the same,” says Timion, the missionary who converted at age 17. “A clone center. They let you know that everything you’ve done is a sin. All these 19-year-old boys and 21-year-old girls feel horrible about themselves, and confess and are forgiven. It was a very, very long, miserable experience that I wouldn’t want to relive.”

The missionary training center is also a missionary’s first experience of companionshipâ€"having an assigned companion by your side 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as you dress, bathe, study, eat, and sleep. If you want to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you have to wake your companion and have him stand guard outside the door. “Your missionary companion is there to keep you on the straight and narrow path, so you don’t let Satan win,” Timion says.
* * *

Russell Beckstead’s older siblings were called to exotic locations, including the Caribbean, northern Europe, and eastern Germany immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. “And then I was called to Indiana!” Beckstead laughs.

“In Indiana, there was this line everybody would use. They would say, ‘There’s two things that I don’t talk to anybody about: politics and religion. Now get outta here.’ I heard that line I don’t know how many times.”
Missionaries provide progress numbers to their mission leaders, who in turn report up a hierarchical structure: How many people they talk to, how many copies of the Book of Mormon they distribute, how many baptisms they’ve performed, and so on. All of the missionaries we spoke to mentioned how rare baptisms were, and how much guilt they felt as a result.

"You’re like, man, we only talked to four people this whole week. We must be horrible missionaries," Beckstead says. "And theyâ€"the assistants, and the zone leaders and the presidentâ€"they try really hard to convince you that they don’t care about the numbers. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not about the numbers, elders. It’s not about the numbers … but what are the numbers?!'"

And those numbers were frequently dismal. “The most typical experience was just a door slammed in your face,” Beckstead says. “Somebody sees that you’ve got a nametag on, and you’re in a tie and a white shirt, and the door immediately closes.”
* * *

After the first few months of his mission in England, Adam Ballard*, 19, born and raised in Provo, Utah, began to question if he genuinely believed in the only system of faith he’d ever known. He realized one of his roommates had gone on a mission to escape his abusive father, and that others struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, and pornography addiction, which Ballard attributed to the church’s repressive stance on sexuality.

Ballard was seeing a mission-appointed counselor for anxiety. “My counselor said, ‘Elder Ballard, you can choose to be yourself and do what you believe in, or you can live a hollow life.’ I don’t think he realized what he was saying. A week later, I called my mission president and told him I was going home.”

Before he could be released, Ballard was ordered to speak to his father, his sister, and his stake president, who acts as the head of several local congregations, or "stakes." He described this as “one of the hardest things in my entire life.”

Ballard phoned his father first. “He’s like, ‘What about when Mom died? What about what you said before you left on your mission?’ And I remember telling him, ‘Dad, I lied, because I wanted to look good.’ I got off the phone and cried for two hours.”

A 2013 study at Utah Valley University found that nearly three quarters of missionaries who return home early experience a deep sense of failure. Ballard served for seven months,and received an honorable discharge for health reasons. Although he’s finding the transition difficult and his home congregation less than receptive, Ballard remains positive about the mission experience overall. “You can ‘life shop.’ You meet thousands of people who’ve lived their lives thousands of ways, people who are doctors, lawyers, janitors, who have children, who don’t have children, who are married, who aren’t married, who’ve never been married. And you can see, like, ‘Oh, that’s how I want to live my life. I want to live my life like that guy.’”

* * *
Scott Horton’s family has been Mormon for several generations. Like many missionaries, he had doubts about his faith, but he wanted to set a good example for his younger brothers, and the scriptures suggested that the mission itself was the best way to strengthen his testimony.

While an estimated 40 percent of returned missionaries become inactive sometime after completing their mission, only 2 percent become apostates, meaning that they request to have their names removed from church rolls, or are formally excommunicated. Scott Horton is among the 2 percent. Looking back, he recalls the moment when “all the lights starting firing” on his mission in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. “In my last area, I went on a regimen of studying the Book of Mormon like crazy, praying like crazy. I got to a point where I was fasting every week, wanting to get an answer. I did that for two or three months. And just nothing.”

