Date: October 27, 2013 12:24AM
In early September, my wife and I visited with our stake president and told him that we no longer believed that the church was true, and that our family of seven would be leaving the church. Because I would like to control the message of our exit, I would like to share my story. I also do so because so many other de-conversion stories have given me strength and courage.
JOINING THE CHURCH
Twenty years ago, I joined the church when I was a college freshman in Southern California. My high school sweetheart, a beautiful girl from a mormon family, was off to BYU. I was coping with a new peer group in college - not fitting in well with a bunch of partying athletes. I was also struggling to make the jump from high school to college in my sport. Most significantly, I missed my girlfriend. I had always had positive feelings about the church and its members; and even though mormonism was a little odd, I figured that its supernatural claims were just as believable as any other religion's. I took the missionary discussions, had a spiritual experience, told my girlfriend that I wanted to be baptized, and that I wanted to marry her.
BUILDING OUR FAMILY & SERVING IN THE CHURCH
She left BYU. We married at 20 (young, but best thing I ever did). We finished college in Southern California. Then, we started building our family. We have five children, ranging from 7 to 16 years old. Our family was extremely committed to the church and we were devoted to personal and family worship. We were zealous and had very responsible callings. She was in a few RS/YW presidencies. I was in the bishopric at 25, taught early morning seminary for four years (while working and going to business school at night), served as a high councilor, and for the past four years was the bishop of our ward in a beach community in Southern California.
WILLING TO LEARN
When I joined the church many years ago, I experienced personal issues that humbled me to learn and accept new ideas. Ironically, 20 years later, important life events had the same result. I was approaching 40 years old and although the mid-life crisis can be such a cliché, it was sort of true for me. I was also starting a new business, struggling financially, praying fervently, and with time to study issues. Lastly, a friend of mine began to confide in me as a friend and a bishop, that he was doubting and trying to distance himself from the church. All of these important changes helped me consider other points of view, but my friend was the catalyst.
At about the same time that my friend shared his doubts with me, we had a priesthood leadership meeting for bishops with one of the Q12. This was the second of these meetings during my tenure as bishop. There would be a Q&A session. The first meeting's Q&A session with Robert Hales was uninteresting, not a single thought-provoking question. I was determined to ask a good one this time (but not too good, because I was aware that a real tough question might brand me a doubter). I asked Dallin Oaks something about continuing revelation, and why we do not have any more recorded prophecies, visions, or revelations. He mentioned that we pretty much have all that we need - made me think of the "A bible! A bible! We have already got a bible" passage in the BOM. Steven Snow, the new church historian, said that every general conference is filled with revelation. The failure of our prophets, seers, and revelators to produce prophecies, visions, and revelations probably was my first serious issue with the truth claims of the church.
I discovered Rock Waterman's Pure Mormonism, which always left me scratching my head. Then I moved onto Mormon Stories, learning things about the history and doctrines of the church that made me feel like I had been kicked in the stomach. I continued to adapt my beliefs to this new information. I started focusing on jesus, and the basic principles of the gospel. I became a very liberal bishop - and a much better one too. I stopped trying to represent the church, and focused more on healing individuals.
I continued to doubt my doubts, but it was not until I listened to a Mormon Stories podcast about ex-mormon atheists that I seriously considered the possibility that mormonism was not true. The agnostic/atheist perspective was imperative to me because I had always thought that mormonism's miracles were just as likely as any other religion's - and I was right! I started reading the Four Horsemen, Carl Sagan, studying philosophy, and listening to religious debates. When I decided that mormonism was not true, I also decided that I was an agnostic/atheist. Then, all of the contradictions and absurdities in mormonism started making a lot of sense.
Of course, I kept all of this to myself because we're not supposed to share our doubts - especially as a sitting bishop in the fourth year of his calling. I devoured Mormon Think, and visited RFM occasionally. Then I told my wife.
Whenever I shared elements of my conversion story, I usually remarked how I was first converted to my wife, then to the gospel. We have had a very happy marriage. Even though I had read some horror stories about coming out to a spouse, I expected her to react well.
She cried, felt like she got kicked in the stomach. But she was loving and kind, just like I expected. I think many of us experienced that sick feeling when we first learned that the church may not be what we thought it was. She was no different. Her biggest fear was that I would not feel the same way about her and our marriage. I reassured her and reminded her that I was first converted to her. I told her that I would much rather sit beside her at church than watch football or go surfing. I told her that I would pretend until and unless we could do something together. To her credit, this was not an acceptable solution. My wife insisted that she needed some time to figure it out, then I could leave the church or we could leave together. She has always been my number one priority, and always will be (a value that did not come from the church).
Our relationship did have one important difference that she recognized right away - namely, that I no longer believed that God required me to be faithful to her and never divorce. However, the other side of this coin was that I did not believe she would stay with me merely because god commanded it. We love each other and I realized that god's commandments are completely irrelevant to our commitment. To me, this is very empowering, and I expect it to strengthen our marriage.
