[The following is the first of a five-part essay offered by Mormon Coffee guest contributor Joshua Valentine (aka spartacus). All five parts of this series will be posted in succession, following our regular schedule of new posts appearing each Monday and Thursday.]
Why do so many Mormons become atheists? Whatever the validity of the observation, online discussions of this topic usually only revolve around the answers of not wanting to be fooled again, burnout, and that the same things that deconstruct Mormonism deconstruct all religions. All of these look outside for an answer, but what about Mormonism, itself? The very doctrines, teachings, and culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only directs its members toward atheism but actually gives them atheistic beliefs and atheistic perspectives such that, upon exiting the LDS faith, they find themselves closer to atheism on the spectrum of worldviews than to anything else.
In fact, it is Mormon doctrine that actually provides much of the content of an atheist worldview. Mormonism is the most materialistic worldview next to atheism. In Mormon doctrine, it is not the Mormon God or Gods, but Matter, itself, which is truly eternal, having existed from everlasting to everlasting. With Matter are Eternal Laws or Principles as well. These exist before and independently of the Mormon God. In fact, the Mormon God, like all Gods before him, is himself made up of this eternal matter and subject to these eternal laws or principles. Joseph Smith taught that spirit was actually matter, just a more “fine” form of it. God, according to Mormonism, had to obey these Eternal Principles in order to progress from eternal fine matter, or “intelligence,” to a god. This is in stark contrast to many religions that assume that independence from, and being the source of, all creation is definitive of what it means to be “God” or the “Ultimate.” However, in LDS cosmology, Matter and Eternal Law are the true Ultimate, not God.
Thus, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides its members an understanding of the universe that is nearly identical to that of naturalistic atheism, where matter and its inherent properties that are described by humans as universal physical laws are ultimately all there is. When a member realizes that the Mormon God does not exist, when this deity is removed from the materialist LDS worldview, they are left with a materialist atheist worldview already in place, provided by the LDS Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches the Plan of Happiness. One of the main purposes of the Mormon God is to bring about the eternal life and happiness of mankind. The LDS Church teaches that traditional family is critical to this happiness. Mormons are known for holding the family in high regard. Outsiders who study the religion find it difficult not to conclude that Mormons practically deify their family by their devotion to it, and how it plays such a prominent role in the purpose of existence, and the definition of happiness, and even heaven, itself. In fact, the Mormon God is subsumed into the human family as the literal physical father of all spirits. Mormons are also known for their service to others. With the exalted doctrine of family and the principles of greatest good being service to humans and family, the ex-member has already embraced the highest good in atheist practice – loved ones and humankind.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also teaches that God and humans are of the same kind or species. It teaches that God used to be a regular human and that humans can become Gods. All Gods and humans started as “intelligences,” or fine spirit matter. By an unknown process, this intelligence is embodied in a spirit body provided by a previous God and Goddess’ reproductive activity. The resultant “spirit child” may eventually obtain a physical body, living on a world as a human. The human may, upon dying and an unknown number of millennia in the afterlife, attain “exaltation” and become another God, and the process repeats. In this way, the LDS Church teaches that humans are the highest form of life in the universe, and that our development as individuals and the continuation of our posterity are the highest good. This is strongly analogous to the closest thing to purpose in atheism, the development and continuation of species and, the highest form of life in particular, humankind.
The primacy and essentiality of the family in the LDS conception of purpose and eternal happiness does not simply give a sense of idolatry but the “eternal round” of gods making spirit babies, who become humans, who become gods, and repeat endlessly is also a sacralizing of reproduction and genetic continuance. The LDS Church teaches that the glory of God is this eternal increase of his posterity. This increase is also only possible through the most worthy members, those who have overcome the challenges of life and flourished in the LDS gospel of laws and ordinances. One could say that Mormonism is a religion of not only individual evolution from spirit to human to god, but also a religion of the exaltation of the fittest. Upon leaving the LDS Church and relinquishing belief in its transcendent dimensions of god and afterlife, ex-members are by default evolutionary atheists whose highest good and reason for what they do is their own happiness, which in its greatest form is found in benefitting and continuing the human race.
How the LDS Church Prepares Its Members for Atheism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)
Good job Joshua. It’s an interesting topic and one that I don’t think we’ve ever covered here on MC. I swerved into this idea that the Mormon god is eternal because “matter” is eternal one time when we were having a discussion on the nature of God. I observed that as far as I was concerned, this Mormon concept was just one more in a long line of Mormon flim-flam used to con people into thinking that Mormons were just like Christians i.e. eternal god. I think you’re on to something here about Mormon metaphysics (?) setting Mormons up for a life of unbelief in God.
