Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr. Seuss
I’ve written tens of thousands of words to try and express, to explain, what I’m about to say, but it’s no good. The task is impossible. I’ve given up. So let’s just cut to the chase.
I am not religious. Not in any way, shape, or form. Call me an unbeliever, an agnostic, an atheist, a secular humanist, an ignorant fool, a complete idiot, whatever… just don’t call me late for dinner.
While I would simply define myself as “non-religious”, I know there are others who will not understand, who will need to believe I have been “deceived”, or “offended”, or some other such thing. And I am (remarkably) fine with that. It’s taken 40 years to get to this place, but I now fully realize that our human minds are simply too finite, too incapable of taking in the all incredible complexities of the universe we find ourselves in, for anyone to claim a monopoly on truth; and so I make no claim to have the inside track on it either. “I could be wrong…” is one of my favorite (or most oft-used) phrases.
And that’s how the war started, Billy. But I’m pretty sure the circle-believers were right! (The squares just couldn’t see it.)
Sitting here, typing this, is not easy. But I’ve read dozens of times in the scriptures that, if possible, even the very elect will be deceived. So I guess if someone’s gotta fulfill scripture, it might as well be me. I’m willing to take the bullet. I know the disappointment, especially from family, especially from their perspective, that this will bring. And I’ve debated and debated the pros and cons of doing so. But it needs to be said, primarily so you will not be wondering why I no longer participate in the church, stand in the circle during ordinations or blessings, why I politely avoid or decline your invitations to pray, why I will not be baptizing any more of my children and, perhaps the hardest part, telling my sweet daughters and my son, why I will not be allowed to be present at their weddings, should they choose to marry in a Mormon temple. I foresaw all of this, as I told the Bishop I could not truthfully answer the questions of belief that one must answer in the affirmative to be allowed inside a Mormon temple. I couldn’t do it without lying, at least; knowing full well what telling the truth would cost me. It was a choice between personal integrity and becoming a second-class citizen where I live versus continuing to play the game, acting the part, while hating myself for the inauthenticity. Sometimes I’m not sure I made the right choice.
I’ve struggled with whether or not to share the reasons behind my loss of faith, my turning from the religious upbringing that I will forever be grateful for. (I mean that. I am grateful beyond words for my Mormon upbringing. Did you read that mom? Read it again.) I was raised to value truth, and developed a fundamental core motivation to seek after it, to follow it and ‘choose the right’ no matter the consequences. I was taught by good parents, by church leaders, dedicated men who inspired me, taught me through personal example what it was to be a good husband, a good father, a good leader, a decent human being. For an “emotionless robot”, I’ll confess I actually have tears in my eyes as I write this, knowing of the disappointment I must be to the village that raised me, that invested so much time and energy into trying to turn me into a good Mormon. Not only to them but to those I’ve served with over the years, to those I served with in the trenches as a missionary for the church, to those for whom I played a role in bringing into the church. I’m so very sorry.
I don’t want to hurt anybody, but I am guided, and have for years now been haunted by these words penned by Thomas Paine:
It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.
And these by William Clifford:
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it–the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
The truth is, I would believe if I could. But I cannot. Not for lack of trying. And I can no longer pretend. I’ve really struggled, I’ve not known what to share (or not share) that led me to this point that might best explain how I got here, without injuring anyone else’s faith. How do you condense two decades of seeking, discovery, introspection, pondering and prayer into a couple of paragraphs on a screen? I’m at a complete loss. But I do know when and where the questions started. It was within a day or two of arriving as a brand-new missionary in South America. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t.
Missionary journal, July, 1992.
Today we walked even further up the hill in our sector than yesterday. It was cold, but it gets hot in the afternoon. It seems to get poorer and poorer the higher we go. I wasn’t prepared for this. You can read about poverty, you can watch documentaries, but nothing can prepare you for actually experiencing it first-hand. The sights, the sounds, the smells… are overwhelming. I don’t know how to deal with this. As we got to the top of the hill, it was … bad. Elder O_ nudged me toward a woman standing outside her shelter. I made my first contact by copying what I’d heard him say to people: “Hola Hermana, cree ud. en Dios?” Do you believe in God? She just looked at me, completely incredulous. At first I thought she didn’t understand my spanish, but then she waved her arm all around us and said, pointing: “How can you see THIS… and ask me THAT?” I didn’t understand the rest of what she said, I barely understand anything, and I didn’t have an answer to give her. Elder O_ took over. I felt extremely conspicuous standing there in that place, in my new suit and tie and shiny shoes. This is really hard.
