It’s a terrifying thing, to have to tell everyone you know that you’ve stopped going to church. You’re inevitably going to disappoint people. You’re going to cause people to wonder what’s “really” going on with you. People might judge and/or gossip. You’ll also get people who genuinely love and care for you making earnest pleas for you to come back to church. People will ask why, or they’ll sit and quietly wonder why but maintain a respectful distance. The further into the church you were, the more awkward a time you’ll have getting out.
I was all in. I loved the church. I’ve convinced so many people to become or stay Mormon that my own disaffection could be seen as a betrayal. I’m sorry for that. I want to answer the questions. I want to lay my cards on the table and let you know where I stand before you wonder or assume. This will be long. Read it if you want to know where I am.
This is in no way an attempt to justify anything or convince anyone to do the same. It’s merely a chronicle of my thought process and an attempt to show the human side of those who struggle with or completely lose their faith.
This is not an attack on anyone else’s faith or the way anyone chooses to live or believe or see the world.
To understand fully why I left, one must first understand why I was there in the first place.
1: I felt the Holy ghost at church. This started a few years before my mission. Specifically talks about the end of times or any story that drew parallels between being a missionary and being a soldier would ignite in me a tingling, a burning in the bosom. I recognized that feeling as a confirmation that I was doing the right thing, and I loved it.
2: I saw miracles. I was healed after I broke my back, in a way that neither medicine nor skepticism can satisfactorily explain. This happened in direct response to my listening to church leaders and forgiving those who had wronged me. I also knew the stories of my parents’ conversions, and I knew there existed in the universe a force that wanted my family to be members of the church.
3. I believed it. The church claims to be the only true church, the only one that has the complete gospel of Jesus Christ. The church provides its members with a cosmology that accounts for the origin of the universe and the answer to the questions of why we’re here and what happens when we die. Delving deep enough into the arcane teachings of long dead Mormon prophets explains so much about the nature of the world.
4. I was proud to be a Mormon. There was something that worked for me about being a part of a “peculiar people.” As someone who rarely entirely fits in with other people, I have to admit I was more at home in an environment where we believed that was because we were a chosen people.
5. Eternal Families. The church doctrine of entering the LDS temples to be sealed to our families appealed to me, and I was trained from an early age to want to be a dad. I believe I’ll someday make an excellent husband and father.
6. I was afraid of leaving. I saw hundreds of friends and family members leave the church, usually in a cloud of anger or shame, and usually going right off the proverbial deep end. Any time I had taken a few steps off the straight and narrow I had felt such a darkness and a loss of the spirit that I had retracted in horror back into the warmth of the church.
7. I always felt welcome at church. The church provides a huge social network and a safety net. All my friends were there, my family was there, and everywhere I went I had more friends and family immediately.
8. The church provided a path for my life. I knew where I was headed and what step came next at all times. When I had questions about moral complexities, the church was there with a way to find answers. When I pictured myself grown old, it was always after having given a lifetime of faithful service to the Kingdom of God.
9. I believed that man needs religion to be redeemed. I’d done a lot of awful things in my life, and the atonement of Christ was the only way I knew to be freed from the burden of guilt and sin. through faith in Christ and sheer force of will I’d overcome an addiction to sexual self-gratification, as well as found peace from the torment of a guilty conscience.
10. The Holy Ghost confirmed that the church was true. When I prayed and asked God about it directly, I always received that spiritual burning sensation that I understood was a confirmation directly from God. I asked if the church was true, and got the same answer. As long as it was true, I reasoned, I could devote my life to it.
Those are all very compelling reasons, in my opinion, and most of them would be reason enough for continued church attendance even in the absence of the others. This, then, is an account of how each of those reasons has fallen away.
1. I felt the Holy Ghost at church.
I imagine you might expect me to say that I stopped feeling the Holy Ghost at church. That’s simply not true, and if it had happened to me I would have guessed it happened as a result of sin or some offense I’d taken and I’d try to resolve it. What actually happened to me to nullify this as a reason to continue attending church was the idea that I had begun to feel the Holy Ghost in other situations. Circumstances where I believed I shouldn’t feel it. I felt it the most strongly in the theater, where occasionally I’d be called upon to play disgusting and evil characters in order to help audiences connect with a lesson they were to learn.