One additional thought. I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve been posting here, that Mormons love to use information from extremely liberal Christian “thinkers” or atheists for that “matter” (no pun intended), to bolster their arguments against Christianity. I’ve found that very odd until I remember that the Mormon gospel is an attack on traditional, orthodox, Biblical Christianity. You’d think that since Mormons like to play the “we’re just like you” game, this wouldn’t be a very good strategy.
One-more-thing. Whenever I type “Mormon”, I think of all of the various sects of Mormonism and that several don’t embrace the LDS/FLDS forms of the religion.
This was concise and profound, and a very real correlation I had never made before. Earlier I was reading the following and I feel that it is apropos to this article:
“It is clear then that God exists, but what He is in essence and nature is incomprehensible and unknowable. It is obvious that He is without body, for how could a body contain that which is infinite, boundless, formless, intangible, and invisible—or in other words, simple and not compound? How could that which is unchangeable be containable and subject to change? And how could that which is unchangeable be composed of and reducible to elements? For composition is the beginning of conflict, and conflict of separation, and separation of dissolution, but dissolution is altogether foreign to God.
“Again, how can it be maintained that God permeates and fills all things, as the Scriptures say, “‘Do I not fill heaven and earth,’ says the Lord”? [Jer 23.24] For it is impossible for one body to permeate other bodies without dividing and being divided, and without being enveloped and contrasted, in the same way that liquids mix and blend together.
“Now, if someone were to speak of an immaterial body, such as the fifth body spoken of by the Greek philosophers (which is impossible), then that body would be entirely subject to motion just like the heavens because that is what is meant by the fifth body. But since everything that is moved is moved by another thing, what then is it that moves that body? And again, what is it that moves that thing? And so on we go endlessly until arriving at something immoveable. For the first mover is immoveable, and that is God. Furthermore, how can that which is moved not be spatially contained? Therefore, God alone is immoveable, and He moves all things by His immovability. So then it must be declared that God is without body.
“However, even this gives no truer indication of His essence than when it is said that He is unbegotten, without beginning, unchanging, incorruptible, or any other qualities that are ascribed to God and His environment. These do not indicate what He is, but, rather, what He is not. But when someone tries to explain what the essence of something is, he must not speak only in negatives. In the case of God, however, it is impossible to explain what He is in His essence, and it is better for us to discuss His absolute separation from all things. For He does not belong to the class of existing things—not because He does not exist, but because He transcends all existing things and even existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, then that which transcends knowledge must certainly transcend essence, and, conversely, that which transcends essence will transcend knowledge.
“God then is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. But all that we can affirm concerning God does not show His nature, but only the qualities of His nature. For when you speak of Him as good, just, wise, and so forth, you do not describe God’s nature but only the qualities of His nature. Moreover, there are some affirmatives that we make concerning God that have the force of absolute negation. For example, when we use the term darkness in reference to God we do not mean darkness itself, but that He is not light because He transcends light; and when we speak of Him as light, we mean that He is not darkness.”
-John Damascene, 8th century
“It has been adequately demonstrated that God exists and that His essence is incomprehensible. Furthermore, those who believe in the Holy Scriptures have no doubt that God is one and not many. For the Lord says in the beginning of the Law, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other Gods before Me.” [Ex 20.2-3] And again He says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” [Dt 6.4] And in Isaiah the Prophet we read, “For I am the first God and I am the last, and beside Me there is no God. Before Me there was no God and after Me there will be no God, and beside Me there is no God.” [Is 43.10] And the Lord, too, in the holy gospels speaks these words to His Father, “This is eternal life, that they may know You the only true God.” [Jn 17.3] But with those who do not believe in the Holy Scriptures we will reason as follows.
“God is perfect and without blemish in goodness, wisdom, and power, without beginning, without end, everlasting, and uncontained; in other words, He is perfect in all things. If we say then that there are many gods, we must recognize differences among them. For if there are no differences among them, then there is one God rather than many. But if there are differences among them, then where is the perfection? For that which comes short of perfection in goodness or power or wisdom or time or place could not be God. This very identity of God in all things shows that He is one and not many.
“Again, if there are many gods, how can one maintain that God is uncontained? For where one would be, there the other could not be.
