This is the first of two articles about my faith transition.
First, a little personal history.
I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah and HQ of the Mormon Church1.
I’m one of seven children2. I came from just about as loving a home as I could have hoped for.
Growing up we had family home evening every week. We studied the Bible and Mormon scriptures together regularly. We knelt and prayed together daily. My parents didn’t let us see rated-R movies. We were taught to follow the Mormon prophet — and we did.
We were your typical, good, Mormon family.
I was taught that this was the only path to follow and… since everyone was happy, I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
I too served a mission where I learned to love the language, the people, and the Mormon gospel. In every sense, I gained a deep and abiding testimony of the Mormon Gospel.
I came home believing implicitly in everything Mormon. I was deeply determined to continue to live the gospel that I had preached so diligently for two years.
And I did.
I visited the temple frequently. I prayed many times a day. I read the scriptures daily (even when I went camping with friends). I brought converts into the Church and helped lost sheep find their way back to the Church. I kept the Mormon commandments as well as I knew how.
Eventually, I found an incredible Mormon girl who shared many passions with me. At the core, was a shared love of the Mormon gospel. Eight months after our first date we were married in the Mormon temple. The kids came soon afterward and we began raising a happy little Mormon family.
To me, my Mormon faith was Truth and everything else revolved around it. I was convinced that there was nothing that could get me to leave it behind.
Although I was Mormon through-and-through, I’ve had a bit of an independent way of thinking for much of my life. It probably started at a very young age with my dad teaching us to ask lots of “why” questions. I think that this led me and my siblings to be less prone to take things for granted or accept answers that amount to “that’s just the way it is”.
So when things don’t make sense to me, they definitely bother me more than they bother most Mormons.
After getting married, I slowly found myself ever more frustrated with a lack of change in my life. Sure, I was a good Mormon, but I wanted to be a good person. I yearned to be a better, kinder, more giving, loving person — the way I perceived Jesus to be5.
“Afterall”, I thought, “that’s the purpose of life, isn’t it?”
I did all of the Mormon things that I was supposed to do and I tried hard to do them with the correct intent in my heart. I also had many powerful experiences with what Mormons call the “Spirit”, and yet I was pretty much the same person I had always been. I was by no means, a bad person, but I hadn’t really changed much6.
This was deeply frustrating to me because Mormonism teaches that the purpose of life is to learn to become a better person — and it just wasn’t happening for me.
This led me to tighten my focus on Jesus and on becoming like him. After all, if the purpose of life is to learn to be like Jesus, my path should point in his direction. In other words, I should start to become more like him. (Mormon’s sometimes call this “a mighty change of heart”.)
Born Again, Born of God: To have the Spirit of the Lord cause a mighty change in a person’s heart so that he has no more desire to do evil, but rather desires to seek the things of God.
I also fasted and prayed about this earnestly — as Mormonism taught me to do. I made it a topic of deep thought and prayer as I visited the temple often. It was also a major focus in my thoughts as I studied the Christian and Mormon scriptures. But I was mostly frustrated for more than 10 years7.
So, being like Jesus became a litmus test for my life: if something led me to be more like Jesus, then it was probably good. If it didn’t lead me to be more like Jesus, then it probably wasn’t worth my time. In Mormon parlance, Jesus was the mark for me, and focusing on stuff that didn’t help me to become like him was looking beyond the mark.
I soon discovered that my own religion, as a whole, looks beyond the mark.
While all of this was developing, I continued to practice my Mormon faith unwaveringly, which always includes a “calling” to volunteer time in the Church.
I ended up with callings related to Scouting more than just about anything else.
While I did this, I eventually realized that Mormon Scouting is one of those things that probably isn’t worth my time. The reason is that, to most Mormon parents and leaders, scouting is little more than something to check off their list of indicators that their kids are on the straight-and-narrow. They rarely care that the kids actually learn or grew from any of it, so efforts to hold the kids accountable for their work and to get them to do challenging things is frequently met with stiff resistance.
Scouting in the Mormon Church is a low-bar, semi-mandatory, watered-down version of what the BSA can be.
This realization was quite a mental and emotional step for me — admitting to myself that Scouting — an important part of my Mormon upbringing and previously unquestionably a good thing — was pretty lame, at best. Even more significant was the realization that nobody seemed to care. They were getting what they wanted out of scouting — an indication that their kid was on the Mormon path. That’s it.
Realizing this about scouting was quite a shock for me. It led me to take a hard look at other aspects of my life that might not be living up to their promises.
I asked myself why I was doing what I was doing, and if those things were helping me be a better person. As I did this, I realized that very few of the Mormon things that I did were helping me reach that goal and that very few Mormons cared if those things helped them be better people. Being a good Mormon was the goal. That was good enough.
I observed how infrequently being like Jesus was even mentioned in Mormon sermons, lessons, and culture.
I understood that while my religion preaches against the idea of box-checking your way to righteousness, its culture and doctrine indeed reward box-checking your way to righteousness. I also discovered that the Mormon checklist often has nothing to do with learning to be kind or to love and that sometimes it makes people not very nice at all.
The more I looked, the more I found stuff that Mormons do that were more about dogma and tribalism, and being a good Mormon and less about being a good person.
Even though this put me in a terribly conflicted position, I wasn’t ready to abandon my religion. On the contrary. I was looking for reasons to continue believing. I met with my bishop and posed my concerns to him — hoping for an answer. He was very patient with me but confessed that he didn’t really have any answers.