When I was in the play “Frozen,” by Bryony Lavery, I found myself playing a sociopathic murderer and child molester. This was the first time in my life that I used the C-Word or the F-word, but it felt necessary. I also had to describe the process of kidnapping little girls, viewing child pornography, etc. It was emotionally taxing, but it was a project I fully believed in. In the course of the play, another character, the mother of a little girl I’d killed, slowly came to a place where she could forgive me. The more horrid and cruel my character, the more the impact of that sweet message of forgiveness. If she could forgive that monster, went the reasoning, then surely I can forgive my mother-in-law or my pastor or my friend. And every night, I would feel on fire with the testimony that I was in the right place doing the right thing. The tears of the audience members confirmed that they, too, were being touched. In many other circumstances I found myself being exposed to media that seemed to be against the church’s guidelines, but which made me feel that special burning in my bosom. I didn’t know what to do with that, but I paid attention to it when it happened.
And then there was the gay thing. Watching gay men in a healthy relationship made me feel such a strong wave of the Holy Ghost that it terrified me. When I watched such a depiction in Sweet Home, Alabama, I felt such a pure joy that I decided to never watch it again, and went and confessed to my bishop. I knew that couldn’t be the true Holy Ghost, because it was confirming things that were antithetical to the teachings of the gospel. But if it were truly the influence of the adversary, I had a difficult and scary dilemma on my hands. How would I ever be able to tell the difference between the Holy Ghost and this new counterfeit? The answer was to follow the counsel of the brethren. In cases where the feelings coincided with the teachings of the church, I could be sure they were true. In cases where they didn’t, I knew I had fallen prey to the devils’ tricks.
This line of reasoning worked for me for a time. Eventually I realized that this circular logic cut out all of the supposed need for personal revelation, one of the cornerstones of the Mormon faith. If we were meant to defer to church leaders in every case, why did we even possess the gift of the Holy Ghost? What was the point?
As some of my other reasons for attending church weakened, my trust in my own inner light grew. I came to understand that warm, fuzzy feeling as a response, whether emotional, spiritual, or otherwise, to truth and beauty. It didn’t matter where I found it, and it could be triggered by different things than those that triggered the feeling for other people, but it’s important for me to follow that light and seek after things that continue to illuminate it. Sometimes that’s a moment of communal worship or a moment alone in nature, a laugh shared with a friend or an act of service, a quiet moment of meditation or a boisterous song.
I no longer allow other people to interpret that feeling for me. That’s no way to live. That’s how planes get flown into skyscrapers in the name of God. That’s how poor hopeful 27-year olds are convinced to vote against their consciences and against gay marriage in their home states. I know now that if I’m feeling that feeling, I’m good with God and the Universe. I try to live worthy of feeling it more and more often in my life.
2. I saw miracles.
I really did. I prayed to God to heal my crushed spine. I asked for guidance in the matter of a lawsuit against the doctors who had so badly bungled my case. I was set to get a $10,000,000 settlement out of court. But the answer came to me from my church leaders. They didn’t know what I was dealing with at the time, but in seemingly direct answer to my queries to god, my leaders taught in church that lawsuits were never the solution to a problem, that I needed to forgive those who had wronged me and not further the cause of greed that was crippling our society. So I called it off. It’s a long story, but within days, my back was healed, and for the first time in 8 months I was walking and running and skipping, not feeling the pain that had left me mostly bed-ridden and partly paralyzed for almost a full year.
I knew I’d be foolish to ever turn my back on God after such a miracle. I owed him everything. I took that chain of events as clear proof of the existence of God and of his desire for me to continue to serve in the church. It was another logical fallacy, I knew, but I was also reminded that in matters of faith, logic is not always king.
One stormy night on a drenched and lightning-illuminated bike ride through Provo canyon with my friend Meg, I recounted the whole saga of breaking my back and receiving a miraculous healing. I told the story often, to mission companions and kids at EFY and really anyone who would listen who needed proof of the existence of God. I would tell the story and let people draw their own conclusions about the source of the miracle; it seemed so obvious. But Meg’s reaction was different. instead of speaking to the grace of god, she pointed out what she believed to be the obvious moral of the story. “Of course you were healed,” she said. “You let all that negative energy out of your life when you forgave the doctor. Your body is going to respond to that.”
It wasn’t so much that I believed Meg’s explanation in lieu of what I’d believed for ten years. It was the idea that another explanation was at all possible. That the idea that the spiritual world around us could be explained in other ways. That my leap of faith and subsequent healing were maybe no more than confirmation that leaps of faith lead to spiritual healing, without all of the trappings of religious significance I’d given them.
Sure, it seemed that all of nature had conspired at times to get me and my family into the church. Maybe there was a huge cosmic reason we needed to be LDS. But I had friends with similar reasons for being Catholic or buddhist or anything else under the sun. I’m grateful for my LDS upbringing and I do think it was right for me. But I no longer cling to the belief that all my experiences tied me to the church. I was for the first time open to exploring spirituality from another angle.
