Second Place — College Essay Competition A Declaration Of Intellectual Independence: Jon Adams

 Jon received a $1,000 cash scholarship for his essay, plus a “bonus” of $100 from a kind couple in Florida.

I once considered myself a devout Mormon. Having been born and raised in a faithful Mormon family, I read my scriptures, said my prayers, went to church, and anxiously awaited serving a two-year LDS mission. I was a bonafide paragon of piety.

Well, no longer. At the age of 17, I left the LDS Church and, like millions of others, declared my intellectual independence from religion. This is the story of my “deconversion”—my spiritual journey from faith to atheism.

The transition from faith to atheism did not take place overnight; it was due to the culmination of issues I had with the church over several years. One such issue was the conflict between my liberal politics and my Mormon faith. For a little over a year, I somehow managed to reconcile the two. Actually, my liberalism was largely bolstered by my faith. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—its message of peace and concerns for the poor—resonated with me. There did eventually come a point where I found my politics at odds with my faith, though.

The first test of faith was provoked by our invasion of Iraq. Even at 14, I was uneasy with the war and horrified at how well-received it was by the Mormon community. Some in the church supported the war on the grounds that it might open Iraq up for LDS missionaries. Put simply, they viewed it as a religious crusade. “The church is perfect, but its members need not be,” I told myself when I heard such nonsense. The LDS Church never declared an official stance on the war, but I nonetheless viewed its neutrality as complicity.

The LDS Church disappointed me yet again just weeks before the 2004 elections when it issued a statement supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage. I remember how knotted my stomach felt as my seminary teacher read the official statement aloud in class.

In a world rife with disease, poverty, genocide, and war, is homosexuality really deserving of special demonization? Certainly not. Too many religions reserve a perverse moral priority for social issues in general and homosexuality in particular.

The LDS Church’s anti-gay agenda offended me as a liberal, but, more importantly, as someone who was struggling with his sexuality. From ninth to eleventh grade, I wrestled with homosexual attractions. As a believing Mormon, I was convinced that these feelings were dangerous and unnatural—perhaps even perilous to my salvation. This compelled me to meet with my bishop regularly during those two years.

I confided in him my secret, and he assured me that I could overcome my feelings. I was told that if I persevered and was faithful and repentant, I could correct my sexual orientation. My bishop’s advice, while sincere, dragged me through years of unnecessary shame. In this way, leaving the church was therapeutic. It freed me to finally accept myself for who I am.

In my sophomore year of high school, I joined the debate team. I served as the team captain and enjoyed a successful debate career. I credit debate in part for my leaving the LDS Church. Debate taught me to analyze ideas with a critical eye. And when that eye was trained inward on my faith, I discovered some disconcerting facts about both Mormon history and doctrine.

In this newfound spirit of inquiry, I read Apostle Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine to learn more about my religion. Most of Mormon Doctrine was faith-affirming, with one glaring exception: a section entitled “Negroes.” In it, McConkie asserted that “the Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings is concerned.” McConkie explained that there had been a “war in heaven” between Jesus and Satan. Those spirits who sided with Satan were thrust into hell. Those who sided with Jesus were to receive physical bodies on Earth. But of these spirits, some were less valiant in supporting Jesus. As punishment, they would be born into Cain’s lineage, which Mormons believe is cursed with dark skin.

This racism, I’m afraid, is by no means restricted to McConkie’s book. Elsewhere, in the Book of Mormon, God marked the Lamanites (the alleged ancestors of today’s Native Americans) with dark skin to segregate them from the righteous Nephites. President Brigham Young taught that God’s penalty for interracial marriage was “death on the spot.” Apostle Mark E. Peterson said that blacks could enter the celestial kingdom (the highest degree of heaven), but only as servants. President John Taylor said that blacks survived the global flood because “it was necessary that the devil should have a representative upon the earth.” And until 1978, as many people know, blacks were deprived of the priesthood and other religious rites in Mormonism.

I recoiled at learning these things. The truthfulness of the church aside, I could never worship a god who authored or allowed these racist beliefs. There are countless problems with and contradictions among Mormon doctrines, but the church’s doctrinal history of racism was primarily responsible for my loss of faith.

The further I researched the LDS Church, the more disillusioned I became. The evidence suggested that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was a transparent charlatan. Among my discoveries: I found that the Book of Mormon’s central claim that a small tribe of Israelites colonized the Americas and are the “principal ancestors” of Native Americans has been falsified by anthropological, archeological, and DNA evidence. I learned that as a young man Joseph Smith was convicted of “money-digging,” a practice whereby he would defraud people into hiring him to find buried treasures using seer stones and divining rods. He never recovered any treasure. And I was shocked to read that Joseph Smith married dozens of women, many of whom were already married and some of whom were as young as 14!

No wonder LDS leaders go to great lengths to suppress Mormon history and discourage members from critically studying the church. These facts all came as startling revelations to me. The church that I loved was a lie, and one that I could not keep living.

Still, I gave religion a second chance. I went “church shopping,” attending various religious services for the next few months. There’s something about Mormonism, however, that leaves one jaded about organized religion in general. The LDS Church is so life-consuming that other religions seem somehow unfulfilling in comparison. What’s more, every religion I studied seemed plagued with the same problems—bizarre and untenable doctrines, tainted histories, the willful ignorance of their members, and so on.

Then, one day, it dawned on me: I was an atheist. It was as though a veil of ignorance had been lifted and I was able see the world anew, for what it really is.

There wasn’t any one argument that sold me on atheism. I wasn’t looking for philosophical justifications for atheism—to the contrary. Atheism, though, doesn’t require justification; the burden of proof always rests with positive assertions such as “God exists.” Atheism is merely a lack of belief in god(s). That said, there are many reasons to disbelieve in gods aside from just the dearth of evidence in their favor. But I won’t bother to make that case here. Instead, I defer to smarter, more eloquent thinkers like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, John Loftus, and Dan Barker.

I was initially slow to call myself an atheist, because atheism still carries with it extraordinary stigma. It is a scarlet letter that many are loathe to wear. As with most prejudices, America’s fear of atheism stems from ignorance. It is believed that life without god is absurd—void of morality and meaning. This simply isn’t true.

There’s really no mystery to morality. It is innate in us—not because a god inscribed it upon our hearts, but because we humans are, by our nature, social creatures. We either get along or we die.

Atheists are no less moral than any other demographic. In fact, atheists are underrepresented in America’s prison population. Also, the most atheistic countries, like Sweden and Denmark, enjoy exceptionally low crime rates and boast high levels of social equality. A recent study even named Denmark “the happiest place on Earth.” So people can (and millions do!) lead moral, meaningful lives as atheists.Atheism can also be life-affirming in ways religion cannot. If anything, religion devalues this life as a trial to be endured in order to receive another, paradisiacal life. For me, this life more than suffices.

Meaning cannot be given to your life by any god; it must be made! Precisely because this is the only life we have, it is precious and we ought to live it to the fullest. Surprisingly, the bible says this best. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” And to that verse, I can soundly say, “Amen.”

“I left Mormonism at the age of 17, after stumbling across disconcerting church doctrines and historical facts. I am currently a senior at Utah State University where I study political science and sociology. In 2008, I co-founded a secular student club at Utah State University called SHAFT (Secular Humanists, Atheists, and Freethinkers). It’s the first college group of its kind in Utah. A passion of mine has been helping gay Mormon youth. To that end, I’ve written editorials on LDS discrimination toward gays, given presentations on the history of homosexuality in Mormonism, and coordinated events with local LGBT groups.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation