October 26, 2016

11: Time to Talk About Feelings



The information I've shared on this blog is a drop in the bucket when it comes to discussing Mormon history and doctrine. There are many books, blogs, podcasts and other forums dedicated to discussing Mormonism (just start googling and you'll find plenty information or jump right into CESletter.com for a popular 80-page list of controversies). Based on the information I've read, as well as other experiences I've had, I don't think Mormonism is the one true church, as it claims to be. As I understand it, churches and religions have acted mainly as political structures throughout the course of humanity, for good or bad, and Mormonism is no exception.

But I don't want my blog to be about the church's truth claims.

This blog is for me. I write to help myself better understand the crazy emotional roller coaster I've been on and to help me unpack the reasons why leaving Mormonism was such a painful experience for me.

Up to this point, I've given a high level overview of some of the information that stands out in my memory as damning evidence that the church is false. It's definitely not a comprehensive list of the items on my "shelf", but it felt good to write out some of the major points, and I will probably discuss other major shelf items in the future. (Click here to read my post explaining the idea of a mental shelf)

The posts I've written so far are biased towards historical information and away from personal experiences. Figuring out how to write more about the personal/emotional side of this experience has been road block for me as I try to write more posts. Historical information is historical information, and it provides context, but the emotional punch it carries really pales in comparison to painful personal experience.

So why are personal experiences so hard to write about?

First problem: I've seen the hurt that Mormonism has caused people I love. The experiences of close friends and family members have deeply affected the way I view Mormonism and my reasons for leaving. But those stories are simply not mine to tell and I want to respect the privacy of others.

Second problem: Talking about my own pain is difficult because it requires being vulnerable and admitting my own weaknesses and insecurities. Who wants to admit to that stuff?

Third problem: Since leaving Mormonism, I tend to be hyper-vigilant when anyone talks about their feelings. Human feelings can be easily manipulated, and I've found that's it's better to trust evidence over feelings, especially when talking about religion. Religion is a loaded topic. It brings up a lot of emotions, and my feelings about things are not always an accurate way to measure the reality of a situation.

So between privacy concerns, dislike of vulnerability, and mistrust of feelings, it's going to be tricky writing more posts. How should I write about experiences with family and friends? How can I trust myself to remember things right when my memories are probably influenced by my feelings? Do I really want to dig up my insecurities and write about them?

I do want to write about them. Writing helps me wrangle my emotions and force them into an organized narrative instead of letting them float around chaotically in my head. As much as I would like to stick to the facts, there are times when it's helpful to talk about feelings, which is why I will be trying to bring more of a personal/emotional vibe into in my posts moving forward.


October 06, 2016

Sharing My Experiences with Mormon Problems is not Mocking Mormonism

I recently had a conversation with a Mormon family member. They told me that they felt I was mocking them and their religion by being open about the problems I see in the church. I let them know that I'm not trying to mock, I'm trying to share my experience and talk about the problems that I see in Mormonism. That conversation led me to making this Facebook post that I decided to share here on the blog as well: "Please understand that I don't post church stuff on Facebook because I want to mock the church. I think people who chose to believe are sincere in their belief that they believe it is the one true church and that they are trying the best they can to do good. I was in that position too! I believed it was true and had spiritual experiences that felt so real! I prayed and read scriptures every day, I went to church every Sunday, I served in callings, I based my life on the teachings and doctrines. I'm not trying to mock the church when I know how sacred it is to believers. But I am not a believer anymore, and it has been a long, painful, and sad journey. It still makes me sad a lot of the time that now there are some relationships that are strained or ended because I'm not a believer anymore, and I'm sincerely sorry that my posts have hurt people. I don't want to convey anger, even though there is no denying that I have felt a lot of anger in this process. I can't go back, and I can't "leave it alone". Once you've seen the problems, you can't unsee them. I share because I want people to understand that I didn't just leave because I got offended, or wanted to sin, or just gave up and stopped believing. I share because I think problems should be brought to light, and there are many problems in Mormonism. I share so that other people who are hurt by the problems in Mormonism know that their pain should not be dismissed and that I care! You are not alone! You don't have to go through the sadness and betrayal on your own. I'm here. There are whole communities of people here for you. Don't let a controlling organization tell you that church is the only way to be happy. You can be happy without an organization that hides information from you and shames you for never being good enough. You don't have to keep suffering in a system that doesn't work for you, especially because it's a religion built on easily falsifiable truth claims and doctrines that come from fallible human beings." The same thing goes for this blog. I want to be able to tell my story. I want to share the problems that I have seen and bring them to light by writing about it. I'm really glad when people reach out to me. It let's me know I'm not going on this journey alone. I want to reach out to others as well. None of us need to go through this alone.