Another turning point occurred when Horton stopped a man on the street who was an adherent to the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting. Why do you follow her?’ And he said, ‘Well, five or six years ago, I didn’t have a job and I was out of money. And I couldn’t stand to be at home and watch my daughters cry over hunger. I was walking down the road, praying, and I had no idea what to do. And I saw a light. I looked into the light and saw the Virgin. She told me that everything would be okay, and that she was looking out for me and would provide for me. And when I looked down, below the light, there was 20 pesos on the ground. I picked it up and bought bread and milk for my daughters.

I’ll always remember that, and I will never move away from her.’
“I was dumbfounded. I thanked him for sharing that story with me and let him go on his way. I remember thinking, I have nothing that even compares to something that spiritual, that profound. Who was I to stand out here telling people what to do? You start to recognize how ridiculous it is to put people’s eternal salvation in the hands of 19-year-olds who are viewing it as a competition of who can baptize more people.”
* * *

Russell Beckstead, now in his mid-thirties, remains an active member of the Church. He still accompanies missionaries every week as a model of non-missionary fellowshipâ€"what he refers to as “being a normal person.”
Young is uncomfortable with the missionary promise that conversion is a cure-all. “People will talk about how they lost their job, or they have this medical problem, or their wife left them, or their kid is in trouble at school, or their parents are suffering and old. And as a missionary, your mentality is, ‘Okay, pray and read the Book of Mormon. Done.’ And I want to be like, ‘Did you not hear all these other problems?’ I still believe that faith and Jesus Christ gives people power and comfort in their lives. But it’s not going to solve their problems!”

For Beckstead and others, like Ballard and Horton, the most memorable aspect of missionary work was the connections they developed with different kinds of peopleâ€"and the theological tension these connections raised. “There’s a scripture in the Book of Mormon that says, ‘The natural man is an enemy to God.’ It gets drilled into you that everybody else is secretly miserable because they’re not in the church. As a missionary, it’s your job to share the secret to happiness. And I just found that that wasn’t true. There’s lots of happy people with great lives, just trying to do the best they can.

“Maybe my faith in the institution was shocked, but my faith in humanity was boosted.
There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.


The purpose of missions is twofold- first to proselytize and bring in new members and second is the cementing of the religion into the missionary himself. Fewer people who have served missions tend to opt put or question the religion than otherwise.
but the irony is that now, with the internet and all of the outside forces of media and information, missions often as not tend to bring into glaring focus the faults of the church.

The moral is you can only hide a pig under the rug for a limited time.


You have to be as dumb as a post to be a mormon to begin with.
The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.

-- H. L. Mencken


Quote from: Minimalist on August 26, 2014, 05:53:01 PM
You have to be as dumb as a post to be a mormon to begin with.

I was a Mormon for 42 years. I don't consider myself dumb as a post.


Yeah, from the outside, it's tempting to say "How can anyone believe something like that?" but being raised in that environment is a whole different story.  Plus, it's not like churchgoers typically get much exposure to a skeptical vantage point.


Exactly why I don't think 'mental deficiency' or 'mental illness' are the best ways to describe having a religion. A lot of us here used to be religious; and I don't think we would call us mentally ill or dumb back then. Just misguided, mistaken and wrong. Growing up religious stems more from being taught that the world and reality itself are, in a certain way, a lot less interesting, wonderous and complicated than they truly are. If anything, that's having a limited view on reality, not a lack of intelligence or sanity. It's not matter of being dumb or insane, it's a matter of accepting the reality your environment keeps presenting to you. And it's through growing and experiencing more of this reality and of other peoples and stepping outside this environment that we can learn our previous limits and broaden the mind.
"If we have to go down, we go down together!"
- Your mum, last night, requesting 69.

Atheist Mantis does not pray.


Mormonism does have one of the most far fetched origin stories, with the lost then found, then lost then found again golden tablets, in an unknown language that could only be interpreted by Joseph Smith and his magic spectacles.  That in itself is such a bizarre tale that the real question is why do so many Mormons remain Mormons?