Her question stayed with me the rest of my mission… and beyond. A decade later, when I thought I had already personally witnessed the most miserable conditions possible, I wound up in India on a month-long business trip, and saw misery and human suffering to a degree and on a scale I will never be able to forget. The questions were only amplified.
I was already struggling with faith. My beliefs were in shambles after college. It all started soon after my mission when I saw (in my favorite hunting grounds — the History section of the BYU Bookstore), and immediately purchased, this book:
The book that started it all
I won’t go into detail, but so startling was it, that it sparked and fueled what turned into a long (and ultimately unsuccessful) quest to understand, to put into context what I had read. Staying strictly within LDS sources, by the end of my sophomore year, I knew there were things I had never been told. By the time I graduated from BYU two years later, I had learned there are really two Mormonisms. There is the Mormonism most members are familiar with, the one we are all taught in church, in seminary, in Religious Education classes at BYU… from carefully correlated lesson manuals and from sanitized narratives of church history.
And then there is the Mormonism of the historical record, the Mormonism that historians have long known about, and many are now discovering at a rapid rate, causing an exit of greater numbers than ever before, thanks in no small part to availability of information on the internet. I think because I struggled so intensely, for so many years, I have to acknowledge an admiration I feel for those few souls who know the real history and origins of the church, they know all the problems, and still maintain belief… or if not belief, at least participation. I tried this “Middle Way” or “New Order Mormonism” for years. And years. Historians and intellectuals, scholars like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens became heroes to me. I read everything I could on how to maintain belief in the face of all this new disturbing information. I spent hours on end reading church apologetics like FARMS and FAIR. And to this day I do feel a sort of respect for those few who can make it work. It didn’t work for me. I found that forays into science, cosmology, the study of world history and the nature of the universe – and particularly neuroscience, the fascinating discoveries being made about the human brain – how the brain forms beliefs, processes information, its susceptibility to visual and auditory hallucination and delusion, how it resolves cognitive dissonance, the concept of Confirmation Bias and all its implications… all of this, combined with previous and concurrent explorations into the history and evolution of gods and religions from the beginning of human history, has rendered my mind simply incapable of maintaining the belief-set that was handed down to me in my youth. This roiled around my head, thoughts and questions ricocheted for years on end and then, one day… something just broke. I uttered one final prayer, which I will attempt to reproduce here.
[Note: If you wonder about the absence of the “thee’s” and “thou’s”, I quit doing that (in personal prayers anyway) a long time ago. Learning to pray in Spanish was the cause of one my first encounters with cognitive dissonance. The disconnect between what church authorities had (as it turned out, incorrectly) taught me to believe about the “respectful” nature of 17th century English personal pronouns was not only NOT the case with Spanish-speakers, who pray using the familiar/friendly ‘tu’, but was later completely turned upside down after a basic encounter with the history of the English language. As it happens, they had it completely backwards. Also, this might be where you want to stop reading, especially you Mom.]
Something happened today. Something of a crossing of the Rubicon. As I sat and watched men I once considered “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” exhort a crowd of onlookers with a message, a chant of “Let’s Go Shopping!”… I felt something break inside of me. I think the shelf finally broke, my testimony has finally snapped. Don’t get me wrong, Lord, it’s a wonderfully great and spacious megamall, top of its kind, perhaps worth every penny of the billions of church dollars spent to construct it. The retractable roof, the skywalk, the creek running through the middle, it is all indeed a marvelous work and a wonder to behold. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but think of the dirt floors and the cardboard and scrap-metal shacks where I had stood, and taught the poorest of the poor that the Lord wanted them to send 10% of their meager incomes to Salt Lake City, and to commit to doing that for the rest of their lives, as a condition for salvation… as I thought of those people, in those miserable conditions, and witnessed the opulent display now before my eyes, I tried to reconcile the image I had of Jesus, directing those who run his church to spend so many billions of dollars in this manner. It’s possible, I suppose, but it is difficult to reconcile, especially since I’ve actually read the New Testament. I know those billions (or the tens of millions the church spent before that, in a questionable effort to deprive same-sex couples of civil rights) could not have solved the problem of poverty. I get that, I really do. And I know the church has spent millions in humanitarian aid over the past several decades, which is commendable. But when I think of the self-congratulations, for the estimated $5 per member per year that is spent on humanitarian aid, out of the billions that are taken in? I’m sorry God… but I can’t help think of how SO… MUCH… MORE… could be done, especially by a church claiming to be headed by Jesus. And now, I think I am done.