September 06, 2016

10: When God Changes His Mind




There is a story in the Book of Mormon called Lehi's dream, or Lehi's vision (1 Nephi 8). In this dream, Lehi sees a straight and narrow path leading to the tree of life. To get to the tree, the crowds of people must cling to the iron rod and follow it to the tree. In the distance is a "great and spacious building" filled with people mocking those who go to the tree, but those holding steadfastly to the rod ignore the mockery and push forward.


“For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it.” -D&C 132:22 (see also Matt. 7:13–14)

"Hold to the Rod,the Iron Rod,'Tis strong and bright and true" -Hymn #274

This story was always encouraging to me. I looked to the commandments as a constant source of guidance. The teachings of the church were my rock, my firm foundation, my iron rod. It didn't matter if "the world" mocked me for being Mormon. I wouldn't drink coffee, I wouldn't swear, I wouldn't listen to "bad" music, I wouldn't watch "bad" movies, I wouldn't skip church, the list goes on and on.

I was going to cling to the iron rod until I made it to the tree of life.

But at this point in my life, the summer after my junior year of college, I had several items weighing on my shelf of doubts. How could I know which the teachings of the church were "doctrine" if prophets and leaders sometimes "speak as men"? How could I trust an organization that withholds some parts of their history and doesn't publish their finances?

I still wanted to have faith in the scriptures and doctrines of the church, so I looked to church approved sources for answers. My patriarchal blessing said that I should: "Read, study, and ponder the scriptures, and the prophets that have lived since the prophet Joseph Smith." 



I understood this to mean that I should study church history, so that's where I started. I took a church history class at BYU called "Global Church 1900-Present" and used that as a baseline for my own research. I didn't like what I found, which was that the history I knew had been more white-washed than I realized. The thing that bothered me most was that the Mormon version of history always stressed "inspiration" and "the will of the Lord" while never admitting the reality of certain circumstances.

To explain what I mean, I've thought of four big issues that stand out in my memory. I've broken them down between the Mormon version of how the issues have been handled and the reality of the circumstances that existed in the larger context outside of Mormonism.


Polygamy

Mormon version: Ask any Mormon missionary or member of the Mormon church and they will tell you no, the church does not teach the practice of polygamy. Polygamy was practiced in the past, they'll admit, but it was ended in 1890 because of the will of God. They will call it an "inspired revelation" or use a similar phrase to expresses the idea that God alone was the catalyst for this change.

Reality: The Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in 1887. The act made polygamy illegal and would cause the church to lose all of its assets to the US government unless they disavowed the practice. [1] The church's response from 1890 is known in Mormon scripture as Official Declaration 1, which proclaims the end of polygamous teachings in the church (though the church didn't quite get rid of all polygamy in their doctrine. See D&C 132). 

The prophet at the time admitted that the decision was not made entirely based on God's will:

"On September 25, 1890, President Woodruff wrote in his journal that he was “under the necessity of acting for the Temporal Salvation of the Church.” He stated, “After Praying to the Lord & feeling inspired by his spirit I have issued … [a] Proclamation.”" [2]

The phrase "Temporal Salvation" = $$$$. The threat of losing real estate was the spark that "inspired" the prophet to make this proclamation. Mormon's don't talk about that part, though. They focus on the part that says this revelation came from God. Whether intentional or not, they white-wash the history by not discussing the Edmunds Act because it was a major part of the context in which the church made its decision to disavow polygamy.


