It’s been almost four years since my family and I decided to leave the LDS (Mormon) church, and almost three years since I published my document about Why I Left the Mormon Church. This letter has since been read by tens of thousands of people, and still prompts almost weekly emails from readers, mostly people thanking me for the comfort and courage it provided them on their journey out of the church.
Since we left the church, I’ve been on a more conscious journey of healing and self-discovery. Gradually, I feel like I’ve come to a place that is more authentic, real, alive, peaceful, exciting, and loving than I ever knew was possible as a believing and devoted member of the LDS Church.
Within the church, many members believe and repeat these words spoken by a prominent church leader:
“You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone. The basic reason for this is simple. Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground. One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one, and Satan’s goal is not complete when a person leaves the Church, but when he comes out in open rebellion against it.” — Glenn L. Pace, April 1989, LDS General Conference Address
Occasionally, I’ll mention the church or my Mormon upbringing in a blog post, or I’ll share on Facebook someone else’s journey that resonated with me. Yet whenever I mention the church, however tactfully or rarely, a church member will usually respond telling me that they can accept that I left the church, but why do I have to keep talking about it? They ask me why I can’t just leave the church alone. Why I work so hard to tear it down. Or why I’m so focused on doing anti-Mormon missionary work.
I wonder what kind of answer they want to hear from these questions, and what prompts them to ask.
I get the sense that they expect one of two replies, even if only implied:
- I’m an angry and bitter apostate who was too weak to keep the commandments, wanted to sin, resented the church, got greedy, got offended, and now can’t leave the church alone until I see it completely destroyed, and its members brought down to hell, so that I can feel justified in my guilt and make everyone as miserable as me.
- Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize what I posted was offensive to you. I’ll remove it immediately.
With #1, I hope no one actually thinks of me like this, but it sounds like some do, even if only partially.
With #2, I get it. If I’m such a nice guy, why would I post something that might offend someone I care about? If I post things like that, maybe I don’t really care about the person at all. Or maybe I just care more about convincing them I’m right than I do about the relationship. I should stop being offensive and just shut up about this topic.
But it’s not that simple.
The Real Reason
There are many reasons why I keep talking about the church. The most simple is that it’s interesting to me, especially the psychological aspects of belief, asserted knowledge, and how we can open up to new ways of thinking. Movies like The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Inception symbolize what this feels like, but it’s something that must be experienced to be understood. Over the years, I’ve had several of these paradigm shifts, and it’s an incredible, life-changing experience that I love to share. Most people who leave the church go through this, and I find it fascinating to watch the process.
Also, I spent the first 30 years of my life thoroughly believing that everything the church taught was 100% true and helpful to everyone in every circumstance, and was even necessary for eternal happiness. I no longer believe this, but 30 years is a long time to believe and practice something just to let it all go and never think about it again. I’ve continued to be surprised at how some of the thought processes I learned and taught as a Mormon still permeate my thinking, and I enjoy talking about them, and what I’m learning about myself through witnessing these thoughts.
Now, as for the question of why I am attacking the church, my answer is that I don’t feel like I’m attacking the church at all. I’m not working to tear it down. I’m not actively doing anti-Mormon missionary work. I’m living my life and sharing what I’m excited about, and what’s helpful for me, just as I allow others to live their lives and share what they’re excited about, and what’s helpful for them. I share what I’m learning and believe, but I make no declarations of universal truth. I don’t tell church members that they should leave the church, and I don’t tell them to stop talking about it. If you doubt these things, then I invite you to read my document again and notice how many times I mention that this is my own journey, and that I support and respect people who choose other paths.
Yes, the document I wrote mentions some controversial church subjects, including historical facts and changing doctrines that the church is finally starting to semi-officially address under the Gospel Topics section of their website. (Yay!) I try not to bring these issues up in Facebook or anywhere else, because I don’t want to offend people, and they’re not as relevant to me as they used to be. I mentioned the issues that troubled me in my document so that there would be understanding about why I left and to satisfy my integrity. Anyone who’s interested in learning more about accurate church history and doctrine can look up the sources and verify the facts themselves. It’s up to you, the reader, to draw a conclusion about what they mean, and determine what you’re going to do about it. Your decision is not my business, but I’m more than happy to lend support to those who want to talk about it.
Of course, there is also the natural human tendency to want to help humanity, especially those close to us. I feel like I’ve discovered something that’s changed my life in positive ways, and I want to share it. Who wouldn’t? Many people have written and thanked me for writing about my journey, telling me how it’s helped them in profound ways. I don’t see sharing these things as attacking or anti-Mormon, any more than missionaries sharing their conversion story is attacking or hateful. Although unlike LDS missionaries, I do not claim that I hold the one and only true belief system that God approves of and that my way is the only right way to live. So if someone doesn’t resonate with my story or doesn’t even want to read it, that’s perfectly fine with me, and I don’t need to mourn for their lost soul or try to “save” them. I would still like to connect with them at that level if they were to choose it. But they’re on their own valid journey, and I’m okay if it’s different from mine.
Authenticity vs. Sensitivity
There is, however, a difficult challenge I am faced with whenever I feel the desire to post something about the church online. It’s the balance between authenticity and sensitivity. I don’t want to offend people, and I want to maintain good relationships with my Mormon family and friends. But I also want to be true to myself, and have deep, authentic, and meaningful relationships where freedom of expression is celebrated and where we love and accept each other wholly and completely, with all our differing opinions and preferences and emotions.
