I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Emily Stewart.
Lindsay Eagar lives in the mountains of Utah Valley with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Hour Of The Bees, is being released by Candlewick Press in 2016.
Hi, Lindsay! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself before we get started.
I grew up in Utah County, Utah, where the population is 75% Mormon. My family was staunchly LDS and I was a good, card-carrying LDS girl until I was 22, and then I formally left the church (submitted a letter in writing to have my name removed from the records, although I am certain they just moved my name to a black folder in a filing cabinet that’s on fire). Being raised in the church has been a huge part of my life, and leaving has also been an experience that brings to mind the following words: traumatic, whiplash, laughable, freeing, jolting. My family is still Mormon, and I still live in Utah.
The standard atheist narrative is – at least the one I see most frequently – something along the lines of “free-thinking person is raised in various flavors of unsatisfying religion, begins to question their beliefs, rejects said religion, and moves out of it.” And it’s not a bad narrative! But I find it doesn’t always cover the whole story. Atheism is presented as a reaction to a religious upbringing rather than a worldview that can, you know, stand on its own. It’s often judged by what it isn’t, rather than what it can be.
So! Before we get into your background, I’d love to know what being an atheist means to you now. What aspects of atheism bring you joy and delight? What have you constructed for yourself that’s meaningful? Dish!
So my trajectory through Religious, to Questioning, to Lost, to Gleeful Atheist Asshole, to Actually Decent Human was pretty trackable. Atheism, to me, is a reactionary term. It exists because to most of the world, faithful is the standard human condition. You lose your faith like you lose your car keys, or your favorite pen, or yourself. Atheism is a stance that, to me, is still out there on the field, playing the game by refusing to play the game. Which is why I don’t like to use it anymore, and when I do use the term, it’s only because there isn’t really anything else. Agnostic suggests a wishy-washiness that I find others don’t respect, but it’s much closer to how I feel: I don’t know. Perhaps the closest term that I relate to is apatheist: I don’t care. God or no, religion or no, I don’t care. Doesn’t affect my daily life. Not anymore.
Well, not until it does—since religion was part of my upbringing, it’ll always be a part of my life. (Remind me to talk about Mormon magical realism at some point.) And it’s impossible to log onto Twitter, read the news, read a fucking book, even, without religion being part of the equation. I recognize a lot of the beauty in religion, but I am determined to look at people first, their religions second.
When I first decided, “yes, I’m leaving, I’m officially resigning from the church,” I read a lot of asshole atheist narratives. I gobbled them up: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris. I discovered Bill Maher on Youtube and he was my patron saint of atheism for a long time. I lovingly call them all assholes because to me, that was their function—they gave me permission to find my inner asshole, to rail against the homogeny of what I knew and what was being taught to me. I craved extremists like these assholes because I had no idea where to start building my own belief system from the ground up.
I think you see this happen a lot when people leave religions. They kind of turn into little unbearable jerks for a while, and they gather on forums and in coffee shops and sort of have anti-Sunday school, where they can angrily rant to each other about the damage done by whatever religion they left. I did this for a while. Maybe six months. I joined online support groups and my daily sacrament wasn’t prayer or scripture study, it was typing out detailed atrocities done by the LDS church for others to pile onto and affirm, “yes, we see you, you are validated by your hurt.” Eventually I decided to try to heal as best I could, because being part of a counter-culture wasn’t my vision for my life. Today, when I hear about someone leaving the Mormon church, I try to reach out gently and offer myself as an ally, and as proof that you can make it out alive and find happiness.
Leaving a religion is a gigantic rebellion, especially when you live in Utah County, Utah. I felt like a teenager and people around me were happy to point out how angsty and overdramatic I was acting. Keep the peace, they were pleading. But how could I? Leaving Mormonism felt like being alone in a dark bedroom, and seeing a monster in your closet…You turn on the light, and realize the monster was just a sweater sleeve draped on a chair, and no matter how you try to squint in the shadows, you’ll never see the imaginary monster again, because the lights have shown it for what it really is.
After I left, the dust settled, and I was able to put down the asshole atheists when I disagreed with them. A lot of them are pretty terrible, you know? As terrible as some of the religious texts. But they served a purpose, like I said–they were the extreme opposite of what I had learned, so they were the jolt I needed. I learned how to separate vague moral declarations of “I believe in…” which derive from dogmas from the actual actions in my life. Did I really believe in love? Why? Did I believe in family? Why? What did those words mean? Did I really believe that coffee was sinful? I sure hoped not; I was practically bathing in the stuff every day. And that’s what ultimately made me leave—there was too big a dissonance between the life I quote-unquote “believed” in living and the life I was actually living. I am much less of a hypocrite now. I live a life of insane integrity now, and no one knows it but me.
