This is a struggle to write and will be a struggle to publish. It’s been sitting in my drafts for over a year now. I have gone back and forth on whether to publish it at all.
The first reason is that among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially, “Mormons”), there is a sizable faction that would label this “anti-Mormon literature.” Church members consider anti-Mormon literature a dangerous and insidious poison, such that by simply reading enough of it one’s faith can be dissolved and one’s eternal prospects can be dashed. I have no intention of writing anything so potent, nor am I anti-Mormon. My intentions are first to tell my story, and second to offend as little as possible.
The second reason is that there is no small danger of retribution for writing something that challenges Church orthodoxy. This is an unwritten and nuanced rule. You can be a political radical on either side of the spectrum; you can grumble and roll your eyes and hold any thoughts you like in private; but publish any criticism of the Church, even constructive and loving criticism, and you may find yourself on the pointy end of an efficient and highly defensive legal-theological bureaucracy. Recent decades have shown how easy it is to find yourself convicted of having sullied the good name of the Church, even if you love it and believe in it, and consequently subject to a quick and discreet excommunication, cutting you out of a community whose influence extends deeply into every sphere of your life.
I’m being careful not to exaggerate.
As context for what I’d like to say: I have the highest respect and love for people who sincerely believe in Mormonism; I respect all beliefs and non-beliefs, but Mormons in particular are my family and my friends and my neighbors. Since my faith transition I’ve been beyond careful not to damage anyone else’s faith or interrupt their rejoicing. At times this has been lonely, even isolating, but at the end of the day I’m okay dealing with that to help others feel comfortable. I hope that this post will not disturb you, whatever you may believe.
My faith crisis began when my wife was pregnant with our first child. I had spent years in various stages of uncertainty and anxiety over the things I was brought up to believe. From the age of 18, when I first awoke to the concept of eternity, I followed every formula there was in order to find my “testimony,” the deep-rooted conviction of eternal truth that all adult Mormons seemed to have. I interviewed to be able to enter the temple; I spent two years as a full-time missionary, completely leaving behind such things as school, family, dating, and employment; afterward, I courted and then married a Mormon woman in a Mormon temple, attended exclusively by other card-carrying Mormons; and I abided strictly by the Mormon orthodox standard of living, abstaining from alcohol, coffee, R-rated movies, profanity, extramarital sex, and so forth, as well as praying multiple times per day, reading the Book of Mormon daily, attending three hours of church weekly, volunteering in a Church assignment for a few hours a week, and doing the litany of other things that the Church asks. I’m not perfect, but nobody can tell me I wasn’t doing enough. During this time I often knelt next to my bed and begged God to give me the kind of knowledge that my parents, friends, and neighbors attested to have about Mormonism.
No knowledge was forthcoming, and part of me still mourns this. I wanted, with more wanting than I’ve ever felt, for my beliefs to be confirmed. I fought a desperate battle within myself to avoid any conclusion to the contrary. There was nothing I wasn’t willing to do in order to find faith. But in the face of repeated failure, it was all I could do not to lose hope completely.
At length I settled into the path of least resistance: putting on a good face, committing outwardly to the Church, and burying my doubts as deeply as I could.
Then I became a father.
Fatherhood is profound for even the least introspective of us, and it was certainly no joke to me. I could hide from myself; I could hide from my peers. Perhaps indefinitely. But I knew I couldn’t lie to my son. Someday he would start asking questions—vitally important questions—and if I told him there was a God and I wasn’t absolutely sure there was, a little piece of me would die.
I started seeing a therapist under the assumption that something was wrong with me and perhaps by fixing it I would gain the ability to know that Mormonism was true, or at least I’d be able to sit at peace with the hope and belief I had. (My therapist was and is a devout Mormon.) He helped me discover the deepest thoughts of my heart, the things I wouldn’t even admit to myself. And as I began to be honest with myself, I had a series of realizations.
