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Babylon the Great is Falling

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

(Frank Herbert, Dune)

In the beginning of my spiritual quest, I really wanted to reach God. I wanted to bridge the gap that I perceived between us. Now in a state of openness, I began to listen with open ears to what my heart was saying was the truth. My search for truth began to lead me to atheist authors. I wouldn’t have given them the time of day before my newly open heart. Now I listened for the first time without holding up the sheild of dogmatic faith, laying my breast bare before the sword of truth.

I had held many stereotypes about those who hold no belief in God. I imagined atheists to be unhappy, blind, immoral, purposeless, lost, angry, scheming, passionless, nihilistic, empty, dishonest, and untrustworthy. This is what I had been taught to believe. I had always dismissed atheists as shortsighted since they refused to take the eternal view. I laid this prejudice aside long enough to hear them.

Lightning flashed leaving behind a violent upheaval and rumbling thunder to reëcho and rebound within the halls of my opened mind. As I let the truth of the atheists’ words sink into my soul, it rang resoundingly true. I could not deny it. My walls of fear, shame, and self-deceit fell away. I found myself more truly awake to the truth than ever before. Dazed, it took me time to reorient myself and survey the wreckage of my self.

I could not recall one experience that I could say with conviction was the Holy Spirit witnessing to me of the Father and the Son. I had never felt the love of a Heavenly Father despite years of searching. Nothing in my memories led me to a belief in God.

I started to examine the doubts that I had carried with me through all these years. “Could it be true? Could God be just another imaginary friend?” I turned the idea over in my mind, examining it, testing it, tasting it.

I feared being perceived as unworthy, unreliable, and defective. The faithful perceive those who change their mind on such fundamental issues as unstable and untrustworthy. I was afraid of admitting that I had led people astray by teaching them the gospel. I feared being ostracized from the community to which I had belonged all of my life. I had never before been strong enough to take a stand against this social pressure. In previous moments of doubt, I had looked out despairingly at the unfriendly world and fearfully returned to the community, unable to bear the thought of going it alone.

That had changed. I was now prepared to stand alone, playing the fool, if need be, for the truth’s sake.

I feared losing all the sources of my happiness. I was taught that everyone outside of Mormonism lacked true, lasting peace and happiness. The teachings of my childhood equated leaving the church with leaving behind hope and happiness. Life without the gift of the Holy Spirit was a lone and dreary wilderness, devoid of joy I was told. Those who leave the church would taste the bitterness of life unaided by God choicest blessings.

Contrary to those teachings, as I accepted the unreality of God, I became more happy than I could remember being. A broad feeling of peace enveloped me as what I believed came into alignment with what I had experienced in life. I became true to my real beliefs. I set down the burden of ignoring my doubts and perpetrating a faithful façade. The small twinge of guilt that I felt when I professed an absolute belief in things that I didn’t know to be true slipped away. As I lived true to my real beliefs, whatever they may be, I found real peace.

I didn’t need God to be happy.

I feared being wrong. The slimmest doubt that God might actually exist kept me in line for fear of eternal punishment. Then my eyes were opened to the problem with this line of thought. I had as much reason to believe in the God of Abraham as to believe in Zeus, Odin, Krishna, or any of the other gods. Should I embrace all religions past and present just in case one of the many was true? Would any of those gods accept such calculating faith? (Revelation 3:16)

I had always thought it was silly for people to believe in those other gods. Their faith was patently superstition from what I could see. I now turned that same skepticism on the God of Abraham. I had been an atheist all my life regarding all those other gods. I simply took it one step further in disbelieving in the God of my childhood. I decided that, if I were wrong in letting go of my belief, a loving, forgiving God would understand my predicament, especially since He gave me a rational, discerning mind and then hid himself so well from me. How could He expect me to believe in Him. I had tried very hard to suspend the workings of my discernment in God’s favor, but was never completely convinced. In giving up that effort, my view of the world suddenly coincided with my perceptions for the first time in my life.

I no longer feared being wrong.

