Avoiding The Either/Or Trap: Lessons Learned Losing My Religion

Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

I tried. I really did. But the LDS Church (the Mormons) kept insisting it was all or nothing. Given the choice of giving them my all or nothing at all, I chose the latter.

Still, in an odd way, I’m grateful to them. The lessons that have spent the better part of my life sinking in keep rising back to the surface unexpectedly. Triggered by a seemingly random news story or through conversations with others both in and out of the faith, new insights now regularly surprise me. We can walk away from the cultures we are raised in, but one way or another they stay with us.

At first I thought my growing suspicion of ideology was a product of the times: a side effect of America’s increasing polarization brought to a boil by the results of the 2016 election. But upon reflection it’s clear to me now that my perspective is largely a reaction to my Mormon upbringing. The LDS Church’s black & white way of looking at the world is woven into the culture as tightly as the stitches in an old pioneer quilt.

“I know the Church is true.” That’s what Mormon’s are encouraged to stand and declare once a month at what’s referred to as a “fast and testimony meeting.” This declaration is typically followed with something about Joseph Smith being a “prophet of God” and personal inspirational stories that are offered as evidence of the truth of the “gospel” as interpreted within the Mormon faith.

For a member experiencing doubts there are really only two choices during these meetings: sit and quietly endure them, or stand and lie to the congregation. The third option of honestly confessing your doubts didn’t really go so well for me. With one exception, I was greeted with silence following the meeting. No one seemed to know what to do with me. The one person that did approach me reassured me that if I just kept doing what the church told me to do, eventually I would gain a testimony. I had been given this advice before and was growing tired of hearing it. It was shortly after this experience that I decided it was time to leave.

Unfortunately for the LDS Church, to say nothing of religion generally, technology and changing cultural values have been working overtime to make doubt more acceptable and far easier to express than it has ever been before. For a doubter to feel alone in the pews these days they would have to lack internet access. Our affinity for tribalism now tends to manifest itself more through some secular variety of identity such as race or political affiliation.

My old church’s rigidity has rendered it rather inept at coping with the wave that’s begun to break over it. To be fair, they’re hardly alone. Information is too readily available for orthodox faiths in particular to easily cope. Questions that used to be blurted out only by innocent children who intuitively understood there was something wrong with the claim that two of every species on earth could somehow fit onto a boat can no longer be dealt with through simple answers or stern rebukes. More and more the public’s tolerance for faith is conditioned upon faith being informed by reality rather than blind as a bat. It’s no accident that those identifying as “unaffiliated” are now rapidly increasing as a percentage of the population while religion is steadily losing ground.

I had lots of specific reasons for leaving Mormonism at the time. The capacity of Noah’s Ark was actually pretty low on my list. Concerns with the founding narrative of the religion as well as proven historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies within the Book of Mormon account of the peopling of the Americas were closer to the top. The discovery that there had been debates regarding these issues at the highest levels of the church dating back to the 1920s and 30s made me feel as though I had been lied to growing up. Clearly the church’s leadership had always known about these problems and had simply refused to deal with them.

In addition, there were the obvious errors the “prophets, seers, and revelators” had made that, it seemed to me, could have easily been avoided had they really been communicating with God. Polygamy, denying people of African descent access to the priesthood until the late 1970s, and the ongoing treatment of women as second class members of the church were three obvious examples.

But eventually I realized that my particular reasons for leaving Mormonism were only culturally specific examples of a problematic approach to the truth that can be found at some point in every major religion’s history. Even if I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, it was the LDS Church’s treatment of truth, and the intolerant attitude toward doubt that came with it, that ultimately lay behind my decision. As recent events should make clear, these ways of thinking about the world are ultimately toxic to cultures that fail to address them.

Mormonism continues to hold pretty firmly to an either/or view of the truth of the Book of Mormon. Followers are still expected to accept the scripture’s historical as well as theological accuracy without reservation, though even the LDS Church now admits that not every Native American necessarily descends from someone arriving on a boat from the Middle East around 600 BCE.