“Furthermore, how could the world be governed by many gods and saved from dissolution and destruction while conflict is bound to rage between the many rulers? For differences introduce conflict. Now, if anyone should say that each god rules over a part, who then arranged this order and gave to each his particular realm? For this last one would be God. Therefore, God is one, perfect, uncontained, maker of the universe, preserver and governor, and transcending and preceding all perfection.
“Moreover, it is a natural necessity that the origin of duality is unity.”
-John Damascene (cont.)
Mormons are those whom John speaks of when he says, “But with those who do not believe in the Holy Scriptures we will reason as follows” This is because Mormons do not believe in the true Holy Scriptures, but rather they believe that the Scriptures are qualifiedly true because they have been corrupted over time by omissions, additions, and distortions. Therefore, every verse or pericope from the Holy Scriptures has a caveat attached to it that says, “the Bible has been corrupted.” This can be used at any time by a Mormon for any passage in order to discredit it and shrug it off. As John said, Mormons are “those who do not believe in the Holy Scriptures.”
Mormons read a different Holy Bible, follow a different god, and live in a different universe than us. And they want us to call them Christians just because they believe in a historical Jesus of Nazareth? If that’s the case then so are Mormons and Baha’i, they are Christians as well.
Joshua, this is an amazing article you have written. Thank you so much. Some points I found quite interesting included:
1. The materialistic / naturalistic worldview underlying LDS teaching. Matter and physical laws are from everlasting to everlasting; predating Joseph Smith’s god. To believe matter is eternal is to deny one’s Creator. Consider Joseph Smith’s belief about this subject: “[T]he mind of man—the immortal spirit. Where did it come from? All learned men and doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning; but it is not so: the very idea lessens man in my estimation. I do not believe the doctrine; I know better. Hear it, all ye ends of the world; for God has told me so.” When Joseph said this, was he plainly denying his Creator? (As do atheists.)
2. God as part of a species, a species which includes man; god as a rank or level of advancement. As you astutely note, this would make humankind the highest form of life in the universe. (Also the view of atheists.)
3. The deifying of the family. I recently listened to a quote which (paraphrasing) said, “One’s greatest fulfillment and happiness is found in the family.” As I heard this, I wondered, “But what about God?” Life’s greatest fulfillment is found elsewhere? Is that not the philosophy of the lost? (This appears to borrow from the worldview of humanism.)
Thank you again for this fine article.
………….and then when I learned that Mormons were claiming that God is infinite because matter is infinite, it isn’t a stretch to say that God is subject to the laws governing the universe. These laws created the gods in Mormon speak. So Mormon men are going to become gods as they subject themselves to the laws of the universe just like all of the other gods.
What laws of the universe are there? Well you can’t drink coffee or alcoholic beverages. You must tithe at least 10% of your income to the LDS church. The universe is firm on that along with other special assessments levied by the organization. You can’t use tobacco products. Sexual purity is a must however the universe has demanded the belief if not the outright practice of polygamy in order to reach the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. Then there is the receiving of the priesthood ordnance along with endowments and the practice of several other temple rituals.
Mormons of course think we’re a pretty shallow bunch spiritually because we just can’t “understand” all of these deep spiritual truths i.e. laws of the universe. I often tell them that we understand it all very well. We just don’t believe it.
Now, is it any wonder that when a Mormon does a mind snap and gets it, that they become an atheist.
I can usually track down where Joseph Smith came up with his ideas i.e. polygamy, the three levels of heaven, the Celestial Kingdom, temple rituals……but I’m wondering where he came up with this one? He’d find ideas and incorporate them into his ever evolving religion. Some of it sounds sort of smart so I’m sure that’s why the LDS folks even of today buy into it.
Here’s another thing. When folks get the warm fuzziness from reading the BoM, they are tasked with believing everything that comes down the pike in Mormonism past and present. I wonder if they ever stop to think that Moroni’s promise is just for the BoM; as bogus as it all is anyway.
Joshua , you brought out some very important points that hopefully those Mormons who are Atheists ,or are considering becoming such will stop and ponder why they feel that way . They were set up to fall into that worldview by embracing Mormonism . Sad fact .
falcon , you’re right about how Mormons are cleverly led into basing the truth of the BM ( and Mormonism in general ) by trusting in a feeling , emotions , or as you said ” warm and fuzzies ” .
That’s a recipe for deception and can even result in dumping everything spiritual in favor of a Atheistic / Agnostic worldview . It’s sad that this happens . Thankfully , though there are Mormons who work through a lot of doubts and despair or forays into Atheism but come to see how they were misled in the first place by Mormon doctrine . That journey may take years for some .
