A Molecular Biologist at BYU

I was born and raised in Utah Valley, the heart of Mormon country. I am an Eagle Scout, a returned missionary, a graduate of BYU and married in the Logan Temple. Certainly no one can blame my parents for my disbelief in Mormonism--since day-one they have raised me to believe and serve their god. Our family of ten attended church meetings every Sunday, read the Book of Mormon each morning before going off to work and school, held family home evenings twice a week and performed all else that should be done to keep a family strong in the gospel. Members of the ward respected me and expected good things of me--when I was a deacon passing out programs at the chapel one Sunday, a High Priest requested that I sign the back of one. Someday, he said, you will be famous and I will show this to people. I'm not saying that I was perfect, but my parents were proud of me. I hope they still can be.

Until experience and education demonstrated otherwise, it seemed to me that not much faith was required to accept the Mormon Church. Compared to all the other contenders for the title of God's One True Church, it appeared to be the obvious choice. I was surrounded by Church leaders with an answer for everything, and protected from opposing views by my parents unshakable testimonies. I could not even entertain the thought that Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon were not God-given fact. Books like A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and, The Articles of Faith, made the Church's case so strongly (in my eyes) that only those deceived by Satan or simply unacquainted with the facts could possibly belong to another religion. The evidence supporting the apostasy was overwhelming--how could people really believe all those foolish philosophies of men, mingled with scripture?

My mission took me to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where our primary opposition came from Catholics and evangelical sects. I relished the opportunity to contend with other faiths, to show them the evidence for us and against them. Their preparation to counterattack Mormonism was meager (we called their predictable round of scriptures anti-Mormon 101). When scriptural evidence could not convince the unbeliever, the challenge to read, ponder and pray was our rhetorical ace-in-the-hole. Dismantling their arguments only made me more certain that Mormonism was the only true way to heaven.

Atheists, agnostics and those disaffected with Christianity were another matter--what could I say to someone that doesn't even believe in God? Such encounters were rare, but troubling. I had thought the Book of Mormon to be clear, rational evidence. Was it not proof that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God? Not for them. To me, the existence of God was self-evident. I could not explain it. I could not prove it. And when challenged, I wasn't even sure my hundreds of prayers about the Book of Mormon had really been answered (though bearing my testimony with each discussion forced me to lie and say that I did know it to be true). Encounters with atheists made me realize that a leap of faith was, in fact, required to believe in Mormonism, or even in God. I had faith. Hallelujah!

Faith is a good thing, right? The more faith you have, the better off you are in God's eyes. Is the fact that Mormonism lacks the evidence I once accepted as self-evident, (therefore requiring faith) a good thing? Has God actively removed evidence (like the gold plates) or purposely interjected faith-troubling asides (like polygamy) for the express purpose of testing the faith of the Saints? If the Mormonism were even more incredible and unsupported, would that make it better? Doubting Thomas, Korihor and King Noah are made up as bad-guys because they expect some evidence, while Abraham gets a pat on the back for raising the knife to sacrifice his son because God double-dares him. Scripture praises gullibility and condemns skepticism by teaching that faith makes us more like God. (The Heavens Gate Cult must be divine).

My evidence was an illusion created by a lifetime of one-sided arguments for Mormonism. Deep inside me, something changed when I was forced to continue my service with nothing more than personal conviction to back me up. My beliefs became more dogmatic without the versatility that accompanies confidence in fact. I was determined to be a successful missionary, to prove how strongly I believed. If I worked hard enough, my faith could someday be replaced with the sure knowledge I thought I had once possessed. If I were righteous enough, God would answer my prayers for understanding with something so clear that I could bear an unashamed testimony--I would finally know.

It never happened.

