So it’s been about two and a half years since I was active in the LDS Church, and about eight months since the time I consider to be the point where I actually left the faith (despite having been inactive for a year and a half before that). I’ve spoken at length on this subject, especially recently on this blog, and I’ve no wish to beat a dead horse. Suffice it to say that, between what I’ve already said and a lot of research I’ve done in the interim, I cannot believe in the Church or take its claims at any sort of face value. My opinion of the Church in general now is basically this: an organization, mostly filled with people doing their best to be the best people they can be in the way they’ve been taught, that, despite dubious and/or peculiar beginnings, now exists as a force both for great good and great ill, depending on both the issue and the specific people involved. If there is divinity and/or goodness in the Church, it is there because some people in it seek to be good people; it’s not an intrinsic divinity. But it is there. If there is evil in the Church, it is because fallible people are in it whose opinions hold more sway than perhaps they should, and too much emphasis is placed on contradictory, nonsensical points. But, before I get too off-topic, the point is that I’m never going to be able to go back to being an active, believing, temple-recommend-holding member again. I know too much. However, the cost has been more than I expected.
Compared to a lot of ex-Mormons, my situation has been “ideal.” I didn’t have a wife or children to be torn apart from. I wasn’t serving in an active position in a ward (especially not one high up, like a bishopric or higher) when I found out the Church wasn’t true. I didn’t really even lose any friends, though that’s mainly because I’m not the kind of guy who has a giant amount of friends to begin with. And, with a few exceptions, most people’s reactions have been, “Believe whatever you need to believe. I’m not going to drag you kicking and screaming in either direction.” I had already fallen through the cracks of the Church’s inefficient midsingles program (my inactivity coincided with my 31st birthday, the point when I became too old for the YSA program, too single to really fit in to a family ward, and too “works on Sunday too much” to attend a midsingles ward), so in essence I got lost in transit, like somebody’s luggage that was supposed to go from Newark to Los Angeles, but instead ended up outside the LDS Church. And, for a while, my life wasn’t really different, other than a change of underwear and a few people on Facebook praying for my soul or whatever.
But I’ve lost the community.
Now, fitting into the LDS community was a not a thing I ever did, even when I was active, as many posts on this blog can attest to. And my current, shall we say, melancholy, is not because I’ve “lost the Spirit” or some such. I’ve actually felt what many would consider the Spirit on several recent occasions which are irrelevant to this post. However, as time has gone on, I’ve noticed a few patterns with people, and it has started to take its toll.
With people who are still members, even people who have remained my good friends, there now exists a bit of a wall. Certain subjects simply remain taboo. There are things I’ve found that I cannot share, simply in the name of preserving the peace, whether it be “anti-Mormon” material (especially if it’s, say, a non-partisan study from scientists who’ve had almost no exposure to Mormonism; how the heck would they have a pony in the fight?) or a funny bit of fluff that may be poking fun at a sacred subject, or experiences (good and bad) I’ve had since leaving that would’ve been impossible to have when I was still a member, or even just something incredibly insightful with the word “fuck” in it (yeah, I said it; please disregard this entire blog now if it’s important for you to do so). And, in return, I’ve noticed that people are a lot less prone to talk about Church-related stuff around me, even if it’s just something funny that happened in sacrament meeting, or a bit of wisdom that a bishop shared with them, probably also in interest of keeping the peace (and those who do share Church stuff with me are very transparent in their “bring him back to the fold” motive, though fortunately that’s been rare in my case). Neither my LDS friends nor I will ever be able to be 100% comfortable around each other anymore. That’s simply the nature of the beast. It does make things lonely, though.
