From devout Mormon to atheist: ISU student shares journey out of the church

Mollie Shultz

For Nick Davis, life has changed drastically in the last few years.

For a man who was once a devout Mormon who served on Mormon missions to transforming into a man with strong atheist beliefs, his life has completely turned around.

“God is good, god is great, and we thank you for this food. Amen”

Nick Davis, a graduate student at Iowa State, did not grow up in a religious household. The only theistic influence he and his twin brother had while growing up came from their grandmother on their mother’s side. They simply said grace before meals at her house, and she set up a nativity scene at Christmas, but that was it.

Their mother rejected religion and their father was not religious in any way. Davis did not believe in God as a child. He believed in evolution because, he said, he looked like a monkey when he looked in a mirror. He did not understand what an atheist was and understands now how naïve his arguments were, but they provided him with base arguments that would come to benefit him in later years.

The turn to Mormonism

Davis’ parents divorced when he was 8-years-old. His father began dating again when he was around 11 or 12 years old; the woman his father began dating and later married was a member of the Mormon Church.

His father then became extremely committed to the church himself. Due to their parents’ divorce arrangements, the Davis brothers spent every other weekend with their father and when they were with him, they went to and participated in church.

Davis said he and his brother did not take the church seriously during their early teen years, but they began to buy into the reasoning behind the church as time went on.

“We started to buy into this certain way of reasoning that Mormonism and many other religions rely on and that is you can reliably interpret your feelings and experiences to be evidence that your theism or that your church is in fact true,” Davis said.

When Davis accepted this reasoning, he began to interpret the feelings he had as evidence that God existed and what he was learning was true.

“I felt good at church, I felt good when I read the Book of Mormon, and so that was the evidence that I needed, or at least that’s how I interpreted it to be evidence,” Davis said.

Diving all in

Davis became so committed to the Mormon Church that he was baptized when he was 18 years old. If his mother had allowed him to be baptized before he turned 18, he would have done so he said, but his mother was not a fan of religion. Davis applied to Brigham Young University, was accepted and attended immediately following his senior year of high school.

At the age of 19, Davis decided to serve a Mormon mission, which took him to Honduras. While in Honduras, he taught the messages he had been taught.

Now, Davis believes these messages to be lies.

He baptized dozens of people and spread the gospel through Honduras. All the while, despite the horrible scenes he saw abroad, Davis was filled with the belief that he was doing the right thing and that he was following the will of God.

“I believed that, even when I left I believed that, even though I witnessed horrible things in Honduras,” Davis said. “All the kids I saw starving to death all the families I saw without food, people I saw shot to death in the street, friends I had that are now murdered for no reason, all of that was part of God’s plan, or so I thought.”

His reality sets in

Within the first five months after returning to the United States and Brigham Young, Davis married his wife Sarah at the age of 21 at the Mormon Temple. Davis says that he now realizes that the Mormon Temple was full of sexism and that set the tone for his marriage.

“I still struggle to be better and less that way and less controlling and sexist, but I’m way less,” he said. “I was very controlling. I would tell her no, this is my job, this is my role, your role is to do this, you should listen to me.”

Between Davis’ junior and senior year at BYU, he also took a philosophy course that changed his life. The course was called The Philosophy of Ethics, and for the first time since becoming Mormon, Davis allowed himself to be critical of the Mormon paradigm.

The first thing Davis became critical of was the idea that the sacrifice Jesus Christ made was selfless. He believes the sacrifice was not selfless like he had been taught, because he believes Jesus had something to gain.

Further questioning his beliefs

Davis graduated with his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2011 and immediately began studying for his master’s degree. During this time, he started questioning his faith, but was also selected to be one of the leaders over a congregation of about 200 students at BYU.

The problems Davis saw in the church began to creep into his newly opened mind, causing him begin to research atheism and theism to understand both sides. Because of his newfound knowledge, he started to question the very reasoning that led to his devotion to Mormonism in the first place.