This is the part of atheism that brings me the most delight. I am my own keeper. I answer only to my own moral compass. What worked yesterday may not work today, and I have no one else’s grand eternal plan to formulate or conform to but my own. I’m the biggest cafeteria-style religious person in the world, and yet I’m not religious at all, and this is where I get that sheer joy that comes from smug integrity–I can admit that I pick and choose, and there’s nothing hypocritical about it, because there’s no higher power I answer to. I decide my own prophets and scriptures. My holy canon is the hundreds of books on my shelf—mostly fiction, and mostly kid-lit because there’s something special about children’s literature—and Dead Poet’s Society and some parts of every Tori Amos song.
At first I had a hard time reconciling the good things religion has brought into this world with the bad things. There are books written, deeds done, civilizations created, all inspired by someone’s belief in God, and I never want to dismiss those or dismiss the reasons they were created. But something I do as an atheist is strip those inspirations down to the bare universal values—the core principles of religion, at least the ones I can relate to, are love, and family, and moral courage, and trust. Those aren’t religious values, they are human values. Rather than seeing religious people around me as different, I try hard to do a Venn diagram in my head and focus on the places where we converge.
This is in direct opposition to how I was taught to think as a Mormon. An example which is both hilarious and sad—when I was first dating my now-fiancé, we had a pretty blunt conversation about parenthood. I was the single mother of a five-year-old daughter, so I knew it was futile to date anyone who didn’t want to be a dad. But he responded with such enthusiasm, and told me he’d always wanted to be a dad, that I was suspicious. “Why would you want to be a dad?” I actually asked him. “You’re not Mormon anymore.” What’s wrong with him? I wondered. And then we both had to laugh at this moment. Raised Mormon, it was regularly drilled into my head that Mormons had the corner market on family; the rest of the world was too busy partying and living selfish, single, child-less lives to understand true family. Hogwash, of course—but I was 27 and this was still my knee-jerk reaction. Undoing a lifetime of imposed values and strange narratives takes a long time, but I’m working on it.
My family is still utterly Mormon. In fact, my mother is in the Relief Society presidency (the organization for women in the church) in her ward (Mormon parish). My brother gets home on Friday after a two-year mission (no contact with family except through weekly e-mail and biannual hour-long phone calls). We are closer than ever, and my mom has even said that my de-conversion has been good for her eternal perspective, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty details and checklists of religious life (especially in the LDS church, because the checklists are very important to them). I can do my Venn diagram with my family, and see that they are motivated in their faith by love and family, and the desire to do good, and I can align myself with that mission and say, “Hey, me too. And actually, mostly everyone, too.”
So my constructs are mostly around love (love of others and love of self), hard work, family, and good. I’m a big fan of good. And I get to decide what good is.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of where I’m at now, and where I came from.
It sounds like you’ve been exceptionally thoughtful about your de-conversion, and like your family has been remarkably supportive of it, all things considered.
I’d like to back up a little bit. Do you remember when you first encountered the idea of atheism? What did you think of it?
I do remember. I was eight or nine, stalling at bedtime, watching the news behind my dad’s armchair. The human interest story was about an elementary-aged boy who was bullied at school because he was an atheist. The other students on camera called him “Satanist” and even a few of the teachers admitted they were uneasy knowing he was “godless.” The father was interviewed, and he (rightfully) said it was ridiculous that they should be so cruel to his son. That was my first image and concept of people who lived completely outside of religious boundaries.
Of course, in Utah we have “Jack Mormons,” people who are technically baptized members but follow little or none of the religious tenants (the LDS version of the “cafeteria Catholic”). But this boy in the news was using that word, atheist, and it was a scary-sounding word. I thought of all I had heard about black holes, and thought this was probably the human theological equivalent.
When did you first start to think, “Oh, this might describe me“?
There were three major cracks that happened in my faith. The first was when I was 16. A bishop who I’d felt particularly close to was excommunicated for adultery. This really made me distrust authority figures in my ward. The second crack was when I was 19. A friend cracked a joke about Joseph Smith’s many wives, and naively I said, “Oh, you mean Brigham Young, right?” He looked me in the eye and said, No, definitely Joseph Smith; google it. I did, and found information buried on the church’s own website about Joseph’s polygamous marriages–something I had never, ever heard of despite spending 20+ hours a week on church meetings/seminary/personal scripture study. This really made me feel betrayed and sheltered by my own church, and sent me down the research rabbit hole.
