A recent post on another blog and an earlier conversation with a friend got me thinking that sometimes we (myself included, I'm not pointing fingers) former-Mormon, now atheists/agnostics can be a bit dismissive of those who didn’t have to reason their way out of religion, religious culture, and/or god-belief before arriving at our atheism. (Similarly, I have often been guilty of using language that is dismissive of former Mormons who maintain spirituality or god-belief outside of Mormonism. A post for another time.)
But, is reasoning one's way out of religion really so special? Kylie writes,
We did not come to atheism or agnosticism by some random default or lack of thought. We did not just choose to quit thinking about God or the mysteries of the world and declare, "I'm agnostic because that religion stuff just isn't for me". People who have left Mormonism and become atheist or agnostic have almost always done so through lots of study, reading, and critical logical thought...
There are some atheists (like me) who left the church without doing any studying or reading into LDS church history or the history of religion in general. I have occasionally felt a smidge marginalized in this ex-mo community because I'm a bit late in learning church history and I don't have some story of coming to an agonizing realization that Joseph Smith was a fraud, etc...But, I also didn’t just decide one day “to quit thinking about god or the mysteries of the world” because it “just isn’t for me”. I simply never believed in God (although I tried). When I left the church, I didn't so much reason my way out of religion and god-belief as it just never "clicked" for me in the first place. Church history was like a cows opinion. So, I don't really fit in with the "learning-church-history-destroyed-my-faith" crowd and, although I self-proclaim that I have always been an atheist, I don't really fit in with the never-churched crowd either.
I think atheism is a natural state, a non-random default. Just because I didn't have to rationalize myself out of faith, doesn't mean I didn't arrive at my atheism honestly. I was born with it just like everyone else. I may not have had to research my way out of belief in Mormon doctrine specifically, but my intellectual and emotional journey as I separated myself from the culture of Mormonism has been and continues to be as much a struggle as it is for those who had to let go of the LDS doctrines and religion first. I still struggle with things such as learned gender roles and restrictive notions about sexuality, free expression, intellectualism and individuality. (Oh oh, pick me, I'm damaged too!!!)
Those who have studied and reasoned their way out of Mormonism initially, and god-belief generally, can be quite proud about it. And they should be. It’s a huge accomplishment, very courageous, and typically requires great sacrifices to go from being a “true-believer” to being a "truth-seeker". But, shouldn’t those who never believed in god, because the religion we were raised with never quite seeped in, also take some pride in that? Our critical thinking skills prevented us from believing in the first place. And, is it fair for those of us who withstood or rejected our religious upbringings to discount or minimize the atheism of those who were (fortunate enough to be) spared religious indoctrination?***
I sort of half-relate to what Kylie wrote. I think there is something to be said for the experience of reasoning one's way out of religion. (Because I'm culturally a Mormon through-and-through, allow me a cheesy metaphor/object lesson.) It's a bit like the intricate process by which a chick hatches from it's shell (except that critical thinking doesn't lose usefulness like the egg tooth.) There is value in the long struggle and I think most of us cherish that experience for the ways in which we grew. However, as I said above, I think atheism IS the default and we're taught to believe and what to believe and how to ignore doubts. If no one were taught to believe we wouldn't HAVE to think about the problems with faith and suppressing doubt. I think plenty of people who have never believed think about God and religion as a means of explaining the unknown, in the quest to understand why and how the believer believes. They come at it from a different perspective but their atheism is rarely reflective of a "lack of thought".
I was recently having a chat, over a spirited game of Bananagrams and some greasy chinese food, with a close friend who is endlessly curious about Mormonism and loves our little Mormon-isms. (Like "white and delightsome", "sweet spirit" and "when the prophet speaks, the thinking's been done." I try to throw these in sometimes to see if she catches on.) She seemed to be under the impression that most former Mormons are like me - always doubters/skeptics - who just finally have had enough of "faking it till you make it". I was explaining that most of the ex-mo's I encounter express that they were once "true-believing Mormons" until they learned something too uncomfortable to be ignored. Like me, she had a very difficult time trying to understand that. She's enamoured with the Book of Mormon musical and she asked if it was, "Like turn if off?" I explained that we actually call it "putting it on the shelf" (as though we are going to come back to it). I told her that most believing Mormons really don't know nearly as much as she does about the problems with church history because the church does a phenomenal job of shielding members from those problems. I also explained correlation and "milk before meat". I told her that we Mormon's have been well-trained in putting things on the shelf and that we are able to let things that don't make sense go because we'll understand them in the next life, when we receive all "light and knowledge." Those little un-truisms we all use sarcastically now, were pretty powerful stuff. Recognizing the circular logic in all of that and breaking free of it is neither easy nor painless. The church makes it easy to believe by making it SOOOO much harder to question.
I don't think any of us intend to discount the critical thinking skills of those who were raised atheists. But, because of our struggle we can sometimes sound as if we think we are somehow better at it because of the trial-by-fire. We fly that flag. There isn't anything wrong with that. But, from the perspective of someone who is in-between and didn't quite make the full journey from true-believer, the language we use can feel a bit dismissive of the un-churched and/or never-believers. I realize that on these blogs we are largely speaking amongst ourselves, but in conversations that occasionally spill over to facebook and other atheist groups we belong to, we should probably be careful about that. I've frequently felt a bit of a sting when interacting with those who have always been atheists (and have always known and embraced it). The tone toward the religious can be less than empathetic. I've noted that in those forums former-believers sometimes get defensive when it is implied that religious belief is stupid or childish or irrational. "Hey! We used to be those people!" I think that those of us who fought the great fight are often guilty of reverse dismissal because "they were JUST raised atheistically, THEY didn't earn it".
***I don't think this was Kylie's did this in her post, nor do think she intended . She was relating an encounter with a specific agnostic whose critical thinking skills are a bit lacking and she uses this example to illustrate that not all atheists wear critical thinking caps. But, the way she framed, combined with my earlier conversation, struck this chord with me. It stung a little.