I feared uncertainty. The experience of being completely sure is pleasing. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. I sought to maximize my pleasure by ignoring evidences which threatened my certainty. The Mormon promise of certain knowledge drew me in and kept me in line. I wanted to believe with absolute confidence, to dispel the uncomfortable feelings of doubt.

I began instead to accept uncertainty as part of the human condition. Absolute certainty seems impossible, out of the reach of the finite, human mind. Even simple logical and mathematical assertions rely on the assumptions of fallible human minds. I saw that I lived in a world of unresolvable uncertainty. Being without doubt is not the same as being correct. The siren call of absolute certainty had curtailed my search for truth. My own convictions imprisoned me, walling me off from honest inquiry. I saw how it threatened to make people unjustifiably zealous and willing to commit atrocities. I saw behind the attractive veneer of certainty to the burning, wasting disease of pride which gives me a false hope of losing all doubt.

Even though uncertainty was uncomfortable, I made my peace with it. I savored being openly aware of my limitations and doubts and owning them. I realized the wisdom of humbly seeing those limitations.

I no longer sought certainty from God.

I feared that I would fall into immorality without God to guide me. Without an absolute guideline, how could I decide what was right and wrong? I had always decried moral relativism as a weak-willed justification for amorality. Surely if I was left to my own devices I would become an unrepentant, self-interested pleasure-seeker.

As I observed the workings of my conscience, I instead found that the moral compass that I had been following was largely internal and always had been. The people around me had shaped how my conscience worked, but it had been largely inborn. As I looked over human history, our gods’ purportedly absolute morality has always changed to suit the tastes of the people. The God of the Old Testament condoned slavery, stoned willful children, accepted human sacrifice, commanded genocide, and drowned the entire human race including innocent children, babies, and the unborn. The Old Testament patriarchs got drunk, slept with prostitutes, had incestuous relationships with their daughters, and offered their virginal daughters to satisfy the lusts of mobs. Prophets killed people who believed differently and children who insulted them. Jesus though normally thought of as peaceful was also a fiery personality at times, not only famously casting the money-changers out of the Temple, but advocating family abandonment for his followers.

Human moral judgments have changed since the days of the Bible. I think for the better. In a flash of insight, I realized that we are not made in God’s image. God is instead made in our image.

As man is
So is his God;
And thus is God,
Oft strangely odd.

We craft our gods to meet our needs, to embody our ideals. God was not a constant upon which I could rely. Teachings about God have evolved over time to match our evolving internal sense of morality. We read the scriptures selectively, picking and choosing which passages to follow based on our own moral intuitions. My sense of morality had never really come from God or the Mormon scriptures, but rather from an innate sensibility tutored by human society. I had sought justification from the scriptures for moral judgments that I had already made.

I hadn’t refrained from cheating on my taxes, tripping old ladies in the street, or killing babies because God told me not to. I wasn’t good because I feared eternal damnation. If anything, the idea of God had strewn my life with myriad forbidden fruit trees, all of them tempting because I was commanded to not eat their fruit. I chose to do good because I empathized with the victims of my actions, felt an innate sensibility about right and wrong, and did not like the consequences of wrongdoing.

Mormons would call this moral compass the Light of Christ, a close synonym for conscience, a gift of God to help His children discern between right and wrong. I found it more plausible that this was an organic product of how our minds have evolved to function in social groupings, not a mystical, omnipresent, divine influence.

I found myself without a divine moral crutch. I could no longer claim absolute authority over right and wrong. I saw that moral relativism wasn’t a prescription for human behavior, but a description of our true situation, impotent to find absolutes. We cannot know for sure what is absolutely moral, if such a thing even exists. Moral absolutism is what leads sane, well educated men to crash planes into occupied buildings. I was left to make up my own mind about right and wrong guided by my empathy for others.

I had never needed God to be good.

I feared being responsible for my actions; it seemed easier to blame it on the temptation of demons or on my fallen nature, or to seek forgiveness through divine intercession rather than accept that what I had done was irrevocable and a true reflection of my desires. As a believer, I had been able to sin while planning my future repentance. God would forgive, I thought, even the sin of planned repentance.

