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. 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 1500-2000 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:
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. 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.
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 exercise 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 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.
I had heard that many people who lose their faith / leave their religious tradition tend to favor science, and now I understood why.
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 notable 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 told him the first time, so I had to 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):
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 examples: