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How an Atheist Came Back to the Church and Found Peace Despite Doubt

Developing Doubt

“I know that the Church is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet, and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”

For over 25 years, I had spoken those sacred words thousands of times. Yet somehow, I found myself sitting in my stake president’s office, feeling lost and in despair, questioning everything I had previously “known” to be true. My stake president was an intelligent and honest man, but as I sought his counsel regarding various Church history questions, I quickly realized that he wasn’t much of a historian.

In other words, instead of answering my questions and helping me to resolve my concerns, my stake president expressed his faithful optimism. He shared his testimony, counseled me to stay close to God, and encouraged me to keep reading and praying. This sort of “stick to the fundamentals” counsel might seem appropriate and sufficient to some, but to me, in my moment of acute faith crisis, it wasn’t enough. I was at a spiritual low point, feeling vulnerable and desperate. I remember appreciating his sincerity but also feeling let down and afraid. I was full of doubt, and I needed additional help—help that, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to provide.

So there I was, a full-blown doubter, a closet atheist, feeling like I was on the path to apostasy. Because of my extreme doubt, which I had developed through listening to cynical viewpoints, I had stopped praying. Sure, I had continued to pray with my wife because I didn’t want to hurt her, but each time I prayed, my words felt empty and my heart was hollow. I was only going through the motions at that point. Church meetings were drudgery. Dragging myself to fulfill my calling was even worse. I was completely checked out. I felt tired, hurt, worried, angry, and worst of all, I felt like no one in the Church understood me.

A Voice of Hope

Then one day, about a year after my total collapse of faith, an unexpected phrase suddenly popped into my head. It sounded like a voice that clearly said, “Contact Steven Harper.” Years ago, Dr. Harper was my professor at Brigham Young University, and he had taught my D&C class. When I heard that voice, it was a strange moment for me because those words seemed to come out of nowhere.

After that miraculous experience, my mind was filled with skeptical thoughts like, “You shouldn’t bother Dr. Harper,” and, “He’s too important and too busy to talk to you,” and, “He probably won’t give you a straight answer.” But, after I thought more about it, I decided to email my old professor, outlining a few of my concerns.

Scholarly Defibrillation

The next day, I found Dr. Harper’s reply in my inbox. As I read, I not only felt his genuine love, humility, and honesty but his competence to answer my questions. In his email, Dr. Harper first confirmed a few facts of history and then detailed what he personally understood from the historical record. He didn’t try to coerce me to believe a certain way but asked if I was open to reexamining my assumptions about the facts. Was I assuming the worst about the characters and events in our history? If so, why?

Upon careful reflection, I started to realize that my assumptions had been heavily influenced by the cynical opinions I had been reading online. So, I began making a conscious effort to reexamine my assumptions. I started seeking greater balance in my research by studying the professional opinions of Church scholars like Dr. Harper. Over time, through a renewed effort at prayer and faithful study, my heart softened, my mind opened, the Spirit returned, and many good answers arrived.

Now, many years later, I recognize what happened to me in that pivotal moment of my faith journey. Instead of just sharing his testimony, Dr. Harper gave me what I needed most; scholarly defibrillation. This defibrillation provided such a tremendous shock to my mind and spirit that I was able to begin walking back toward faith. I’ll be forever grateful for the merciful hand that my Savior extended to me through my beloved friend, Dr. Steven Harper.

Where I Am Today

My faith journey has been extremely painful, filled with cognitive dissonance, loneliness, and even anger. My faith isn’t the same as it once was. I now realize that my new faith, which looks and feels quite different, being significantly wider and deeper, won’t fit back into the nice little box that I had before my crisis. I sometimes feel alone at church, where it seems like no one has seen what I’ve seen, knows what I know, or understands the deep spiritual scars I carry. But that’s okay. I’ll carry on, reaching out to others who suffer from doubt, and over time, try to build a community of faithful, post-faith crisis survivors.

Advice and Testimony

Many wonderful books and articles have been written about faith crises and how we might help ourselves and those we love. But, instead of highlighting some of that advice, I simply encourage you, the reader, to reach out to someone in your life who has experienced extreme doubt. If you don’t know anyone, or you’re afraid to ask, please contact me. I can connect you with a growing community of faithful survivors and other helpful resources. And, if you aren’t personally suffering from doubt but would like more information to help a loved one, please reach out.

I’d like to share my witness that our loving Father in Heaven allows us to experience difficult things. He has created this world, and us, in such a way that suffering would be possible. Please remember that although we’re commanded not to doubt (Mormon 9:27) that doubt is a normal part of life and we shouldn’t feel fear and shame because of it. Keep hoping! Because over time, as faith replaces doubt and “weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27), we will possess greater empathy and can better “strengthen” others (Luke 22:32).

With great love,

Leo Winegar


To connect with Leo Winegar, reach out to him on Facebook or through email (leowinegar@gmail.com). Leo Winegar is one of the founders of the Uplift Study Group, which seeks to provide a safe haven for people of all religious traditions who are seeking greater faith, especially in the face of faith crises. To connect with the group, join them on Facebook, follow them on YouTube, or join them at an upcoming gathering on April 5th and 6th, 2019. 



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