Racism

Mormon version: The inspired revelation from God known as Official Declaration 2 cleared up previous racism and ended the priesthood ban that was keeping black people from entering the temple. Church leaders spent many hours in the temple "supplicating the Lord for divine guidance" before receiving the revelation to end the ban in 1978. [3] The leaders were truly inspired.

Reality: The 1960s Civil Rights movement, which happened years before Official Declaration 2, was the real catalyst for clearing up the racism of the church's priesthood ban, not a revelation from the Mormon church. Again, the Mormon version omits the critical context of the progress made by the Civil Rights movement and white-washes the history in a way that emphasizes the revelatory inspiration of Official Declaration 2 and dismisses the impact of the work done by Civil Rights activists like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others to raise awareness of racism in the United States. Without the work of these activists, who knows when (or if) the priesthood ban would have been lifted.


Temple Ordinance Changes

Mormon version: I grew up being taught that the temple ceremony is a sacred revelation from God and that God never changes. It was more than a little shocking when I first learned that the ceremonies have changed over time. To be honest, I don't actually know how most Mormons explain the changes because they hardly ever talk about temple ceremonies in general. One clever way to talk about the changes is to avoid the subject entirely:


"What has changed in the temple ceremony? It’s probably more important to understand what has not changed." [4]

Reality: The symbol of slashing your own throat was removed from the temple ceremony. You are also no longer required to be naked under a poncho during the washing and anointing, a ceremony which included being touched on various body parts by a temple worker. First of all, eww. Second, HOW COULD IT NOT BE CHANGED?? Being touched by a stranger while you sit naked under a poncho or making the gesture of slicing your own neck open is really creepy in any context, and especially creepy in the context of a religious ceremony. It seems obvious that the church would have to remove those parts of the ceremony if they expected people to enjoy going to the temple.

Like I said, Mormons just don't talk about the temple ceremony. They will say that Joseph Smith received the ceremony through "inspiration" and talk about how special their experience there is, but then they will say that the rest is sacred, which basically means they want to keep it a secret. The pervasive white-washing of temple issues and why God changed his mind about the creepy parts of the temple ceremony is really tied up in this sacred secrecy, which deserves a post of its own.


Women Praying in General Conference

Mormon version: General Conference of April 2013 was the first time women were allowed to pray during the sessions. God loves His daughters and treats them as equals with His sons, so of course, women should be allowed to pray in church meetings. One women's response to this historic event was: "I am so full of joy and love for a Heavenly Father that answers prayers and inspires change." [5]

Reality: The part the Mormon version doesn't acknowledge is that maybe it wasn't God who inspired this change. The reality is that women's rights activists in the church had been working on issues like this for years, and in the time shortly before this conference their activism had been gaining momentum. I remember getting my own invitation to a "Wear Pants to Church" Facebook event in early 2013, and it wasn't long after this conference that the Ordain Women movement began staging protests. It wasn't allowing women to pray that caused these movements. These movements had already been at work for years. Reaching the milestone of women praying in General Conference, followed by other big events that followed, were the results of their efforts, not the cause.


The idea that activism or politics could change the way the church operated had never been a part of my worldview before. It didn't seem possible that the will of God could be influenced by political and social pressure, but it looks like it has been.

The more I learned about the actual history of the church, the more discrepancies I saw between the faith-promoting narrative of the church and the reality that the church responded to these situations in a way that any organization would: they caved when the pressure became too much. None of these instances showed foresight or prophesy. It was all reactionary, not inspired.

I came to a conclusion: the "iron rod" of church doctrine zigs and zags as often as it needs in order to protect the organization, and the God of the Mormon church seems to change his mind a lot. I didn't feel like I could trust the church's "inspired revelations," or any of their "doctrine" for that matter, to keep me on the straight and narrow anymore.

My shelf was reaching a breaking point.