I still believe we live in a spiritual world. The things we do, the things we hope for and the sacrifices we make affect our lives on a level beyond science’s ability to explain. That doesn’t mean that any recipient of any miracle is therefore a member of the correct congregation, however. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that God is a sentient being who numbers the hairs on the heads of his children. It just means that we need to put goodness into this world, and a benevolent Universe, or God, or Allah or whoever will hopefully return that goodness in kind.
3. I believed it.
The church has an answer for everything. It has four books of official scripture and a wealth of church history and speeches from modern-day prophets who directly communicate with and speak on behalf of God. I knew from my upbringing in the church and subsequent studies as an adult that we were all created spiritually before we came to earth, that we volunteered to come down and gain bodies and suffer afflictions and temptations to become more like God, that we would be sorted in the next life into three different kingdoms of heaven--the highest of which was our goal and the place where we would become gods ourselves and continue to produce spiritual offspring for eternity.
But Mormon theology doesn’t just end at answering the questions of where we come from, why we’re here, and where we go when we die. It covers (or has covered in its past) the topics of why do some people have brown skin? What about people who lived in a time or location where they didn’t have access to the church’s teachings? What should be the relationship between government and religion? There are some shady answers to some of these questions.
And then it covers the church history. This is where things get the most troubling. I was aware as a faithful Latter-Day Saint that Joseph Smith had taken multiple wives (some of them teenage girls), that he had given different versions of his first encounter with God and Jesus, that Brigham Young had said we would never land on the moon, and that the moon and the sun were inhabited by people who looked like Quakers. That Mormon leaders likely ordered the massacre of women and children in the Mountain Meadows. I knew that LDS leaders had predicted the second coming more than once in the past and it hadn’t come. I accepted all of this as a matter of “there is an explanation for all of this, I just don’t know what it is.” I took it as a matter of faith.
Some things were harder for me to swallow than others. The story of the 110 missing pages of the Book of Mormon was impossible for me to believe, even as a child. The Salamander letters and the discovery in the 1960s of the falseness of the origin story of the Book of Abraham left me feeling like some explanation was owed to us. But this seemed to be a test of my faith. In fact, it seemed that these apparent inconsistencies were exactly what faith was designed for. If everything made sense, it would be EASY to believe it. To be able to put aside my intellectual misgivings and really just follow that feeling in my heart that confirmed that this was all true would be the mark of sainthood in my life. “I don’t need to look too deeply into those things,” went the line of thought. “They are from the devil and I don’t need to examine them to know whether the church is true. I already know it is.”
But nope. I’m sorry. After my other reasons began to fall away, I had to take a hard look at my stance. My intellect is one of my greatest gifts from God, if he exists. To shunt that to the side is its own form of blasphemy and a lack of trust in God. If a religion is going to claim to be the only true religion, it needs to be true. It needs to make sense. It’s one thing to claim that some of the church’s teachings can’t be proven. But it’s another completely when they can be disproven. And in the cases when they are, the church needs to comment. They can’t simply rely on our ignorance and hope we never google anything.
So I do know that the church is not a hundred percent true. My brain and my heart finally agree on this. That doesn’t mean that truths can’t be found there (which is the church’s go-to response to the idea of other churches). But it also means that I’m not beholden to it. If all churches have some form of truth, and I haven’t yet found a church with all truth or only truth, I’m just as well off seeking it elsewhere.
4. I was proud to be a Mormon.
It’s almost enough to simply state that pride is a sin and move on. Even if I don’t fully believe in sin, I do believe that anything that makes us feel we’re better than our neighbor is indicative of a toxic attitude, and we should change that view. So this isn’t a reason to be not Mormon. It’s just to say that I got rid of a pernicious reason TO be Mormon. And I’m careful to not let myself fall into the all-too-common trap of then feeling superior to those who are still Mormon.
Besides that, though, I was good at being a Mormon. I once held 6 callings at the same time. I was a leader at church. I made friends with everyone in every ward I was in. I bore my testimony. I converted others. People heard my proclamation of faith and it strengthened their own beliefs. I’ve received mail from strangers thanking me for the uplifting things I’ve written. Some of the friends I have went through the refiner’s fire with me. I’ve been too proud to let them down. I’ve run into them and pretended to still be going to church because I didn’t want to disappoint them, and I also didn’t want to face their disapproval. But it’s time to be honest. I’m still that same man who believed so strongly, who tried so hard to keep people coming back to church. But it’s a new time in my life, and certain scales have fallen away from my eyes. I’m off in a new direction. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about my friends or the experiences we shared. I’m still trying my hardest to be a blessing to all of them.
