Showing posts with label apostasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label apostasy. Show all posts

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Tale Of Two Seminaries (Part One)

          I lost my faith when I was sixteen, when I was still living at home. For this reason, I tried to keep my apostasy quiet. However, my increasing doubts and disillusionment did not go unnoticed. I lived in an area where Mormons were in the minority; there was one other Mormon in my grade in high school, a girl by the name of Beth*. Beth and I grew up together, bound by geography and the isolation of upstate New York Mormons. 
          Beth was my oldest acquaintance and, bound together by our shared classes and early-morning seminary, she was the person that saw me the most, even more than my parents. Therefore, when my faith began to splinter, she was the first person to pick up on the fact. I tried to be discreet about my beliefs but every once in a while, a negative comment would slip out. I told her I felt uncomfortable with the idea of actively trying to convert others – her response was a fixed smile and the statement “So you’re telling me you don’t believe in the premise of the Church’s mission?” We stopped talking about the matter after that. A few months later, when I became upset in seminary about a General Conference talk – I said that the speaker’s promises were not grounded in reality – she lashed out at me, asking me what my problem was.
          Once again, we let the matter drop, at least until a few weeks later. At the time, Beth’s uncle was the bishop; the other students in the seminary class were comprised of the bishop’s family, the seminary teacher’s family, and me. A few weeks after our disagreement in seminary, the bishop’s family came in, announcing they had formed their own seminary class, with the bishop’s wife as teacher. There was no announcement, no warning; they simply gathered their scriptures at the end of class and said good-bye.
          Later that night, I went to the seminary teacher’s house to talk. She was visibly upset; she started crying while I was there, asking me what she had done wrong. There was a very painful feeling in my chest as I comforted her; I felt torn between privacy and honesty. She had been our teacher for two years, prodding us to complete scripture mastery and showing sympathy when we fell asleep in class.
          I wanted – so much – to confess to her of my disbelief, to let her know the fault was not hers, but I still could not utter the taboo words, especially not in light of Beth’s reaction to my unorthodox views. I was still confused, still uncertain; I knew I didn’t believe in God but I still hadn’t figured out that my disbelief didn’t make me a bad person. Part of me still believed that my apostasy was due to a defect in character. I had moved on from the belief but the guilt and shame still lingered. And so I couldn’t bring myself to voice the words “I do not believe”, not even to let a woman I cared about know that the blame was not hers. I still regret my cowardice; she was a good woman who did not deserve to get caught in the cross-fire.
          And so our seminary class was fragmented; I spent the next year attending seminary class in the next town, until the stake president intervened, sending me back to the seminary class taught by the bishop’s wife.

*Name has been changed

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When Mormons Leave

          When I came home from my first semester of college, my sister-in-law asked me about college and if I liked the people at church. I looked at her, puzzled, until I realized she didn’t know. “I haven’t attended church in over a year.” I told her.
          My sister-in-law looked shocked and then, looking around her, lowered her voice – “Don’t tell my children about this.” I have honored my sister-in-law’s request – I do not discuss my reasons for leaving in front of her children. I do not want to be the trouble-maker.
          When Mormons leave, an odd thing happens. Mormons refuse to talk about the issue, creating a cocoon of denial around a person’s decision to leave. There is an almost universal desire among Mormons to ignore the fact of apostasy. I was never asked about my reasons for leaving, although there were a lot of people who tried to convince me to go back to church. Apostates are branded as angry, sinful, or deluded. The Mormons that love you don’t want to believe that you have joined the ranks of apostate – so they don’t ask, preferring to think that you are simply confused. The Mormons that don’t know you also refuse to ask, assuming that your apostasy was for the stereotypical reasons. A member’s inactivity is viewed as a temporary lapse of sanity, one that can be gently corrected by the faithful.
          Ex-Mormons don’t talk about leaving because doing so will be a spark of anger in an already tense situation. If we talk about the issues within Mormonism that caused us to leave, then we are branded as the stereotypical angry apostate. Faithful members fear that we will corrupt their children or shake their belief in Mormonism. My family does not want to hear why I left and I do not want to force my opinions on an un-willing audience. There is a communication chasm between Mormon and ex-Mormon that cannot be breached.
          An unfortunate effect of this impasse is that ex-Mormons have a difficult time finding each other. We cannot speak about our doubts in public and few Mormons will acknowledge our apostasy, creating a shroud of secrecy around the existence of ex-Mormons.
          A couple months ago, I discovered that one of my brothers is inactive. His church attendance has been wavering for a long time, with periods of activity followed by inactivity. I am ashamed to admit that I did not know this, in spite of the fact that this has been going on for years. My brother is thirteen years elder to me; he moved to Utah when I was four. Other than a couple of years spent living near my parents when I was eight, my brother has spent the majority of his life living in the Utah/Idaho region. This was happening in my own family – and I never knew. No one told me and I didn’t think to ask. The cocoon of silence surrounding ex-Mormons runs deep, even within families.
          The reason I heard about my brother’s inactivity is because my family is making a concerted effort to get him to go back to church. A couple months ago, when I was talking to my brother on the phone, he had to hang up because the bishop had arrived.
          “The bishop’s here - he’s going to try and convince me to come back to church.” my brother said, sounding gloomy about the prospect.
          Wait, he’s not going to church? I thought. I knew that my brother is responsible for driving his children to seminary and that his eldest son is preparing to leave for a mission – this is the gossip I have heard within the family circles. The fact that my brother was no longer attending was not part of the family narrative.
          “Oh, I’ve been there before.” I said. I wanted to talk more but my brother had to hang up. I sent him an e-mail, letting him know that if he ever wanted to talk, I was happy to listen. He has not replied. I am silent because I do not want to cause a rift in my brother’s family or be labeled as the corrupting apostate influence. I assume my brother is quiet for similar reasons; I am the baby, the little sister he doesn’t know well enough to trust. Even within my own family, we are doomed to isolation because we fear the retaliation that results from speaking against Mormonism.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Only Sin Worse Than Murder

