Obligatory introductory meta-discourse: this is a long post about my journey out of Mormonism. If you are an in-real-life friend or family member, my sincere hope is that you’ll read this post with as much compassion and as much of an open mind as possible. Nothing in here is meant to hurt or shame.
Here is me almost two years ago.
At this point in my life I was in a transitory phase and it was like a tunnel with no light. I don’t want to make this melodramatic, but I was about a year into a quarter-life crisis and while I tried to approach it with humor, I was struggling.
This is me today.
Just kidding. Oh dear, I don’t seem to be getting off to a very good start. Here is what led to me stepping away from the Mormon church. (Read to the end for the happy ending!)
Step 1: Have a major life change that leads to a confusion of purpose
This actually wasn’t one thing so much as it was a series of things.
First, in 2009, my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. I’ve written about this several times, but the thing I never wrote about was how this experience barreled into my faith. Around the same time he was diagnosed with and was given a good prognosis for brain cancer, his childhood friend was diagnosed with melanoma. His wife went to high school with me. We were the same age, and he was not going to make it. So, I was left trying to figure out why God would allow my husband to survive his battle, but my friend’s husband wouldn’t. I dealt with this by doubling down on my public faith and rhetoric while privately feeling enormous amounts of guilt. I was crushed by it. I wasn’t doing the things I thought made me worthy of God’s love. My church attendance was spotty, I didn’t read my scriptures daily or pray daily. And yet, my husband was spared. This was a crack in my paradigm about who God was.
A few years later I was working for a government official when the U.S. government shut down. This may seem like a completely ridiculous thing to spark a faith crisis, and I can see your eyes rolling, but I swear it’s true. I had spent the better part of five years working for a party and an ideology that I believed in. And during the shutdown I heard arguments and statements from public officials I had supported that I knew were lies. There wasn’t any other way to slice it. And I felt betrayed. Because, even though I knew on the surface that politicians lied and were the masters of spin, I believed I was supporting the good guys. And at the ripe old age of 27, I realized that it wasn’t as clear as all that.
Step 2: Take a long hard look at your own privilege, prejudice and family history
After those two incidents, it was as if someone had taken blown off the dust of the portion of my brain that thinks critically. I had the conscious thought that hey, what if other things I take for granted aren’t what they seem? I always considered myself to be a skeptic, someone who sought truth no matter where it led. And I had to swallow the very bitter pill that I wasn’t doing that.
I was currently finishing an undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University, a Mormon school. My life was like this:
But, the seeds of doubt and frustration had sprouted. I started to read books about church history, starting with David O McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. I realized the Mormon church I had grown up believing in was not quite all it seemed. There were parts of history that I couldn’t reconcile. So, I came to an understanding with myself. I could look at these pieces of history for what they were: a more complete look of a messy modern religion. As long as I had my testimony, I could learn anything and be okay.
What was my privilege? My privilege was living in very comfortable circumstances my entire life. I had a faith that taught me everything I needed to know and exactly where I was going. The problem with that? I did not have to think about it at all. So I didn’t. I didn’t think about what life was like for those who felt like they didn’t fit inside the church. Even broader than that, I didn’t think about what life was like for people who had never been members of the church.
That’s where my prejudice comes in. In many cases I looked down on people I knew, pitied them, or even judged them for not being members. There’s a sort of undercurrent in Mormon culture that if you’re not a Mormon while you’re alive, we’ll make you one when you die. Many churches have absolute truth claims, so this isn’t exclusive to Mormonism, but Mormons have a tendency to constantly proselyte and convert. Our weddings and funerals are examples of this. I believed I had some truth that most of the world’s population that has existed since the beginning of history has never had access to. I came to realize that while Mormon rituals are meant to tie us together eternally, in so many ways they tear us apart by creating differences and levels of righteousness. But, that’s a much longer post for another day.
I wasn’t done with my self-examination. I started going backwards. I started reading family history. Particularly the stories of my ancestors and how they related to polygamy. Polygamy is something that nearly every Mormon woman must confront in her lifetime. It’s a practice that “officially” stopped in 1890, but continued for years after and the roots of which entangle modern Mormon theology at every turn. If you’re a Mormon woman, you’ve thought, what if, in the afterlife, I have to share my husband. What if it happens in this life?