Releasing this fear of responsibility allowed me to accept and embrace my actions. I didn’t need sacraments to make me holy because I was not fallen. I became more aware of my actions, more intent on doing the right thing, since I couldn’t take my actions back—there was no intercessor to expunge my misdeeds.

I didn’t need God to take responsibility away from me.

I feared leading a meaningless, purposeless life. The thought of living and dying without purpose was intolerable. I could only bear human suffering if it served a greater purpose. God had given me a purpose and a direction. He had helped me to imbue my life with a meaning greater than mere survival. He helped me to look on human suffering as good, noble, and necessary. I could stomach the suffering of my brothers and sisters because they needed to experience opposition in all things. Everything was according to God’s plan.

The western religion in which I had believed seeks to divide the world into dualities—good and evil, heaven and earth, clean and unclean, sacred and profane—and use these distinctions to escape this tawdry world of dirt, death, and decay to a pristine heaven where there is no sorrow, no illness, no dishes to wash, and no inconvenient starving children. Transcendence is the watchword. Up and away from this life of pain and misery.

This mindset allowed me to avert my eyes from the unpleasant realities of life on earth. I gratefully ate my lotus and forgot my cares in heavenly visions of life beyond death. I was satisfied that all would be made right in eternity.

I now began to find purpose from a different source. I, as a human being in a universe without a benign supreme being, was free to choose my own purpose in life. I no longer desired to have meaning bestowed upon me from above. My life and agency were mine to dispose of as I chose.

Leaving behind God allowed me to escape false dualities. For me, all things became sacred. This change rooted me in the wonder of the mundane, and in the concerns of this life. I no longer sought to transcend this world, but instead to make earth into a garden of delights where the human family could enjoy the perpetual rhythm of birth, life, and death. I sought my nourishment here, now.

I found hope in the future of humanity. I found hope in our curiosity, ingenuity, and will to survive. Our altruism and love inspired me.

I didn’t need God to find meaning or hope.

I feared losing my family. Mormons believe that the fullest blessings for families can only be obtained within their temples with the approval of the church hierarchy. Only there behind closed doors can eternal families be created. Leaving the body of the church in light of this doctrine is seen as an abandonment of family. Heretics are qualitatively the same as those who shirk their family responsibilities.

Because of my change in heart, I saw myself become a more capable, loving, devoted husband and father. I felt a greater responsibility to feed and nurture my children. I became more enamored of my wife and more willing to do whatever I could to help her find her own happiness. I could not believe that a loving, devoted unbeliever would be separated from his family by a loving God while a man who performed certain rituals and was a mediocre husband and father would be forgiven and rewarded simply because he didn’t doubt the existence of an invisible being. A just God wouldn’t allow it.

I didn’t need God to be a good father.

I feared destruction. The thought of annihilation had provoked dread in my heart. Religion offered the promise that I need not fear destruction at death. As a believing member, I was secretly, smugly fond of thinking that non-believers were filled with fear of death while my belief spared me such pain. I took a secret satisfaction in the peace that I felt about death because of my beliefs about the afterlife.

I grew less afraid of death as I let go of my former ideas. Buddhism teaches of our impermanence. I perceived myself as a process which would some day end. Fearing that end would only cause me pain. Hoping for more was a distraction. I found peace and began to enjoy life in the face of death.

Before, as a believer I was the one who was afraid of death, who needed the assurance that death was not the end. I began to face my own death and destruction more squarely. I didn’t need consolation that death is only a reverse euphemism for change.

Instead, I treasured this meteoric experience of consciousness as a miracle. I was fortunate to have had the chance to experience life. Earth was my only heaven. If it didn’t live up to that name, it was in my hands to change it. I wished to improve others’ lives because they wouldn’t get a second chance at life, nor would they receive a divine compensation after death for wrongs they experienced. I looked to the time when my consciousness would cease to exist with equanimity. It motivated me to make the most of the gift of life, and to prepare for the welfare of my family after I could no longer look after them myself.

