From Preacher To Apostate: How I Put God to the Test (September 2002)

In 1997, I tearfully said goodbye to my family and stepped onto a plane that would take me across the equator. I wouldn’t see my brothers, sisters, parents or friends for two whole years. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make as a representative of Jesus Christ. I knew God’s truth. I was going into the fallen world to save some souls. Who would have guessed that four years later I would be an outspoken atheist?

Ironically, the first steps out of my faith-centered life began while I was preaching the gospel in the predominantly Catholic Republic of Peru. I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormon church (you know, the one with those slick commercials reminding you to spend more time with your family). Every morning I donned my white shirt and tie and official black nametag, working the streets of the poorest shantytowns imaginable. I was looking for the Lord’s elect who would hear His voice and come unto His fold.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, I couldn’t admit to myself back then how much I hated it. My despair becomes apparent in my journal entries from those two years. I constantly wrote about how hard it was and how nobody wanted to listen to me and how frustrated I felt. The Peruvians really didn’t care about the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith or whatever holy texts he had dictated. Day after grueling day I was told over and over again that they just weren’t interested. The great conversion work that was supposed to be so glorious and wonderful was an unsuccessful disappointment.

The scriptures made me feel that my lack of success was entirely my fault. The Book of Mormon (Mormonism’s most important holy book) told the story of Nephi and Lehi, two ancient American prophets. Because of their faith, these two powerhouse missionaries were able to baptize 8,000 people in one day. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I believed that I could. I was teaching God’s truth. And surely God wanted His children to be baptized, right? So then why couldn’t I get the Hernandez family to join the church? It had to have been my lack of faith. But I knew in my heart that I was doing everything I possibly could. And no matter how hard I tried or how hard I prayed, God would not come through.

Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, that was the very first crack in my armor of faith. I spent countless hours on my knees in run-down apartments begging Him for this or that. I would beg Him to touch the hearts of the Hernandez family so that they would join the church. I would beg Him to help my companion to not be such a flirt with the girls (Mormon missionaries are not allowed to have romantic interests during their assigned time). I wanted to go home so badly that I even begged Him to make me get sick. If I got sick enough, I could go home “honorably,” and would not have to suffer any shame for giving up early and not completing my two-year stint.

Well, God never came through. The Hernandez family suddenly wasn’t interested in meeting with us. My companion kept winking at the girls and giving presents to the young ladies he liked. And while I did get sick, my diarrhea and stomach cramps weren’t severe enough to get me on a plane back to my family.

Church doctrines became a problem as well. As a missionary, I devoted several hours a day to studying the scriptures and official church pronouncements. As I immersed myself in the “wonderful truths” of the gospel, I started to notice little things that either bothered me or didn’t quite make sense. The atonement of Jesus Christ in particular didn’t sit well with me. One Catholic practice that Mormons don’t agree with is the baptism of little children because of “Original Sin.” We would explain to potential converts that a just God could in no way hold a baby accountable for the sins of his or her parents. We told them that nobody should be punished for another person’s sins. But this is one of the basic tenets of Christianity: Jesus suffered for the sins that other people commit. I didn’t think that was right. I didn’t want another person to suffer for what I did wrong. If anyone should suffer for my sins, it should be me, not an innocent person. But, in classic denial, I dismissed the obvious injustice as one of those “mysteries of God.” I believed God would some day give me the answer to this dilemma.

Another problem I had was the whole idea of eternal bliss in heaven. In Mormon theology, the most obedient Mormon souls go to the Celestial Kingdom, a mansion-filled paradise complete with gold-paved streets. There they will spend eternity raising “spirit children” and making worlds without number. Honestly, I couldn’t conceive of anything more boring.

First of all, I don’t like raising children. I’m the oldest of seven kids, and I have already done more than my share of childcare. Second, I couldn’t stand making worlds all day for billions of years. Monotonous jobs, in my opinion, are what should await the foulest members of society in the sulfurous trenches of Hell. . . . Satan would be the grand supervisor of the universe’s largest data-entry department (no offense to any readers in that line of work, of course). I always felt that a better reward would be a couple of lifetimes in the Bahamas, followed by a sweet, peaceful end to my existence. But that’s just my idea of paradise.

More doubts and questions entered my mind as time went on. None of them was serious enough to make me really question the validity of my faith. I chose instead to ignore the questions and contradictions and continue as an obedient servant of God.
Things changed when I returned home to the United States and (surprise!) started college. I enrolled full-time in a junior college with plans to transfer to Brigham Young University, the Mormon school near Salt Lake City. BYU was the world’s largest singles and dating scene. I hoped that in Utah I would meet and marry a sweet Mormon girl who would support me in my quest to achieve eternal life in the highest degrees of heaven. Oh, and I wanted to get an education there, too.

The courses at my junior college posed a serious challenge to my faith. The first blows came in the form of a biology course. I had an excellent teacher, as well as an excellent textbook, that clearly and simply put forth the ideas of organic evolution and the study of life. I learned how the first human beings were not Adam and Eve, and that they didn’t live in Missouri (Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was located in the middle of the United States).