Notes:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmunds%E2%80%93Tucker_Act
2. https://www.lds.org/topics/the-manifesto-and-the-end-of-plural-marriage?lang=eng
3. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng
4. http://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Can_Temple_Ceremonies_Change.pdf
5. http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/news/56116507-78/church-women-general-prayer.html.csp

August 18, 2016

9: Selling Salvation



I studied accounting at Brigham Young University, the Mormon-run college in Provo, UT. In one of my introductory accounting classes, we were shown a financial statement mock up as it would look if it were filled out the way the US government would fill it out. We made notes on all of the financial trouble the government would be in if it were a business and discussed strategies that could improve the government's financial situation. It was an interesting exercise using a real-world example to show that accounting could help us better understand an organization.

I was surprised that we didn't look at the financial statements of our church. Professors at BYU tend to bring Mormonism into the classroom as often as they can, and this seemed like a missed opportunity to dig into the workings of our own religion.

In my marketing class, we had talked about the church's "I'm a Mormon" video campaign. The idea came up that the videos were an advertising campaign for the church, which struck me as odd. An advertising campaign? For the church? Why would the church need to make commercials unless it was selling something?

But it actually made sense. The missionaries are the sales force. They go out to find converts, who could be considered customers. The "I'm a Mormon" commercials were meant to create a positive brand image of Mormonism in the minds of potential converts the way all businesses use commercials to create positive brand images of their products in the minds of potential customers. All of that was easy for me to swallow.

But if missionaries are the sales force of the church, doesn't that imply selling something?

That's when the thoughts started getting uncomfortable.

I once attended a youth church activity, a Q&A with the bishopric, where someone asked the question, "Isn't paying tithing the same as buying blessings?" At the time everyone laughed it off and skipped to the next question. But now that I was thinking of the church as a business, that question popped back into my head. 

The idea of buying blessings reminded me of what I had read in history books about the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. There had been a time when the Catholic priests sold "indulgences" to the lay people. Selling "indulgences" was essentially selling salvation because these indulgences represented the forgiveness of sins. The outrage over misuse of the indulgence system helped lead to Martin Luther's 95-Thesis and eventually the Protestant Reformation, which protested corruption in the Catholic Church.

Selling salvation was an old-fashioned deception used by clergy to get money from the members back in the Middle Ages. It was obviously immoral. But if the objective of missionaries is to sell blessing, were they really any different from the medieval Catholic priests who sold indulgences? This was a problem.

"Missionaries aren't selling blessings," said my Mormon brain. "They aren't trying to get people's money. They are just trying to convert people to the Gospel!"

But there's no denying the church receives money from its converts. Lots of money.

Everything in Mormonism revolves around going to the temple. It is the only place in the plan of salvation where ordinances are performed that allow members to live at the highest levels of the celestial kingdom and to be with their family. Paying 10% of your income as tithing is a requirement to get a temple recommend, which means that if you want to reach the highest levels of heaven you regularly make payments to the church. If you don't make those payments, your leaders will find out when they check up on you in annual tithing settlements or during your temple recommend interviews.

For the church, this system virtually guarantees that they will receive 10% of millions of paychecks for decades, or as long as people are willing to pay tithing. And why wouldn't members be willing to pay? Getting into the temple to perform saving ordinances for only 10% of your income for life? What a bargain! 

So why didn't we learn more about church finances in my accounting classes? Financial statements are all about assets and debts, revenues and expenses, and cash flow. The Mormon church certainly has all of these things. In addition to the tithing revenue, they also own lots and lots of real estate. Members are told:

"Tithing funds are always used for the Lord’s purposes—to build and maintain temples and meetinghouses, to sustain missionary work, to educate Church members, and to carry on the work of the Lord throughout the world." - https://www.lds.org/topics/tithing?lang=eng

But members just have to trust that that's where their tithing money is going. There's no a way of verifying it. This interview with President Hinckley is from 2002:


Reporter: "In my country, we say the people's churches, the Protestants, the Catholics, they publish all their budgets, to all the public."
Hinckley: "Yeah, Yeah."
Reporter: "Why is it impossible for your church?"
Hinckley: "We simply think that information belongs to those who made the contribution, and not to the world." [1]

This seems like a perfectly reasonable statement. It seems fair to say that only members need access to what happens to tithing funds. But members don't have access to that information in the US today, and they haven't since 1959 when the church got into a lot of debt and didn't want to report anymore. [2] In an interview where it was important to sound as open as other churches, Hinckley hinted that the church does give tithe-paying members special access their financial data, but in reality, that information (the information about where tithing funds are spent) is not available to anyone outside of the church office buildings. That's why we didn't study it in the accounting classes. It wasn't available to us or to anyone else who might have questions.