For some time, I had been sharing Rock Waterman's blog with her, and discussing some of the oddities. She had a familiarity with some of the major issues. But the first heavy issue I asked her to study seriously was the Book of Abraham - we studied Kevin Mathie's essay on the BoA together. She believed that the BoA was probably fraudulent, but it did not necessarily disqualify JS as a prophet.
We continued to discuss the major issues without any urgency. Then, my wife realized that our son would be turning sixteen soon, become a priest, and start preparing for a mission. She was also uncomfortable with me "pretending" and ordaining him - a breach of trust with my son. Several weeks before his birthday, she started to study Mormon Think. Just before his birthday, she confessed to her bishop that she no longer believed the church was true (though she still has some faith, wants to believe in god and an afterlife, and has kept praying each night). Although I had been resolved in my beliefs for several months, and had fantasized about getting my wife to come along, I was surprisingly nervous when she said, "Let's go talk to our stake president." On one day in September, we told her family, our children, and our stake president.
My wife’s family is sad and disappointed, but also loving and kind. Some want to understand why we made this decision. Some don’t want to talk about it at all. We see each other as much as we ever have. I don’t think this will negatively impact our relationship with her family one bit. It’s a good family and I’m glad to be part of it.
Her family is the main reason we have not yet resigned from the church.
We told all five of them at once, and they had varied reactions. One of my children cried all night, and was angry with us for weeks. The two youngest were surprised, but wanted to go back to the television show they had been watching before we called them together. The other two had more moderate reactions.
My wife and I kept attending church for months after learning about the issues, giving us time to adjust and think about our relationship with the church and our friends there. I feel badly that the children have not had this same opportunity. A couple of them wanted to visit church the next two Sundays, but we told them that it would not be appropriate. The first Sunday after our announcement, our stake president told the ward that our family was leaving the church. The next Sunday, I would be officially released. It would not have been fair to anybody for us to be there on those days. Since then, we've told them that they can go back. But I hope we never return.
Within a couple weeks, I started talking to them about issues. I shared just a little bit of the historical and doctrinal issues, but focused more on why we believe, whom we should trust, and the unreliable nature of the holy ghost. None of the children appear eager to talk about religion. I think they are growing indifferent at this point and getting used to the idea of not going to church anymore. I think they are all content to be doing something else on Sundays. We are optimistic about our children and their progress so far, but we know we need to have ongoing discussions.
A common question we've heard is, "but isn't the church really good for your kids?" No. Being groomed to covenant with the church to sacrifice everything for it, and to place it above everything else is NOT good. Learning to give your money to the church before paying the rent and feeding your family is NOT good. The way the church makes it difficult to leave and alienates some from their families is NOT good. Mindless chanting of "follow the prophet, follow the prophet" is NOT good. Going away for two years as a missionary unwittingly sharing less than the whole truth is NOT a good thing. The primary reason we left the church is for our children. If not for them, we may have been tempted to stay for the social aspect.
He has been a good church friend over the years. We expected him to react well, and he did. He mostly listened, told us that he loved us and that it wouldn't change how he feels about us. He remarked, "I don't have a testimony of church history." This is peculiar to me. The BOM is a history, says so right in the beginning where it explains the plates. In 2013, we are even studying "Church History" in sunday school - seems funny not to have a testimony about that. He also said that he has heard all of the issues. I think a lot of people say this, but I don't believe anybody can seriously ponder these issues without having some sort of faith crisis. At the very least, it alters how one views the church and its leaders, and results in much more empathy with doubters. I did not sense this.
I told my counselors in the bishopric the next day. They were surprised and sad. I spoke with a few close friends. My wife spoke with more than a few (spending at least an hour in several emotionally draining conversations, she was beat for a few days). Almost without exception, they were kind and affirmed our friendships. This did not surprise me very much. Our ward has long been a friendly, non-judgmental ward. I think a lot of our church friends believe in the preeminence of friendship. But the reality is that the church does not leave a lot of time for outside friendships and interests. I suspect that some (but not all) of these friendships will fade over time - but hope they won't.
There have been a couple of message-board worthy responses to our leaving the church. One couple that we were fairly close to has been saying some hurtful things about our character. One interesting rumor they’ve helped spread is that we would share our new feelings about the church with all the "zeal and fervor" that we ever had. We have both been very respectful in speaking with everybody. We are willing to talk with anybody, but are also satisfied to live and let live. I do hope that someday I can be a friend to somebody during a potentially lonely faith crisis.
I sent about twenty individual emails to other people in the ward and stake that I admire. I mostly thanked them for the privilege of working with them, and told them that I would always be there for them. One person responded that he would always be true to the church (I was puzzled until I found out about the false rumors of our preaching & converting others).