The primary question that everyone, not just Mormons, has to at some point answer is, “Who is God?”
LDS have created a culture that on the outside, at least, appears to be very Christian. They present at morally straight people with great values and spit and polished families. It’s Norman Rockwell come to life.
But then when the cover is pulled back and we see the intricacies of the Mormon belief system, that idealized picture doesn’t look the same. Mormons speak reverentially about “heavenly father” and with great respect for “heavenly mother” when they mention the latter at all. She’s sort of the mystery woman in the Mormon pantheon of gods. The Mormon god and the heavenly mother or mothers that he procreates with to produce spirit off-spring are the result, we are told, of the laws of the universe organizing “matter”.
I wonder how many Mormons go directly from their Mormon belief system to being atheists? I wonder how many pass through atheism on their way to God? I think the Mormon system and culture have as much to do with Mormons leaving the fold and not looking back as does their discovery that the Mormon concept of gods formed by universal principles is a bridge too far.
Perhaps for some it’s like when Paul came to Corinth and found some “believers” who didn’t quite have their theology right. He explained to them more clearly about Jesus, who He was and what is God’s plan of salvation.
We can only hope that perhaps we might have a role in doing the same for Mormons.
Question: When you discuss frustrated Mormons turning to atheism, do you mean atheism or agnosticism? I’ve met several former Mormons who don’t know what to believe now, but only a few who have expressed disbelief in God or Christ.
There’s a whole crew of former Mormons who are quite proud of their atheism. They’re almost arrogant about it. Richard Packham is one though I wouldn’t necessarily call him arrogant. Here’s his story of leaving Mormonism and becoming an atheist.
Short four minute video by Richard Packham.
The idea that the Mormon Church prepares its members for atheism (or agnosticism) is very intriguing. I don’t know how relevant this is, but the Book of Mormon even provides a prayer for atheists and agnostics at Alma 22:17-18.
“And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying: O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.”
Like I said, intriguing concept…
These two sites are a conduit into the thinking of former Mormons who are now atheists or agnostics.
1) Mormons are raised to think that traditional Christianity got things wrong
2) Mormonism is meant to be an improvement beyond traditional Christianity
3) The same tools that deconstruct Mormonism can deconstruct traditional Christianity
4) Ultimately, Mormonism is distinct from traditional Christianity
Four Reasons Why Disaffected Mormons Become Atheists
Here’s another one.
One point I think is important to make is that I am not primarily trying to make claims about atheists or about Mormons or about Mormons that become atheists. Instead, I am exploring what in Mormonism, the LDS Church and other Mormon groups, and its culture that directly provides an otherwise atheistic worldview (materialism [cosmology] and humanism [family and service]) or, rather than being atheistic, simply directs members or otherwise sets them up to go to atheism after leaving. Any of these things can also contribute to a move to agnosticism, not just atheism.
I could have made the article even longer than it is at 5 Parts, there’s enough angles and material for a book. The issue of the validity of the observation that a significant number of ex-LDS become atheists was one I cut out to make it shorter and keep it tighter, but it will make it into a more formal and cited version I am preparing. But again, this article is much more about Mormonism than it is about LDS or atheists/agnostics.
You and Mike R are, unsurprisingly, previewing some of the following installments of the article. Try not to give everything away! We still have 4 Parts to go. Actually, it is in the last installment that I refer to and cite that very same wheatandtares article. It was one of the few examples I could find of anyone speaking about more reasons for the transition to atheism than the main three mentioned in the beginning. The wheatandtares article just starts to consider what the LDS Church does to lead members to atheism (points 1 & 2). It also has some good points in its comments section. I recommend it.
Thank you all, I appreciate it.
Upon pondering this whole issue you have raised about Mormonism I think that although members of others faiths might jettison their religious beliefs and become Atheists / Agnostics , but because of
Mormon doctrine LDS are more easily apt to slide that way etc . Anyway , that’s how I would tend to look at it based on what you’ve shared thus far .
I appreciate your contributions here on Mormon coffee .
Didn’t mean to get a head of you 🙂
My mind takes off on these topics and this is one that hasn’t been covered, to my memory. John Dehlin has a presentation on “Why they leave”. I don’t think he discusses a loss in faith in God, although he may. Being lied to and the mistrust that develops certainly plays a part in the formula because once burned, twice shy I believe the saying goes.
I wonder how many Mormons get as deep into the weeds regarding Mormon cosmology? However the theme is certainly there regardless of whether they think much about it. I don’t think the chapel Mormons, as they are called, ponder much. They’re just kept really busy and accept whatever they’re told.