Memories resurfaced from my time as a missionary. Many of the people I met during that time informed me that they were Catholic, their parents were Catholic, their grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, all the way back to Adam, had all been Catholic—and therefore they were Catholic and would remain so. I wasn’t supposed to accept this line of reasoning. To frame religion as a familial tradition, rather than an all-important and universal campaign of truth versus error, flew in the face of Mormonism. The Church, I had been taught, was either true at all times for everyone, or it was an inconceivably clever lie. Yet I knew that the reason I was Mormon was because my parents were Mormon, and the reason I was a missionary was because they had assumed I would be. It seemed unlikely that I would have converted if I hadn’t been born into it. I never really allowed myself to think about this when I was a missionary, but in the safety of a Mormon therapist’s office, I came to recognize the anxiety this had been causing within me.
Repressed questions started bubbling up from the deepest, most neglected corners of my mind. How could I discount the spiritual experiences people have had in other faiths? A progressive Mormon may say that they wouldn’t—in fact they accept that there is truth in many religions—but that’s mostly rhetoric. The idea of a different religion being right for a different person is antithetical to the very core of Mormonism. When a devout Mormon hears the story of a person’s miraculous conversion to another religion, their mind sets to work rationalizing it against their own belief system: perhaps that person was deceived by Satan, or perhaps they converted to gain the acceptance of their peers, or more charitably, perhaps that conversion was part of God’s plan for them, a stepping stone toward their eventual introduction to the Mormon gospel (in this life or the next). I know this thought process because it used to be my own. It’s hard to escape the superiority complex that arises when one’s religion celebrates itself as the be all and end all of truth and faith. Did I really believe that revelations and experiences in other religions were secondary to those of Mormonism, somehow incomplete, somehow less final? The answer was no, I didn’t, and I couldn’t. I just fundamentally did not believe that Mormons believed in Mormonism more than Muslims believed in Islam, Jews in Judaism, Catholics in Catholicism, Buddhists in Buddhism.
Another realization regarded what Mormons call “Moroni’s promise.” The Book of Mormon’s final chapter, written by the ancient prophet Moroni, promises the reader in ironclad terms that if they read the Book and ask God if it’s true, God will reveal the truth of it to them. By and large, practicing Mormons are eager to recount how they’ve done this and received the promised revelation. I don’t accuse them of lying, but it didn’t work for me; time and time again for almost a decade, the sincerest and most desperate prayers were met with silence and emptiness. A point of frequent discussion about this scripture is the stipulation that you must ask with “real intent,” which is interpreted to mean that you intend to act on whatever answer you receive. I finally determined that real intent was a two-way street. Previously I’d only been willing to hear “yes, it’s true,” but for my intent to be real, I also had to be willing to hear the opposite. And since I had heard only silence, I knew I needed to act on that.
My doubts deepened every day in spite of my most desperate efforts. How could I believe in a God who deprioritizes women and devalues LGBTQ people in his own church? I’d heard the stories of the abuse of young missionaries, the sexism against women who didn’t toe the line, the suicides of gay and trans Mormon youth. The Church has always ascribed those things to the fallibility of man. But they’ve also published doctrine stating that gender is an eternal characteristic of human souls, and that only men can wield righteous authority with any finality, and that criticizing Church leaders is a sin, and that only cisgender heterosexual relationships are acceptable to God. When you create such fertile conditions for prejudice and abuse, you invite them in—to then disavow them on a case-by-case basis seems like evasiveness, not righteousness. And in any case I knew the Church was wrong about some of these things because, deep down, my conscience could not be stifled.
It’s probably time to change direction if I want to avoid giving offense. These were my questions, and I don’t expect them to be yours, and I hope you won’t try to argue them with me. If you are happy in your faith I celebrate that. But the more I clung to the foundations I was taught, praying and studying scriptures and reading the words of modern-day prophets and upholding Mormon standards, the more my ability to abide cognitive dissonance eroded. I engaged with the Church on its own terms, trusting the process I had been taught, and did not receive what I was promised. The pain of this is hard to describe; I don’t think you can understand it unless you’ve been through it. I simply could not believe two opposing things and be one whole person. I know some people can, and I respect that. But I couldn’t.
