The first time I can remember doubt crossing my mind was when I was about 4 or 5 years old and sitting in Primary. I used to sit and watch the clock, waiting for it to be over so that I could go home. Going home represented a break in the monotony, as well as the opportunity to sleep and eat, and maybe watch TV-- normal things for a young child to look forward to I guess. As I was looking at the clock the thought occurred to me that if the Church weren't true, how would I ever know? I had been born in the Church and taught that it was true, so if it wasn't true what would make me any different from people born in other churches who believed that they had the one true faith? Quickly, however, I realized that I was merely being tempted by Satan and I shut the thought out of my mind. The world was alright after all. I had been taught that Satan was a very wise being who worked to turn people away from the One True Church, and now I realized hat I'd been taught correctly.
I think that one incident has always stuck in my head because in many ways it typifies the Mormon experience. If you accept the assumptions and frameworks the Church is based on -- like the idea that Satan is trying to deceive everyone out of God's Church -- the Church makes perfect sense. The real question is whether you're willing to accept the assumptions and framework on blind faith. For a long time I thought that I was very unique for having those sorts of feelings and thoughts, but now I realize that almost everyone has them to some degree at one time or another, and that no one is ever alone in a thought -- even if the thought is never vocalized by anyone else.
My name is Dave and I'm a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. For obvious reasons I can't go into much more detail than that. (In fact, my real name may not even be Dave...) I decided that I had a moral duty to write my thoughts and experiences here. For a long time I felt very alone as a BYU student and since it's a fair bet that there are others out there who are like me I felt I should share some of my feelings. There's always hope, no matter what your situation, and today always looks a little bit brighter than yesterday...if you want it to.
I grew up in an active LDS family. My Mom had converted in college and Dad's line in the church went back to the 1860s. My forefathers trekked across the plains and settled a town south of Salt Lake City, Utah. Some even served in the "Mormon Batallion." All my relatives on my Dad's side, save it for one uncle, were active in the Church, and most lived in Utah. An uncle and aunt of mine had been mission presidents, my grandfather had been a patriarch, and everyone I knew was a return missionary. We went to church every Sunday, my parents held callings, and I was going to go to BYU and go on a mission, and the Church was truth in its purest form. I read the Book of Mormon, in its entirety, before I was 12.
As I grew out of childhood into that first age of cognition we call adolescence, my blind childhood belief started to become insufficient to base my life on. In my early teens I still went to church every week, didn't drink or smoke or steal, didn't (usually) swear, paid my tithing -- the whole nine yards. Like most LDS youth (and many adults for that matter), I judged and chided those who made decisions that conflicted with the Church -- especially any member who had sinned or gone inactive. Looking back, I feel bad about the cruelty and disrespect I showed to people who could have probably benefited from my friendship, but at the time that never crossed my mind. I can't say that this is a "Mormon" problem, per se, because kids criticize other kids no matter where they are. Most of our parents taught us that in general it was bad to judge and criticize, but when it came to criticizing people who were bad Mormons, there seemed to be an unofficial "green light." I can't place the blame for that entirely on parents. The Church places a big emphasis on the duty of parents to raise their children to be good, active Mormons, and for some reason hearing your kids criticize the "lost sheep" assures you that your kids are on the right path. There's a certain vindication that comes from judging others -- it runs something on the line of, I'm not perfect myself but I'm much better than him, so I'm still going to the Celestial Kingdom.
Deep down I didn't really have a true belief in the Church, though I would have never admitted it. I felt that it had to be true because it always had been true and my parents always said it was true, not to mention that my friends were all Mormons and how could something that complex be simply made up? I was a practicing Mormon but I didn't have any sort of deep, moving testimony of it. I did it because I did it and I had always done it, and what else was I supposed to do? -- basically I was like a lot of Mormons who are still active in the Church today.
And then as I got older I started to ask those questions that all boys ask, like, if God has to exist because who else created the world, then who created God? and, if so many people believe in so many different varieties and deviations of God, how can just one of those faiths be true? I still went to Church most of the time, and most of my friends were still members, but I had serious doubts that I was trying to sweep under the rug. I remember right after I had turned 17 an LDS friend asked me what I really thought about "the whole church thing." I remember thinking for a moment and then saying that it was either Mormonism or atheism. He kind of laughed, and mentioned that a mutual non-LDS friend of ours had said that at his church, people spoke in tongues. Of course we thought that was just absurd -- how could anyone believe that?-- but that was before we'd started to look at a lot of "absurd" LDS beliefs ourselves.