The third crack was the big one, and it came in a pretty significant but simultaneously small moment–the birth of my daughter. I’d been reading online forums of ex-Mormons, reading Richard Dawkins, reading Christopher Hitchens, and wondered, if there truly was no god, then what was there instead? What was the source of all beauty, all love, all good? Or was it all just human construct, and the truth was that everything was meaningless?
Well, when I held my daughter, whatever notion of god that had been clinging for life in my conscious was quickly pushed off the cliff, Mufasa-style. Here was beauty, love, and goodness in my arms, and the source didn’t matter. I could be without god and still have access to all the good things that I thought I’d forfeit if I left religion altogether. Atheist was the term that all the assholes I was reading and watching used, and so that’s the term I used for a long time.
You told me to remind you of Mormon magical realism at some point, and I’d love to hear more about that.
Mormon magical realism…oh, man. I could also call it Mormon folk tales, or Mormon urban legends. I’ll give you a few examples. All of these were stories or “facts” I heard from adult teachers and leaders in either Sunday school or seminary. All of these were presented to me as doctrine. I don’t know how much these vary from state to state, and there is a very clear delineation between Utah Mormons and everyone else.
1) Garments (the so-called “magic underwear” that worthy, temple-endowed adult members of the LDS church wear) not only provide spiritual protection, but also physical protection. Stories I heard in Sunday school told of a friend of a friend (who knew a guy) who was wearing his garments during a house fire, and was burned everywhere except where the garments touched his skin. Another story was about another friend of a friend (who knew a guy) who wore his special-issue camouflage garments while serving in a war zone, and was shot only in places where the garments didn’t cover his skin.
2) Several Mormon folk tales are about the early pioneer settlers in Salt Lake City. One story tells of a severe locust infestation that devoured the pioneers’ crops…until God sent a massive flock of seagulls to eat all the locusts. Another story tells of how the saints were unsure about Joseph Smith’s successor, Brigham Young…until Brigham Young spoke to the congregation, and the Holy Ghost changed his face and voice to look and sound like Joseph Smith, as an assurance to the members that God approved of this new prophet. Another Mormon myth is that Brigham Young foresaw modern electricity and elevators, and thus the plans for the Salt Lake Temple included spaces for wiring and shafts. (False, false, false, but pretty freaking cool when you’re young and Mormon.)
3) The phrase “the Holy Ghost goes to bed at midnight” is frequently uttered, especially by parents to their teens who are going out on weekend nights. But this was also the cornerstone of a chastity and virtue lesson taught by my seminary teacher during sophomore year. He taught us, with the most fervent, burning testimony I’d seen, that the best way to keep from having sex before marriage was to simply be in bed before midnight. He also told us that we’d be safe from temptation if we only kissed standing or sitting up, and never “went horizontal.” As a teen, this gave me a real fear of any time past 11:59 PM. (Also, had that guy never heard of sex standing up?)
4) Some real kooky shit shows up in many lessons, like the doctrine that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, and that heaven is located on a planet in our universe called Kolob, which is also God the Father’s current address. These are both details that are occasionally mentioned in church and seminary, but are considered more obscure (re: debatable) doctrinal points that members tend to get extremely defensive about.
5) There are four humans that doctrine says must wander the earth until Christ’s second coming. The first three are the Three Nephites. The Book of Mormon is mostly about Christ’s visit to North America, which apparently happened after his resurrection and before he returned to heaven for good, he blessed three men to “never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled” (from 3 Nephi, a section of the Book of Mormon). These three men supposedly wander the earth and act as good Samaritans here and there, popping up to help a mother change a flat tire, vanishing into thin air sometimes. There’s at least one guy in every ward who swears he was helped by the Three Nephites once. Some BYU folklorist had collected over 1500 stories from Utahns alone who believe they had seen the Three Nephites.
And the fourth guy wandering around the earth? Cain, who in Mormon doctrine had his skin darkened after killing his brother Abel (“And I the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” says the section Moses in the Book of Mormon). This is the root of Mormon racism, by the way—the idea that dark-skinned people were “marked” by God as less worthy, while the “white and delightsome” Nephites were God’s chosen people. Black men were not allowed to hold the priesthood in the LDS church until 1978. Cain wanders the earth, dark-skinned, taller than other men, and hairy…and many Mormons believe this explains Bigfoot. Yes, Bigfoot sightings, when I was in Sunday school, were chalked up to sightings of Cain, lonely and evil, wandering the countryside.