          A couple weeks ago, I read “The Girls From Fourth Ward” by Donna Banta.  The book was a dark romp into the world of teenaged Mormon girls, complete with the bishop from hell.  One of the scenes that lingered in my mind was a conversation between the four girls about the consequences of leaving the Mormon church.  Mormon theology teaches that the only sin worse than murder is renouncing the teachings of the church.  In the mixed-up minds of these four teenaged girls, this teaching somehow justified the murder of a bishop who was acting as an obstacle to fulfilling their potential as ideal Mormon women (and achieving access to the highest level of Heaven).  This example is extreme and one that I hope is relegated to the pages of fiction.  But the conversation in this book brought up very painful memories of just how afraid I was when I began questioning my faith.  
          When I was sixteen, and my faith was just beginning to crack, the missionaries were asked to teach my Sunday School class for a week.  Being the missionaries, they decided to use the opportunity to show off their knowledge of the Gospel.  We were treated to an overview of the Gospel and the three-fold mission of the Church: perfect the saints, preach the Gospel to the world, and redeem the dead.
          Then the missionaries started talking about the levels of heaven.  I grew up learning about the Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial Kingdoms but I had heard very little about Outer Darkness, which was a fate too awful for my mind to even comprehend.
          “Don’t worry.” the missionaries assured my class.  “It’s almost impossible to get sent to Outer Darkness.  You have to either kill someone or renounce the teachings of the Church.  And even murder is forgivable in some situations.”
          Uh oh.  I sat there on my hard plastic chair, painfully aware that I was in the process of committing the only sin worse than murder.  The only sin that meant irrevocable exile to Outer Darkness.  I felt as though I had been punched in the gut.  The rest of the day was a blur as I mulled over the lesson and all of its implications on my life.  
          I was upset for a while.  Upset and terrified.  But as the lesson began to sink in, I began to get angry.  Really angry.  Boiling, red-hot anger that started at the top of my head and crawled its way down my body.  I knew that what I was doing -- asking questions of my religion and expecting rational answers -- was not a sin.  The fact that I had received no answer, the fact that logic dictated that there could be no proof, did not mean that I was a bad human being.  And yet, as part of Mormon Church, this sin of mine was worse than killing another human being.  I began to see the Church in a different light; I could no longer rationalize its goodness.
          I reached my limit that day.  I was tired; tired of feeling like I was less faithful, less worthy, simply because the answers I had received were not the “correct” answers.  This lesson tipped the balance from grief about my lack of faith to anger at an unforgiving authoritarian religion.  This anger gave me the courage to start my journey out of Mormonism, as I began to untangle the many threads woven throughout my up-bringing.  A year after this lesson, I made a permanent break with the church.  I am grateful that I managed to find the courage to break away, even while faced with the threat of absolute damnation.  But for every person that does manage to come to terms with their lack of belief, there are ten more that stay because they are too afraid to commit the one sin worse than murder.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is There A "Right" Or A "Wrong" Reason To Leave The Mormon Church?

