The faith of an atheist

I remember my first (and so far, last) attempt at cliff diving. I was at a waterfall, maybe twenty feet high, and there were a lot of other people there, happily jumping down to the pool below and then climbing back up for another plunge. Wanting to join in the fun, I walked to the top of the fall, stepped to the edge of the cliff, prepared to dive…

…And my resolve entirely failed me. I looked down at the water below, and it seemed so far away that I could not bring myself to go over the edge. My fear got the better of me, and if I hadn’t slipped and fallen off then I would have had to withdraw in shame. (Don’t worry, I landed just fine.)

What did I lack, at that critical moment? I think I lacked faith. I saw other people enjoying the plunge, but I had no faith in my own ability to follow their example. I rationally understood that the water below would absorb the shock of my landing, but I had no faith that it would actually save my life. When it came time to make a literal leap of faith, I couldn’t do it, and I still can’t.

I have, however, successfully made more metaphorical leaps of faith, which brings me to my main topic: my leap out of theism (more specifically, out of Mormonism).

I grew up in a fairly devout Mormon household, as did both of my parents and most of my grandparents. I served a mission and married in the temple like a good Mormon should, and while there was obviously lots of pressure for me to do so, I also really believed that it was the right thing to do. Like many Mormons, I had had profound spiritual experiences that really seemed to be from God, and Mormon theology seemed pretty cool, and the Church seemed like a good organization full of good people, and while some of the Church’s truth claims were pretty weird, they didn’t seem obviously false, so I could let those slide. Bottom line, I was a happy Mormon, and I thought I always would be.

Then someone showed me the CES Letter, and it rocked my little world. The Church’s truth claims really were false. The Church itself did bad things, and it sheltered and supported bad people. And those spiritual experiences I had? Meaningless! Lots of people had experiences like that, and they interpreted theirs in ways that contradicted mine, and no one had any way of saying which experiences were real, or what they really meant. There was no good reason left for me to stay in the LDS church, and plenty of reason to get the hell out.

But how could I? I had tied my whole life to the Church. It gave me meaning. What would I do without it? What would my family say? (And could they really all be wrong, too?) And all those times I felt the spirit of God – surely that all meant something, didn’t it? How could it all be wrong?

It took an act of faith to step away from Mormonism – faith in my own powers of reasoning and in the conclusions I had reached, faith in the information I had received, and most importantly, faith that it was worth it. Faith that I could be different from my family and still be happy. Faith that the truth was worth sacrificing for, and that I could find a new purpose for my life. But this time, I didn’t need to slip to go over the edge, and when I got to the bottom, I found that the water was fine. I made a leap of faith, and I’m never going back.

I was prompted to write this after I read this Atheist Pig comic in which the artist seems to be saying that being an atheist requires no faith at all. If that is what you’re saying, Winston, well, you’re wrong. It took a lot of faith for me to become an atheist, and I know that it took other folks a lot of faith as well, maybe more faith than I’ll ever know. Even now I have to have faith to stay an atheist: faith that rationality really is more reliable than the powerful feelings I still feel sometimes, and faith that science really does work, no matter how often my Christian friends denigrate it. None of this comes automatically.

So if you hear theists say something like “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”, acknowledge that they’re right! In spite of all the facts, they really don’t have enough faith. Perhaps they’re like me, standing on the edge, wanting to make the leap but unable. More likely, they’re so sure that the water’s unsafe that they never even go near the waterfall. They have a different pool to jump into, the poor bastards. But have some empathy for them. Following the truth, no matter where it takes you, takes more faith than some people have, even when it’s what they want to do.

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