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 became aware of a group of people called "New Order Mormons" (or "NOMs", for short). These are people who are informed of the disturbing history & practices of the church, but stay active, for various reasons (family pressure, community, etc.).
One feature of NOMs is that they take a more nuanced or metaphorical view of LDS doctrines & teachings. They see "shades of grey" or "a middle ground" between the black-and-white extremes taught in church. They might say, "The Book of Mormon may not be historically accurate, but it has some good teachings." Consider the following quote (emphasis mine):
"Let me quote a very powerful comment from President Ezra Taft Benson, who said, “The Book of Mormon is the keystone of [our] testimony. Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church…”
…It sounds like a “sudden death” proposition to me. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is or this Church and its founder are false, fraudulent, a deception from the first instance onward.
Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from his lips, eventually receiving at his hands a set of ancient gold plates which he then translated according to the gift and power of God—or else he did not. And if he did not, in the spirit of President Benson’s comment, he is not entitled to retain even the reputation of New England folk hero or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, and he is not entitled to be considered a great teacher or a quintessential American prophet or the creator of great wisdom literature. If he lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he is certainly none of those.
I am suggesting that we make exactly that same kind of do-or-die, bold assertion about the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. We have to. Reason and rightness require it. Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically." -- Jeffrey R. Holland, “True or False,” Liahona, June 1996
For the record, I like the nuanced approach of seeing "shades of gray" and "a middle way", but the problem with that view is that it runs in direct contradiction to what LDS General Authorities have taught. You can't take a "middle way" and support the The Lord's Anointed in the same breath. I just can't live with that kind of cognitive dissonance.
One motto of NOMs is "The church doesn't have to be true in order to be useful." Well, there are a lot of useful organizations out there. All of them are imperfect, but I can find plenty that don't use the shady mind-control tactics the church uses. I'm sure I can find a "useful" organization that doesn't have the body count of dead gay kids like the LDS church has.
After I had concluded that the church wasn't true, the next question I had to answer was: "Does the church do more good or more harm?" I read / heard stories about the following:
There's the old saying "Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater". After careful analysis, I concluded that the baby was drowning in the bathwater; get that baby out of there.
As to why I left the church, it can be boiled down to three points:
Active / believing members who read my story might be inclined to misinterpret it. They might misread the above points as "Oh, he lost the spirit", or "He got offended", or "He doesn't accept God's chosen prophets anymore", or some such thing. The above three points are my lived experience. If you don't like it or don't accept it, that's your deal. My story is my story.
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:
This article gives a brief overview of ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments for God.
This page explains the ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments in greater detail, giving the major tenets, principles, and critical points for each.
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 marked the turning point between "faith crisis" and "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 these discussions 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.
I attended Salt Lake Oasis which is a secular community group. It is about 95% populated by exmos / postmos. It was very friendly, welcoming, and down-to-earth.
I attended the Exmormon Conference in October of 2017. There were about 250 ppl in attendance. They said that this year would be the last time they would hold the conference since there are so many other exmo meetup groups nowadays.
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.
I found that as I experienced my transition, my views began to change. I used to see the world in the "us vs. them" terms that Mormonism had taught me. I now realized that all there is, is "us"; there's no them. We're all in this together.
I also used to see people with tattoos and/or facial jewelry as being "worldly" or "scary" (or even "sinners". :-P) I now began to see those things as "Wow, cool! What a fun / interesting way to express yourself!"
I used to see things in very black-and-white terms as a kid. As a young adult, I became fascinated with finding "third" categories (like "political moderate" between "right" and "left"). I would similarly become fascinated with finding things that could be modeled with both X and Y axes (giving us four quadrants). During my transition, I started seeing things in terms of continuous spectrums, and numerous axes that defied even three-dimensional space. It was fascinating just how colorful and how vibrant the world became.
I used to divide things into "good" and "bad" categories. For example, love is a "good" feeling and anger is a "bad" feeling. I began to see those feelings as having both beneficial and detrimental qualities: What if love blinds you to the fact that you're being taken advantage of? What if Gandhi or Martin Luther King Junior never got angry? What kind of world would we be living in? I began to see that traits & characteristics are aspects of a person which are sometimes advantages, sometimes disadvantageous, and sometimes just... flavorful.
I also began to see all religions as being on the same "level". When I was a believer, I thought that "our" scriptures are true, while "their" scriptures are just fanciful stories. Learning that the scriptures I was raised with were non-factual lessened them in my mind, but strangely, other religions' scriptures went up a few notches, until they were all at the same level. I saw them all has having some value in terms of tradition or moral tales, akin to folklore, but certainly not any value in terms of science or history.