So what about joining an ex-Mormon community instead? The problem is that what unites the ex-Mormon community is, by definition, opposition. People in it have to remain dedicated to that cause to remain a part of the crowd. What many members don’t realize, however, is that, unlike faithful LDS members, the status of “ex-Mormon” isn’t nearly as all-consuming as the status of “Mormon” is. For some people it can be, I suppose, and most who leave have to go through a period where they untangle themselves from what they thought was true for so long. But at the end of the day, we’re all people. People have different interests, likes, dislikes, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. One thing the Church does well is unite people under a (supposedly) positive banner. “Come to us and we will make you better,” they say. The ex-Mormon community cannot offer that same promise. Nor should it. Its promise is, “Come to us and we will show you that this Church isn’t the only way to be better, and you don’t have to accept or deal with all the other stuff that’s making you worse.” It doesn’t tell you how to be better, though. It’s not a philosophy. The paths people take after leaving the Church are as diverse as the people involved. Some find another Christian faith to follow. Some let go of Christianity but hang on to belief in God and/or divinity. Some end up in atheism. I think a lot end up in atheism because they’ve found out so many flaws with Mormonism that they can’t bring themselves to believe in anything after putting so much labor, blood, sweat, and tears into a system that didn’t ultimately live up to its own ideals. You can’t make a positive belief system defined by opposition to something not wholly negative, just like you can’t make a fair and balanced news channel from opposition to a political party that isn’t wholly negative (yeah, I went there too). And, while it can be important and even cathartic to get together with a group of ex-Mormons and let out all your issues and maybe have a good time, it’s not what appeals to me. Just as I’d be the guy in the back of a priesthood meeting thinking, “This whole thing is faulty logic at best, and I can’t just sit here and take it,” I’d be the guy in the back of the ex-Mormon get-together thinking, “I don’t want to drink. Coffee tastes like burned pizza. Yes, we all have issues with the Church, now how about that local sports team or shared cultural event?”
I don’t just want catharsis. I want community.
I wanted community within the Church, but couldn’t find it. Outside the Church, I don’t even know how to find a community. Within the Church it was automatic: these people who live near you are the people you’ll see every Sunday, and the people you’ll see in activities during the week. These are your friends, or at least a decent pool from which you can hopefully draw some friends. And you all speak the same language, too, figuratively speaking. You can walk up to a random stranger in Church and gush about how great Joseph Smith/President Uchtdorf/whatever is and already have something in common. Outside the Church, there’s no such thing. About all anyone has in common is weather patterns and how much it sucks to be tired or hungry. Within the Church-based support system, I didn’t really know how to make friends; outside it, I’m thoroughly and totally hosed. It doesn’t help that I’m now over 30, not in college, and work a job with a ton of night hours, limiting my time to go do a play or join some local community group or something.
I talked with a recent ex-convert (or however you term people who’ve recently left) who was advised to stay within the Church even if they didn’t believe anymore simply to keep that support system. After all, you sure as heck can’t call the elders’ quorum to help move your stuff, or have visiting teachers watch over your sick mother, or whatever, if you don’t both believe in the same religion (for starters, how do they even know you need help if you’re not crying about it in Relief Society?). I can’t live like that, though. I have to do what I believe is right for me, even if it means I lose those opportunities. It still hurts.
It also doesn’t help that, romantically, things are a lot more complicated now. Since my ideal relationship is no longer mandated by the Church, I’ve (potentially) had the option to reach outside those definitions and experiment a little. And no, that doesn’t mean I’ve been going out having one-night stands or anything, but it has meant that I’ve been able to go out with people without the immediate pressure of “will this person be the person I marry?” And while I’ve learned a lot, I wish that I could’ve done this ten or fifteen years ago, because I really do want to have a family of my own when I’m still young enough to keep up with kids, and spending time in relationships where I’m not focusing on marriage seems to be wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, the dating experiences I’ve had are very important to me, and I want to keep having them. But finding someone who wanted to marry me in the Church was already a giant challenge for me. Finding a girl who wants to have kids with someone my age or in my position who’s outside the Church seems nearly impossible, especially since finding someone with the same moral system as me suddenly got more complicated. I want someone to come home to, or who comes home to me, or we both come home to each other, or however the employment situation would work…look, I’m open-minded; the point is, I want to be with someone who is as devoted to me as I am to them, and that’s doubly hard to find outside the Church in an environment that doesn’t specifically push that narrative.
So there’s loneliness.
When your best friend literally can’t afford to see you. When the girl you’re sort-of dating has contacted you only once over the past week just to say, “Sorry about the rash,” (uh, out of context that sounds a lot worse than it actually is; don’t read into it) and normally all you talk about between dates is scheduling anyway. When all of these people who have left the Church keep complaining about how well-meaning ward members keep trying to bring them back, and you realize that you’ve heard maybe one peep from anyone Church-related for more than two years (I’m not complaining, really, but it is odd how clean of a break I made). When you go to a party with a bunch of ex-Mormons but don’t drink anything, and so haven’t been invited to another one since. When your sister who also left the Church tells you about great parties and get-togethers and so on that she goes to that sound like a visit to a foreign country without a guide.
