Crawling from the Wreckage
Part of a series about My Faith Journey.
At the moment I ceased to believe, all of my cognitive dissonance went away. My mind was no longer tied up in knots. It was a wonderful feeling.
But only moments later, I felt this incredible sense of vertigo. The stable ground of Mormonism that I had stood on for years flaked away underneath my feet and opened up into a huge void. Were there any prophets alive today? Were there ever any prophets or were they all just phonies? What about scriptures? Were any of them true? What about Jesus? Had he been exaggerated? Did God even exist? Was the sky still blue? Which was was up?!?
I also found myself in the unenviable position of wondering whether I could live a lie. I tried attending my old ward after learning the true facts about church history, and I just felt like an imposter. I couldn't sit in Gospel Doctrine class when I knew that everything I was hearing is fraudulent. I couldn't ever sing "Praise to the Man" again because I don't think there's anything praiseworthy about Joseph Smith.
Particularly disturbing was hearing the Primary children chanting "Follow the prophet, follow the prophet" over and over, as per the song. I learned that chanting was one of the things cults do to try to ingrain a message in their followers' brains. It was skin-crawlingly creepy to see this being done on... children.
One analogy I've used to describe my feelings at the time was this: Imagine that I was at a magic show with a lot of other people. The whole audience was "oooh"ing and "aaah"ing at the tricks being performed. But then, somehow, I wandered off and found myself behind the stage. I saw all the smoke & mirrors & doubles and understood how the trick was performed. Later, I rejoined the audience, but I couldn't be amazed along with them, because I just knew that it wasn't magic. I also felt social anxiety because I couldn't react the way the rest of the audience was reacting.
After a few, vain, attempts at continued church attendance, I decided I was done.
I had a lot of studying to do. I was hungry to learn about what the church had been hiding from me all these years. I was curious to learn more about Christianity and its claims. I opened myself to skeptical views of God and religion. In the year following my faith crisis, I probably listened to ~2000 hours worth of podcasts and read thousands of pages worth of text, both in print and online. I can be a bit obsessive sometimes, and my obsessive traits really came to bear as I engaged in educating myself.
I also discovered that some new terms either entered my vocabulary or became more prominent in my personal lexicon as I read / heard them in various sources:
I had heard that many people who lose their faith / leave their religious tradition tend to favor science, and I wanted to find out why. I began a journey to see what science had to offer and I began to understand why people in a post-conventional stage of faith embrace science.
There's an LDS hymn titled "Oh Say, What Is Truth?" and indeed, I found myself asking that same question. If the religion I was raised in had been shown to be false, after hearing all my life that it was the pinnacle of truth, then what was truth after all?
I reflected on other things I had learned during my upbringing and pondered on what else I thought was "truth". I took a lot of math classes throughout my schooling, and I decided that the most solid thing I learned was mathematics. Of all the hard sciences, math seemed the "hardest". Intellectually, math always made sense to me. Anytime I was taught a new branch of mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.) I could process it, grok it, and apply it.
It also occurred to me that time had never dimmed my firm belief in mathematics. I knew it was true, even if I had learned it decades ago. I didn't need to attend a weekly math class and hear people bear testimony, over and over, of the truthfulness of mathematics. It wasn't necessary. I just knew it was true, no doubt about it.
There are plenty of stories about members who "studied their way out of the church". They were faithful, they delved into church history, and after they learned about the skeletons in the closet, they were out. I have never heard of anyone who "studied their way out of mathematics". "Oh yeah, old Bob knew a lot of math. He even became a math professor, but he just kept studying and studying and now he doesn't believe in math anymore." The very idea is absurd.
Furthermore, even if a hundred mathematicians all did their best to try to offend me, it would not diminish my personal knowledge of mathematics in any way. No amount of bad behavior would cause me to "fall away" from believing in the rules of arithmetic, algebra, calculus, or any other branch of math. Contrast this to the various reports you hear of people who "got offended and fell away".
It is also worth noting that no amount of "anti-mathematics" literature would ever shake me from my belief in mathematics. People could point to the flaws & foibles of ancient mathematicians and it would not discredit their discoveries. Conspiracy theorists could rant all day long about how math is "wrong" and "bogus" and I would just blow it off. I've proven to myself that it's true, and that's all that matters.
Now contrast that to what we hear in church about "building our faith": we need to hear the testimonies of others and bear our own testimonies to keep them strong. We need to attend church and gather with like-minded people to keep our faith "burning bright". Getting "offended" can cause a person to lose their testimony. I had to wonder: is this "knowledge", or is it just Pavlovian-style conditioning?
One last point: if, by some quirk, we lost all of the mathematics that we currently have, we would be able to reconstruct them all, from scratch, back to what we have now. This is because math is part of the reality that we live in. On the other hand, if all traces of Mormonism were to suddenly disappear, it would likely be lost forever. We would not be able to reconstruct it because it is the product of a very specific culture (the burned-over district) that no longer exists. (This could be said about any other religion,for that matter.)