But my former religion’s apparent absolutism aside, it is actually employing a variety of relativism to rationalize its doctrines. Small concessions to modern genetic and archaeological evidence not withstanding, Mormonism, like many faiths, advocates treating personal feelings as the primary source of evidence for the truth of its particular narrative.

This conviction that our feelings can be counted on to accurately communicate the true nature and meaning of existence may work well within a particular isolated tribe living more or less in a vacuum, but it’s a dangerous view in a pluralistic society that includes multiple traditions, many of which also see themselves as guardians of the truth. Because people’s feelings can’t be counted on to respond consistently to the various stories religions and other belief systems use to distinguish themselves from one another, intolerance and anti-intellectualism are ultimately the only options available to those unwilling to embrace allegory and accommodate themselves to the latest evidence. Scientific and other scholarly research will always be treated with suspicion in an environment where it’s feelings instead of facts that settle the debate.

When I was nineteen, I dutifully turned in my paperwork to become a Mormon missionary. A few weeks later the “call” came. The Church was sending me to the Washington, D.C. Mission for two years of proselytizing.

At first the strongest emotion I could muster was a very mild excitement that bordered upon ambivalence. Part of the problem from my perspective was that Washington, D.C. wasn’t really the kind of place I wanted to spend two years of my life. I was hoping to at least gain fluency in a foreign language out of the experience. An urban American setting didn’t really deliver the kind of adventure I was looking for.

Right after graduating from high school the previous summer, I had spent three weeks in what was then still the Soviet Union. The trip whet my appetite for cultural experiences outside the United States, to say nothing of beyond the increasingly uncomfortable confines of the lily white, Republican, and Mormon environment of Provo, Utah. Washington, D.C. undoubtedly would have represented a far greater change from Provo than I was giving it credit for, but it was still my country’s capital after all.

In the weeks following the receipt of my “call” to Washington, D.C., my ambivalence began to turn into terror. What a mission really involved, no matter where it took place, never truly sank in to my still developing late adolescent brain until then. As the image of me knocking on doors to tell people that what they believed was wrong became more vivid, I hit the panic button. Then I did the least Mormon thing I could think of: I acquired a bottle of vodka through some of my less savory friends and got really drunk.

If only it could have been that easy to escape the fate my church had in mind for me. My condition was obvious when I got home late that night and staggered down the hall toward my room. Mother had been waiting up for me and came out to greet me. It must have been a Saturday night because I remember she stayed home from church the next day. She was too upset to attend, but she made sure I went. Hangovers don’t count as an illness in religions that prohibit alcohol consumption. I was sent out early Sunday morning with strict instructions to confess my sin to the bishop before I came home.

Naively I thought my confession would at least mean a postponement of my pending sentence to the nation’s capital. I could use the extra time to work things out. Perhaps the bishop was more tolerant than I gave him credit for, or maybe getting the largest possible percentage of male youth in his charge out on their missions on time made him look good to his superiors. Regardless, he dismissed my drunken binge as just “getting it all out of my system” before leaving, gave me a stern lecture, and left it at that. I was still leaving on schedule when I left his office. If I hadn’t had such a terrible headache and Utah’s liquor stores had been open on Sundays, I probably would have gotten drunk all over again.

Over the next week or so I was experiencing all sorts of feelings, but none of them matched the description I had been given of the stirring within that I was supposed to be having. I had never had that feeling, at least not in a context that made it obvious that’s what it was.

Every Mormon is raised to believe that at some point they will receive a “burning in the bosom”. That was the signal that the Holy Ghost provided to convey the message that the Book of Mormon and all the other teachings of the Church are true. Unfortunately, this sort of physical sensation could work just as well as evidence that unicorns live on the dark side of the moon. There is absolutely no reason that such a feeling should serve as an indication of anything much beyond heartburn.

