If you would have told me 5 years ago that one day I would become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would have called you a liar. At the time, I was an unrelenting atheist. The bad, militant kind. I belittled religion and had far too much confidence in my own naive outlook.
Looking back, my mental model wasn’t incredibly sophisticated — but I certainly felt like it was at the time. I thought that if people would simply lay down their superstitions, we could get some real work done. I realize now that this was supremely misguided.
If you’re reading this, you may be in a similar headspace. It’s beyond the scope of this post to try to convince you otherwise, but just know that I feel for you. I remember the background radiation of anxiety that surrounds daily life when you live without the calming presence of the creator. I even remember the kind of smug satisfaction I felt for having that unnerving uncertainty throughout my days. I recall believing that the presence of the anxiety itself was a virtue.
As you might expect from the title of this post, my outlook changed.
Over the course of 4 years, I went from being a staunch atheist to believing faithfully in God and following the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to share my story in hopes that it might help others start the same journey.
It took a long time to reshape my psyche from something that rejected the thought of a higher power into something that embraces it with open arms. However, all journeys start somewhere and mine started in a rather predictable place.
Like many that turn toward God later in life, my catalyst came after having children. Seeing new life emerge was beyond awe-inspiring. It shook the (as of then) theoretical notions I had about fatherhood and my role in the world. Additionally, becoming a parent made me appreciate the difficulty of teaching right from wrong.
As an atheist, I always considered the distinction between the two extremes obvious. But when you’re forced to explain to a small creature why they have to do a particular thing, the humanist explanation doesn’t work nearly as well as its smugness implies. Have you ever tried explaining why people shouldn’t lie to a toddler?
Now, this isn’t to say I started pursuing religion because explaining complex topics to children is hard. But attempting to explain without the presence of a Creator left my answers hollow and unconvincing, especially to myself.
For example, did I actually believe telling the truth was good because of the evolutionary advantage given to creating sturdy, predictable social hierarchies? Reducing honesty down to its role in natural selection felt incorrect. While that’s not a scientific position, there’s only so much cognitive dissonance that I could take. There were dozens of these examples: seemingly simple truths I had blindly accepted that failed to hold up under scrutiny.
So, my strict materialist worldview was challenged and I began to look more seriously at the claims and constructs of Christian churches. I started asking “in what way are these institutions correct?” rather than trying to poke holes in their doctrine and look at how they were mistaken. I realized that my own definitions were too rigid and that I had created a caricature of religion that was easy for me to contend with.
Over time, I expanded my definitions and adopted a perspective that allowed the existence of the Creator. I wasn’t a believer, but I was able to see Christianity as a conversation between generations, fundamentally passing important messages from ancestors to modern people. If you’re familiar with the Aristotelian perspective of theology, that was essentially my position. I stopped worrying about whether or not individual claims were true and started thinking more in terms of “what will happen if I act as if I believe this is true?”
With my perspective changed, I began my hunt for a church — and thus began 3 and a half years of meandering. I casually listened to Sunday radio sermons and read Wikipedia articles about various faiths. I looked up Pew Research statistics about outcomes by religious denomination (side note, this is worth a read). I explored Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, various Protestant sects, and mainline off-shoots like the Society of Saint Pius X.
For reasons that weren’t clear at the time, none of these sects of Christianity drew me any closer to God. I would experience brief glimpses of grace as I explored, but nothing brought me any closer to darkening a church’s door. The spiritual situation of my family would remain in this state of indecision for years and wouldn’t change until I made a large lifestyle change for myself.
Accidentally Following the Word of Wisdom
In early 2021, I was on parental leave from work and decided to use that time to do something I wanted to do for years — go on a complete caffeine fast. This wasn’t for health reasons or spirituals reasons. I read years prior that by abstaining from caffeine for a few weeks, your tolerance would reset. My goal was to have my morning coffee hit harder and require fewer cups to get through the day.
With that goal, I woke up one morning and stopped caffeine cold turkey.
Caffeine withdrawal is really difficult. The headaches and chills I experienced were worse than when I had quit nicotine years earlier. My energy levels bombed and to put it mildly, I was less than pleasant to be around for the first few days.
However, on day 5 of the fast, my withdrawal symptoms disappeared and were replaced by amazing clarity of mind. The background radiation of anxiety I usually felt throughout my day was completely gone as well. Most wildly, I felt un-dampened joy in things in a way I hadn’t in years. It was nothing short of incredible.
