We’re proud to present today’s “What Next” essay from David King Landrith, aka DKL, aka Arturo Toscanini, aka etc. Dave is a well-known participant in the LDS blog world, although to the best of my knowledge he is currently lacks a site to call his home. Perhaps in part for that reason, many of us are less familiar with his personal story of faith, doubt, and renewed faith. Thanks, David, for this brave and fascinating discussion of your singular experience!
I became an atheist during my sophomore year at BYU. It was late winter or early spring of 1991, some time during the beginning of my 23rd year. That was the year that I found logical positivism, a school of philosophy that has fallen into disfavor in some quasi-official sense. Nevertheless, many of its tenets are now among the key operational assumptions of philosophers and scientists of nearly every stripe.
For most atheists, gods are like unicorns: there’s no compelling reason why they can’t exist; it just so happens that they don’t. For a positivist, gods are like round squares: they’re defined in a way that renders their existence impossible. Gods are unintelligible, so everything that we say about them is either false or unintelligible. The question of belief (or faith) never arises, because there is no intelligible proposition to be believed.
Logical positivism was the last in a long series of straws that finally broke the camel’s back. As a teenager, I’d observed the regularity with which leaders trotted out guilt and authority and scriptural justification as mere crowd control measures. I’d been disabused of the sanitized, Sunday School version of church history. I’d read everything I could find about the historical issues and textual origins of the Old and New Testaments (and the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham). I found Mormonism as practiced at BYU to be somewhat offensive. I’d found nothing inspired or spiritually redeeming about the MTC, where my experience had left me feeling brow-beaten and humiliated. Plus, it’s difficult for me to feel at home among many mormons.
Furthermore, I’m just not a very spiritual person. I’ve felt the Sprit before, but I generally find myself at a loss when I’m in situations where other people purport to be having powerful spiritual feelings or experiences. There are things that come quite easily to me—I have many God-given gifts. Spirituality isn’t one of them. It’s one of the many things that makes me a work-in-progress.
Among the more cult-like propensities of Mormonism is its tendency to stigmatize individuals for their disbelief. If someone loses their “testimony,” it’s surely because they were somehow unfaithful. I’d internalized this enough to make it difficult to come out of the closet about my own disbelief. The first person that I spoke to about my disbelief in the church was my only lifelong friend. We were in his BYU student apartment at Carriage Cove. After talking around the topic for hours, I finally said, “I just don’t believe in God.” He asked the same question that I’m addressing here: “So what now?”
At that moment I didn’t know the answer. I quickly learned that there isn’t one. Everyone reading this knows that the world didn’t end in the spring of 1991. Life went on same as always. The sun still rose and set, I still skipped most of my classes, and the taco salad at the CougarEat still sat in my stomach like lead. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really. Here’s what life is like without the spiritual comfort of Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost: pretty much the same as life with the spiritual comfort of Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.
What’s the meaning of life without deity? What’s mortality when death is the terminal destination? Bertrand Russell once said, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness although it must come to an end. Neither do life nor love lose their value because they are not everlasting.” That’s it in a nutshell. Once you see it, it’s obvious.
Shortly before I was thrown out of the MTC, before I had jettisoned my belief in an historical Jesus and Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission and an all-seeing Heavenly Father, I’d found an essay by Bertrand Russell entitled A Free Man’s Worship which resonated with me more than any scripture I’d ever read. One of the more profound passages goes like this:
The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need—of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.
I know of no clearer description or explanation of the moral imperative to love our neighbor. Though many religious types would have us believe that there are no alternatives to the moral frameworks offered by religions, this passage expresses the basis for what the King James Bible calls “charity” without recourse to gods or a religion. In the end, you don’t need scriptures or deity in order to be able to understand what makes things right and wrong.
Over the decade that followed my conversion to atheism, people often asked me about my religion. I’d say, “I’m an atheist.” And then they’d ask me what religion I was raised. “Mormon,” I’d reply. And, of course, I look very Mormon. Ever after, they’d refer to me as “the Mormon.” Maybe I could have escaped this label—or at least its definite article—if I’d have lived in Utah or Idaho. In any case, Mormonism chose me as much as I chose Mormonism. So much for free agency.
After we’d had two daughters, my wife unilaterally decided to raise them in “the church.” I made some half-hearted objections and acquiesced. (In marriage, we must choose our battles.)
After the birth of our third daughter, my wife claimed that three kids were too much to handle alone at church. She insisted that I come along to help carry her bags and such. I’m not such a great husband, but I’m a real champ when it comes to carrying bags and such, so I started going. I’d already spoken with the bishop, so they knew that I was an atheist. Even so, after a few months they asked me if I’d do home teaching. I said, “sure,” and they assigned me six families. I should have seen that one coming.
A priesthood leader asked me to start reading the Book of Mormon and pray about it. I’d done this so many times before. I scoffed, “Of course I will. I’m not afraid of your prayers!” And I started reading. Much to my dismay, over the next few months I actually started to believe—really believe. It is the most confusing series of events in my entire life. Honestly, in some ways it was nearly as hard for me to announce my belief as it had been to renounce it years earlier.
The next year, our family got sealed in the temple. Our 4th daughter was born in covenant. To this day, it sometimes strikes me as the strangest thing.
Perhaps I’ve simply reverted to the fables I was taught in the nursery after experiencing a rude awakening. It’s not like anything has happened to me that is unprecedented or outside of the capability of science to explain. At the bottom of it, I’m pursuing Mormonism for the same reason I pursued atheism: I feel it’s the right thing to do.
Mormon doctrine dictates that my move to atheism was a mistake. This doesn’t mean that everything I did when I was an atheist was a mistake. While an atheist, I started a family and a career, and I grew as an individual. But it does mean that I would have grown more if my life hadn’t taken that detour through atheism. I can accept that. After all, I’m a poor failing sinner.
I still don’t know where I fit into Mormonism or exactly how repentance works. Maybe I’m starting where I left off. Maybe I’m like Oliver Cowdery, who after years of inactivity came back to find that the church had (in some sense) passed him by.
In many ways, I’m a fairly conventional Mormon. I believe that Joseph Smith translated the Golden Plates, that he restored God’s authority on earth, that God’s authority is held by our prophet today, that this authority is manifest in the hierarchy of our church, that our ordinances are uniquely sacred and efficacious. But in some other areas, my beliefs are all over the map. I’m still a logical positivist, albeit a fairly confused one. Though I believe in the historicity of The Book of Mormon, I’ve set aside my questions regarding the scriptural authority of the New Testament or how the function “x is a god” is satisfied. In fact, I’ve set aside a whole lot of questions. Maybe I’ll figure them out later. In the meantime, I do believe, and I struggle to serve faithfully, to keep the commandments, and to believe more strongly.
I am not a doubting Mormon. I’m just one that doesn’t have a lot of answers. The scriptures depict Christ saying that we should all be like little children. I don’t know what to make of this, except that we need to be comfortable being bewildered much of the time. In this one area, I’m absolutely confident of my faithfulness: I am bewildered much of the time.