Updated June 2001 - click to go to update
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.
It's now been 4 years since I first posted on this web page, and I thought it would be appropriate to post a follow-up
message. Briefly: I graduated from BYU in 1998 with a B.S. in Economics. I returned to Washington State (where I grew
up) and was transferred by my company to Southern California about a year later. I am now a law student at Washington and
Lee University in Virginia. I am 24 years old.
I continue to receive emails from young adults in the process of leaving the LDS church. I try to answer every message that I
receive. Many inquiries concern the following topics, so I will attempt to post thought-out answers on-line.
1) How do you survive at BYU if you don't believe in the LDS church?
I was never completely comfortable as a BYU student. Since graduating, I have visited Provo several times. Though it is nice
to see old friends, I never feel "at home" on BYU premises. After rejecting my mission call (Winter 1997), I felt very
depressed and very alone. I made a couple friends at BYU who also doubted the LDS church and somehow got by. I
strongly considered transferring schools, but decided against it when I realized how many credit hours I would lose. I went
home that summer and worked on "finding myself."
I felt much different when I returned to the Y in the fall of 1997. Though I still found BYU's environment stifling, I learned to
focus on the positive elements in my life. To get out of Provo, I worked part-time in Park City and enjoyed hiking and
camping on the weekends. For the first time in a couple years, I made friends with students who were active members. I
suppose my lack-of-faith was obvious to most people who knew me. I rarely attended church, read a great deal of
non-Mormon literature, and (of course) I'd never been on a mission. Though most BYU people did not want to discuss my
own status with the church, many I met were at least somewhat tolerant of my lack of faith. I ultimately concluded that many
people in any "strong" religion - including the LDS church - have doubts about their religion. A lot of people I knew at BYU
had a strange interest in a 20 year-old senior who'd never gone on a mission. I certainly was someone that people approached
when they had something to discuss that required an open-minded audience.
I believe that a big factor in my BYU survival was becoming comfortable with my own beliefs. Once I was comfortable with
my own views, two things happened. First, the profession of faith by others (preaching) did not intimidate me. (In fact, it was
often insightful. Almost invariably, the ones who are most insecure are the ones who preach the loudest.) Second, I no longer
needed to share my beliefs with others. Since religion was no longer "the" issue in my life, I found it easier to relate to people
on different levels.
I don't think that a post- or ex-Mormon student will ever feel completely comfortable at BYU. The Church is just too
prominent. But most people are interested in substance, and if you can decide that religion will not be an issue between you
and others, you will be able to get along.
2) How can I completely sever my ties with Mormonism?
You can't - or at least, I couldn't. I was raised in an active household, and both of my parents are still active members. I
attended primary and youth activities, youth conferences, firesides, and seminary. The Church has a very big impact on our
formative years. From infancy, we are taught that God decrees right and wrong by way of the head of the Mormon church,
that playing softball on Sunday is morally wrong, that sex before marriage is morally wrong, that our happiness is dependent on
our adherence to Church principles. When we grow up we begin to see these "truths" as "views" - but we still carry a past life
in which those views were truths. Waxing biblical, Nietzsche once wrote, "Not a few who meant to cast out their devils when
thereby into the swine themselves." If cutting out your Mormon past means changing who you are, do you really want to do it?
Ultimately, I realized that I did benefit from both my Mormon upbringing and my experiences at BYU. Because of them, I
learned to be strong and independent, and I learned about overcoming adversity. After graduating from BYU as a
somewhat-closeted post-Mormon, I felt very confident in my own ability to prosper in any environment.
In the end, Mormonism affected my outlook on life in a positive way. After seeing the error in the belief that Church adherence
will make us happy, I ultimately saw that nothing will "make" us happy. Happiness is a choice, or perhaps an outlook. But it is
not subject to outside control. At some level, I owe all of these personal discoveries to the LDS Church.
What is my personal resolution of the issue? My LDS upbringing taught me valuable lessons, and learning to overcome that
upbringing made me strong. Though I would never go back to having that view on life, having had it has made all the
3) How do you recommend dealing with friends and family?
You will lose relationships when you leave the Church. You can't quit the country club but still come out to play golf. The
good news is that, in the long run, you will probably not lose any relationships that matter. My parents had a hard time
accepting my dissension; it is still an issue at times. There is truth to the old adage that all wounds heal with time. After the
shock wore off, we slowly patched our relationships back together and got on with our lives. Sometimes I suspect that they
are envious of my independence, and sometimes they say that they "need me on their team." So we learn to get along in spite
of our differences, and the world carries on.
Relatives are a different story. I have several relatives who are not LDS and they were very willing to associate with me both
before and after my departure from the Mormon faith. (General consensus among these relatives: "How could you have ever
believed in that?") Among my Mormon relatives, I found varying degrees of acceptance. My conclusion is that the ability to
accept others' opinions directly reflects on a person's own personal development. My relatives who are consumed with
Mormonism act in ways ranging from disapproval to contempt. Some spread rumors and warn their children. But what can
you do? You have done nothing wrong, so you're best to avoid burning bridges and walk away. (An aside: a relative of mine
- who will remain unnamed - holds a high-level office in a major Mormon apologist group. He was undoubtedly the worst at
handling my dissension; he spread rumors about me within the family and then lied to my face about doing it. Perhaps it is a
reflection on the apologist community.)
I was very concerned about keeping my LDS friends when I left. I knew several people who were out on missions and, of
course, I figured that they would not want to associate with me once they returned. I found that people who were never really
my friends - people that I get along with solely because we were all Mormon - were not my friends once I left. People like that
are the equivalent of coworkers: due to circumstances you associate, but you have no real connection. Losing their friendship
is suffering only a very small loss.
My experience was that the Mormons who actually were my friends were still willing to be friends. But - once we got together
and tried to talk, we had little in common. We had all gone in different directions and had different views on life. It was no
longer an issue of them rejecting me. Instead, I felt a lack of connection with them.
Best of luck to everyone.
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