One important leader in the ward sent a funny and sad response: "My heart goes out to your children for the decision that you and [your wife] have made. This will not only negatively impact their lives, but the lives of your future generations. You know very well that once one stops doing the basics, one will forget their [sic] testimony. Unfortunately, this was personified by you. [Brother], I implore that you practice faith and repentance. I don't know what caused you to pursue this path, whether it was for justification of some sin or self pride, but do not succumb to the philosophies and vanities of man." Although incredibly ignorant, judgmental, and condescending, it's really not his fault - he was "inspired" to write this to me. I believe he is a genuinely good person.
I heard that the stake president wrote a letter about our family that was read in all the sacrament meetings of our stake. I don't know what it said, but I'm flattered. I did hear of one bishop who, after reading the letter, went on to say that it shows that how failing to read your scriptures and pray could lead anybody to apostasy. Perhaps people who fall away due to indifference may have this experience, but I think that most who reject the church do not. I prayed and studied more during my faith crisis.
Interestingly, telling my non-mormon family was one of the worst experiences. My father is catholic, not practicing or religious, but spiritual. He was kind and tolerant, but was confused by my agnosticism/atheism. My mother is a "born-again christian," who has been praying for our family for a long time. She told me that I could finally get to know "the real jesus." I knew she would be pleased about our leaving mormonism, but I wanted her to know my feelings about christianity before she got too excited. I probably said too much. Although I am as confident about mormonism/christianity as I am about unicorns or celestial teapots, I think I will usually just say, "I don't know." It's true and much easier.
VISIT WITH A GENERAL AUTHORITY
My original coming out plan was for stake conference weekend in October. I had wanted to spare my friend, the outgoing stake president, this difficulty. I did not think I would care as much to trouble the new stake president. The bishops, high councilors, and stake presidency had received letters that indicated an interview time with the visiting general authority, along with a survey in which we were asked to describe our family, job, affirm certain worthiness standards, disclose whether we had ever been divorced or subject to church discipline, and what we believe needs to be emphasized in the stake. We were also asked to recommend three men who would serve well as stake president. My plan was to go out of town that weekend, unannounced, then let the new guy know.
When Shayne Bowen of the 1Q70 came to our stake, he visited our home for about an hour with the outgoing stake president. I was not sure whether to expect a kindly man who wanted to have a conversation, or a condescending priesthood holder who knew everything about us because the spirit had already told him everything. The amateur anthropologist in me would not be disappointed either way. I later found out that his career was as an insurance salesman, and he was true to that form. The first thing he told me was, "I want you to know that I love you." Inauthenticity was not the best way to start our meeting.
After "establishing trust", he asked us what he could do to have us return to church. I paused and did not know how to respond. His question is very telling. Maybe he believes in the whole “offended” excuse (I don’t think anybody who believes in the truth claims of the church would leave it for such a comparatively trivial reason). Or maybe he believes that the church is just a social institution and that he could actually do something to get us back.
Eventually, I told him that although there were some true and good principles that the church taught, there were also false and harmful principles. I told him that although I believed that the people were true, I had a strong conviction that the church was not. He asked what principles we appreciated. I responded “love, kindness, friendship, service, and forgiveness.” He then asked what principles were false. I did not discuss them for two reasons: one, I was trying to have a pleasant meeting; and two, I did not want to give him an easy excuse for my disaffection.
Next, he tried to persuade us and find some common ground. He asked how we know right from wrong. I recognize this as the Argument from Morality, which is that if there is objective morality, then god must exist. I explained that we do not need god to tell us right from wrong. And just because the idea of subjective morality scares somebody, it doesn’t mean god exists. He had no idea what the terms “objective morality” and “subjective morality” even meant. He asked, “who gets to decide right from wrong?” I said, “I do.” He seemed puzzled and offended by this personal responsibility.
We also spent some time discussing eternal families. My wife wants to believe in a personal god and an afterlife. He seized on this common ground. He testified that we could not be together forever as a family unless we stayed with the church. I told him that I thought mormons had over-simplified this issue. I said that even the telestial kingdom is supposed to be a kingdom of glory, not a prison. I asked if he thought god would suspend free agency, and physically prevent me and my wife from being together (never mind Joseph Fielding Smith’s crazy teaching that lower kingdom inhabitants would not have their private parts). I asserted that within mormon theology, celestial marriage means something more than just being together. He did not respond, other than to testify that families could be together forever only through priesthood ordinances.
More juvenile discussion proved that everything this man knew about religion and philosophy, he learned in primary. He questioned whether we had been lazy in our praying and scripture study (I certainly became so at some point). He suggested that we were hasty in our decision (took me almost a year of doubting). He appealed to the significant investment we’ve made in mormonism as a reason for us to stay (I wouldn’t expect an insurance salesman to understand the important financial concept of sunk costs). He said that everybody gets exactly what they want in the afterlife, and since mormonism is the only religion to promise eternal families, we should believe in it (apparently, he never heard a non-mormon talk about being reunited with loved ones after death).