In the end I did the only thing I could. Slowly, quietly, and very carefully, I built boundaries between myself and Mormonism. I had a leadership calling in my congregation; I requested a release from it, which came a few weeks later. I sent a heartfelt letter to my family explaining that there were certain religious activities I would no longer feel comfortable participating in. I stopped holding myself accountable for every belief, statement, and cultural aspect of the Church. I stopped calling myself a Mormon. At length I stopped attending church.
This isn’t the whole story. But it’s as much as I want to tell right now.
For any readers who are currently in crisis, I offer these thoughts:
- It will get better. I won’t tell you what you should do or where you’ll end up, but you won’t always feel like this. Trust yourself to find a happy ending, even if you can’t imagine what that looks like right now.
- Find a therapist. A faith crisis is a perfectly good reason to get help. Find someone who validates you, doesn’t try to bias your decisions, and helps you uncover your true feelings.
- Your concerns are legitimate. Your friends and leaders may encourage you to put your questions “on the shelf” and trust that they’ll be resolved in due time. This is well-meaning advice, but doesn’t bear the weight of serious concerns. You’re not the first to struggle with the idea of covering up your doubts and pretending they don’t matter. And even if you can do so, it’s likely only a temporary solution. I’ve heard from many people who experienced a “breaking of the shelf,” especially after learning new information—and not just from anti-Mormon books and blogs, but from information published by the Church (e.g. the newly-published Saints books or the Gospel Topics essays). Regardless of how they arose, you need to know that your questions are valid and deserve to be resolved. Trying to ignore them can be harmful to your mental health.
- Don’t let fear make your decisions for you. Ask yourself what you would do if you weren’t afraid. Fear is the single most potent roadblock for people in faith crises: fear of rejection, fear of isolation, fear of offending God. These fears are natural, but they aren’t useful. By all means you should avoid being isolated or offending God, but you’ll find that as you act in well-considered and courageous ways, those fears will get quieter and quieter. And people may respond much better than you expect, as they did for me.
- Find your community. There are various online communities that are welcoming and safe places for people with doubts about Mormonism. Some are hostile toward the Church and others are not. It’s up to you to decide who your people are, but you need people. Nobody should have to go through a faith crisis by themselves.
- Tell people how to treat you. The knee-jerk reactions of other Mormons to your genuine doubts and concerns may be unflattering and even callous. If you decide to put some space between you and the Church, their reactions may become downright offensive. Try to remember that they’re still the same people, they’ve just been taught broken ways to care about you. You can help them be better. Tell them in kind and gentle ways when they’ve said something hurtful, and help them navigate the tricky waters of being your friend. When I told my family about my faith transition, I asked them to use a common-sense filter and consider that I’d been thinking about this for eight years, so anything they thought of off the top of their heads was unlikely to be helpful. They’ve been spectacularly respectful of this request.
- Give yourself space to mourn. A changed relationship with your faith, whether it’s stronger, weaker, or just different, means the death of the old relationship. This can lead to bittersweet feelings: uncertainty and loss on one hand, growth and self-respect on the other. Think of it like a graduation. It’s okay to mourn the passing of a simpler time, even as you celebrate the beginning of a new life. As time goes on, pay attention to these feelings. Sometimes they may be overwhelming. You may find it harder to be present at work or in your closest relationships, but this will pass.
- Believe in something. Many who alter the terms of their relationship with the Church come away feeling lost. This is normal. You’re accustomed to someone else telling you how to be good, how to relate to others, and what life means. It can be very heavy to have to answer all those questions for yourself, and you can’t escape them, not even if you leave the Church entirely. Everyone has to decide who they are and what they care about. So take the time to do so. Come up with some standards and ideals you want to follow, based on concepts that are meaningful to you at your very core, and write them down. They will help you stay centered and grounded during difficult times.
And of course, reach out if you need to talk. I’ll be happy to guide you to some of the resources and ideas that I’ve found helpful.