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Michael Amini was born into an active Mormon family in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was baptized as a full member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 8 and soon became highly involved with them, obtaining many leadership positions along the way. He attended a full four years of Mormon seminary (a required course one takes during the high school years that teaches Scripture) and was accepted into Brigham Young University.

But he’s not Mormon anymore.

In fact, he’s one of the officers of the University of Washington’s Secular Student Alliance affiliate.

This is his story:

For the majority of my life, I have enjoyed being a member of the church. It provided a strong moral backbone, hope for the future, understanding of the past, and a loving community of like-minded individuals. I considered myself a very spiritual person, and as such, made significant efforts to determine the veracity of the church and its claims. I did so by the canonically proper means and largely realized very little effect. This didn’t bother me; I felt that as long as I continued steadfastly, the answers would come to me eventually. In the meantime, I had no reason to doubt the church, and no reason to want to. I was quite excited to serve a mission and was sure that it would be the climax of my life. I made great efforts to please my parents and live a life in full alignment with scripture and doctrine, as I was assured that it would bring me happiness.

Fall 2005 – Spring 2006

I was accepted into [Brigham Young University] as a freshman and was excited to attend, preparing myself to serve a full-time mission. Attending BYU changed very little for me religiously; the faculty and staff were supportive and seemed happy, and the atmosphere was positive and upbeat. The students, whose paradigms were very similar to my own, were a strong, self-sustaining body of representatives of the church. At BYU, however, I began thinking critically about some of the precepts and morals that the church teaches. Upon scrutiny, I came to the decision that there are some things that the church proscribes that are quite potentially dangerous, but under proper circumstances, quite safe and harmless. This realization changed little for me, as I had no desire to break any rules of the church, and had determined that if the mouthpiece of God on Earth forbid it, there must be a good reason that escaped my perception. I left it at that, and thought little more on the matter.

Receiving a mission call to the exotic land of Singapore was quite possibly the most exciting moment of my life. I have always had a burning desire to see the world, and there I held it in my hands. I did everything I could to prepare: brushing up on Arabic, learning Malay phrases, and examining weather patterns and cultural differences.

May 10, 2006

Before entering the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, I was to receive my Endowments. I had heard very little about this special set of blessings and purposely refrained from doing any research or asking any questions. I wanted to be able to accept it with an open mind, unfettered by other’s opinions and interpretations. I entered with little concern and a light heart and left deeply bothered and feeling physically ill. While there was nothing remarkably disturbing during the course of it, it did not nearly seem to fit the pattern of the rest of the church, like a lone storm cloud in a blue sky. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I kept my feelings to myself and decided to press onward.

May 11 – June 1, 2006

Though I hadn’t confronted my feelings regarding the temple directly, I hadn’t pressed them from my mind, and they occupied it forcefully. I was walking through a Barnes & Noble store several days later, and happened to glance at the cover of a book about Freemasonry which had symbols and tokens eerily similar to those I had experienced in the temple. I began researching the ceremony itself thoroughly, and came to the conclusion that it was evidence of a man-made church.

I quickly and prematurely decided that the church was false. Still seeing the church as a force of benevolence, passionately wanting to see the world, and buckling under the pressure of friends, family, and a congregation that I had known from my youth, I decided that I would still serve a full two-year mission as planned, but would fall away quietly after I had finished and graduated from BYU. I felt, however, that this decision immediately rendered me outside of the commandments of the church.

I had a high school sweetheart of over two years at this point, and we were very much in love. I told her everything that had occurred to me and what I planned to do. We then decided that before I left for two years, we would give each other our virginity. She was to return from college at the end of April.

Unfortunately, her grandmother died the day before she was to fly back and she had to stay for the funeral. Immediately after the funeral, her other grandmother passed away. As a result, she flew back the night of May 16, the night before I was to enter the Missionary Training Center. That night, using a rope to climb out of my window, I changed out of my Mormon undergarments in the backyard and stashed them in the wheel well of my car. Sneaking in through her window, we spent as much time together as we could before the sun began to rise.

I loved the MTC. There was not a person I met that was not excited to serve others, and the combination of the energy of youth and the desire to better the world created one of the most blissful environments I have been in. Soon, I began to realize that my decision to leave the church was indeed premature, and I believed that I had made a terrible mistake. After two weeks, and the day before I was to be shipped to Singapore, I confessed to the MTC president, who, after seeking counsel with his colleagues, informed me that I was to be sent home until it was deemed by my local clergy that I had repented. Having to call my father to inform him of what I had done and subsequently seeing my parents at the airport when I arrived at home caused me excruciating pain. I was determined to return to the MTC to redeem my reputation and fulfill what I saw as my spiritual destiny.