When you’ve spent almost an entire week without human contact other than the work-based or store clerk type, and it hasn’t been the first time in recent history, nor will it be the last. When most people your age are too busy living their own lives to have room for you to be a significant part of it. When online dating hasn’t worked because your message gets lost amidst a sea of creepy guys sending inappropriate pictures. When the most social thing you do is talk over video games that haven’t been relevant in decades, spending hours and hours working on a series of videos and a website that, ultimately, will have ten viewers at most if you’re lucky, because you can’t, don’t know how, or are too scared to peddle it to a wider community, so you playact at running a popular series without any numbers to back it up. When people tell you all about their lives or problems, and you listen because it’s what they need, but you don’t want to alienate anyone with your problems, so you put them in a blog instead.
When you’re too Mo for the Exmo community, but too apostate for the membership. When you’re too introverted to just go to a bar or something, but you feel entirely out-of-place at a gaming/comics store or other nerd nirvana. When you like acting, music, and theatre, but never quite mesh with music or theatre people. Jack of all trades.
When you’re not hot, but you’re not cold, you’re lukewarm. And nobody wants that, not even God.
“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” — Revelations 3:16
I was attending the LDS wedding reception of a long-time friend. While there I engaged in a conversation with one of my friend’s stepsisters: a young, vibrant, attractive, 15-year-old high school student who proceeded to tell me and my other friend at the table all about how she wanted to either go into cosmetology when she grew up, or spend some time doing professional equine sports (I don’t remember the exact field, but it was something along the lines of horse racing but with obstacles that the horse had to jump, kind of like a steeplechase but called something else*), which I thought sounded pretty cool. Later the conversation turned to dating and typical high school relationship stuff: you know, how a bunch of guys like her but she has to fend them off because she likes this other guy, etc. etc. and I joked that when she got out of high school she could just wear a fake wedding ring around guys that she didn’t want to deal with. She then gave me that withering “well, duh” look that only high school girls can give and said, “Um, when I get out of high school I’m gonna have a real wedding ring.”
That statement brought me crashing back into the reality of a culture that I had left behind years ago, where a young woman with great hopes and dreams of cosmetology and/or horse racing was also expected to immediately find a guy, settle down, and start popping out kids before she reached her 20’s. And with how many guys she said were always pursuing her, I’m sure that it would be no problem for her to find some fresh RM ready to marry the first girl that he goes on at least two dates with.
I bring this girl up, not to pick on her specifically, but to use her situation to address a larger problem. I’ve seen this story before. At first a woman will be happy that she’s fulfilling all of her godly mandates by having kids. But then she’ll start to think, “You know, I miss those times when I rode that horse through the steeplechase courses. Could I have been a good competitor?” The answer isn’t no, or yes, because she never got the chance. She had to sacrifice everything that she was for the sake of her family. The tragedy, though, isn’t that that’s what she had to do, but that she made that choice without even realizing what that sacrifice meant. She married so young that her brain wasn’t even done fully developing (which happens around 25-ish), and she went immediately into motherhood without even knowing what it was like to not be living with her own parents. The girl at this reception, who spent about ten minutes telling me a “hilarious” story about how much she sucked at Mario Kart the previous night (that was literally the entire story; most of the time telling me about it was spent giggling with her friends), was expecting to have a kid of her own before the end of this decade. It was so clear that this was her course in life that I got that contemptuous look usually reserved for the most obvious of dorks when I even hinted at her life taking a different path.