He bore testimony, starting with “as a special witness,” then mentioned the usual items. I asked, “What makes your witness so special?” He said that it was because a prophet had laid hands on his head and set him apart as a special witness. I asked if his witness were stronger or better than the stake president’s. He said, “no, it’s a special witness.” After some more questions, he admitted that he doesn’t HAVE a special witness, but that he IS a special witness. This was the only thing he taught me during our meeting. I did not realize that “special witness” was just the name (a misleading one) of a calling like “sunday school president” or “Saturday morning toilet washing committee member.”
He also asked us what our biggest issues were, guessing polygamy and the BoA. I mentioned something about the BoA being a literal translation of Abraham’s own writings upon papyrus. He incredulously asked, “Have you really been taught that?” I explained that it said so right in the scriptures and JS affirmed it in his journals, to which the stake president nodded.
The meeting then hit a low point. Instead of discussing specific issues like the BoA, my wife mentioned that during the process we had really wished to speak with somebody who understood the issues and still remained faithful. He looked my wife right in the eye and said, "You’re looking at him. I’m that man. I know the issues. Any issue that you’ve studied, I know about it." I responded, “Okay, then, how about a simple test?” I asked why god would mention smashed windows to the brother of Jared while building the barges, when windows would not be invented until thousands of years later. He looked at my wife, and said, "You don't have the faith to hear the answers." She was upset and remarked how disappointed her mother would be. Her mother had prayed that a general authority would answer our questions, and even though he had "all the answers," my wife lacked sufficient faith for him to tell her. Of course, if we had enough faith for him to answer us, we never would have asked the question in the first place – catch 22!
At this point, I started getting a little more aggressive. I asserted that if mormonism were true, then the holy ghost is a poor witness that only leads 0.1% to the truth. He countered that it's because everybody has their agency - as if 99.9% willfully reject the obviously true message. He said that we would never find happiness on our current path. We had already told him that we lived many of the best principles that mormonism teaches. I guess he thinks that living the major principles of "the gospel" only results in happiness if you also go to the mormon church. Or could it be that the spirit told him that we were lying, and that we really just wanted to pursue a life of sin?
Next, he tried to teach us something about faith, but it was a confusing and bizarre lesson. He asked, “If I took you to SLC and put the windows from the barges on a table, would that help you?” My wife said that it wouldn’t help because there were no windows on those barges. He agreed, “You’re right. There weren’t. What if I put the plates on the table?” We told him if we could see the true plates, of course we would believe. I think we must lack the faith to understand this lesson.
As we finished our meeting, I bore a powerful "testimony" to him. I promised him that if he would apply the same skepticism to mormonism that he applies to all other religions, it would not take him five minutes to discover that mormonism is false. He disagreed, but I'd bet quite a lot that he hasn't spent more than five minutes studying any of the non-christian religions that he has already rejected.
As he left, he asked my wife to pray for one thing, “If you pray, pray to father tonight and ask if he sent a special witness to you today.” I found it odd that he did not ask us to pray about something more meaningful, but I guess this request gives us a glimpse into his self-importance.
In case you wonder, the stake president just sat and nodded occasionally. I’m sure he knew his place as a junior companion. I haven’t spoken with him since, but would be interested to hear his perceptions. He is a very good people person who should not have been pleased with the meeting, but he also believes this guy is a “special witness” – so who knows?
Our marriage is stronger than ever. My kids are good, talented, and healthy. Business is growing. We still have the same values, except for the church-related ones. Who really needs god to inform right from wrong? We have more money, a bit less underwear, and a lot more time. Life is good.
My wife still maintains some kind of faith, but not the kind that requires any investment in time or money. Although I wouldn't call her religious at this point (perhaps deist, with a desire to believe in something more personal), I can't help but want her to come a little farther along the path. Why? I think it's because I never want us to get bamboozled again. I want our children to apply skepticism to all religions. I think that reality is better and happier than delusion.
We do have a big gap in our lives now that needs to be filled. We hope it will not be filled with the mundane, but that we can spend meaningful time together. This can be difficult with five children, but feasible with some careful planning. My favorite teaching from the bible is "he that findeth his life shall lose it; he that loseth his life shall find it." To me, it means that we can only find true happiness by helping those we love to be happy. I hope we will make new friendships. I will coach the kids' athletic teams. My wife will probably be more active in the community. In the past, I would occasionally ask myself whether I loved god/church more than my family (thinking that I was supposed to put god first), and I always justified my contrary feelings by concluding that it was a dumb question - why would god ask me to choose? Now, I do not doubt the answer.