I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to go digging around in family history records. I’d grown up hearing stories about my family history and specifically how it tied into my relationship with the church. I had heard so many faith-promoting stories from family members that when I was a teen, I was sick of it. I believed these family history and pioneer ancestors went through hard times but lived happily ever after. It wasn’t interesting anymore.
But, in my quest to get a clearer picture of my religion I stumbled onto books and most notably a podcast about polygamy. And I learned that my connection to this practice and my family history wasn’t ancient history. It was very much alive, and it had everything to do with me.
The woman in the center of the photo is my great-great-grandmother. She lived as a polygamist in secret for fear of prison. I talk more about that in a presentation I did on Mormon polygamy for a class, which you can see here.
The gentleman with the beard is my great-great-great-great grandfather, John W. Woolley. In many modern polygamist sects, they derive their authority through him. And I didn’t know. Not only that, but I didn’t realize how deeply rooted this practice was in my family history and how much hurt it had caused. That woman in that photo? She experienced deep personal pain for a practice that the modern Mormon church has decried, and tried desperately to sweep aside. She lived it because she believed it was critical to her salvation. And I had to face this very real tension and try to reconcile a God that was supposed to be loving with one who would require a practice that ruined relationships and lives.
The conclusion I came to? In every religious tradition, there lies a dark and insidious layer of overzealous devotion. It’s not unique to Mormonism. God has been used to justify many cruel and horrific things, and we are not immune to that. As much as we’d like to say that our doctrine doesn’t contain things that are oppressive or that it is completely pure, the fact is it’s not. It’s not enough to say that people in the church are flawed, but the church is not. The church is the people. And people are not simply good or bad, they don’t do only bad things or only good things. And leaders who taught good things also did horrible things. So, with my religious foundations effectively crumbled to rubble at my feet, I had a decision to make.
Step 3: Decide if Mormonism makes you a better person
Late one night last summer, I was sitting in my bed unable to sleep because of my anxiety over my religion and what it meant. In that moment I realized I no longer wanted to believe it all. I couldn’t prove it wasn’t true, and I couldn’t prove it was. But, looking at the sum total of my religious experience as an adult, I came up negative. But even more important than that, I realized that I had a choice in my belief. I didn’t have to be right or absolutely certain I was doing the right thing. I just had to do something and make a choice that meant something to me in my life right now.
I cried and told my husband I didn’t believe.
And he told me it was okay.
This wasn’t as easy a decision as some people would like to make it. The opportunity costs of leaving the religion of your family and childhood are high. I will not be able to attend my siblings’ marriages if they are married in Mormon temples because I no longer have a current temple recommend. I even face the possibility of not being able to attend my own daughter’s wedding if she is married in a Mormon temple.
People in my community will talk about and try to justify my decision to leave as a sign of a weak testimony, sin, or laziness. Many of my friendships will be strained by no longer sharing a religious faith. Members of my ward will try to make me feel welcome or bring me back through service projects. (Remember, Mormons are known for their tenacity, they made a musical about it).
With all of these things at stake, leaving was not the easy choice. But, I looked at my experiences in the church and took a careful evaluation of all the things I’d gain and lost from my life in the Mormon church. And for me it felt disingenuous to continue in an organization that I no longer believed in.
Bonus Step Four: Rebuild
So, where am I really at today?
I feel like in the last few months, I’ve turned a corner. I no longer constantly think about religion. It doesn’t occupy so much of my mental energy that there isn’t any room left for the things that give me joy.
But even more than that, I’ve learned how to become a better person. I spent 28 years with a set of rules that I thought made me a kind, decent human being as though a checklist provided the compassion or empathy required to truly love people. When I allowed myself to question those rules, I came out with a set of guidelines that are much simpler. Well, mostly just one:
I have a lot more learning and growing to do. I know that. I’ve learned that I don’t have the answers to anything. I’ve learned that what I do right now, today, in this life, means everything. How I treat the people around me and how I act is my legacy. I can look inside me and around me for the answers to life’s perplexing questions rather than an external force.
And in that way, I found my faith again. This time the faith is in myself, that I have a good heart and a desire to help people regardless of religious obligation. I have faith in the friends and family who surround me and have given me so much needed support and encouragement. And I have faith that I am going to be just fine.