I didn’t need God to find peace in death.

As a believer, I abhorred the idea of being ultimately alone. When I considered a world without God, I felt like a motherless child left at the mercy of the brutal world. I wanted to be loved unconditionally, to be protected from harm, swept under a protective wing and told that everything would be fine. The world around me didn’t offer any assurance that this need would be fulfilled. Many of us may die without tasting the milk of human kindness. Some children are born into lives without love, leading a mean, dirty life that is sometimes mercifully short. We may suffer injustice at each other’s cruel hands or through acts of nature, without recompense in this life or any other. Monsters like Stalin die and will never receive justice for their crimes. We may suffer and die alone, deprived in our last fearful moments of the companionship of family and friends.

I hadn’t wanted to believe that these things were true, that we had no guarantee of love and justice. The concept of an unconditionally loving God assuaged my deep fear of being alone. It promised that all would be loved, that all suffering would be balanced by a joyous afterlife. None needed feel alone even when it seemed to be true for God was there by our side.

This fear may have been the most difficult for me to face. When I accepted that I wasn’t loved by an omnipotent ruler of the universe, I began to see the true importance of taking an active part in decreasing human suffering. There was no loving God to pick up my slack. Children who die in poverty would not be rewarded with heavenly riches. I must share my riches with them now, before it is too late. The victims of unspeakable crimes would not receive justice at the hands of a vengeful Father. Justice is in our hands. Those of us who die alone, unloved, and unmourned will not be received home with open arms. The only arms who can give them comfort are here, in this life.

I didn’t need God to love and be loved.

These fears were powerful even when they were only on the periphery of my awareness. By relying on God to allay my fears, I made giving up God too frightening to contemplate. My religious devotion was primarily a product of fear and self-deception. My fear held me to God. If I loved God, it was because he took away my fear.

As I mulled over the concept of a world without God, I was able to let go of every fear and doubt that kept me tied to God and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Through fearless honesty and the willingness to accept personal responsibility, I had gained freedom. I didn’t need God to conquer fear and doubt nor did I need Him to be at peace. I could find happiness without Him.

Santa Claus illustrates my change of focus very well.

As young children, our parents may have taught us to believe in Santa Claus. For the believing young child, Santa Claus is real and colors how they experience Christmas. They look forward to receiving gifts from a benevolent man whom they may never be lucky enough to see, who lives in a far off, magical place. They may think twice about being bad because they know that he is watching, judging whether they should get good presents on Christmas morning.

For adults, this is no longer how we see Christmas. We inevitably learn from some schoolyard skeptic that this is just a fairy tale. We’ve gone through the process of shedding our beliefs in Santa Claus, and painful though it may have been, it allowed us to more effectively deal with reality. We more selflessly give Christmas gifts to others rather than selfishly waiting to see what Santa has brought us. We no longer live in fear of being bad in case Santa won’t deem us worthy of a gift. If we are good, it has nothing to do with the ever-watchful Santa Claus and his list. We rely on the generosity of our friends and family to bestow gifts regardless of how good or bad we’ve been, simply because we are important to them. Our non-belief in Santa brings us closer, through gratitude and love, to the true flesh-and-blood givers and receivers of our gifts. Our thoughts no longer center on an imaginary man in a far off place. Our thoughts turn to each other.

Christmas may seem less magical without Santa Claus, but it becomes much more meaningful in his absence.

That is how I feel about my lack of belief in God. This is why my thoughts and hopes have turned to you, my friends and family.

All alone, or in two’s,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.

And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.

(Pink Floyd, Outside the Wall)

I look around myself and see my self-deceit laying in ruins. My internal audience is gone. Only I remained.



  1. andrea said,

    February 8, 2007 @ 10:28 pm

    It has been difficult to read your story. I am grateful that you feel happiness and peace. As I read regarding your feelings for the teachings of the LDS church I continued to think, “He just doesn’t get it. For all his studying and searching he missed the point of the gospel.” Of course, I already knew the true issue wasn’t about the church, but came down to the reality of a God.