Most of my readers who are or have been LDS shouldn’t be surprised by this. This type of situation is by far expected to be the norm. Am I saying that everyone who got married young and chose motherhood over all their other interests was wrong, or misguided? Of course not. I can’t presume to tell anyone what would truly make them happy. I guess I’ve just been talking to, hearing from, or reading about so many women my age who did this when they were young, to the severe detriment of their marriages and family life, and it took them years to suss it all out (and many of them still haven’t), that it took me by surprise to hear that this mindset is not just still existent, but prevalent. Default, even. I wanted to take that girl by the shoulders and shout, “No! Don’t do it! Go buy a jumping horse (or whatever the term is), or study cosmetology! Find out who you are! Become a strong woman who knows who she is and what she wants! Then make the decision to find a good guy and have a family! Do it because you know it’s what you want, not because you’ve been told it’s what you should want!” But, of course, I didn’t. It wasn’t my place to steer a teenage girl I barely knew away from marriage in the middle of an LDS wedding reception, at least not if I didn’t want to get thrown out or something. And who knows? Maybe I’m being presumptuous and she’ll be perfectly fine giving up all her current hopes and dreams to become the attractive wife of a worthy priesthood holder. It’s not my place to judge (unless, of course, I’m doing it anonymously on a blog later; then it’s all good, right?). After all, what do I know?
What do I know?
I know that I spent a large chunk of my adult life not being able to live up to the ideals set forth in front of me by someone else, and it made me feel like less of a person by comparison. Even a cursory reading of older entries in my blog can attest to that.
I know that a culture dedicated to homogeneity on such a scale that one of the best-selling and widely-read non-official publications in it is based on trying not to feel guilty about not being good enough is a culture that doesn’t allow people to grow in positive ways.
I know that, since leaving the Church and its culture behind, I have better been able to define myself, what I want, how I feel successful, and what makes me happy. Sometimes it’s what the Church teaches. Sometimes it’s not. Often I have to tweak those definitions and seek advice from those wiser in certain areas than I am. But I can finally grow organically, freed from a cookie-cutter end goal.
I know that the leaders of the Church, at best, are mortal men trying to do what they believe is right and whose counsel is sometimes wise, but who don’t have the authority to tell me what is black and white, right and wrong, especially if what they are telling me is not what I know in my heart to be true.
I know that, if I’m wrong, then I’m OK with that, for I am learning things down this path that I didn’t even know I needed to learn, and I treasure the opportunity more than I can express.
I know that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” for many of us needs to also be “Love thyself as thy neighbor,” because many Mormons hate themselves for not being perfect, and it hurts them and everyone around them.
I know that some women have found supreme happiness in child-rearing. But many of those needed to get a few years of steeplechasing out of their system first to be able to decide who they really were and what they really wanted.
I know that, when I do eventually get married (which I still want to), I won’t be doing it because I was commanded to, or because I have a fear of dying alone, or I have to marry somebody in order to have children, but because I know who I am and what I want, and I will have found somebody who knows what she is and what she wants. Sure, we won’t be perfect people by any means, but our marriage will be built on a foundation of love, hope, and joy, knowing that out of a world of possibilities we chose to be with each other. Not because we were expected to, or because we thought we should, but because we wanted to, and we were old and experienced enough to know what that means.
Am I still Mormon? I guess I’m still technically on the records. But at this point I’m not going back. I’ve done enough research into the Church, its history, its policies, and its effects to know that I am done with this organization. What good it does is far outweighed by the damage it tolls, especially on people who don’t mesh with it, and the good that it does do can be found elsewhere. So no, I don’t consider myself Mormon anymore.
Am I still Christian? That’s a harder question to answer. At this point I’m skeptical of most religious texts in a historical and/or literal sense. I think it’s safe to say that I follow the philosophy of Christ as best I can, though I don’t limit myself to it (which is actually more a Buddhist idea, I’ve found), and the question of whether or not he is my personal savior or the Son of God and so on is, in reality, a moot question, as it doesn’t affect how I live my life or how I treat others. You can follow someone’s good example with or without literally believing in their divinity. And if he is truly the ultimate good in the universe, then I hope that my attempts to be the best person I can be will be looked upon kindly, regardless of whether or not they’re derived from a specific belief system (like the Calormene in The Last Battle, perhaps), even if the good I do consists of things like “play around with and love my nieces” or “post silly Internet videos so that my artistic roommate knows that someone values his work.”
Am I atheist then? No, I don’t believe so. While I find myself increasingly out of the Judeo-Christian tradition more as time goes on, there still exists a measure of spirituality in my life that I can’t chalk up to mundane or empirical evidence. I’ve received and acted on spiritual promptings, even as recent as within this past week. An atheist may argue that this kind of thing is a result of either physical external stimuli, or the power of suggestion/persuasion/emotion/what have you, and maybe they’re right. And maybe I’ll change my mind down the road, given enough evidence. But, for now, I choose to believe in at least some things.