5. Eternal families.
My desire for a family is one of my clearest impetuses for leaving the church. My friend Cary put this to me in a way that changed my life. “I want a family too much to stay in the church.” The great irony of the doctrine of eternal families is that it ends up being the reason so many of us leave. I know I could never have a relationship with a woman. Believe me, I tried. I met some amazing women. But I don’t have anything for them. Not just sexually, but emotionally and spiritually, I don’t have anything to offer a wife. Some gay guys can pull it off. They are maybe more nurturing or sensitive than I am. But I don’t have that.
But I DO want to be a dad. And a husband! I want to love someone and be loved, to protect each other and have a team to face the world. I want to not just live the rest of my life celibate, trapped in the endless and egocentric pursuit of self-improvement. It’s time to focus my energies on someone else. I think my straight friends can relate to this. I’m tired of being told what a great virtue abstinence is. There are virtues of omission and virtues of commision. I’d rather err on the side of loving someone than on the side of being proud of my ability to never love at all.
And to be honest, the entire LDS eschatology concerning marriage to and sex with a woman (or multiple women) for the eternities appeals to me not at all. And rather makes me shudder. No offense, ladies. Several ecclesiastical leaders promised me I’d be cured of my homosexuality in the world to come. So I was meant to toil and abstain through this life for the promise of a reward I didn’t want, but was told I would later want. I wanted to want it! I did! For a while. Then I wanted to want to want it. This went on, ad nauseum, and I grew tired of the whole ordeal. Really a religion ought to lure me in with something I already want. Perhaps a basic love for all of mankind, a focus on stewardship over the earth, some charity and fellowship in the here and now.
I know that it’s not my place to make demands of God as far as what his church is offering. I’m sorry for my cheekiness. But it’s a real hangup for me.
6. I was afraid of leaving the church.
The church has its roots dug deep into the soil of its members’ lives. My culture, my family, my friendships, and my whole view of myself were suffused with my Mormondom. Any step away would surely meet the judgment, or at least disappointment of those people I love so dearly. But that’s not reason enough to stay. I firmly believe that fear can’t be our motivator in life. We need to take steps forward, not back. Toward the light, not away from the unknown.
And it’s true that I felt a darkness whenever I would take a step away from the church. For a while I accepted that as what the church told me it was: a loss of the Holy ghost. Cary helped me with this one, too. He told me what I had already learned in a thanatology class. When people lose something, they go through a dark period. It’s the normal way in which we respond to loss. I would miss the hymns and the refreshments and late nights stacking chairs in the cultural hall. I would miss the handshakes in the foyer and making eye contact with a savvy Relief Society president when the high councilman said something sexist and out of touch. I would miss the feeling that all of these things bore an eternal significance.
And I do. I still miss those things. It’s okay for me to grieve that lifestyle. To be haunted by the ghost of the man I thought I’d be. But I also celebrate where I am now! And I’m still happy with where I’ve been! Life is beautiful. “Mormon” will always be my culture, even if I don’t really belong there any more.
7. I always felt welcome at church.
This is another one, like point number one, that didn’t go away. I feel personally welcome at church any time I go back to visit. I still get invitations to “Sit-With-Me Sunday” and to come back to church. And this is not even about the fact that I just seem to make friends easily wherever I go. It’s just that I don’t totally welcome the church in my life now. I admit it.
If I have a friend who is homophobic (even if he claims not to be), who gets involved in my personal affairs and spends a lot of money trying to interfere in the personal lives of others, who lies to me and to others, I’m still going to love him. I’m going to reach out and invite him to change his ways. But I’m not trusting him with my heart. And the moment he tries to breach that gap by reaching out to me and inviting me to change MY ways is the moment this friendship is probably going to stall out. Recent exhortations from church leaders (then forwarded on by countless genuinely caring friends) for us lost sheep to feel welcome and come back to church seem to ignore the fact that we’re the ones who left. And I know that when it comes to me and the church, each of us feels the problem is the other. But does the church know that? It’s a less effective approach for the church to act like I agree that I’m the problem.
So for now, I’m okay with the church and with my good friends who still attend and believe. And I appreciate that the church welcomes me back with arms open, provided I change some things and live up to their standards of morality. The feeling is mutual.