By the time I was 18 it was getting to the point where I couldn't put off what was becoming strikingly obvious to me. I really didn't believe in the Church and I couldn't just live my life as though I did to keep my family and social group happy. My best friend -- also LDS -- was going through a lot of the same things, but he wasn't as far along as I was. He was basically saying, "I don't know and I guess right now I just don't care that much." But right then I did care and I wanted to know.
I confronted my parents about this time and told them that I was having a lot of problems believing in the church, and for that matter, believing in any sort of God at all. They responded a lot differently than I thought they would -- they were glad, and they told me I needed to find out for sure and get a testimony of my own. I tried to convey to them that this wasn't just some stage, but that I really didn't believe in it. But they were glad that I was taking the Church so seriously and I needed to find out for myself -- you know the line.
Of course the only way to find out was to read the scriptures and pray and have faith and then you'd know. You couldn't ask for a sign, that was wicked and idolatrous, you had to make an investment and then you'd gain a testimony. And I realized that if you spent a lot of time on something and had faith in it, then you really truly would believe in it. I was familiar with "feeling the spirit" and I was noticing two things. First, you could feel the spirit for things that weren't church related. Not only that, people in the church felt the spirit for a lot of different things. It was a highly personal experience. Second, people of all faiths felt the spirit. Various Christians felt the spirit about what they believed, and so did Jews and Arabs and everyone else. I'd seen those shows on TV where they brought in people from "cults" (ie the Branch Davidians, the Scientologists, etc.) and they all always talked about how they knew their church and prophet were true. Mormons usually claim that they're they only ones who truly feel the spirit but I wasn't so sure that was the case. So I was already a little turned off to the idea of just reading the scriptures and "finding out for yourself" -- how could you trust what you found out?
I applied to several colleges and was accepted by BYU, the University of Chicago, and Washington & Lee. My parents had been very hesitant of my applying anywhere but BYU and when it came down to decision time, BYU's scholarship offer and my parents strong urgings pushed me down to Provo, Utah. I really didn't have a lot of choice in the matter -- he who pays the piper calls the tune. Besides, there had to be people like me, I reasoned.
I was in for a surprise when I moved into the dorms. Everyone I met "knew" the Church was true, knew it like they knew the sun would come up the next day. I heard them say a lot of strange things -- I remember hearing someone say that you had to have "faith" in order to simply live in the world. I didn't think that was the case because faith is more than just accepting something without having perfect knowledge of it, faith is believing in the otherwise unbelievable. I remember mentioning in passing something about atheism to the same person, and he just rolled his eyes and said, "atheists," like it was some kind of unfathomable sin that he was way above himself. But I also met some really great guys at BYU, nice guys who "got the drift" of my beliefs and were still willing to be my friends. All in all, I was miserable on campus and I assumed I would leave after my first year. I was immersed in Mormonism, but in some ways my un-testimony of the church was growing stronger. I saw people do some really stupid things in the name of God, and I also saw some people acting very hatefully because they knew what was absolutely right.
Ultimately I decided to stay at BYU. Seemed like a good way to get a degree, and besides, if I transferred I would have to stay in school longer. I stayed over summer term and had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life -- I got the faith.
I can still remember it clearly. I had been starting to think of the Church along these lines: well sure the Church isn't true, but what is truth? there is no such thing as absolute truth, so the only thing we can say is true is that which makes us happy. So if the church makes people happy, then the Church is substantively true. And I still believe that today. I had been reading the Book of Mormon, and like many people, I was struck at the complexity of it. With a little bit of real intent, a little bit of faith, by giving a little benefit of the doubt, you could feel the spirit and know that the Church was true. Some of my old friends were making some bad decisions that were starting to hurt them, and pretty soon I was saying that maybe the Church really did maximize human happiness. In short order, I went from being an intellectual Mormon-investigator to being a "true believer" Mormon. I felt great. I confessed my sins and decided to go on a mission. Go right away -- as soon as the semester was over. I even called up my old best friend, now an atheist-agnostic, and tried to convince him that the Church was true.
As time went by I caught up with myself. During all my spiritual experiences I had always realized that nothing that had happened to me couldn't be explained with physical-world answers. I've always been a reader, and it's always amazed at how complex some works are. When I dropped the "bandage of reverance" from my eyes and read the scriptures as I would "any other book" (quotes from Robert G. Ingersoll) I realized that there were many, many books that were much more complex, intricate, and in-depth than either the Book of Mormon or the Bible. Read the works of any great philosopher and really mull it over and you'll realize the same. And I had also realized -- though I'd never admit it, even to myself -- that I couldn't say that my spiritual experiences were undeniable truth -- they could easily be something other than messages from God. I suppose the thing that really did me in was when I realized that I was having "spiritual" experiences for a lot of non-spiritual things. I would have spiritual experiences about political beliefs and personal opinions -- things I knew two active, believing Church members could rightfully disagree on.
