“Nothing To Be Scared Of: A Utah Girl Becomes An Atheist” (Essay)

Sometimes I hear people say “It’s not religion that’s the problem, it’s the people that ruin it.”  Or “God is perfect.  Man is flawed.”  I say it’s all the same thing.  Actually, usually I just think that, and don’t say anything, because I have better things to do than engage someone in a long discussion that will most likely end up exactly where it started.  And as long as they don’t try to force me to live my life according to their movement/religion/school of thought, I figure they can believe whatever they want.  Besides, I have met many very nice people who believe all sorts of different things.  See?  This is one of the reasons atheists don’t hold mass feverish meetings in stadiums.  Yes, I am an atheist.

If I were to engage them in a discussion/debate, here are some questions I would pose:  “Which God do you think is perfect?”   “The God of the Old Testament that commands his favorite tribe (one that you probably don’t belong to) to kill, rape, and enslave other tribes?”  “The God that required his favorite son to be tortured and killed, because his other lesser children sometimes misbehave?”  “The God revealed/invented in the 7th century that so many people are ready to kill and die for?”  “The God that is so preoccupied with how women dress?”  “The God that you pray to for favors, but who cannot or will not keep children from getting cancer?”  I could go on and on…

But I usually don’t.  It seems to me that most people who bring up religion want to have a quick verbal exchange that amounts to this:  “How are you?  I’m OK considering how fucked up the world is.  Good thing there’s a God and heaven and hell though, huh?  I’m glad we are in agreement.  You’re OK.”

When I look at the world, one of the things I think is “Nobody is driving this thing.”  No way.  I see chaos.  I also see beauty.  Kindness.  Cooperation.  Peace.  Happiness.  Love.  Sex.  Joy.  Laughter.  Friends.  Family.  Life.  Profound revelations that I cannot put into words.  At least they are profound to me.  I also see tragedy.  Misery.  Poverty.  Starvation.  Hate.  Murder.  Rape.  War.  Injustice.  Disaster.  Death. 

I try to see it all. 

And yet, in honesty, I try not to dwell on the negative.  I do believe that I am driving ME.  I decide what I let in.  I decide what I think about, how it makes me feel, and what I do about it.  But that’s a whole ‘nuther thing, as they say in my home town.

I was born in 1966 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the default form of Christianity is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the LDS Church or Mormonism.  My mom was what you would call a “JackMormon”; she was baptized in the Mormon faith and went to church once in a while, but she didn’t talk about it much.  She has also been interested in astrology and reincarnation for as long as I can remember.  My dad grew up in North Dakota, where I guess the default Christianity is Lutheranism.  I don’t know if Midwesterners have a term like “JackLutheran”, but that would be my dad.  My mom taught us kids to take responsibility for our actions, and liked to say “God gave you a brain.  Use it.”  My grandma and grandpa lived a few blocks from our house in Rose Park, so I spent a lot of time visiting them.  They smoked and drank coffee, and I knew from a young age that that meant they were not what you’d call ‘good’ Mormons.  But they were good people.  My family always seemed sort of unburdened by religious belief, comfortable with living their lives the best they could, and trying not to hurt anybody.  We said a prayer over Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas was more about Santa than Jesus, and Easter was about cute baskets with pastel real eggs and chocolate fake ones.   

When I did go to church and the children’s religious classes known as Primary, I always asked a lot of questions.  More than anybody else.  As a born feminist (or as my parents called me in the vernacular of 1970s Utah, a “women’s lib-ber”), a lot of my questions were about what I, as a girl, could and could not do.  For example, men can “hold the priesthood” in the Mormon faith, and boys can be ordained into the first level at age 12.  When I asked one of my teachers “Why can’t I hold the priesthood?”  she said “Because women have babies and that’s THEIR priesthood.”  To which I clearly remember responding, at age seven:  “I’m not going to have babies.  I’m going to be a singer.”  Both of those predictions have come true.  Or in the vernacular of the English translation of the Bible:  “And yea, it came to pass that Lori did prevent her womb from bearing fruit, and did raise her voice in song, but did not praiseth the Lord.”  But back when I was a kid, I wanted to believe in God, I did pray, and I did get baptized into the Mormon faith when I was 8 years old.  It was the thing to do!  Most of my friends were Mormons. We saw each other at Primary and didn’t get too deep into religious doctrine.  But I kept posing tough questions to the increasingly ruffled adults, and the answers left me unsatisfied.  For instance, Mormons believe in three levels of heaven, and one day I pressed for details on how to get into the highest level, where I dared to envision myself actually hanging out with God.  I found out that for a FEMALE to get into the highest level of heaven, that elite inner circle, that exclusive gated community known to Mormons as the Celestial Kingdom, she needs to marry a man who holds the priesthood.  Upon hearing this, I said “You mean to tell me that the only way I can get into heaven is through a MAN?  Even if I’m a good person, I still need a MAN?”  I couldn’t believe it.  And I didn’t believe it.  But I was a kid.  I shrugged it off for the time being and kept trying to believe in the bigger picture of God and faith. 