At one time, I did take my growing doubts about the Church to my mission president--he was a scientist and an intellectual, rather than the typical businessman-type mission president. The most difficult question for me at the time was the endowment and masonry--the similarity seemed too close for coincidence. Joseph Smith himself was a mason, and on my own, I failed to produce any explanation besides plagiarism. Well Elder, he began, it goes something like this... and he proceeded to spin a yarn both faith-promoting and utterly implausible--my first taste of what I call the faith band-aid. Its not enough to heal the rift in your belief, but just enough to hold you together. A church apologist doesn't need to prove anything, just devise a hypothesis that keeps impossible things within the realm of possibility. (And this guy calls himself a scientist?--he also promoted the Shroud of Turin as scientific evidence of the resurrection.) I wanted to believe his story: the ancient Egyptians were masons, practicing the endowment ceremony in their fallen priesthood. Maybe I even did believe him...for a while.

Pressure from the social group is a powerful thing, so I played along for the whole two years, lying to myself and to investigators, to missionaries and congregations. I know I wasn't alone. The baggage of guilt produced by intellectual dishonesty wore me out near the end of my service; the day I completed my mission was the happiest day of the entire experience. It was not the end of my acting career--everyone back home was a Mormon with their own expectations to impose--but I could finally be myself six days out of seven.

Social pressure kept me demonstrating nominal church activity and looking like a good returned missionary. I bounced from my home ward, to singles ward, to BYU student ward, to a girlfriends ward--I was a moving target that bishops and Elders quorum presidents couldn't keep track of (not that anyone tried very hard). I quit praying--if God had ever heard me, I didn't know about it. But until the day I perfectly followed the commandments, God had every right to hold back his blessings from me. He always had a loophole because I did not deserve the rewards. Most importantly, I quit reading the Book of Mormon--I would go insane if I had to read another, And it came to pass.... I say important, not because it would have been the spiritual key to keeping a testimony (as my family would point out), but because I chose to read other things instead. I was starving for real-world knowledge, for facts and evidence totally absent from the realm of religion. For the first time in my life, I read textbooks with an interest in learning, not just finding answers to get a grade. Two years of intellectual malnutrition had given me an insatiable hunger for books.

One small step at a time, I left the church during my last three years at BYU. I did not know what was happening to me--I thought it was just a phase that I would come through and someday be a perfect Mormon like my father. I despised BYU (though I loved the classes in my major--Molecular Biology), and it worked as a scapegoat for my spiritual ills. When I leave BYU, I said, I'll really come back to Church. Things will be different when I move out of Utah. Perhaps the anchor that really saved me from drifting too far was my patriarchal blessing--a personal promise that God loved me and had great things in store.

The steps that carried me away from the Church were changes in beliefs, not sins or people that offended me. Each one was a realization that some piece of Mormonism (be it doctrinal or historical) was a fraud, an image designed to promote faith, or a tradition at odds with reality. A few of the important examples:

Evolution: Probably 75% of the biology classes I took at BYU spent at least one hour (some took a whole week) on the topic of evolution. These discussions primarily focused on justifying why evolution should be taught at a Church institution (we've got the temple film, we don't need Darwin), and helping creationist Mormons get over their misunderstandings about the Church's position. Typically, a packet of declarations by Church leaders is passed out to the class, so everyone can see that Mormons can believe in evolution. But those pronouncements that clearly denounce evolution are conveniently left out. I think that teaching evolution is certainly the right thing to do, but editing history is not. We can excuse conflicting remarks by our prophets as just their opinion, but then how do we know that what the prophet says today about R-rated movies isn't just his opinion? I guess someday we'll know. I mean, if a prophesy never happens, or a proclamation never pans out (like Joseph Smith's declarations that the American Indians are Lamanites), then it must be just their opinion. Funny how prophetic word is only definable in retrospect.

Hinkley in 60 Minutes: I was quite enjoying the interview--particularly the difficult questions posed by Mike Wallace. At a time when I was questioning my easy life as a Mormon at BYU, the challenge to the prophet called to my mind the stimulating defenses of Mormonism I had made as a missionary. Wallace asked about the blacks getting the priesthood, implying that the Church was just giving in to social pressure. It might have helped me to see Hinkley stand up for the role of the prophet, something like, It was a revelation from God. It was the Lord's desire that the priesthood be extended to all worthy men. That is what I believed, and had shamelessly taught. Instead he projected the image that the Church is mainstream and rational. He passed the buck. Well, this is just how we interpret the scriptures today. Wimp.