I was taught to “Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you.” I have sought and I have sought, I have knocked until my knuckles have bled. But in seeking, all I have found has only further distanced me from you. Did you plant all this evidence against yourself as some sort of test? My motives were pure, God. If Your work and Your glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man… I thought what better place to study your work than in human history? I looked for You, only to find human fingerprints EVERYWHERE over EVERYTHING. Was it on purpose you placed so much evidence to cause one to wonder, Did you create man? Or did man create You?
I sought answers in prayer, and only ever heard silence in return. Did I ask too many questions? I sought you in the scriptures, but learned enough about them, the history behind them, how they came into being, how they evolved, I learned enough to wonder if they were really revelation or human invention? I sought you in service – and thought I came the closest I ever came to finding you. But even there, the suffering was difficult to witness. How can you allow it to go on to such degrees? But you know, even those who don’t believe in you can, and are, found serving others, AND with no expectation of reward. Is not this even more to be commended?
I know I’ve asked these questions hundreds, thousands of times, but this will be the last. Will you answer? But really, I’m not sure what I would do even if I got an answer – I’ve spoiled it all by reading too much about the human brain. Why oh why did I have to stumble across the science behind its capability to produce spiritual experiences? And given that, how can I ever discern an answer as coming from you versus coming from my own mind? Oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve wondered and I’m pretty sure I lack the structure in the temporal lobe where these experiences seem to originate. Nevertheless, here we go again, one last time, for old time’s sake…
First and foremost, Why do you rely upon such an obviously fallible, inefficient and demonstrably error-prone system of communication? What is the value in NOT speaking for yourself when you are an all-powerful Deity? What is the merit in choosing to deliver your messages through men (and the occasional woman) who contradict themselves and each other at every single turn? What is the benefit to be gained in forcing us to choose between every Tom, Dick and Harry who claims to speak for you? Doesn’t even a small application of critical thinking reveal the problem, the subjective nature of relying upon personal “feelings” to sort out the difference between divine revelation and human invention? Sometimes, glancing back over the course of “revealed” history – I have felt like it seems nothing so much as a cosmic game of “Telephone”.
Why is “Faith” something to be valued? Why do we admire someone who is willing to believe in things for which there is no external or objective evidence? If faith is believing in things we do not see, why then do we not afford the same admiration to those who believe in unicorns or leprechauns? Further, why is it a virtue to continue to believe in something even when the preponderance of evidence points to its being false? Is this really “What You Are Going For?” Is credulity a virtue valued above reason, evidence and critical thinking in the Heavens? If “faith is a choice” then why is any one choice inherently better than any other?
If Mormonism is really the “One True Church”©, then why do my Hindu friends receive the same spiritual confirmation of their beliefs, from their gods, as any Mormon does from the Holy Ghost? Why do Muslims? Catholics? Buddhists and Baptists? Why is it that geography is the single most important factor in determining a person’s beliefs? Why is it so easy for Mormons to have doubts or be skeptical of Muhammad, Allah, Krishna, Vishnu but denounce doubt and skepticism when turned on their own religion? Why are we so afraid of doubt or ideas or books that might challenge our beliefs? Would there even BE a Mormon church if Joseph had not first doubted the religions of his day?
Why are Muslims able to bear the same testimony of the Qur’an, or Hindus of the Baghavad Gita, as Mormons are of the Book of Mormon? Does this mean we should be reading everyone’s Holy Books and applying Moroni’s promise? Is it fair to expect others to read the Book of Mormon when we don’t read their books?