“I went back to ‘are my feelings and experiences good indicators of the existence of deity? Should I interpret my positive emotions at church as evidence that the book of Mormon is true? At what point am I just making an assumption?’” Davis said.

Davis eventually came to believe that due to the lack of natural evidence, there is no God, and he began to reject the feelings he had been associating with religion.

As BYU is a Mormon university, this created trouble for him.

Hiding his beliefs

Every year at BYU students have to pass an interview about their faith at the end of the year to continue as a student, Davis said, so he hid his true feelings and beliefs until after his last interview. After this, he openly spoke of his beliefs to his colleagues, even teaching some of his newfound beliefs to his congregation.

“I started teaching that you couldn’t know that it was the spirit and that it was a choice to assume that it was the spirit,” he said. “No one told on me, no one got super upset about that, which I’m really glad.”

“Being here at ISU, I feel free in many ways.”

Davis and his wife and children moved to Iowa from Utah in fall of 2013 so Davis could work toward his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology. Coming to Iowa State allowed Davis to be free with his beliefs in a campus setting.

However, he was not free from the scrutiny of his extended family.

When his father came to visit immediately after Davis moved to Ames, they went for a walk and had a discussion about his faith. Davis said his father told him that by rejecting the ideas he had once believed in, he would come to regret his decision and would answer for his choices.

Mormons do not believe in a fiery hell, Davis said, but he interpreted his father’s threat as one similar to other religions.

The word for what Davis was considered now is called an apostate, or someone who has known the truth and rejected it.

Because of this, his Mormon relatives treat him with skepticism and distrust because they feel as though he is being influenced by Satan.

“Apostates have committed as bad of, if not a worse sin in Mormon theology, as murderers and adulterers, so I am grouped with them,” Davis said.

Trying to change the people close to him

Davis believes that the Mormon Church lied to him and every other member. He also believes that the church is full of sexism and patriarchy and it is unfair to reinforce the two.

Because of these strong beliefs, they spread to his wife and his twin brother, Will.

His brother, who had originally been convinced to join the church by Davis, had a difficult time coming to terms with his brother’s beliefs, Davis said. Although his brother initially struggled with Davis’ choice, after a few months he changed his mind and became an atheist after hearing Davis’ arguments against religion.

Davis’ father had married a Mormon woman from Davis’ congregation and had settled into the religious lifestyle when Davis became an atheist.

Davis and his wife Sarah have excommunicated themselves from the church. His brother’s wife is still a believer and because of this, Davis is unsure as to whether or not his brother has excommunicated himself.

Life at Iowa State

Upon moving to Iowa from Utah, Davis began looking for people who share his views to discuss them.

So, he went online and found the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers. On the site, he met Christjahn Beck, who is a senior in religious studies and political science at Iowa State. Beck was the president of the Atheist and Agnostic Society on campus at the time and encouraged Davis to come meet the group. Davis did so in the fall of 2014 and is now the president of the club for the 2015-16 school year.

Beck, who came from an extremely devout Presbyterian family, understands some of the things Davis has gone through to get to where he’s at.

“I come from a family of six consecutive generations of ministers,” Beck said.

Beck had originally intended to study the Bible more thoroughly to understand his faith more, but instead started turning away from the belief that the Bible is the word of God, a similar experience to Davis’s. He had been intensely studying Mormonism and the Book of Mormon, but found discrepancies, which helped lead him to becoming an atheist in the first place.

Life now

Davis’s life has changed drastically in the last five years. He went from believing in an all-powerful God who had a plan for everything, even the bad things in the world, to a man believing that natural evidence was not sufficient enough to hold his belief in God.

Davis said he did his research to develop his beliefs, and he strongly believes that he is right. He believes that the idea of punishing someone for their sins and believing in a higher power that lets bad things happen is unreasonable, and he thinks his life is better for rejecting these beliefs.