While I was a believer, I tended to favor supernatural / spiritual explanations over scientific ones. I would occasionally tell myself, "Science hasn't got it all figured out. Scientists keep changing their minds. They're using a very inefficient method for discovering truth (falsification). God's got it all figured out." I accepted the epistemology that pondering and praying to get an answer that would confirm one's beliefs was right and good.
Having learned about confirmation bias and its shortcomings, I was open to alternate epistemologies. I was intrigued at the approach taken by science because it was so radically different from the approach I'd been raised with. The "pray & receive" approach starts with a conclusion and favors signals (in the form of "fuzzy feelings") that confirm those conclusions.
Science takes a very different approach: It starts with a hypothesis and, makes tests, and observes the results to refute or verify the hypothesis. Note that a single verification isn't sufficient (as it is with the spiritual approach): You have to be able to get the same results numerous times by both yourself and by other people.
It doesn't end there: A common question asked is "Can we falsify it?" This is a much more critical (some might say "negative") approach because we're actively trying to disprove the hypothesis. (I gained some experience with this approach doing "destructive" or "negative" software testing where I actively tried to break a program with malformed inputs, out-of-sequence steps, etc.) A hypothesis that is able to survive numerous attempts to falsify it emerges as a very solid, very sound, scientific theory.
I was also impressed at how (good) scientists are willing to see their theories disproven and have existing models supplanted with alternate models that better explain the observed results. (One example of this: Early astronomers believed that planets revolved around the Sun in a circular orbit, but later concluded that an elliptical orbit modeled their observations much more parsimoniously.) This stood in stark contrast to the religious approach where, when observations conflict with "revealed truth", apologetics enter the scene to try to ease cognitive dissonance, rather than any admission that the "revealed truth" might be flawed.
Lastly, it was refreshing to be able to read science articles without trying to filter everything through the broken worldview of Mormonism. When I was a believer, it was so tedious, whenever I learned something new, to go through the mental gymnastics of trying to fit it into the narrow worldview of the church. It put such a strain on my brain. It was so liberating to be able to learn something new and just accept that it is the way it is, right at face value. No straining, no cognitive dissonance, just pure, acceptance-based learning.
For the record, I didn't instantly abandon any / all beliefs in the supernatural. I remained open to supernatural ideas but I opened my mind to naturalistic explanations for various phenomena. One example: I was taught that our innate morality is the "Light of Christ", given to all men by God as a gift to help us behave righteously. I later learned that our innate morality is a byproduct of humans having evolved to be a cooperative species (as per the works of Jonathan Haidt). While I remained open to both the supernatural and the natural, I found that the rational / naturalistic explanations were much more accessible, much more satisfying, gave me a greater sense of closure, and required much less of a stretch to accept. This started me on a path toward rationality.
Believers in various faith traditions are often quick to point out that there are limits to what science can do, and they offer some valid criticisms. A favorite point that believers bring up is that science cannot answer the question "Why was all this created?" (Though the way it is often stated is begging the question.) It is important to note that science alone cannot offer a person purpose for their lives. By and large, the scientific method is a destructive process designed to disprove falsehoods. It doesn't imply a purpose for why we exist. That is the realm of philosophy.
On my own, I observed that the fuel for the scientific method are hypotheses and science alone does not come up with these. Human beings are the ones that propose hypotheses, using their wonderful, observation-inspired, imaginations. Without human creative juices, the scientific process would be an unfueled, non-running, machine.
Another criticism I heard is that science alone cannot teach ethics. This is only partially true. Yes, there have been some abominable, wholly unethical, experiments performed in the name of science. That said, such experiments are not considered "good science". (I think this is where the "mad scientist" archetype comes from.) Furthermore, there are some fields of science that carry a strong ethical component with them. The medical sciences, for example, include the Hippocratic Oath of "First, do no harm". Psychology / Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is interested in promoting attitudes and behaviors that foster healthy, functional, relationships. But as a general rule, many branches of science are ethics-free (e.g. mathematics, physics, chemistry), which led me to...
Having been burned by religion, I was not eager to jump into another religion that required belief in unprovable supernatural claims. Instead, I found greater satisfaction in secular philosophies. Here are some that I gravitated toward:
I've long been fond of Buddhism, so the secular flavor was very appealing to me. This podcast hosted by Noah Rasheta (an exmo) has been very helpful and enjoyable to listen to.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:
The Eightfold path is:
There are also the Three Jewels of Buddhism:
Another thing that impressed me were Buddhist koans, which are questions / propositions designed to open the mind to thinking. These were refreshing after having been spoon-fed a steady diet of thought-terminating cliches throughout my upbringing in Mormonism (also here).