My family moved to the suburb of Murray when I was 11 1/2, into a brand new house we helped build.  At night, the basement was dark and spooky to me and my 10-year-old brother, and the light switch was located at the bottom of the stairs.  Sometimes, when I felt especially spooked descending into the dark basement, I would sing the Mormon classic hit “I Am a Child of God”, softly but defiantly: “Lead me, guide me, walk beside me…” and imagine invisible evil spirits, lurking in the rec room, perhaps against the bookshelf near the paperback of “Helter Skelter”, made powerless by the song.  They were watching me, looking for weakness, waiting to get me. I walked and sang with purpose, my head held high but with a touch of humility, wielding the pedestrian hymn like a talisman.  Like a cross, or a Bible, or… a Book of Mormon?  Naw… I hadn’t read it, and what little I knew of it seemed too weird and convoluted to effectively repel evil spirits.  By singing, I was announcing myself as a strong, protected child of God.   

Then one night, as I began this basement ritual, I decided to just stand in the darkness for a while.  To imagine my surroundings as they looked when the light was on: the sheetrock walls, the vinyl flooring in the hallway, the carpeted rec room with the pool table and fireplace, the bookcase with the mint-condition Book of Mormon.  Nothing to be scared of.  Then I thought the evil spirits might strike.  I was letting my guard down, doubting their existence, challenging them.  So I decided to CHALLENGE them.  I stood in the darkness, and I said “What?  What do you want from me?”  I was a 12-year-old girl, a decent person, and I thought:  what kind of ‘being’ would gain anything by frightening or tormenting me?  If they were that cowardly to come after ME, then maybe I could take them.  “Show yourselves!” I said.  I imagined their usual smirks replaced by looks of surprise.  I braced myself, and I waited… for anything.  But nothing happened. 

I thought about it some more.  If I really was sensing a presence, maybe it wasn’t evil after all, but just wanted to communicate with me.  Maybe it was shy, so it hid in suburban basements and only came out at night.  I said “Who are you?”  and waited.  Nothing.  No terrifying faces snarling at me, no fiery eyes hypnotizing me, no invisible hands closing around my neck.  No ghosts wearing clothes from a bygone era, no pale, wide-eyed children asking me to find their killers, no gypsy women congratulating me on my psychic powers.  No ethereal faces with comforting smiles, no heavenly rays of light breaking the darkness, no white-winged angels admonishing me for my reckless impertinence.  Nothing.  Nothing but my imagination.  And at that moment, it was quiet and calm.  I stood there for a while longer, listening to the silence.  I felt strong and brave and mature.  I felt like I had gotten to know myself better.   

I attended church at the neighborhood LDS ward only once in a while, mainly because I didn’t want to have to get cleaned up, put on a dress, and be somewhere at a certain time.  I still feel that way… I think some people call it ‘laziness’.  But also because I didn’t get much from going.  The music was SO boring.  Not just boring.  Plodding, schmaltzy, pretentious… and the lyrics!  Verse after olde-time-y verse of obsequious flattery to the Lord and complete disgust for mankind.  And most people sang in a tired, dutiful manner, unsure of the melody and lagging way behind the beat. 

I tried to look at the hymns as a good way to hone my sight-singing skills, and that motivated me to attend a few times. 

I did feel a sense of community at church, some of it seemed manufactured, but most of it was genuine and friendly.  Very nice folks who lived three blocks away that you rarely saw otherwise would smile and wave, or come over to say hello. On the other hand, any adolescent angst you felt during the week at school was not escaped on Sunday.  I disliked walking down the aisle to look for an open seat in the crowded wooden pews to the pompous sound of the church organ, self-consciously thinking that all eyes were on me. Boys that were immature and even mean at school who nevertheless held the priesthood passed the trays of sacramental bread and water.  I did not feel closer to the God I still believed in by going to church.  This God was beyond judging someone for that.  And if I was a child of God, I could communicate with him directly.  I didn’t need to belong to an organization. 

But the church had a lot of other activities during the week that were pretty fun.  Like summer camp, basketball games, talent shows, plays, and Friday night dances where dee-jays would play rock, pop, and soul.  You could get down to The Sugar Hill Gang or watch the Mormon boy you had a crush on slow-dance with somebody else to the Styx song “Lady”.  But none of these sweet extra-curricular activities could help me swallow the weird-tasting Mormon doctrine I was learning more about.  We become gods ourselves and get our own planets???  So are we monotheists or polytheists?  We get baptized for the dead?  How do the dead feel about that?  We believe God actually requires that?  Why do we think these are the “Latter Days”?  And isn’t calling ourselves “Saints” just a little conceited?  By the time I was 14, I knew I was not a Mormon.  Even if I did keep going to the Friday night dances.