I know that I am far from a shining example of a selfless, pure, giving person, and that it’s a lot easier to spout all this philosophy then it is to live it. But I also know that I don’t have to be perfect yet, as long as I am willing to continue to learn and grow. There’s room for improvement all over the place. And as I live life and learn more, my philosophy will inevitably shift and change, like a tree shaped by the weather.
I know that some people will take issue with parts of what I’ve written. I know that I may get some differing viewpoints on Facebook, or here in the comments. If so, that’s great. Let the reader read both points of view and decide which one works for them. I’m not telling you that I’m right. I’m saying that I’m doing my best to do what I believe is right, but that definition is no longer dictated to me, nor is it set in stone.
During my first semester at BYU in the fall of 2000, I took an American Heritage class. The very first day, the professor put forth the idea that there is an absolute “Good” in the universe that all (morally) good ideas and philosophies spring from, things like “2+2=4” or “slavery is wrong.” He represented this “Good” using a tree trunk with a giant “G” on it, with various branches symbolizing different belief systems that nevertheless sprang from this source. He then introduced the idea of moral relativism, i.e. there is no “Good” that ideas are coming from, and that any idea is as valid as any other idea, and humans can come up with morals from scratch that go against the “Good” and believe that, for example, “2+2=5” or “slavery is fine” (never mind the fact that math is not a moral belief system, but whatever, BYU, amirite?), taking this idea to its final conclusion: that some moral system had to govern the others, and if it was completely man-made, then there was no guarantee as to whether it was good or not. This idea he termed “utilitarianism,” represented by a mechanical monstrosity that kind of looked like a tree, and was based on the idea of a purely logical moral system (e.g. John Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”). In later classes he went on to teach that the American Revolution turned out well because the Founding Fathers were not moral relativists, but at least tried to base the government in this “Good” (which increasingly became obvious as a euphemism for “God”), where the French Revolution ended badly because it was based in philosophies of men (utilitarianism), and how other failed systems of government (e.g. communism) didn’t work for similar reasons.
In other words, moral relativism = bad. Also absolute truth exists, and one should align oneself with it as opposed to making up one’s own truths.
I still…kind of believe this? What I think I disagree with is that this “Good” must equal “God,” or at least Mormonism’s definition of God, since through the Church much harm has been done (and yes, much good too, it’s not black and white). And I don’t think that “philosophies of men” necessarily means “devoid of good,” because I think that mankind is inherently good (though that doesn’t mean that I think all philosophies of men are that way). I also believe there’s a middle ground between absolute moral relativism (i.e. every idea is just as valid as every other idea) and dogmatism (i.e. we figured out/had dictated to us everything that you should do to make your life the best it can possibly be, and if you deviate then it’s impossible for you to be happy and/or good), but it’s one that’s increasingly swallowed up by black-and-white arguments. I bring this up because I can see some people wanting to accuse me of moral relativism, when in truth that’s not the case. When I say that what is right isn’t dictated to me or set in stone, I don’t mean that I’m not seeking what is right, but that my understanding of it is changing based on what I’ve learned and how I’ve progressed.
I know that I’m grateful for the chance I’ve had to learn this in my life, and to have the opportunity to be able to explore it without being locked into a marriage or other social situation within the Church that would’ve made this exponentially more difficult. And my heart goes out to those who have had similar faith shifts but have to remain within the Church out of a sense of obligation, or familial duties, or cultural ties, or because they believe that because some part of it is probably true then it’s worth weathering all the stuff that is harmful.
And finally, I know that a young girl should be allowed to pursue her own hopes and dreams in the adult world, and get to know who she is before getting married, so that she can truly be a whole person and have a happy home. And if her true hopes and dreams are all based around motherhood, not because she’s been told they should be, but because they truly are, then more power to her. Let her be at least old enough to make that decision. Let her be at least older than fifteen.
But what I actually said at the reception was basically, “Well, that’s a choice. Hey, is there any more cake?”
It was good cake.
*EDIT: It’s called Hunter Jumping! Not Steeplechase! I’ve edited the photograph!