Quitting coffee resulted in a transformational positive change in both my psyche and behavior. My energy levels were stable for the first time in over a decade and nearly all aspects of my life improved. I have not touched a cup since and I continue to reap the rewards from this decision.
Over the years, I had sought medical guidance for the anxiety and energy fluctuations I experienced, but nothing seemed to stick. I tried different supplements and would self-medicate with tobacco and alcohol when the other efforts failed. I spent so much time and energy trying to fix the things that were remedied by cutting out caffeine. It was unbelievable and to say I was grateful would be an understatement.
With those stark changes in the front of my mind, I did something that I didn’t normally do at the time: I knelt and said a small, clumsy prayer of thanks to God for the beneficial changes I had experienced.
To my surprise, in response to the prayer, I felt a strong wave of peace and calm wash over me. My thoughts were quiet and I was experiencing the presence of (what I would soon learn to be) the Holy Ghost. It was the same feeling I had when going to church as a child and it was both unexpected and unignorable. Honestly, I believed I was unable to feel this feeling anymore.
Because of the many benefits bestowed by abstaining from it, I started thinking about the only branch of Christianity that I knew of that specifically forbade coffee as part of their doctrine — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or in the way that I referred to the Church at the time: Mormons). In my rationalist life, I considered it a silly rule, but the benefits I experienced were un-ignorable and this Church was one of the few I hadn’t seriously considered during previous searches.
After some light Googling, I would learn that the warning against coffee (and tea) were part of the Word of Wisdom and was a foundational piece to how the Latter-day Saints organized their life. Because of how positively my life was changed by accidentally following it for a week, I decided to start looking into the Church in earnest.
While researching the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints, I came across Purpose In Christ — the site you’re reading right now. I was inspired by Jim’s testimony and reached out to thank him and ask for any advice for newcomers to the faith. We chatted back and forth and he was kind enough to connect me with the missionaries that would give my family the first of many lessons about the restored Church.
Meeting the missionaries
Up until this point, I had actively avoided meeting with missionaries (of all faiths). I don’t like the feeling of being sold something and my incorrect assumption was that the sessions would be like that. While the missionaries do want to help bring you closer to Heavenly Father, they’re not selling anything. Their purpose is to teach about the tenets of the Church and to help you find your own answers through reading and prayer.
This is an important point — unlike the vast majority of religious conversations I had as an atheist, many conversations I had with the missionaries were built around learning the steps necessary to find my own answers. They weren’t arguing anything — they only shared the Church’s teachings with their own experiences mixed in. Then, they encouraged you to pray to find revelation for yourself.
As you can probably tell, my experiences meeting with the missionaries were good. My wife and I would meet with them via Zoom in our dining room, joined by Jim and his wife Emily. It was a great introduction to the faith and everyone was so helpful. Seriously, if you’re interested in the Church you should contact Jim ([email protected], 208-477-9332)!
We didn’t fully expect to convert at this point, but I felt compelled to learn more and keep an open mind. I felt the Spirit strongly the more I learned about Church doctrines and it seemed natural to explore further. The idea of the Creator as a literal Heavenly Father spoke to me — especially since my relationship with my own children is what made me start searching for a religion in the first place. The idea that the Church was restored (rather than reformed) to the original teachings of Christ also spoke to my sensibilities as someone who had leveed many a criticism about other churches.
But the absence of cognitive dissonance doesn’t necessarily mean something is true. It took more prayer, reading, and attending church services before we were ready to commit.
A word on prayer
As I mentioned earlier, I did not do much praying before cutting out caffeine and investigating the church. There were many reasons for this, but one of the strongest forces behind my aversion to the practice as an atheist was how silly it seemed. Why would talking to yourself produce any sort of meaningful outcome? Wouldn’t a God already know your thoughts and desires, making prayer unnecessary? What if two faithful people prayed for competing things?
I assumed for many years that I wouldn’t feel anything through prayer, because of this mental model. And because of that assumption, I simply never tried.
Now, there is a lot to be said about prayer and I am still learning how to make the most of it. But this was another situation where my mental model of praying was drastically different than the practice of it. After meeting with the missionaries and learning how to do it properly, I started doing it often and in earnest and the results were astounding.