Those were black days. I called up my Dad and told him that I was having some serious second thoughts. I also called my former employer, whom I still work for over breaks, and told him what was going on and how I felt. He told me that he had looked at Mormonism once himself and had given up a marriage because he couldn't subscribe to its tenets. "David," he said, "I think that if you were to try to live as a practicing Mormon, you would live out your entire life with a lot of doubts about whether or not the entire thing was true." He was right and I knew it. I felt trapped. People were counting on me now. My mission papers were in. I couldn't sleep at night. I kept trying to keep the faith. I would lay in bed and my honest feelings would haunt me and demand me to account to myself, but I'd just try to shut everything out and sleep. Don't worry about it, I'd tell myself. Ignore it. I recall that one morning I woke up depressed. You know how that is -- you wake up and you lay there because you just don't want to move. I came out into the kitchen and my room mate said good morning. I just made a grunt in response. It was all I could do. I was in hell.
In the end I just realized that I was miserable in the Church, more miserable than I'd ever been, and that since I'd investigated the Church on the grounds that it would make me happier, I ought to get back out of the Church with the understanding that it hadn't, in fact, made me any happier. I had already more or less discounted "spiritual" experiences to something that a lot of people had about a lot of different things, and that probably weren't given out by God. I knew first-hand that you could have a spiritual experience about just about anything if you tried hard enough. For reasons I haven't gone into I was disenchanted with the "the Church is great for families" line. The bottom line is that I'd realized that testimonies, no matter how strong or seemingly undeniable, are not unique to one system of beliefs. People disagree about what they actually do represent, but I think that "the spirit" is absolutely and completely created and controlled by the individual.
And so when the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sent me a call to serve a two-year Mormon mission, I sent them back a short little note that thanked them for their time and informed them that I wouldn't be able to take their calling.
I had a lot of people tell me that I should have accepted that call whether I believed it or not -- "you go on a mission to get a testimony," they said -- but I knew that I could never honestly believe in the Church. I would be a walking and talking Mormon, but I wouldn't really believe it, and I wouldn't really be happy because I'd be advocating something I didn't think was really "true" -- in either an absolute sense or in a "practical" (i.e. "it makes us happy") sense.
I won't pretend that my decision has been an easy one, but then, life and growing up aren't easy either. The important thing is that my decision was, at least for me, the right one. A lot of my Church upbringing taught me to make the right decision, even when it wasn't easy. I suppose this is an unintended extension of that lesson.
I went through the normal post-Mormon stages: guilt, anger, depression. And I also have regrets. I wish that instead of being guilty and angry, that I could have been there for my parents when they needed help. I also wished that I hadn't rushed things so much and gotten myself into trouble in the first place.
I like to maintain that I'm equivocal about Mormonism, that it may be right for some people but not for others, but all-in-all I think people are better off without it. I hate the way some Mormons treat my parents -- you know, those looks that say, what's wrong with you? your son didn't go on a mission. I hate the fact that people I care about see things through religion-tainted eyes and judge accordingly. Many aspects of Mormonism are very social, and Mormon society can be brutal. I have seen good friends lost in the blink of an eye because of the Mormon church. It is true that there are a lot of good people in the church, but it is also true that those same good people could do a lot more good outside of the church. I guess, to sum up my feelings about Mormons and Mormonism, if the Church really makes your life better, stick with it. But don't be so sure that it makes your life better.
Because I'm still a student at BYU, I have to maintain my anonymity and I can't go into detail on some incidents I'd like to share. The BYU Honor Code Office likes to describe itself as an agency that is loving and caring, but the real reason it exists is to purge undesirable elements from BYU. (It always reminded me of how in Orwell's 1984, the Thought Police were headquartered in the Ministry of Love.) To all those out there who are feeling trapped -- especially young adults like myself -- remember that there is hope and that leading an honest life is the happiest way to live of all. Tomorrow is what you make of it, and happiness is something that you, and only you, control.
I've obtained an email account that is (basically) anonymous and I'm happy to take email. My only request is that if you're just going to write an email message that just attacks me and tells me that I'm going to hell, that you're testifying against me at the time of judgment, that you're dusting your feet against me, that I'm stupid, that I've offended you, or that you KNOW the Church is true -- just save us both the trouble and vent somewhere else. Or maybe ask yourself why you feel such a strong need to tell me those things. The address is email@example.com and please forgive me if it takes a day or two to get back. I will send some sort of response to every message I receive.
Please remember, I'm not trying to offend anyone. I'm just trying to let people know that they're not alone.