Warm and fuzzy feelings have a long and ongoing history of providing validation for beliefs that turn out to be utterly false. So do the feelings of superiority that follow naturally from moralizing. Indeed, a strong sense of identity in any form functions as a kind of intoxicant that clouds our judgment and inflates our ego. Regardless, all I understood at the time was that the only strong feelings I was experiencing were anxiety and despair.

Eventually I got around to telling both my mother and the local bishop that I did not want to go on a mission. At that point I was told the same thing I would be told again a few years later when I honestly confessed my doubts in testimony meeting: just do what you’re told and you will eventually know it’s true. That people I had previously respected were asking me to go door-to-door lying about what I “knew” to be true was, in retrospect, the moment I truly began losing my religion. I didn’t know my church was true, let alone that anybody else’s was false. That I should say I did anyway destroyed the illusion that any of this had anything to do with truth.

“In Judeo-Christian tradition, Yahweh speaks and the world is created. In Hindu cosmology, Brahma sees that the world is already there.” ~ The Geography of Genius, Eric Weiner

Since then Mormon missionaries have knocked on my door and I have been on the receiving end of the message I was supposed to be delivering all those years ago. We’ve had some interesting discussions. They assured me the LDS Church would welcome me back — that it was more receptive to doubters now than it used to be. They would play me talks by church leaders saying just that.

But, as I always knew it would, it turned out that people with unorthodox interpretations of church doctrine or interested in having open and frank discussions about issues of concern to them aren’t welcome. Another bishop in another country told me as much when, at the missionaries’ urging, I consented to sit down with him.

It wasn’t long after that meeting that the Mormon Church announced a new policy. They decreed that the children of homosexual couples would no longer be able to receive any of the privileges that came with membership. For that they would have to wait until they reached adulthood. The children of rapists and murderers, however, were still welcome.

There was considerable blowback from the small but growing number of cosmopolitan members willing to share the pews with others unlike themselves. It was, I suspect, these members that were as much the target of the new policy as the innocent children of gays and lesbians. In particular, members living in more liberal parts of the world were becoming too accustomed to mingling with people from outside the mythical 1950s version of the nuclear family the Church had built its modern reputation defending. The new policy was a reminder that comfort was misplaced.

Unfortunately, when you tell people you’re receiving your instructions from God and will never lead them astray, there’s not a lot of room to quickly walk your mistakes back once you’ve made them. So innocent children have now gotten caught in the crossfire in the war on “sin”, while more open minded members are finding out, like I did years ago, just how unappreciated their voices really are. For thousands attending rallies following the announcement of the Mormon Church’s new LGBT policy the only option left to them was to officially request that their names be removed from the Church’s official records.

Mormons protest 2015 change in LDS Church’s LGBT policy. Picture from Vice News story regarding protest.

Above all else, what I learned growing up in a conservative religion convinced of its truth is that absolutism and literalism should be treated as bright red flags signalling that beneath the banner there’s a belief system that is not concerned with truth so much as it is with obedience. Institutions that proclaim their books or manifestos possess all or most of what we need to know, and insist that their leaders can do our thinking for us, are ultimately interested in power and conformity, not freedom and diversity.

Tribalism seems to be everywhere in 2018. It’s not just native to the Mormon intermountain west, the Bible Belt, or the Middle East. We can find it on both ends of the political spectrum and in other parts of the world as well. People waving the flag for their tribe and ready to go to war (literally or figuratively) for their particular identity seem more abundant now than at any other point in my lifetime.

History’s long-term trend lines are still favorable, however, so I’m not overly concerned. I just wish I could think of a way to get the primary lesson of my own apostasy through to others. The truth isn’t something we can own. The truth isn’t even what gives life meaning. For meaning we need to turn to the search for truth. When it comes to life, the old dictum that it’s all about the journey, not the destination remains a good rule of thumb.

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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