I remained in this state of ambivalence for quite a while — feeling like I was the only one who noticed that the emperor had no clothes — but eventually, I decided to take a step back. While I still hoped (and worked) for some way to justify faith in my religion, the fact was that the faith simply wasn’t there. I felt like it would be dishonest of me to pretend so I decided to ask to be released from my calling8. I also decided to stop taking the sacrament because I simply didn’t feel comfortable making promises that I didn’t believe in9.
At this point, I continued to consider myself a devout Christian. I continued to pray daily and to study the Bible. I attended Sacrament Meeting with my family but I went home for my other church meetings to study the scriptures on my own.
It was during one of these Sunday afternoons, that I stumbled upon a website that opened my eyes to an ugly piece of Mormon history that I had never been taught.
I won’t go into the details here since that’s not really the intent of this post, but after doing some research, I discovered that the information on the website wasn’t dirty anti-Mormon lies — just history10.
After a short time of feeling sick and completely deceived, I remember going for a short walk to think about what all of this meant. It was then that it occurred to me for the first time in my life that my religion was all made up. Every bit of it! Suddenly all of the puzzle pieces fit together! Every single one. And suddenly everything made sense. “The Church isn’t true!” I said to myself.
It had been a long time since I’d had that feeling of peace, light, freedom, and confidence (the feeling that I would have previously identified to come only from the Holy Ghost). I felt it again on that walk. It was wonderful.
I was on my way out11.
This process of my transition away from the Mormon Church was terrifying and heart wrenching for my wife and me. She worried about my salvation, for our marriage, and for the kids’ future.
It was also traumatic for my neighbors. They were probably shocked, and confused. A few testimonies were probably shaken because of it. Suddenly few of them knew how to treat me because they’d been taught that people like me had committed a terrible sin. This irritated me because I was the same person12. Unfortunately, this led me to anticipate judgment from my neighbors — I’d sometimes get irritated before they’d even done anything. When my irritation showed, it only confirmed their suspicions about me — that I had lost the light of the Spirit and had been overcome by darkness. This increased my irritation yet again! It was not a healthy situation.
Living in that neighborhood became a challenge for me and my family.
After a few years, my wife understood the trouble with the paranoia that Mormons feel when someone leaves their church. She maintained her Mormon faith for many years afterward but was tolerant and loving toward my decisions. She’s an amazing person.
Our older kids struggled a bit through the years where my wife and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. Of course, they knew that we believed very different things — we were frank with them about that — but I think they still felt that they needed to choose sides at times13.
Recently my wife reached a place where she felt she could honestly assess her Mormon faith, and she decided to leave Mormonism behind as well.
Our family is in a very good place now. While we feel a bit directionless and ill-prepared for the task ahead, we’re doing it together, and we’ve seen progress already.
While I don’t have the confidence-borne-by-faith that I once had about my family’s future, I am excited and optimistic about what lies ahead.
- Mormons are taught to “avoid and discourage the term ‘Mormon Church.’”(lds.org), so some probably perceive it as mean-spirited for me use the nickname that I know they’ve asked not to be called. I don’t mean to be demeaning. I use the name “Mormon Church” for clarity. Few people outside of Utah would know what I was talking about if I said LDS Church. Many more people recognize the word Mormon. Also, it takes a really long time to write/say The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints. I mean, it’s 11 syllables! (In Spanish it’s a whopping 20 syllables!)
- No, my dad was not a polygamist. Mormons are known to have huge families (deseretnews.com). Polygamy really did come to an end in the Mormon Church many generations ago. I have come in contact with polygamists in Utah but none were members of the Mormon Church. All probably came from some Mormon offshoot.
- Every Mormon is asked to volunteer in some regard in their local congregation. Mormons call this a “calling”. They are taught that to refuse a calling is a sin. These callings can range from a door greeter to leader of 15 to 20 congregations. Only a very few at the top receive any money for their service.
- Wards are the basic Mormon congregation. I don’t know the origin of the word. I’ve heard that it has something to do with voting districts in the Mormon Church in the 1800s. Stakes consist of many wards.
- This was the first breakaway for me — a realization that being a good Mormon does not necessarily equal being a good person.
- Of course, everyone struggles to make changes in their lives, and I know that a lack of personal change by itself doesn’t indicate that a religion is false. This just happened to be the next step for me.
- I later discovered that these things (fasting, prayer, scripture study, temple attendance, doing home teaching, doing your calling, not smoking/drinking/swearing etc.) have little or nothing to do with being or becoming a good person (but everything to do with being Mormon).
- I was teaching 16 and 17 year-olds the Mormon gospel. I felt like a fraud doing that. In fact, I frequently skipped the lessons that I was supposed to teach because I didn’t believe them, and instead taught my own lessons. My fellow leaders didn’t seem to like this at all.
- Mormon “sacrament” is like Catholic communion — it’s similar to Jesus’s last supper. Mormons aren’t supposed to take the sacrament when they aren’t worthy (i.e. aren’t keeping certain commandments). I was definitely worthy of taking the sacrament. I just didn’t think it would be honest of me to make a promise that I didn’t have a lot of faith in at that time.
- I could confirm the information on faith-based Mormon websites like lds.org and fairmormon.org. You can find that part of my story here.
- I actually took several months afterward to look more deeply into what I had learned. This was the religion that I had dedicated my life to! So, I wanted to be very thorough before I made a decision.
- Except for the faith part, I was even temple-worthy.
- They were receiving messages from Church about staying true to the faith and stories where the worst thing that could happen is to lose your testimony. Well, that was their dad! What were they to think about that? I can tell that some of them felt deeply torn inside. Most adults can’t handle that kind of ambiguity well. How can we expect any child to do it?