I probably wouldn’t have thought about accessing these ex/former Mormon now atheists sites had you not written this article. It’s a really interesting subset of former Mormons. I was raised Catholic as most here know, Catholic School the whole deal. At twenty I said, “Forget about it!” and I basically became an agnostic/atheists type. I really didn’t know much except I was really super disdainful of the Catholic religion and that led me to hostility towards religion in general. I was a real [email protected]@ towards people of faith. I would say I was arrogant.
Anyway, visiting these sites takes me back to what my attitude was like forty-eight years ago. Would I argue or contend with an atheist the same way as I would with a Mormon or a JW? Probably not. Why? I don’t know, they really don’t interest me much as a group. But then I remember the people God used, through His Holy Spirit, to provide a witness and testimony of Him. I’ll probably have to re-think my position.
I don’t want to dip into the conversation here too much. But, given what you said above, I felt moved to give you my two cents.
You remember the demon-possessed man? Most people talk about the demon-possession, the exchange between the demons and Jesus, and the pigs, but at the end of the event it says,
“18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.”
I know his possession was known by the people he was sent to and so it’s a little different. I know you were raised Catholic and you say you had a time of agnosticism/atheism. The point is that part of God’s redemption of us and where we have come from is using us and it to reach others who are in the same. falcon, I’m glad you are re-thinking it.
I really don’t see atheists as much of a threat to the gospel message. The reason for that is that they don’t believe in the message or in God. That’s very straight forward because they don’t distort the gospel. Groups like the Mormons, JWs, Children of God, Moonies etc. pull people into a false gospel with a false god and false Christ. I would say they are more “enemies of the cross” then those who are bitter, angry and often quite pompous in their unbelief. Actually I don’t even care if they ridicule my belief. When they cross the line and attempt to stifle the free expression of religion, then I’ve got a problem with them.
The apostle Paul lays out a good argument in the first three chapters of the Book of Romans.
It is sort of interesting, the path former Mormons go down once they exit that sect. Some transition into Christianity. Some are just ambivalent towards religion. And then there are those who became agnostic or atheists. What’s the determining factor?
Joshua has a very interesting take on the teaching about God within the LDS church, for example, and perhaps that’s the determining factor. On-the-other hand, perhaps it’s that very teaching that leads people to God. How so? Well when a compare and contrast exercise is done between the God of the Bible and the LDS god, the stark contrast may cause some to have a mental “BONK” moment.
The interesting thing is when we encounter LDS folks who are still in the sect and they’ve turned into free-wheeling thinkers and expand and improve upon the (LDS) doctrine. These folks, it would appear, have bought into a sort of personal revelation program.
I was thinking about those who have transitioned into Christianity and who have very interesting testimonies. All of these are available on YouTube. For example there are the Wilders, Lee and Kathy Baker, Earl Erskine, Mitz Nelson, Sandra Tanner, Jim Spencer and that’s just a short list. I think our contributor to MC “grindael” went from LDS, to atheist, to Christianity. That’s an interesting journey.
None-the-less, for some reason all of these folks ended-up coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the grace of God, our Heavenly Father.
I think the fact that Mormon leaders , many of their teachings , and the religious organization they have built are counterfeits of the truth ( which we find in the N.T. ) therefore when LDS discover their leaders are men who have not been commissioned by God then there is the danger of not considering the truth faith which was counterfeited . A good counterfeit can end up being that emotional damaging because it has mimicked the true and LDS have mentally equated them.
Therefore it’s easy for them to throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak and become Atheists or Agnostics . That’s unfortunate. That’s the way I look at this issue . It’s only my opinion .
Mike R —
I have to agree with you. When Mormons discover their leaders have been systematically lying to them for decades — from Joseph Smith and his polygamy to the present day — they become disillusioned and bitter. Yes, they understand that their leaders have been lying to “protect” their members’ fragile testimonies, but they still resent being lied to, and rightly so.
Deception is part of the culture, at least with the LDS sect of Mormonism. It’s such that the everyday Mormon doesn’t even know it. Grant Palmer talked a couple of years back about having one of the top dogs speak with him and it was pretty obvious the leader wasn’t a TBM. Just a guess but when you get to the top of the LDS pyramid, life is pretty cushie. All sorts of rationalization about how the church does a lot of good could keep an unbeliever who is a leader, in the program.
It’s obvious that the LDS do not want folks to have information except if its been scrubbed by the General Authorities. Justification comes easy when a leader wants to keep his position secure.
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