The Book of Mormon: There are so many things I saw wrong with the keystone of Mormonism, that I really don't know where to start. Probably the biggest thing is the lack of historical evidence. I used to write it off by telling myself that archaeology and anthropology aren't exact sciences, so they could easily be misled. Plus, we have groups like FARMS that have made significant finds in support of the Book of Mormon. Right? As I actually learned something about how science works, I inevitably gained confidence in its methods. I worked in a laboratory at BYU (which was funded in part by FARMS) where I isolated and sequenced human DNA segments--it really works, my friend. Molecular biology, without exception, confirms the anthropological findings that the American Indians are an Asian population--absolutely not Semitic! Accordingly, many educated church members have taken to limiting the reach of the Book of Mormon (Joseph Smith never meant that all Native Americans were Lamanites). With my fathers recommendation, I have read John L. Sorenson's, An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon and found it to be the biggest faith-patch of them all--a whole first-aid kit! (Look! a sculpture of a Mayan riding a deer like a horse. Could that be what Joseph Smith meant by horses?). There is not one site in all of the Americas that can be linked to anything having to do with the Book of Mormon (unless you have a real good imagination). For the Bible we have Jericho, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Jews themselves as proof that at the very least, the Bible is talking about real places. For the Book of Mormon....nothing. No Lamanites, no Zarahemla, no golden plates, just the say-so of eleven witnesses, many of whom left the Church. (How many people had faith enough in David Koresh to die with him in Waco? Eleven is paltry, especially if they eventually deserted the cause).

The Temple: It never felt right. Even before I was aware of its undeniable links to masonry, it just felt so cultish. All my life, I was raised with the expectation that the temple was the pinnacle of Mormonism, but nothing you learn in Sunday School prepares you for the bizarre ritual of oaths and secret signs. I guess I was pretty cool about it--a relief to my parents. When I went through with my fiance, after my mission, she was much more sensitive to the sights and sounds of a circle of robed worshipers around an altar, chanting with arms raised, Oh God, Hear the Words of My Mouth. She was terrified to have to don the same apron and veil getup for our wedding. Why is none of this mentioned in the Book of Mormon? Temples and synagogues are mentioned as places of worship (no more significant than church buildings), but no endowment or eternal marriage. No work for the dead. Would a post-Joseph Smith prophet write a history of his people without a strong emphasis on the importance of temples? So why are Nephi and Mormon silent? I don't know what else to think except that Smith thought it up in later years.

Patriarchal Blessings: I finally had to cut myself loose from the anchor that was keeping me in the Church despite the nagging of reason and personal integrity. My mother makes a big deal out of patriarchal blessings--especially the blessings of family members that seem to be so insightful and prophetic of great works to come. Maybe it was my own spectacular blessing that got her on the kick. I, however, grew uncomfortable with the subject. I couldn't help but ask myself, What if these things don't happen? Nobody in the church believes that if their blessing says they will live to do some great work, that they are guaranteed to live long enough to achieve it. Sure it is Gods own promise to you, but you could still get hit by a bus next week. So how do we faithful members explain that? There are a whole heap of excuses that try to let God keep his integrity, but when you add them all up the blessing is unreliable, even meaningless. Try these on for size:

The blessings' promises will be fulfilled in the spirit world.

We just misinterpreted the blessing--Gods ways are not our ways.

The recipient of the blessing was a sinner, so God took back his promises.

These loopholes, when combined with the inherent vagueness of the patriarchal blessing, are enough to explain away any discrepancy. And usually, with retrospect and faith, you can dream up some kind of correlation between the blessing and real events--enough to keep or even build your faith. Astrologers and palm readers rely on the same things: vagueness, built-in excuses, and faith of the recipient--plus, the patriarch gets an intimate interview with the subject and is very familiar with the LDS background that has shaped the subjects life.