Always, it helped clarify my thoughts and help me understand myself and my desires in a way that was previously opaque. Sometimes, when praying about a particularly difficult decision or situation, I would receive personal revelation in the form of the Holy Ghost. I would feel a calming presence and my mind would grow still — there would be no contention in my thoughts. It was a drastically different way to approach problem-solving than I was used to.
Naturally, my relationship with prayer has evolved since then and I’m still working to understand the nature of it. I expect this work to continue for the rest of my life. But my mental model has shifted substantially since being an atheist. Yes, prayer is a very simple thing and a rational mind can easily see the ways it is unlikely to work. Faithful members of the church also acknowledge these limitations and do not expect every prayer to be answered in the way they expect. However, the simple act of praying evokes amazing fruits.
The Book of Mormon actually talks about doing these kinds of simple things and the general reluctance to follow them.
And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.1 Nephi 17:41
If you’re currently seeking — try prayer. Do it earnestly and without pretense or expectations. Address Heavenly Father and start to pour out your heart. You may feel silly performing the act for the first couple of times. You may not even feel anything as you begin, but be persistent and the results will surprise you.
Praying about the Church
For me, I prayed intermittently after meeting with the missionaries. I missed many days and didn’t always do what they asked. However, I kept doing it and was able to find personal revelation in my own life.
One evening after a lesson, I half-heartedly prayed, asking Heavenly Father whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the restored church of Jesus Christ. I had made this prayer before, but this time I received an answer in the form of the calming presence of the Holy Ghost. At that moment, I knew that there was truth in the Church and I knew that it was my responsibility to keep searching.
The rational, materialist part of me wanted to ignore this feeling. To be honest, there’s still a bit of that — me trying to find a physical explanation for the religious experiences I’ve felt. And I’m sure that physical systems are at play, but that doesn’t make the experience any less real. I made (and keep making) the decision to nurture the feeling instead of trying to sabotage it. In doing so, I experienced (and keep experiencing) genuine joy in a way I didn’t think was possible.
This nurturing took the form of more regular prayer, reading the Book of Mormon, meeting weekly with missionaries, and finally, attending church services.
Going to church
I put off attending Latter-day Saint church services for far longer than I should have. The missionaries asked me multiple times whether I was going to attend the following Sunday and I would find a reason why it wasn’t going to work.
Honestly, I felt intimidated and anxious about the prospect. I hadn’t darkened a church’s door for anything other than weddings or funerals since I was 12 years old. As a result, my mind created all manner of worrying thoughts about going inside.
- “What if it’s just immediately clear that we don’t belong there?”
- “What if the congregation is cold toward us?”
- “What if we do something to offend the other churchgoers?”
- “What if we don’t wear the right clothes?”
- “What if our kids won’t stay quiet during the service?”
For context, my wife and I both have tattoos and up until this point definitely worried that we wouldn’t be “LDS-material.” The church’s outward image of a clean-cut, put-together family had us concerned — we were not that family! Thankfully, it became clear within minutes of walking through the front doors that we were, in fact, in the right place.
The worries we had were completely unfounded. The congregation was warm and welcoming. Our tattoos were not at all a concern and were met with curiosity instead of judgment. In fact, people actually came up to us and assumed that we had been in the church for years. There was no hint at all that folks considered us outsiders. Immediately, we felt like we belonged there.
However, our children did cause a loud commotion during the sacrament meeting. Luckily, dozens of other families with young children also caused commotion — and it was enough to drown out our own kids! This alone was a drastically different experience than other churches we were familiar with
For example, the church I attended growing up demanded silence, and any interruptions were met with scorn and sometimes judgment. I’m not sure if the experience is universal across different wards, but ours simply embraces the chaos of parenthood. It’s amazing!
Since then, we’ve been to church nearly every week and have grown to love it even more. Church service at a Latter-day Saints church is definitely different than at many protestant churches. But these differences make the experience very special. If you’re curious, here are a number of aspects I’ve found delightful/inspiring:
- The service is organized entirely by unpaid volunteers.
- Lessons are given by members of the congregation.
- The first Sunday of each month is “fast Sunday” and allows any member of the church to share their testimony.
- There aren’t any collection plates! All tithing happens at a member’s discretion and outside of church services.
If you’re on the fence about attending a church service, my advice is to just go for it! Visitors are encouraged to attend and I’m sure the congregation will do everything in their power to make you feel welcome.