8. The church provided a path for my life.
That’s something I really used to love. I don’t think I even realized how convenient it was until I was on the outside and didn’t have my path set out for me. But this is a matter of agency, a huge tenet of the LDS religion. I know that the idea is for individuals to use their agency to align with God’s will. I believe, though, that we are to use our agency to chart our own course. That we are meant to blaze trails and go where no one has. There is so much good we can do in this world. Some will do that by being members of the church. Some will never be members. Some, like me, will leave the church. But I believe now as I did when I was a believer, that no matter where we are or our relationship with religion, we need to be living a life that effects the most good possible and that proves to be a blessing to all we encounter.
It could be that when I die I wake up at the judgment bar of a Mormon Heavenly Father who tells me that I am now wrong. That all the doubts were a test and I failed. But if so I am willing to place my chips on the mercy of such a God. Surely he’ll see I did the best with what I had, that I used my heart and mind to be the best person I could be and to love all of his children.
Whether that off chance is right or not, at any rate I’m seeing that there can be no downside to living life to its fullest and being the best person I can be. I don’t need that to be dictated by anyone else. I can get creative. The best me is no longer a member of the church. I’m finding new paths. Hopefully I’ll still be able to look back at the end of my life and say that I did my best.
9. I believed that man needs religion to be redeemed.
The fallen state of man is a great example of that sort of logic that we should reject from salesmen. Before converting us to a new product, they have to convince us we need something. What could religion offer us? Salvation and redemption. Why do we need that? Because we are all sinners and can’t abide the presence of God. We have the product and the need.
What if, though, we don’t need that? What if we’re just fine the way we are? I mean, besides the word of those offering us a redemption from man’s fallen state, do we really see any evidence of the existence of such a fallen state? Sure, there is evil in the world. There is war and genocide and slavery. But there is also good. There is charity and life and rebirth. And there doesn’t seem to be a strict correlation between good vs. evil and religious vs. non-religious. War and genocide and slavery are found among believers and nonbelievers alike. Same with love and happiness and charity.
It could be that I need to complete a series of rites to cleanse my tarnished soul. That I need a blood atonement to stand worthy before God, that I need the right key words and tokens to get into heaven. But why? For all its answers, I feel the church falls short on this one. “Because that’s the way it is.” That doesn’t jibe with me, and is one more log on the bonfire of things I can’t just keep taking on faith; they are interfering with the actual living of my life. I have known terrible sinners, and there is still a profound beauty to their souls. We all try our best. It’s all we have. I think we are enough.
10. The Holy Ghost confirmed that the church is true.
Back to the Holy Ghost. Because that’s a huge part of what I still believe in, and what I’ve taken away with me. I believe in that feeling that enters our hearts when we are confronted with truth or beauty. I don’t know whether it’s an emotion or a spirit. I know that I need to feel it every day. That it comes when I see a beautiful sunset or go skipping in the rain. When I gather with fellow believers in communal worship of God. When I stand on a precipice overlooking beauty, when I hear a stunning poem or a stirring song, when I fall in love.
On my mission we would teach the discussions. We would recount the canonized version of Joseph Smith’s First Vision (always skipping the section where the devil comes), and that feeling would enter the room. “What do you feel right now?” We would ask. “Peace,” they would say. Sometimes “happiness” or “joy” or “the presence of God.”
“That’s the Holy Ghost,” we would invariably reply, “telling you that the message we are sharing with you is true.”
How did we know that? I tend to get annoyed when people say “What can a couple of 19-year old boys know about religion?” We worked our butts off and we studied like crazy and we were as prepared as can be. We were out sacrificing everything we had to help expand the kingdom of God. But now I look back, and I wonder. What right did we have to interpret that feeling for everyone we met?
That beautiful feeling is sacred. It’s the true source of happiness in my life. It has led me to some beautiful truths. And I consider it to be a trespass to interpret that feeling for anyone else, to label it for someone else in an attempt to convince them of anything. It’s wrong. And I’m sorry I did it.
I’m not sorry that Mario and Sylvia and Claudia joined the church. I think it was exactly right for them. They are all happier now, I think. I’m not sorry for all the long conversations I had with people convincing them to be more like Jesus or to come back to fellowship in the church. I’m not annoyed when people invite me back now. I’m mature enough to recognize that in all these cases it’s a simple extension of love in the most meaningful way we know. I’m grateful that people care enough for me to include me in their prayers, to drop a kind hand-written letter in the mail, or to turn their thoughts to me at all.
I know many will read this and feel that I’ve lost my way, that I’m too far gone in my own logic or pursuit of higher truth. But I have to be true to what I know. I have to follow that still, small voice that led me to the church, and then led me again out of it. And I’m deeply, thoroughly happy. I hope I can share that, and I hope others can be happy for me. May you, gentle reader, find your own blissful path through this life. May you find peace, love, and joy.