So these are more than just threads of Mormon culture; they were actually pretty important in my de-conversion. Each new generation of Mormonism has “pet” urban legends which are taught as actual doctrine. Example: my younger brother had never heard any of the garments-in-the-fire stories, and was pretty skeptical that they were ever taught.
It was frustrating to come to the realization that stories which had been taught to me in my crucial teenage years, stories that I had come to rely on as faith-building, were now touted as mere “folklore” or “not doctrinally proven.” When I was young, I believed them whole-heartedly, and I believed the leaders who were teaching them to me were speaking from doctrinally sound sources. The discord was jarring when I realized the LDS doctrine is a living, breathing, shifting thing. Things that are taught as gospel truth now will not necessarily be preached with as much support in ten years.
Even the LDS church’s PR campaign has shifted since I was a teen. When I was young, the tagline was “a peculiar people,” and we were told to promote our weirdness. Now the commercials for the church show normal people doing normal things: “I’m a mom, a mayor, an artist….And I’m a Mormon.” It’s all about blending in, being as utterly regular as you can be.
Now, I do want to point out why I use the term magical realism instead of just Mormon folklore, or Mormon weirdo doctrinal stories… As you probably know, magical realism was originally coined as a term by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and he gave magical realism three major qualifications. First, that magic be woven into the tapestry of everyday life as if it were reality. Second, that the clash between established religion and whatever pagan or native cultural religions be highlighted (traditionally, in Latin American magical realism, that’s Catholicism vs. the native cultures). Third, that the tension primarily come from the day-to-day realities of oppression, which makes sense considering the political atmosphere of Columbia when Marquez was alive and writing. We’ve seen a shift in the term magical realism—lots of people are using it to describe books and movies that are merely fantasy “lite,” or even urban fantasy, rather than following the clear definitions laid out by the master Marquez himself.
But I think Mormon folktales fit into all three definitions easily. Absolutely magical things are touted as reality—if you just wear your magic underwear, you could be protected from gunshots and house fires! If the established religion is Protestantism, and the clash between this traditional Christianity and the newer (albeit weirder) Mormonism creates such doctrinal stories as Joseph Smith’s first vision, where God the Father tells him none of the current Christian churches are true, then the second definition fits as well. And the third definition fits extremely well, considering Mormonism’s history with the flights across America, extermination orders in Missouri and Illinois, and despite their best efforts with current PR campaigns to show otherwise, their peculiar practices in a modern society. Even in Utah County, where some 75% of the population are baptized members, there is a constant attitude of victimization and oppression, even after all these years of being established and a majority in the Salt Lake Valley.
Are there any final thoughts or things you’d like to say about your atheism you didn’t get the chance to?
Yes! I didn’t speak much to my heritage as a Mormon, and that’s been the most recent shift I’ve felt: pride in this heritage, rather than disgust.
To be a Mormon (and a Utah Mormon, in particular) is to be badgered with pioneer stories at church meetings. We learn every handcart company’s name and roster; we learn about every leg of the pioneers’ journey from Illinois and Missouri to the state of Utah, where Brigham Young saw the valley and said grandly, “This is the place.” Family ancestry and genealogy is also huge in the LDS church (so we can track down all the non-members of our families and make sure we perform proxy baptisms for them in a temple ceremony called “baptisms for the dead”; Anne Frank and other Holocaust Jews were baptized until there was an obvious outcry). So we also trace back our lineage and figure out if we have pioneer bloodI myself am related to the fourth prophet of the LDS church, Wilford Woodruff, through one of his many wives.
So the whole identity of Persecuted Pioneer Stock was something I was anxious to give up when I left the church. I was grateful to see it go, in fact. But a few years, a few family crises, a daughter, and some time to mature and reprocess my de-conversion, and I find myself cycling back around to pride. Perhaps it’s because I no longer belong to the church, and so I no longer have to wave my rebel flag. Perhaps it’s because I’ve learned that I’m lucky to know my family history when so many others don’t have records like this. This is who I am. I have pioneer blood. I have polygamist blood. I have Mormon blood. Leaving the church helped shape the person who I am, yes, absolutely–but so did being raised in it. I no longer roll my eyes at genealogy charts, or tales of handcart companies crossing frozen rivers just to get to a place where they could live their weird polygamist lives in peace. I embrace it. That is where I came from. I choose, however, where I am going.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.