In December 1996, when I finished my last semester at BYU, we moved to Salt Lake City. My wife was pregnant, the baby due in July. I foresaw the responsibility of being a father and the need to raise my child with good values, so despite my doubts, I tried to get involved in the new ward. Sometimes, just to make it interesting, I imagined that I was a new member, hearing talks on tithing, repentance and Joseph Smith for the first time instead of the ten thousandth time. I thought, maybe I'm just jaded. I need a new outlook. What would it be like to encounter this way of life and belief for the first time?

Is a rational, unbiased observer likely to take Mormonism's claims seriously after a fair investigation? In my Brazilian mission, we were urged to baptize men with potential for leadership, with education and organization skills. In that goal, we failed miserably. The vast majority of converts are children, uneducated adults, and those who succumb to missionary and member pressure or have a propensity for accepting authoritative arguments and spurious claims (suckers). (And most of them abandon the Church soon after embracing it. Even as a faith-driven, hard working missionary, I found the membership claim of 9 million+ a meaningless figure. Should we be counting the significant percentage of people that are baptized, attend for one week, and then drop out?)

Mormonism is beautifully packaged and carefully marketed, with door-to-door salesmen (missionaries) and info-mercials (What is Real, Mans Search for Happiness). It peddles the hopes that people want to believe in. It makes extraordinary claims: God was once a man and has a plan to make us Gods, Jesus visited ancient American civilizations, Joseph Smith spoke face to face with God, you will be immunized against bankruptcy if you give 10% of your earnings to your bishop. Does anyone have evidence that is equally extraordinary? NO. And the Church unashamedly admits this, turning it around with a twisted rationalization that God wants us to have faith, not the security of facts. My experimental perspective only made it clear that I would not have accepted Mormonism as an adult--I had only come this far because it was spoon-fed to me as a child. And I would be expected to feed the same lies to my own children.

In February, I began interviewing with graduate programs around the country. My mind was already made up that my wife and I would be leaving Utah to work on my Ph.D., and I played with the thought of leaving the Church after moving away from Utah. Would I really do it? It was an exciting feeling, an almost addictive fantasy. But how would my wife take it? Somehow, I thought she would agree with me after a short period of confusion. She was no more active than I--she had never even read the Book of Mormon, and had attended Baptist services as a child--it was her unorthodox manner that attracted me to her in the first place. I didn't think much about how she might feel, I just made an unconscious assumption that she would follow. Did I really have a choice? In any sense of the word, is living a lie the morally correct thing to do? It was strange how we had never talked about religion before.

In March, I went to the new Timpanogos Temple with my parents and my brother who had just received his endowments and would soon be serving a mission in Venezuela. We performed sealing ceremonies for non-Mormon ancestors that my mother had found in her genealogy--some of them didn't even have names, just Mr. Baggins and Wife. No name? What kind of slipshod system is this?--if we don't need a name because God knows who we are talking about, then why even do genealogy? The officiator kept telling stories about the spirit ancestors that people had seen in the new temple, and about Nordic-looking Nephite angels standing guard around the grounds. My family nodded with wonder--my brother was particularly wide-eyed. Stupid ghost stories. On the way home, I stopped for gasoline. When I paid, I saw my temple recommend there in my wallet, a token of my spineless compliance with the expectations of my parents. I took it out. I tossed it in the trash by the pumps. Next time the invitation came up, I would have to say NO.

I broke the news to my wife a few weeks later. I could not wait until Fall--I could no longer misrepresent my beliefs. The only second thoughts I ever had were when she burst into tears, saying, You didn't just say that! I had seriously underestimated her convictions. Even though her performance as a Mormon was almost nonexistent, she still believed. I have found the same phenomenon with some of my friends--even though they live with a girlfriend, don't keep the word of wisdom, or haven't been to church or the temple in years, they cannot fathom why I would leave the Church. For me, inactivity was a symptom of my struggle within--for them is it really just a phase? Or have they not yet arrived at the end of their struggle, like I have?

