Atheists meet in secret at Brigham Young University
Once a month, at an undisclosed location in Utah County, a group of students predominantly from BYU gather to talk about agnosticism, secular humanism and other religious ideologies not accepted by the mainstream group on campus.
It operates anonymously—known to its members simply as The Group—because a “disaffiliation” from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will result in an Honor Code violation if discovered by the university.
Andrew Johnson, a junior in biotechnology at Utah Valley University, founded The Group in October 2010 as a safe place for secular humanists, agnostics and freethinkers in Utah County. Johnson started the group after returning from a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Indiana, disenchanted with the faith.
“I ended up finishing my mission, but I tried to teach as little as possible and instead do service whenever possible,” Johnson said. “When I returned home, I felt like I was the only non-theist within Utah County as there were no gatherings of people like me.”
The Group’s first meeting at a Starbucks in Provo garnered just six attendees, but its roster soon exploded with like-minded students—both from BYU and UVU—who were searching for a community that would understand their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.
Johnson said The Group serves as a discussion forum, a place for finding like-minded friends, a dating pool and a place to talk about issues such as death, religious family members and relationships.
“I really just didn’t want to be alone in what I was doing,” Johnson said.
An anonymous BYU student came forward to discuss her involvement with The Group. Although The Daily Utah Chronicle does not usually publish anonymous sources, the student’s name is withheld because she could face serious disciplinary action from BYU—including removal from the university.
BYU students cannot be open on campus about their disbelief in Mormonism if they were admitted to BYU with an ecclesiastical endorsement from an LDS bishop. All students, regardless of faith, must have an ecclesiastical endorsement from a leader of their faith. If a non-LDS student wished to change his or her ecclesiastical endorsement from, for instance, a Catholic priest to a Jewish rabbi, the student could easily change this through BYU’s Admissions Office.
However, if an LDS student wanted to change his or her ecclesiastical endorsement from LDS to another religion, the switch would be handled through the Honor Code Office and would most likely result in removal from the university, said the anonymous student.
The Honor Code Office declined to comment.
“The risks are few, but significant,” Johnson said, adding that no one from The Group has been removed from the university.
The BYU student found The Group during some “rebellious Google searches late one night,” which led her to a blog written by one of the members of The Group, who encouraged his readers to contact him.
She soon became a full-time, active member of The Group, though completely in secret. Although she was raised LDS, she said she slowly became disillusioned with the faith, leading her to look for a different organization more in line with her views.
“I just kind of realized that it didn’t make sense. It just wasn’t logical,” she said. “There is so much going on in the world that you can’t just call pure good and pure evil.”
She also said the LDS Church’s stances on issues such as gender, race and homosexuality caused her to question her faith.
Because of pressure from her parents and her financial dependence on them, she hopes to remain a student at BYU. However, she spoke of The Group’s ability to connect her with those facing similar familial situations.
“The Group provides a wonderful opportunity to meet people who can know about the ex-Mormon side of you. Many group members have similar experiences leaving the church, telling their families about their disbelief and living in a community dominated by Mormon culture,” she said. “I’ve met some incredibly intelligent and kind people through The Group.”
There about 170 members on The Group’s page on Facebook, but the anonymous student estimates that there are about 200 members, 100 of which are BYU students.
Johnson, the founder, said the organization originally started out as a general Utah County group, but has spread particularly to BYU students, especially ex-Mormons.
Johnson said The Group does not intend to undermine the LDS faith, but rather to give students who no longer adhere to it a community and a support system and to promote tolerance of other faiths in Utah County.
“We hope to, in the future, make this area more tolerant to different beliefs and lifestyles and foster a general attitude and desire to understand and to be understood through civil discussion,” he said.
The anonymous student said most members of The Group follow the Honor Code in other areas—such as refraining from drinking alcohol, coffee or tea and abstaining from sexual relations before marriage.
Although she could face being removed from the university and being ostracized by her family, these are risks that the BYU student is willing to take.
“The Group allows you to be yourself for some part of your college years,” she said. “It’s a nice reassurance that simply because you no longer ascribe to the Mormon faith, or any other organized religion, you can still strive for knowledge, fulfillment and happiness.”