Deciding to be Baptized
My family and I kept attending church services for a couple of months and, like so many other things the Church prompted us to do, the results were incredible. We met many other great families, all trying to improve and be the best people they can be on this earth. We heard testimonies from other members that lifted our hearts and helped us feel the Spirit. Each week, we learned more and more about what it means to be a steadfast practitioner and we felt ourselves getting closer to accepting the church as true.
But there was a lingering thought in the back of my head that I couldn’t shake. Did I really believe all of the core tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Being honest with myself, I knew that I had supreme doubts about the teachings of the church. It’s very difficult for someone to go from absolute disbelief to blind acceptance of hundreds of doctrines in the relatively short amount of time that I investigated.
But at this point, I knew many things that I did not know just months prior.
- Attending regular church services gave us feelings of community and connectedness beyond our highest expectations.
- Following the Word of Wisdom unbelievably improved my health and psyche.
- Regular prayer offered a feeling of well-being that meditation, exercise, and other rituals failed to reproduce.
- My family was an order of magnitude happier and the household less contentious since before we started the journey.
These were four undeniable truths. However, still being a skeptic, I could not bring myself to say that I was a “believer.” There were things I believed — truths that were found through existing in the church, but I could not accept it wholesale.
As it turns out, undoubting belief isn’t a prerequisite for joining the church. There’s even a passage in the Book of Mormon about the desire to believe being sufficient for fostering belief.
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.Alma 32:27
I found this completely remarkable. Here was a branch of Christianity that acknowledged that belief itself is difficult. Instead of judging people for their lack of faith, the scripture offers a path to develop your faith through active choices. It acknowledges faith as something to be exercised and demonstrated through conscious action and did not require belief as a prerequisite. Let me tell you, as a reforming atheist, this was amazing to read.
I didn’t think that I would ever reach the point of belief that many lifelong practitioners have. To be honest, I still have doubts that I will reach that level. However, I know that my faith can grow and develop as I work on it.
Because of all of these things, my wife and I made the decision to make covenants with the Lord and become baptized. We were ready to make a long-standing commitment to Christ and knew that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the correct place to foster our belief. We knew enough to say that the church is, in fact, true.
Our baptism was a joyous occasion — its ceremony and our confirmation further solidified that we “picked” the right church to join and bring our own family up inside of. Every day that I keep my own covenants, I watch the promised blessings occur in my own life. I can feel the Holy Ghost’s presence in my daily life, especially when I pray and ask for help or answers.
However, there are days when I fail to meet my covenants. Bad days occur and, being an imperfect soul, I still misstep. There are promptings I ignore and I regularly prioritize earthly concerns when I shouldn’t. Though we strive to be perfect like Christ, we understand that it is a goal we will not reach on earth.
Surprisingly, these moments have only reinforced my belief in Christ and the Church. I can tell when I’m off the path because the feeling of the Holy Ghost is reduced (usually in proportion to how dramatically I fail to emulate Christ!). When I course correct, pray, and renew my covenants by taking the sacrament each week, the calming presence returns. This seems like a very straightforward message!
Although this post was long, it still feels inadequate in truly capturing my journey from militant atheist into devout church member. There is so much more I wanted to say, but I also wanted to make this digestible for anyone out there that may be searching. I had in mind myself from 5 years ago when writing this — the angry, sarcastic, godless person who suddenly realizes that the caricature they’ve built up of religion is only a facade.
If you’ve made it this far, there’s something keeping you reading. There are a few things that I would like to invite you to do now:
- Learn how to pray and start regularly reaching out to Heavenly Father. This is free and there’s no reason not to try it. Seriously — do this as soon as you can.
- Meet with missionaries and start learning Christ’s gospel. Even if you decide not to join, there’s no better way to understand what our Church believes than to learn it from people trained to teach it!
- Email or text Jim (208-447-9332) with any questions about the Church. Go ahead and do it. He wants you to!
If you’re an atheist like I was, I know what I’m asking. I still remember how I would’ve responded if someone asked me to do the above. However, I know what’s on the other side of the effort. There are immense blessings to look forward to afterwards and I assure you that the initial feelings of hypocrisy fade quicker than you expect.
Just know that there is hope, and Heavenly Father has not given up on you. In fact, He never will.