    My spiritual confirmation wavers at times, but continues to exist and contributes to my daily happiness, without feelings of fear, guilt or mediocrity. I feel inner peace at this time and can respect that you also feel more peace and freedom with the decisions you have made in your life.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 9, 2007 @ 11:49 am

    Thank you for respecting my choices. The respect is mutual.

    You’re probably right that I never managed to “get it”. I think many of humanity’s problems stem from the fact that we each have our own perspective. When we talk to each other, we tend to not get each other’s perspective.

    Have you ever heard the word grok? (also see the wonderful Jargon File definition) It’s a wonderful word which connotes deep understanding, usually from personal experience of the true nature of a thing.

    If there is a God, I never grokked Him. I tried but failed. I have the feeling that most people who read it will fail to grok my story. I’m not impugning their intelligence. It’s just that you have to have gone through a very similar experience in order to truly understand beyond the superficial level.

    One person who I think would grok my story is Julia Sweeney, the comedienne most people know best as Pat from SNL. I’ll be reviewing her hilarious monologue Letting Go of God on my blog at some future time. She tells her story of leaving behind her Catholicism as she lets go of her belief in God. When I listened to her tell her story, I recognized so much of my own story. It was striking. I would go so far as to describe us as kindred spirits in this one aspect of our lives. You can catch an excerpt of the first part of her monologue. It’s ironic, she credits some Mormon missionaries with changing her life.

    You’re right, the heart of why I’m leaving the Church is centered on the question of God’s existence. However, the institution and doctrines of the Church are not completely off the hook. If there is a God, then the Church failed as a vehicle for me to reach Him. Mormonism has very little to say to the atheist in the way of showing why God should be believed in. As I have said, the Church takes belief in God almost for granted.

    I’m happy that you find happiness in Mormonism. I don’t need every Mormon to be miserable so that I can feel justified. :) I hope, though, that you can see where the gospel message can produce guilt.

    For me, leaving aside any sins of commission for a moment, there were always more things that I needed to do. Did I get my Home Teaching done? Did I go to choir practice? Have I written in my journal? How much food storage do I have? Am I gardening? Did I read the lessons for next Sunday’s priesthood and Sunday school classes? Have I gone to the temple within the last couple of weeks? Have I spent enough time on my church callings lately? On and on… Perfectionism runs high in the Church despite leaders’ counsel against it. The Church sends conflicting messages that you should be anxiously engaged but make sure that you don’t run faster than you are able. It’s a very difficult balance to strike, especially for the very conscientious.

    Anyway, my point here is that for every Mormon who groks the gospel message and has their guilt swallowed up in the Atonement of Christ, there is another Mormon who, like me, fails to grok the message which brings relief; who struggles under the weight of so much pressure without any vivifying influence of the Spirit. As this transition happened in my life, I began listening more closely to the testimonies which were borne in Sunday meetings. I may have been imagining things, but I think a significant portion of active members of the Church are like I was: they may have had emotional moments of broken-heartedness which they attributed to the Spirit but which didn’t produce lasting conviction. They struggle against the cognitive dissonance between what they hear in Church and what their experiences are telling them.

    Take that as a warning, if you like. What can the Church do to serve these people better? Are those strugglers failing, or is the Church failing them in some way?

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 9, 2007 @ 12:02 pm

    Oh, by the way, this entry might feel like an ending, but there are two more posts to come. Just so anyone doesn’t leave before the show is over.

  4. C. L. Hanson said,

    February 16, 2007 @ 11:15 pm

    I totally grok your story. Your thoughts, feelings, and experiences are very similar to what I went through and what I’ve read from others.

    The similarity might not show up as much in my deconversion story (part 1, part 2, part 3). However, the experience of wanting to gain a testimony, putting doubts aside while trying to gain one, then the moment of clarity (understanding why that confirmation will never come) is covered in detail in my novel, which I’m posting online as a serial here: Exmormon.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 17, 2007 @ 9:08 am

    It seems that I have some Sunday reading material. ;)

    Vive la vérité!

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