South park really nailed Mormonism best.

"Dum dum dum dum dum"

The amazing thing is all you need to do is just tell the exact story of Joseph Smith to show how ridiculous it is, you don't have to do anything else or explain fallacies like other religions, you just quote how Mormonism was founded and thats it.

The best thing about mormonism is that you can use this as a perfect standard for all other religions, think about mormonism like its contained in a bubble and you can observe it, you can actually use this bubbled faith as the perfect standard for every other faith before and after it, because it follows the exact same rules of its inception to all theists. Have a speaker convince a group of gullible and easily lead people of an amazing feat, and have them spread it around, all while making it if anyone criticizes them, have then the masses turn on those criticizing them, making the masses think they are the enemy.
'Political correctness is fascism pretending to be manners' - George Carlin


I personally have met a Harvard English professor that was/is Mormon. I worked for a general in the Air force that was a Mormon. I have a nephew who was a Russian diplomat that is Mormon. Dumb is not the situation. I personally was raised in the church and indoctrinated my entire life. I credit the Vietnam War and the fact I was not able to serve a mission for the main cause I am not now a Mormon. I didn't receive the second level of indoctrination.

My brother was one of the smartest people I've known, and he was a High Priest in the church. The best way to say it is that the level of cognitive dissonance is such that you can mentally set aside any opposing information because the built in, indoctrinated faith is so strong it overrides any other truth. The man who authored my letter of excommunication was an attorney. I worked with, and debated, a friend at Hill AFB who also had a degree in English Lit and he was able, mentally, to set aside any evidence I offered, because the faith card trumped all.

This is why I can say with confidence that religion is not going away any time soon, or going away quietly.


It more often or not is the case that it doesn't matter how smart you are, if you have recieved doctorates or degrees, it doesn't matter if you have a genius level IQ or dumb as a post, religion is something that infects the mind of so many people, making their achievements in higher education almost meaningless. How could it be described as anything else if a harvard professor still believes in make believe stories of creation and water walking.

That isn't of course to say just because someone of a higher degree of intellect who believes in god and jesus can't discover something important, it just taints there ideals if they claim it was gods message that let them discover such sciences or equations

'Political correctness is fascism pretending to be manners' - George Carlin


Quote from: Solitary on August 27, 2014, 12:07:23 PM
We all have our delusions and don't realize it. As children we don't question our parents (authority), and when older some still don't question authority, even that of science. I believed most of my life that if I touched the eggs in a Robins nest the mother wouldn't come back to feed them and they would die. I also believed it was my duty to serve my country I pledged allegiance to. Peer pressure is very real and strong, even stronger than our parent's guidance. Solitary
Like some have pointed out, many of us were once religious and we wouldn't necessarily call ourselves dumb or deluded, right?  Not so fast; I used to be religious, and it would be correct to say, that I don't look back on myself as being lacking in intelligence, but I would most certainly describe myself as dumb and deluded in regards to my religious beliefs.  One of the definitions of delusion is "believing something which contradicts known evidence."  I clearly had such a delusion, and I feel right in saying others do too.  But there seems to be an unspoken exemption for religion in the definition of delusion.  The question is WHY??   But never-the-less, a delusion is what I had.  I would also go on to heartily embrace a more informal expression for myself and others with religious beliefs.  The expression would be "downright wacky."


In many cases it's not exactly 'known evidence'. If your social environment keeps indoctrinating you to not trust the actual evidence and see it as evidence, then to you this is not 'actual evidence'. In reality it is off course, but you are blinded by your environment to see it as such. You are still mistaken, but not because you have a mental illness that makes you over-fantasize and lose contact with reality. It's because one is a social creature that relies on it's social environment to construct it's worldview, in which these flawed and mistaken convictions are amplified rather than discouraged.