Anyway, my wife and I are still together--she is a Mormon and I am pretty much an atheist. It is not exactly the perfect situation for marriage and family, but now we talk about our beliefs instead of sitting silently in discomfort. I am lucky to have married a woman who learned tolerance and understanding as a child, instead of superiority and dogmatic ideals. She understands some of the problems I have with Mormonism, but she expects less of the Church and therefore does not feel the same disappointment.

That was the easy part.

With knots in my stomach, I foresaw the looming need to tell my parents. Eventually, there would come another invitation to do temple work, or to speak at my brothers farewell. But my acting career was over. I had to tell them.

My father and I were alone in his office, preparing my taxes on a new computer program of his. He asked me about my tithing, if there were enough contributions to figure into my taxes. But he asked me just like a bishop would in a temple recommend interview, Do you pay a full tithing? I could not misrepresent my beliefs yet again--I could not outright lie by giving the answer he fully expected.

No, I don't believe in the Church.

In some ways it was a good discussion--anyway, I felt better afterwards. I gave him the reasons I could not believe, starting with masonry and ending with the Book of Mormon. Our discussion flowed from one topic to the next with him countering and me explaining. Yeah, but what about your Patriarchal blessing? Simple fortune-telling, Dad. Let me explain.... I was bitter and cynical, an attitude I am not proud of; he saw it as the absence of the Spirit. In the end, he did exactly what I did as a missionary whenever I was backed into a corner: he bore his testimony. That was the worst--it was like seeing myself tell all those lies as a missionary. What a desperate act. I was embarrassed for him. Finally he prophesied, Eventually, you will come back to the Church. Don't bet on it.

My father was unprepared for my concerns. He didn't know what to say about Joseph Smith plagiarizing the endowment from masonry or archaeology contradicting the Book of Mormon. I guess he had always believed the mythology to be historical truth, just like he taught me, and never looked much deeper. Of course my concerns did not shake him for long. He talked to his bishop (who is also a professor of ancient scripture at BYU), consulted a Mormonism CD-ROM and read Sorenson's faith-first-aid-kit. That--and social pressure to be a pillar of faith for the rest of the family--was enough to convince him that I had fallen prey to the pride of my intellect and the deceiving of Satan. When he broke the news to the rest of the family (I was not present), he read to them 2 Nephi 9:28-29: O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. That is what he thinks of my reasoning and my decision to act as I believe.

So I guess my family is pretty disappointed--but at least I've got my self-respect. I live in reality, where I am responsible to take care of myself and my family. If we do not work to make the world a better place, then god is not going to bail us out. There are no angels to save us from short-sighted, egocentric thinking, a thought process that comes so naturally to Mormons:

My mother, in a conversation about Schindler's List : Now that the Gospel is out to the whole world, something like the holocaust would never happen again.

A friend at BYU, commenting on sheep cloning in Great Britain: Why do we care about making laws against human cloning? The Second Coming will be here before we ever get that scientifically advanced.

An old friend from high school: I'm not that interested in going to college. What is the point? Christ will return in the year 2000 and then we will be in the Millennium--I can go to school then.

For me, wrote Carl Sagan, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is rather than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring?

I guess my problem with religion is the dependence on faith; the attitude that it is somehow a virtue. If faith is so powerful, why don't we use it to make judgments in court cases, choose between medical options or determine the value of a used car? Advertisers would love it if we had faith in their products, and used critical-thinking only when evaluating the competition. Why think skeptically about everything in our lives except our religion (sure, be skeptical about everyone else's church--I practiced this sort of hypocricy for two years in Brazil)? Why does any institution deserve special protection from the demands of reason?

I hope I have not been too critical. I do not believe in God, but that does not make me an anti-Mormon. I do not regret being a missionary, nor do I wish to shame my parents or the way I was raised. Most Mormons are good people. I will try to raise my own children with similar values (though I wont impress fairy tales upon them). I am twenty five years old, and those years have been filled with things both good and bad, some I would like to relive, but none I would choose to forget. All of those experiences contribute to who I am.

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