A Mormon missionary who loses his faith while out in the field has picked a strange time to abandon his beliefs. Yet, for Andrew Johnson, this is precisely what happened.
Johnson says he started doubting Mormonism when he was 18, but out of a desire to please his family, and still not knowing who he was, he turned in his mission papers and set out to serve an LDS mission. While 18 months out, however, he was exposed to contraband by a secular humanist, stuff like the movie Religulous and Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Johnson says the exposure opened his mind to new possibilities.
“I remember having a distinct moment where I was like, ‘There is no God,’ and that was a liberating moment,” Johnson says. “I tried to do the rest of my mission without being too much of a hypocrite.”
After his mission, Johnson “did the whole returned-missionary thing for about a month, and felt really bad about it because my family paid for my mission. They had this big banner on my house when I got home, and I thought, ‘Crap, how am I going to tell them?’”
Johnson, who says he’s usually been the sort of person guided by logic, felt like he couldn’t keep going, pretending he was a believer, and resolved to share his disbelief with his family. Doing so, of course, wasn’t going to be easy.
Despite the difficulty, Johnson mustered the courage to divulge his revelation to his parents. The response wasn’t well received at first, especially by Johnson’s disappointed mother. But after a while, he says, things calmed down. And that’s when he discovered a support group of sorts for former Mormons-turned-atheists in Salt Lake City.
After attending a few meetings, Johnson, a Lindon resident, realized he couldn’t be alone in his religious skepticism, even in Utah Valley, and decided that a group could be formed closer to home. With help from others, Johnson formed the Atheists of Utah Valley, a group where other like-minded individuals could convene and support each other. Meeting over coffee in Provo, they’ll plan group discussions and occasionally have guest speakers, or they’ll plot group activities like hiking trips or even sky-diving jaunts. They’ve talked about joining the Adopt A Highway program and lobbying the Utah Valley University library to stay open on Sundays, as well.
According to Johnson, such a group is of vital importance in a religiously charged environment like Utah Valley. Those who leave the Mormon religion often don’t know where to turn, and can quickly be overcome with feelings of desperation.
“When I [became] an atheist, I thought I was the only one,” Johnson says. “If I had somebody to show me that there were others, I definitely would have joined up.”
A LARGER TREND?
It’s common for young adults to become disinterested in religion and pursue their own goals and interests, and this increasing “spiritual disengagement” is drawing the attention of researchers. A 2010 article in Christianity Today, citing various studies, says that the percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” doubled in about two decades, up from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. A substantial 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. Also, 73 percent of these younger people came from religious homes.
The same article makes reference to the research of Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, authors of a 2010 study called “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” which shows that the younger generation is dropping out of religion at five to six times the historic rate. The trends are starting to draw the attention of religious sociologists and leaders, with some attributing the pattern to the aforementioned normal breakaway that youth embark on. But more and more are wondering if, generally speaking, religious influence is simply holding less sway on the younger generation.
The Christianity Today article concludes by suggesting that religious groups, in order to stop the emigration from their rolls, need to “undertake the slow but fruitful work of building relationships with those who have left the faith.” Yet, building these relationships may prove difficult for those who find irreconcilable differences between their true beliefs and the teachings of their former church.
For former LDS missionary Chris Merris, a BYU graduate, the idea of forging a new relationship with a church he no longer believes in isn’t plausible. In fact, he says he resents those who try to instigate that sort of reconciliation and those who try to change the church while remaining members.
“I think I have more problems with those who stick around in it and want to reform it, as if it’s some sort of democratic thing,” Merris says. “There’s this whole movement, like ‘New Order Mormons,’ for people who have become intellectually disenchanted with the church, but they still want to be a part of it. But it’s an invalid organization from the foundations up. Why reform that? Just leave it.”
Merris found out about Johnson’s group after reading an article about it in The Daily Utah Chronicle, the University of Utah student newspaper. The idea of atheists in Utah Valley, where he lives, piqued his interest, and he decided to check it out.
“They’re like the nicest group of people that I think I’ve ever met in Provo,” Merris says of the Atheists of Utah Valley. “Very welcoming, very open.”
Merris’ own falling away, like Johnson’s, began on his mission. Serving in nearby Ogden, he began getting into books of deep doctrine at the library, exploring controversial issues about the Mormon faith that weren’t necessarily church-approved. This eventually led him to anti-Mormon literature. One book he came across, One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, shook him up so badly that he had to consult with his mission’s zone leader.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know, man, some of the stuff made sense,’” Merris recalls. “And he’s like, ‘Well, I had the same experience, and so I have a question for you. How did you feel when you were reading these things?’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t feel really good.’ Then he’s like, ‘Well, then you know it wasn’t of God.’ It made enough sense to me at the time—making sense obviously having nothing to do with reality.”
Certain heavy-handed practices required by his mission also made Merris feel uneasy about his religion. He says that he and other missionaries were encouraged to go beyond the normal missionary discussions with prospective new members, implementing such things as what they called the “Joseph Smith pray now.” This involved getting missionaries and prospective new members to pray in a circle about the reality of Joseph Smith’s status as a seer, and then, after the missionaries testified about feeling the spirit, asking the prospective new members to share their feelings. He says that such methods amounted to manipulation and put pressure on both the missionaries and non-members involved.
“We psychologically manipulated people—it was very clear,” Merris says. “Now that I’ve read about psychological experiments and look at them in that context, I’m like, ‘Yeah, we were clearly manipulating those people.’”
Even after these mission experiences, Merris continued his participation in the LDS Church, eventually coming face to face with the next logical step for a returned missionary—temple marriage. While dating one girl, Merris says his crisis of faith returned due to issues with the idea of revelation.
“I had a revelation that I was supposed to marry a girl, then I had a revelation that I was not supposed to marry her, within a couple weeks of each other,” Merris says.
Well-meaning family members tried to help him, suggesting that one of these revelations was inspired while the other was not. Merris, however, did not find these suggestions helpful.