In order to set my mind at ease, I knew that I would have to reconcile the issue of the endowment ceremony in my mind, so it would not cause my faith to be shaken again. I turned to friends, mentors, the internet, and books, and soon entered an entire world that I did not know exist; it was the world of the theological Mormon. I soon began discovering a great number of things that caused me to doubt the faith I had been raised in, beginning a war in my mind that may never completely end.

The first thing I had to determine is what vehicle I would use to bring me to a decision of what was truth and what was fiction. Friends and family exhorted me to allow my heart to take precedence over my mind, yet I knew that I had a natural inclination to follow the path of reason before the path of emotion. After much introspection and internal deliberation, I realized several things regarding the seeking of truth. Both heart and mind can be, and are, deceived by appeal to ethos or logos, respectively. There are numerous empirical cases of humans with unquestionable beliefs in their respective religions. Logically, if a Catholic and a Muslim are both truly convicted in their respective faiths and are certain to have hold on the truth, at least one must be wrong. Empirically, there is proof of convicted people of faith of every religion, from the fanatics that flew their planes into the World Trade Centers, to the crusades, to Hindu clerics that stand on a single leg for months at a time, to human sacrifice at Tenochtitlan. Surely, these people felt in their heart of hearts that their particular dogmas were true. Yet, at least all but one must be false. Suicidal cults are a poignant example of what can happen when humans base paradigms upon emotion. Now, this isn’t to say that the mind cannot be deceived, for it is. But the mind, if performing within the bounds of rationality, is not without the capability to adapt to new information and shifts of paradigm. Emotion, which is by definition irrational, has empirically had a tendency to cling to irrational beliefs because change is more difficult upon the heart. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that the best way I could determine that which is true would be to apply reason before emotion.

This decided, I began my exploration of the Mormon faith.

August 2006

I attempted to do so in the safety of the home of my parents, but found that this was not possible. They had always encouraged critical thinking, open-mindedness, and questioning faith. Thus, I was quite surprised and disappointed when my father banned any and all materials critical of the church in either his home or my car, which he owned. He rationalized that I had the freedom to read whatever I wished, but he would not allow “that influence” in or around his property or my siblings. I saw this as a de-facto ban on open inquiry, and recognizing that my life would cease to progress until I came to a decision regarding the church, decided to move out into my own apartment at once. It was around this time that my parents, though they love me dearly, began to see me as a threat to the rest of my family.

I would be called in periodically by my local bishop for an inquiry as to my current “spiritual condition.” The bishop was a man I had known and respected throughout my youth and, at one time, he had dated my mother. He treated me as his own son. I was always open and honest to him about my spiritual plight, and he was always respectful and kind in return. He exhorted me to abstain from alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, or any other “sinful” practices until I had reached a decision regarding the veracity of the church. I wholeheartedly agreed.

I do not believe that this is the place to discuss the specifics of the facts and theories I uncovered regarding the church that brought me great amounts of doubt. I began historically, and found a great many inconsistencies that had no greater purpose than to cause me to consider that there is a possibility that the LDS faith is not everything it is purported to be. After more research and discussion, I came to the conclusion that history is highly biased, and therefore not reliable enough for me to base such an important choice upon. I then began to examine current examples of scripture and doctrine. There were, again, a great many inconsistencies and contradictions that appeared to point in the direction of fiction. It was more difficult to discredit the church as a whole based upon scripture and doctrine, but I still did not believe that it was quite enough to base a decision upon. Scriptures had to have at least been transcribed by the flawed hand of man, after all.

It was with great trepidation that I began to explore the current dogmas and doctrines of the church. Questions of morality have been debated among a great many cultures in every age, and no conclusion had ever truly been drawn outside of particular dogmas. However, it did not take me long to find things which I labeled “acceptable” that the church labeled “unacceptable,” and to my surprise, vice-versa also.

April 2007

I was called in to once again meet with the bishop at around this time. Beforehand, I prepared a long list of all of the major issues I had with the church, ranging from the historicity of the Book of Mormon to the modern church’s treatment of homosexuals. I informed him that I had no desire to leave the church, and wanted it to be true, but could not see how this was possible. I left the list with him, promising that if he could resolve just two of the issues to my satisfaction, I would suspend my decision for another six months.

The final motivator for me in determining that the LDS faith was not the faith that I aligned myself with was that of the limitation of intellectual freedom. There are a great many questions regarding the origin of species and man, specifically the age and history of the earth and the origin of the universe, that are limited in their scientific studies by particular dogmas, to mention cosmology alone. There are also the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology, genetics, and other respected fields of science that contradict particular dogmas. Many of these contradicted statements made in scripture and over the pulpit require one either to reconcile scientific evidence in favor of superstitious belief, leave that particular dogma, or perform mental gymnastics in order to find a way for the two to coincide. Even upon cursory investigation of certain claims regarding the church, I was excited by the possibility of thought without dogmatic limitation, much like seeing glimpses of the sky through clouds.