          There is a perception among Mormons that people who choose to leave the Church do so because they are prideful, or because they want to sin, or because they were offended by other members, or because they have been deluded by Satan.  Since Mormons believe that the LDS Church is the “one true church” on Earth, by extension this means that they also believe that no one ever leaves simply because the Mormon Church isn’t true.  
          This places a heavy burden on the person who chooses to leave; they find themselves in a position of needing to defend their actions and “prove” that they are not sinful or delusional.  Over the years, I have had people ask me if I was on drugs or alcohol.  I have been treated like a simpleton; when I finally gathered up the courage to tell my bishop that I didn’t believe in the Mormon Church, he looked at me and said in a very slow, very loud voice --- “Did you know that Joseph Smith was a fourteen-year old boy when he was visited by God?”  This was coming from a man I had known for years, who had been my visiting teacher, whose daughters went to school with me.  He knew that I was a straight-A student that attended seminary faithfully.  But with a single admission of disbelief, all of his respect for me as a person was suddenly erased.  In his mind, I was a simpleton who had never been educated about the Church, in spite of all of my actions that indicated otherwise.  
          For a long time, I felt a sense of shame about my reasons for leaving.  I didn’t leave because I learned that Joseph Smith was a serial adulterer who used his status as leader to acquire countless wives in secret, the youngest of whom was only fourteen.  I didn’t leave because I discovered that the papyri that Joseph Smith had purportedly translated the Book Of Abraham from, when evaluated by proper Egyptologists, turned out to be just a run-of-the-mill funeral papyri.  I didn’t leave because I found out there were multiple versions of the First Vision, all of which varied in crucial details.  I didn’t leave because I discovered a smoking gun that “proved” the Mormon Church wasn’t true.  All of this knowledge came later, after I left.  My exit out of the Mormon Church was based on intuition and logic, rather than facts.  
          I left because I didn’t like the person I was becoming; my thought patterns were starting to settle into a rigid mold.  I was judging non-Mormons and inactive Mormons for being less worthy.  I judged and then I felt bad about judging.  Did I really want to spend a lifetime feeling bad about my actions as a person?  When I thought about the matter, I realized that converting some of my non-Mormon friends into Mormons would cause them to lose what was most precious about them.  I liked having friends that pushed boundaries, that challenged authority, that dared to dream of a different life.  As a Mormon girl, I was powerless to do any of that.  My life was already planned out for me; temple wedding to a Mormon boy, lots of children, a career as a home-maker, and a life of obedience to the authorities and to my husband.  The future that had been dictated for me filled me up with panic and dread.  I wanted to choose my life’s path but as a Mormon girl, choices were not an option available to me.  
          Most of all, I knew that there was no way of knowing if the Church was true.  I knew that the feelings subscribed to the Holy Ghost and considered as proof of the Church were flimsy evidence of truth at best.  Did I really want to go through life subscribing to a religion that made me uncomfortable, that made me more judgmental of others, on the off chance that it might be true?  So when the time came for me to ask “Do I believe this church is true?”, the answer was no.  
          Even after I left the Mormon Church, I was still plagued by doubts.  I had friends within the Church with the same frustrations, who had stuck with the Mormon Church in spite of their differences.  Were they better than I was, for staying in spite of their issues?  Were they stronger, more faithful?  I just couldn’t shake off the mind-set I had grown up with.  
          And so, for a few years after leaving, I went around saying “There is no God” with the same certainty that just a few years ago I had been saying “The Mormon Church is true”.  I was embarrassed by my reasons for leaving; a part of me wondered if I was simply weak and prideful.  I thought I had left the Church for the “wrong” reasons and so I felt compelled to bolster my insecurities with certainty.   
          But life moved on and I began to settle into my new identity as an post-Mormon.  I began to see the Mormon Church with the eye of an outsider, viewing my life’s experiences in a wider lens.  The issues inherent in the Mormon Church started to become clear.   I realized that I was, truly, genuinely, not a Mormon.  My identity as a post-Mormon girl began to feel as natural as breathing.  Bit by bit, my heart began to soften and heal.  
          This was when I realized I am an agnostic.  I don’t know if there is a higher power.  I can’t say “There is no God” with any more certainty than I can say “There is a God”.  And I have accepted this fact; I may never know the truth.  I am comfortable with who I am.  I take delight in the small joys of everyday life --- I love learning, my family, and my husband.  And for me, that is enough.  I will live my life with integrity and respect.  When I die, and if there is a higher power, I will say that I lived the best life I knew how.  
          My journey out of Mormonism was confused and circuitous.  But I am out and I am happy that I am out.  And I don’t think that there is a “right” or a “wrong” reason for leaving the Mormon Church.  If Mormonism works, then stay.  But if for some reason Mormonism doesn’t work, then leave.  Life is too short and too precious to waste doing something that you can’t believe, that doesn’t make you a better person.