Perhaps it's not the true definition of 'mental illness' I use, in this. But i find that wether a 'delusion' is forced upon by the environment or develloped by one's own psyché whilst discouraged by the environment should be a clear distinction. Both are equally wrong, don't get me wrong. But where one truly seems like it's formed because of an ill mind, the other is formed through a much more normal and less deviant human condition. Because as social creatures we are, for the most among us, rather subsceptible to the (perceived) authority and opinions of those around us. For example, my grandfather is religious. He comes from a time and place in which his entire environment told him that this version of christianity was true. He was discouraged to doubt it, to research it or whatever. He was assured that there was evidence and he practically met no opposition to make him doubt the claim that he was practically spoonfed from the time he was a baby. However, when he was middle-aged, apparently, he had a terrible bout of paranoïa and depression. Going so far as to think he was beeing watched and followed and that my grandmother was trying to poison him. This was a mindset which he develloped even though his family and friends and doctors tried to help him get rid of this problem. I see a clear distinction between the two and would only opt to call one of them as a case of mental illness.
"If we have to go down, we go down together!"
- Your mum, last night, requesting 69.

Atheist Mantis does not pray.


One reason is that any and all outside inquiry of the truth of religion is highly frowned upon and discouraged. My excommunication letter stated that I was involved in teachings outside of Mormonism- a built in scare tactic. If you venture outside the fold, you will be cut off from the herd. It helps that now the outside herd is a reality and there are alternatives to the religion, a new thought process. People have a place to go; a new herd, so to speak.

I have never heard, in any church, the issue of the actual truth of the religion brought up. It is simply a given that this is the truth and you will follow along and agree or else. They call believers sheep for a reason.


Quote from: Mr.Obvious on August 28, 2014, 09:35:47 AM
In many cases it's not exactly 'known evidence'. If your social environment keeps indoctrinating you to not trust the actual evidence and see it as evidence, then to you this is not 'actual evidence'. In reality it is off course, but you are blinded by your environment to see it as such. You are still mistaken, but not because you have a mental illness that makes you over-fantasize and lose contact with reality. It's because one is a social creature that relies on it's social environment to construct it's worldview, in which these flawed and mistaken convictions are amplified rather than discouraged.
I understand what you are saying, and I agree more or less, but this is going to be about semantics, which I ordinarily hate, but since it suits my needs at the moment, I'll get into semantics:  LOL

As Solitary pointed out, we are all a little bit crazy, and I mean this to be taken literally.  We are indeed all a little bit crazy, and if we take an honest look at ourselves, we can find traces of various mental illness listed in Abnormal Psychology texts to varying degrees.  And I'm pretty sure to be legally declared "insane", all that is required is the opinion of a psychologist that one of our "traces" of mental dysfunction crosses an arbitrary line by some arbitrary degree or two, where the psychologist determines the dysfunction to be great enough to be worthy of a diagnosis that he writes down on an official form.

I'm not really disagreeing with you, because each of our environments includes the peer pressure you refer to, and I fully understand the power of that.  We are all effected by such pressure, some more than others.  It's a sliding scale as to how much we are affected, with someone who is totally controlled by those pressures and who is totally incapable of deciding anything on his own, crosses an arbitrary line and could be diagnosed by a psychologist as being "crazy."  Dependence on the thoughts of others comes in degrees, we all do it.  Doing it to the point of a diagnosis of "crazy" is just where the dysfunction crosses an arbitrary line.

When I look back on my past, I see this dependence in myself.  Just because my parents and other authorities declared utter bullshit to be reality, I believed it.  and I call that crazy.  Many psychologists don't and Christians never would, but it is what it is, and I call it crazy, just not to the extent where institutionalization, or drug therapy is demanded by society.

Well, that's my opinion.  I don't expect others to agree, but I did have fun trying to explain what I meant.  LOL


As to why Mormons become atheists vs becoming a christian (what I did) is in part due to the fact that atheism is now a more viable option. It becomes more apparent that religion is just different babies in the same bathwater, and atheism is now more vocal and prevalent than it was in 1992 when I left Mormonism. Once again, thank the internet.

Now vs then, Mormonism (thanks Mitt! :biggrin: ) is seen more as a crank religion than previously, despite all the mainstreaming efforts by the LDS leaders. There have been more glaring comparisons just during the last POTUS election than many years previous.