But let’s back up to about a year earlier.  Many nights, before going to bed, I would pray.  I would thank God for the many blessings I had:  my family, my country, my freedoms, my health, the plentiful food I had to eat.  I would ask him to bless the people in the world who were less fortunate.  And maybe ask him to help me do my best on the upcoming spelling bee.  Amen.  Then I started to feel strange about that last part.  Was I asking him to help me have more focus and concentration?  Because whoever won, won.  And it wasn’t like I needed to win the spelling bee.  If anything, the starving people in Africa NEEDED help.  “So don’t worry about me, God, I’m doing OK.  But please help them.”  Then I started to wonder why I would even need to ask him on their behalf.  If God was all-knowing, he would know that a child is dying right now.  If he is all-powerful, he could help that child live.  Isn’t that the idea?  For a child to live?  I didn’t buy the convenient/comforting argument that when a child dies, God is ‘bringing them home.’  Then what is he doing to the parents?  Punishing them?  Testing them?  I started to notice more injustices in the world, and to ask more questions in my head.  When a natural disaster like an earthquake or tidal wave results in thousands of people dying, is that God’s will?  Did he orchestrate it or just let it happen?  Or is it just that the earth’s plates move, oceans swell, winds blow, and living things die in the turmoil?  The last explanation was the only one that made sense to me.   

The more I thought about these kinds of things, the more I drifted away from believing in god.  It wasn’t that dramatic.  If anything, it was liberating.  I felt more at peace.  More like I was experiencing life as it really is, seeing things as they really are.  I felt like I was becoming more of my authentic self.  By the time I was eighteen, I knew I was an atheist.   When I told my mom and dad, they seemed shocked and disappointed.  My mom argued with me about it, and my dad made a few snide comments.  But I knew they loved me and were proud of me, I knew they would get used to it, and I knew that they knew that I usually win arguments.  My mom is my best friend.  I love them both dearly and they have always been supportive parents. They let me be me.  I imagine they would probably say  “Do we have a choice?” 

By the age of eighteen, I had friends of all stripes:  Mormons, questioning Mormons, members of other religions, and a few who called themselves agnostics or atheists.  I had older musician friends who I sang with in bands.  I had a philosophy professor at the University of Utah who criticized religion with such relish, such eccentric zeal, such dazzling intellect, that he was both famous and infamous.  But most of my friends never talked about religion, so I had no idea what they believed.  All these things made it easier to ‘come out’ as an atheist, but becoming an atheist was something I did on my own.

Some people might feel that by saying “I don’t believe in god” I am  thumbing my nose at their god, and at them. That makes no sense.  I’m not being a rebel.  I believe there is no god.  I cannot believe otherwise.  I don’t think of it as a negative thing.  I think it’s strange how easily many religious people can dismiss mankind as being inherently weak, selfish, brutish, even evil, when they claim to believe man was made in god’s image.  As a member of mankind, I’m offended by that.  Also a little frightened by the schizophrenic mix of self-loathing and superiority.

I know that some people think that because I don’t believe in god, I have no moral compass.  Bullshit.  I have a conscience.  I don’t want to hurt people.  I want to make the world a better place.  And I don’t need to believe that a god is watching and judging me to keep me in line.  I don’t announce that I’m an atheist often, but once when I had to testify in court, I was asked to swear I would tell the truth “so help me god”.  I said “Your Honor, I’m an atheist, but I swear to tell the truth.”  She paused, then nodded and said “Very good.”  And that was that. 

I don’t claim to know everything.  I don’t know what happens after death.  Neither do you.  But I don’t feel a need to latch onto an explanation just because it’s easier than not knowing.  I can’t do it.  It’s a matter of self-respect. 

I left Utah when I was 21 to study and work in London for 8 months, returned to my hometown until I was 24, then moved to Seattle, where I lived for 7 years.  Los Angeles is my home now, where I have lived for almost 15 years, and where I am a professional singer.  I visit Utah about twice a year to see my family and friends, and I love to go snowboarding or hiking in the mountains.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve told someone I grew up in Utah and they asked “Are you a Mormon?” I would be rich.  Or at least have a LOT of nickels.

I’m curious about many things: consciousness, perception, intuition, human nature, animal nature, good and evil, what science can and cannot explain.  So I read, and I think, and ask questions, and try to experience this life I am living.  I have bad days, of course.  Who doesn’t?  But I have a lot of good days.  I have good friends that believe all kinds of different things.  We don’t talk about the details all that much, which is fine.  But if they ask me, I say “I’m an atheist.” 

-copyright 2012  Lori Lynner