Upon setting foot into a world where there were no predefined laws or regulations regarding what I may think and feel, I found the intellectual freedom intoxicating. I quickly began seeing things as they are, where I had previously been seeing them through a filter. There really is no possible way for me to convey the difference in the way one perceives the world before and after faith.

May 2007

I recall my final trip to the bishop vividly. I entered the church, touching the walls as I walked to his office, much like a high school graduate walking down the halls of his elementary school. As I entered, I knew that my list had been untouched by the grief on my bishop’s face. I asked if he had found an answer to even one, and he shook his head, handing me back the list. I borrowed a pen, and on the back of that very list, wrote my letter of resignation from the Mormon church, abandoning all blessings, ordinances, benefits, and spiritual gifts entitled to me as a member. We were both teary-eyed as I hugged the bishop, thanked him, and said goodbye. I received confirmation via mail that my membership had been revoked and my records removed about a month and a half later.

The decision to leave the church was an incredibly difficult one. I still feel emotionally attached to the church. I have many good memories of experiences within the church, and it is still difficult to remember what it was like. Apparently, this is not an uncommon phenomenon, as there are a great many people in my position that feel the same way, and not nearly exclusively with the Mormon church. I have come to accept that it is a consequence of the gift of favorable hindsight and the good feelings that stem from appeasing those around you.

I had long believed that if the LDS faith were not the true faith upon the face of the earth, there must not be any. I now had the opportunity to test this belief. Immediately, I found that Christianity shared the majority of the problems I had with Mormonism; dogmatic belief, contradictive scripture, historical questionability, etc. I began exploring other faiths, and found that my beliefs aligned best with Tantric Buddhism. The quest for reason and enlightenment seemed very appealing to me. However, upon further examination, it became clear that there were dogmatic precepts within Buddhism that were just as unfounded as any within Christianity. I continued looking and searching, but came to the understanding that by definition, no set of dogmatic principles would allow the complete intellectual freedom I so sought after.

At this point, I considered myself a Deist (more commonly, agnostic). Having become disillusioned with organized religion, I determined that my relationship with God was of my own discretion. I then happened upon the philosophy of Atheism.

There is a great social stigma regarding the label “Atheist.” According to one recent poll, of all the minorities in the US (Black, Hispanic, female, homosexual, etc), the least trusted and the least likely to be elected was the minority of the Atheist. I had never felt that way toward Atheism, and so with an open mind, I began to investigate.

After a great deal of reading, listening, and pondering, I came to the conclusion that I am indeed an Atheist. My reasons for this belief are many, but some of the most basic beliefs are eloquently put forth by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among others.

In leaving the church, I lost nearly everything I had. I lost a great number of friends, which I was both expecting and surprised at. Some friends were not allowed to associate with me by their parents and fell out of contact, some expressed outright disappointment and withdrew their company punitively, and others only ceased speaking to me after repeated attempts to “save” me from apostasy. I lost my full-tuition scholarship at Brigham Young University and my ability to return as a student. I was always welcome in my parent’s home, but I became an outsider to my own family, and one that was not to be trusted. Though I am (still) too young to be considered an independent and receive financial aid for college, my parents withdrew their support from financing my education. Moving into my own apartment cost me what little money I had left. Most devastatingly of all, my loving girlfriend of nearly three years ceased speaking to me, and informed me that I was not to contact her. She was not Mormon, and I believe she made this decision as a result of my instability. Though our parents are neighbors and our little sister’s friends, I not heard from her since. Losing her was more than I could bear, and I nearly took my life. It was only by the grace of my two best friends and roommates that I persevered.

Looking back, I noticed several disturbing trend as I left the church. Mormons I knew, including my friends and family, began discrediting my de-conversion as a wanton desire for the bottle, drugs, and/or copious amounts of anonymous sex. Even when confronted face to face, they refused to believe that I had legitimate reasons to doubt the veracity of the Mormon church’s claims. I now think that this is because they cannot accept that there is a possibility that there is truth that exists outside Mormondom. Still, it was deeply hurtful and shocking to realize that so many I cared about thought that I would be so short-sighted as to exchange the eternal salvation of my soul for booze and women.

I became the target of significantly increased scrutiny. Though my grades and extracurricular activities changed very little, they were seen as new manifestations of a destructive and evil lifestyle. For example, I was recently condemned for a lack of community service, though I actually have more service hours recently than I had previously.

I am now a student at the University of Washington, and enjoying it profusely. I am highly active in our local branch of the Secular Student Alliance. My relationship with my family is as good as I could hope, and I hope that over time, things will improve.

Michael is now studying Near Eastern Languages & Civilization, with a pre-med focus.

(If you’re interested in other ex-Mormons, go read Letters from a Broad! If you’re interested in current Mormons, read my interview with Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings.)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]