I have some relationships like this now. One is with my wife, Jen, where I feel more completely at ease to be myself than ever before, as does she. After having relationships like this, part of me wonders if I even want to continue fostering relationships that may only ever exist at a superficial level, where part of me will be rejected and never allowed to be fully seen. I want relationships with people who love all of me, not just the parts their religion approves of. With some people, I must always be cautious and hold back so I don’t “offend” them, or the relationship may be strained or end. My very presence may even be threatening to them, because they know I have rejected a belief they hold dear. This doesn’t sound like a very pleasant or loving relationship to me, and I wonder if I even want this. (Note: I do have some Mormon friends and family who accept all of me, and this is wonderful! But it seems a rare exception.)
I can still see the value in sensitivity for the purpose of maintaining certain relationships. If I knew someone was sensitive about a health condition, sexual problem, or relationship situation, I may tread lightly in those areas or not bring it up at all. I can empathize with their pain, embarrassment, and fear. I don’t need to push it. Perhaps the relationship would be more rewarding if we both opened up in vulnerability and talked about these scary things in a loving and supportive way, but if they don’t want to go there, I don’t push it. In the mean time, I can be content talking about other things, while we both carefully hide parts of ourselves. It may still be a rewarding relationship, but in a different, limited sort of way. Less close. I think there is a place for these relationships.
Is it any different with the members of the church? Some members are sensitive about their church’s controversial history, and believe that the church’s teachings do only good and no harm. They believe the LDS church is God’s one and only true church, and it helps them and others, makes people’s lives better in every way, strengthens families, brings peace, meaning, and fulfillment, etc. If an idea threatens to shatter any of these views, it can cause uncomfortable emotions. I can also empathize with this. I used to be there. And I don’t bring up or push the subject when speaking in person with some members because I know it can be a sensitive topic. Yes, maybe the relationship could be more authentic if we openly talked about these discomforts and fears in a loving way, but if they don’t want to go there, I respect that. I won’t push it, and will just accept that we may never connect at those deeper levels.
I’m not saying that I need to talk about the church with everyone in order to have a meaningful relationship. I’m saying that I prefer relationships where freedom of expression is encouraged, rather than suppressed; where the entire person can be accepted, even when their views are different. If someone is uncomfortable with something I said, they can tell me, and I can hold back out of respect for them, even though it may mean adding distance to the relationship.
But in a public forum like a blog or Facebook, I don’t have the luxury of knowing who is reading my words. And if someone doesn’t want to read them, they don’t have to. Perhaps someone will feel uncomfortable with something I’ve written. But someone else will be inspired and helped by the same words. Does this mean I shouldn’t write them to protect the potentially offended?
The core problem with this question is the false idea that I should be responsible for the emotions of others. Reading an article is a choice. Taking offense is also a choice. If you feel uncomfortable reading my words, is it my words that cause you the discomfort? Or is it your belief about those words and the thoughts you’re telling yourself about them that cause your discomfort? The words don’t cause discomfort to everybody, and wouldn’t cause you discomfort if you viewed them differently. So the discomfort must be coming from inside of you, not from the words themselves, or from me. You may believe the discomfort is coming from God or the Holy Ghost who is warning you that these thoughts are dangerous, and reminding you of all the bad things that will happen to you if you continue thinking these thoughts. But he isn’t warning everybody the same way. Some people feel peace, inspiration, or make positive life changes after hearing the same words. Can you accept responsibility for your own emotions, and allow others to have theirs?
It’s natural to want discomfort to go away. It’s natural to want to avoid ideas that conflict with our current beliefs. Discomfort will arise whenever our current beliefs are challenged, religious or not. What’s empowering is the realization that we have a choice about what to do with this discomfort. We can try to silence the source of it or shut ourselves out from it through avoidance, rationalizing, arguing, ridiculing, or attacking. Or we can simply observe the discomfort and see what we can learn from it. As unpleasant as it may be, I try to welcome discomfort, because underneath it I often discover something I didn’t know about myself, and why I feel the way I do. It’s one tool I’ve used to bring about those paradigm shifts I mentioned earlier.
I understand if someone feels too uncomfortable reading my words, and chooses to stop reading my blog or unfriends me on Facebook. They may decide they never want to talk to me again. That’s okay. My true friends will realize that I’m just being me, living out of the experiences I’ve had, on the path I’ve chosen, and they will love me for it, even when I openly share opinions they don’t agree with. They don’t take it personally. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall paraphrased Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It’s About Me
Let me make myself clear. I believe the church is not what it claims to be. To use stronger words, I believe it is a fraud. I can state this openly and without fear of offending because I am only speaking for myself. It is only my opinion, based on my own experience and research. I’m not saying that you’re wrong if you choose to believe otherwise. I’m not saying the church doesn’t do good, or that it’s completely deceptive. I’m not saying that all members are blindly obedient or following unconsciously (only that I was blind and unconscious, and still am in many areas of my life). I’m not saying that you should change your beliefs or do anything different. If you’d like to debate, I welcome the discussion. If you’d rather not talk about it, that’s fine too. If you believe the church is 100% true, it’s perfectly okay with me and it doesn’t need to affect our friendship. I still accept all of you, and that the church is true for you and important to you. I try to accept even that part of you that just wants me to stop talking about it.
To summarize, the church played a huge part in my life and I’m still interested in aspects of it. I claim my right to have opinions, and also to share them publicly and privately. In private, I try to exercise sensitivity, even if it means an occasional superficial relationship. In public, I try to share myself authentically as well as sensitively, for the benefit of anyone who resonates with my words, and for deeper connections and authenticity in my relationships. For those who don’t resonate with what I share, I allow them to own their emotional responses, try to empathize with where they’re at, and to love them exactly as they are. No change required. You’re perfect.
I am writing about myself and my own journey.