Some examples of Buddhist koans are:
Stoicism is a secular philosophy for living that flourished in ancient Greece & Rome. Nowadays, we think of a "stoic" as someone who doesn't cry at funerals, but it's actually a logical / naturalistic system of ethics that includes meditation / reflection, discerning between what we can control and what we can't, overcoming desire for pleasure / fear of pain, and pursuing excellence of character. (It is sometimes called "The Buddhism of the West".) Stoicism is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in the modern age.
The four main pillars of Stoicism are:
"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will." -- Epictetus
"Misfortune, nobly borne, is good fortune." -- Marcus Aurelius
This next quote needs some context: Emperor Nero commanded Seneca the Younger to commit suicide after being implicated in a plot to kill him. Seneca's wife & children were sobbing as he was led to his death. He "comforted" them by saying: "What need is there to weep over parts of life when the whole of it calls for tears."
The Four Agreements is a book by Don Miguel Ruiz that remixes ancient Toltec wisdom for a modern audience. These "agreements" are personal codes that you choose to live by, or agreements you make with yourself about your own conduct. They are:
The writings of Jonathan Haidt, who largely argues that humans are inherently moral creatures as a byproduct of having evolved to be a cooperative species.
Humanism uses reason, rationality, and critical thinking to arrive at the conclusion that we should behave in an ethical way. It uses reason rather than "because God said so" to promote nonviolence and cooperation.
The other thing I did was to gradually "come out" to people about my loss of faith. During the previous decade, I had had numerous problems including interpersonal relationship drama and battling with depression & anxiety. During that decade, I foolishly kept my problems to myself and didn't talk about them with anyone. I thought it would be the "manly" or the "strong" thing to do to deal with those things all by myself. It ate me up inside. Remaining silent had a huge, deleterious, impact on my mental (and eventually physical) health.
I listened to this Mormon Stories podcast where two men talk about how they lost their faith but remained silent about it for 13 years because they wanted to keep peace in the home. Their silence tore them up inside. I decided that I wasn't going to be silent about this; I would "do what is right and let the consequence follow".
As I contemplated who to "come out" to, I decided to start with the small circle of people I was closest to and then slowly expand the circle to include others. I came out to people in this order:
With only a few exceptions, I got very positive responses and an overwhelming amount of support.
Coinciding with my faith crisis was a move to a new house. This turned out to be an ideal arrangement: We were able to break off all ties to people in the old ward and not form any new ties to people in the new ward.
Many people I contacted said that they ended up moving as part of their faith transition and it helped a lot. Staying in the old neighborhood meant that all the nosy ward neighbors who knew about my activity as a believer would keep bugging me. Nobody in my new neighborhood knew me when I was a believer so that wasn't a problem.
When people from the new ward came around, we told them that we wanted no involvement with the church and to not bother us again. The asshole stake president (who apparently lives on my street) didn't get the message when I explained it to him politely him the first time, so I had to explain it to him not-so-politely (i.e. cuss him) out on his porch to drive the point across. I'm not going to kid you, that felt very satisfying. He hasn't bothered me since.
I knew I wouldn't be able to talk about my faith crisis / transition to my believing friends, and my non-believing friends might not be very interested, so I sought out like-minded people who had had similar experiences. Here are the groups I found (some face-to-face, others online):
I attended Sunstone Symposium for the first time of my life in July of 2016. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It was so refreshing to be around ppl who shared a similar background as me and could discuss all the oddities, wonders, and difficulties of Mormonism. Attending Sunstone helped me bridge from "faith crisis" to "faith transition". It was also neat to meet in-person some of the "exmo celebs" that I'd learned about through podcsts: John Dehlin, John Hamer, Brother Jake, Glenn Ostlund, Dan Wotherspoon, Kate Kelly, and others.
I attended Community of Christ so I could see a branch of Mormonism that had followed a very different evolutionary path. I was able to talk to the people in the congregation about my faith crisis / awakening and my favorite exmo/postmo podcasts. It was refreshing to be able to speak so freely about these things to what was basically a group of strangers. I never would've been able to have this discussion in an LDS chapel.
I attended a Religious Transition Group at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. Officially, it is a group intended for ppl who are transitioning from any faith to any other faith (or non-faith), but in practice, it is exclusively populated by exmos. It was wonderful to find so many like-minded people there. I also found the regular Sunday service at the Unitarian church to be very satisfying & fulfilling.
There's an exmormon meetup that happens every Sunday morning (11am) at a coffee shop in South Salt Lake called Kafenio. Nice casual group. Great place to swap exit stories and share inside-jokes.
The Exmormon Subreddit was a lifeline. Great place to find an online community. (I mostly lurk there.)
The Mormon Stories Podcast Community on Facebook has been fantastic. Lots of great discussions there with like-minded folks.