If the thousands of testimonies I’ve heard over my lifetime are to be believed, why do you help so many Americans find their car keys, or get an A on their test, or make a game-winning touchdown, while doing nothing to alleviate the indescribable horror of starving to death, suffered by MILLIONS — so many of them children – each and every year? Why can you heal cancer, but not an amputee?
And you know I have really struggled with this last one, I have mentioned it to you many, many times… is it really humility, or is it extraordinary hubris, for someone to stand and proclaim that you, the creator of the universe, orchestrated events to bless THEM, have selected THEM to be the recipient of your divine favor, while ignoring the plight of billions of others not so blessed (or, cursed, as the inverse of blessed implies!)
I’m sorry, but I have to let you go God. I have to let you off the hook. If Mormonism is right, then we are trying to become you, and I don’t want to be you. I don’t want your job. I don’t have it in me. I could not look down on my creation and see all the suffering and not do something about it. I know… the free agency argument. Harm, violence… it’s because you gave us free agency. But what about the free agency someone might have to NOT be harmed. Why is it that kind of agency is always trumped by those who wish to do harm? And what of the suffering brought on by natural disasters? Are you really doing this? To teach others a lesson?? Or are we nothing more than an evolved species of primates, living “on a cooling planet with a volcanic interior that is insecurely coated with a thin crust of grinding tectonic plates”, trying to figure out what’s going on.
No, I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be you. And I most certainly couldn’t banish my children from me, for *ETERNITY* for failing to guess the right answer inside a couple of years of mortality, splitting up families and couples over decisions made with such an abundance of contradicting evidence (and likewise, an absence of confirmatory evidence), for using the reason and intellect I gave them. Nope, couldn’t do it. Sometimes it would seem even our mortal justice system is more fair than yours. (And that’s really saying something.)
If it turns out I’m wrong. I’m okay with it. Really, I am. Worship. Love. These things must come from a place of sincerity. I want to feel those things for you, but for that I need to believe that you exist. And I’m afraid in a moment of pure honesty here, I simply can’t. At least not in the form of a personal, intervening, anthropomorphic ‘Yahweh/God of Abraham’ type god, I cannot. But it’s okay. I’d be fine getting stuck in the company of those other hellbound wanderers out there, those who value truth over tradition, discovery over dogma, inquiry over indoctrination, with those who are comfortable with and even embrace doubt and uncertainty, those who value behavior over belief and most importantly: Those who have a wicked, kick-ass sense of humor.
So long God. It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, it’s mostly you. But I’m confident if you do exist, you’ve got a sense of humor. (Who else could have created a Ricky Gervais? I mean, seriously.)
Instead of ‘Amen’, I hope you don’t mind if I simply end with Goodbye.
I’m sorry if anyone has actually read this far. One last word before I quit. I’m more grateful than words can express for a wife, kids and family who have been more understanding than I could have asked or dared hope. (Even from my very orthodox mother! With whom, I think we are finally understanding each other. And who, incidentally, made this particular job much easier by already “outing” me to apparently everyone she knows. Don’t worry mom, I was smiling as I wrote that.)
One last, last thing. I’ve been asked if this means I will be requesting that my name be removed from the records of the church. I have no plans to do that at this time. I am conscious of the pain this would cause to those I love. At the same time, I have to carry with me the knowledge that I still officially belong to an organization that has wrought tremendous suffering and pain in so many lives, that has broken apart marriages and families, and hurt so many of those I now consider to be friends. Although I acknowledge the good it does in the world, I am not ignorant of the significant harm it is capable of, either. I’m sorry for it. To leave my name on the records? Or to formally resign? I see pain in either direction.
Also, one final, last (last! I promise!) word of thanks to a close circle of friends, believers for the most part, who have allowed me to be me all these years and didn’t seem to mind. You know who you are. I’ve enjoyed our discussions of all things religious, political, historical, hysterical and even NASCAR. 🙂 I’ve appreciated the confidentiality and trust of those discussions, and above all, your true friendship. Thanks again.
There. It’s done. I’m out.