I learned that there was absolutely no evidence of a horrendous flood that covered the entire earth for forty days. But more important than these facts, I learned how scientists had come to these conclusions. I learned the importance of having objective evidence to support a conclusion. I was enthralled and amazed by Mendel’s work in understanding heredity. I read about the key experiments that unraveled the mystery of the composition of DNA. These facts simply made sense. They were clearer and simpler than the religious “truths” that had been taught to me for over two decades. Arriving at these new truths didn’t require a blind reliance on one man’s claim to exclusive communication with divinity. The scriptures said, “It’s this way because Moses said so.” The scientist said, “This is how I got this conclusion. If you do the same experiment you should get the same result. And if you get a different result, let’s figure out why. Maybe I’m wrong.” The latter approach made more sense to me. It felt right. It seemed like a reasonable approach to life.

After three semesters of wonderful courses, I found myself at a crossroads. In all truth, it was both frightening and exhilarating. Was it possible that my religious leaders, my parents, my friends, were wrong? Was I really in possession of the “truth”? What if I wasn’t? How would I find out? Was I willing to make a lifelong commitment to an organization that wasn’t teaching “truth”?

It was time for me to find out. I embarked on the most thorough and exhaustive investigation of my life. I had always believed that asking God in prayer was the ultimate source of truth. But for some reason, God would tell the Mormons that Mormonism was true, the Catholics that Catholicism was true, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses that they had the truth. Remembering those experiences made me realize that God wasn’t a good source of objective information (oh, the blasphemy!). I had to hold an impartial trial in my heart. I had to wipe away all of my prejudices and biases and be as objective as possible. I could make no assumptions. I alone had to find all of the evidence and all of the witnesses. I had to weigh each piece of information carefully. I had to test everything.

The process consumed me. I realized that this was not a simple choice I was making. My life and eternal salvation were at stake. I was not just testing my church, but the very existence of God. I checked out dozens of books from college and public libraries. I would be awake until two or three o’clock every morning, poring over thousands of pages. I spent countless hours online performing hundreds of searches. I went to Internet bulletin boards and watched heated debates unfold. I searched the scriptures hungering for answers. I looked as hard as I possibly could.

I also consulted members of my faith. I spoke to my bishop and told him about the doubts I had and the books I was reading. I needed his advice and counsel. His solution was simple: “Ted, don’t read that stuff.” I asked myself, “Why not?” As a child, I had learned a simple idea about truth: it will withstand any and all tests. It can take any assault, be it from science, logic, or just plain old criticism. After the dust has cleared, truth will still stand unharmed, stronger than ever for having survived the attack. If my church taught the truth, then my testimony would be strengthened, not weakened, by the inquiries I was making. The bishop’s counsel, and the counsel of the church hierarchy, was to ignore such criticism. “Don’t doubt, don’t question.” To me, that was a confession of fear. It was like the Wizard of Oz warning Dorothy, “Do not look behind the curtain.” I looked.

Eventually, my faith failed. No, it didn’t just fail. It failed miserably. For all of its claims of ultimate truth, the only evidence religion could offer were arguments from authority and circular reasoning. “The Mormon church is God’s church because Joseph Smith said so.” Or, “The Bible is God’s word. How do we know that? Well, God says so in the Bible.” Those reasons were not good enough for me. In August of 2001, I wrote a letter to my bishop instructing him to remove my name from the church’s membership roles. I no longer believed in God. I had rejected religion. It didn’t make any sense anymore.

The aftermath has not been easy. I broke the news one sunny afternoon to my very devout parents. Mom cried. Dad was in denial. He made it sound like a “phase” that I would get through. Their communication with me has been much less since then. I was also dating a Mormon girl when I became an apostate (a title I am actually proud of). Her parents and every one of her siblings tried to talk her into breaking off our relationship. Her brother even said that my rejection of the faith would make me a bad father. It didn’t work: we were married six months ago.

Despite the struggles, my life is much better without religion. This is perhaps the greatest reason why I do not turn to religion in my life. Since freeing myself from dogmatism, I have finally accepted myself for who I am, warts and all. I no longer have to measure up to Jesus, whom I was taught was perfect. I accept myself as a human with faults and flaws. I no longer have to worry about God judging every single one of my thoughts, words, and deeds. I have become healthier and more loving. I love my wife for who she is, not for her obedience to church authorities. I have become more aware and accepting of the needs and beliefs of others. I have learned to accept that there are things out of my control and beyond explanation. I have learned that it’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s okay for me to change my mind. It’s okay to be wrong.

I think that as a Mormon, I was so worried about the next life that I completely missed the beauty of this life. Removing God from the picture has given life a greater sense of purpose and depth than it has ever had before. As a child, I was taught that God wanted me to endure the trials and tribulations of this world so I could be happy in the next. But I no longer believe that. I will not endure life to the end. Instead, I have chosen to enjoy life to the end.

Freedom From Religion Foundation