At this point, I had decided that it was important for me to be skeptical of claims made by the church and to be willing to question. My business classes left me with very skeptical questions. The church has a sales force and marketing campaigns. Doesn't this mean the church is selling salvation? How was the concept of tithing any different from the idea of indulgences? If the church is using tithing for "the work of the Lord" then why hide that information?

Needless to say, I stopped paying tithing as soon as possible. I feel really uncomfortable with the idea of "buying blessings," and specifically in Mormonism the idea of "buying" a temple recommend. I don't think money should be a part of spirituality at all and I think that the Mormon church needs to remove the requirement to pay tithing from the temple recommend interview. I don't think anyone should donate to an organization because they are under threat of losing their temple recommend if they don't donate. And if I chose to donate money to an organization, I want it to be an organization that doesn't feel the need to hide its finances, which means the church doesn't qualify.


Note:
1.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSmce7y9ahU
2. "During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church greatly increased spending on buildings under the leadership of Henry Moyle. Moyle's reasoning was that by building larger meetinghouses the church would attract more converts. The accelerated building program led to a $32 million deficit in 1962. It was Moyle who convinced David O. McKay to discontinue publishing an annual financial statement in order to hide the extent of the spending."  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finances_of_The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints

August 10, 2016

8: Fallible Prophets


Even though Joseph Smith ordained a number of black people to the priesthood, Brigham Young, who replaced Joseph Smith as the prophet, initiated a ban on ordinations for black men in 1852 that would last until 1978. I learned about this priesthood ban from the perspective of the rural Idaho community I grew up in. The explanations for the ban were "it was all God's timing", "it was the culture of their day", or even the occasional theory that the blood of Cain hadn't been thinned out enough through inter-breeding.

I just went with it.

If God tells the prophet to ban black people from the priesthood, then that's the way it's going to be. In primary, I was taught the song "Follow the Prophet", an ominous melody in a minor key with lyrics like, "Don't go astray/He knows the way!" I grew up hearing that the prophet will never lead us astray. Ironically, this isn't taught by the prophets, but Mormons still believe it. According to Mormons, without a prophet, we would all be as lost and as miserable as the people in the Middle Ages were when they had no living prophet on the earth to guide them.  Prophets in Mormonism are meant to lead and guide, to offer direction in times of confusion, to speak for God. Everything the prophet says is understood to be doctrine. Because he's the prophet. He will never lead us astray.

Well, except for the times when he does:
"We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen. " - Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith

The phrase Mormons use at times like this is "speaking as a man." Of course, prophets make mistakes, Mormons say. They are human after all. Isn't it miraculous how God can do such great works through imperfect men?

But situations like this bring up a tension in Mormonism. If the prophet sometimes "speaks as a man" instead of speaking for God, that means he sometimes leads people astray.  On the other hand, he can never lead us astray.

So which is it? Sometimes or never?

This tension was something I kept neatly tucked away on my handy Mormon mental shelf, the way most Mormons do. If you just don't think about it, then it goes away. That worked quite nicely for a while. Until early in 2014, when I read the church essay titled "Race and the Priesthood." In that essay the church says:


"Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents [prophets] restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.""Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form." - "Race and the Priesthood"

Phew. On one hand, this was an official disavowal of all the weird theories I had heard growing up and it meant that I didn't have to worry about the blood of Cain stuff. On the other hand, it also meant that the only explanation for why blacks were banned from the priesthood was because the prophets were, in Mormon lingo, "products of their time." In other words, the prophets were just plain racist.

Here's a quote showing just how racist a prophet could be:

"The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God children stand in equal positions before Him in all things....Indeed, some of God's children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does. From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel." - Prophet George Albert Smith in a letter to Lowry Nelson

It makes me cringe to think that I once revered these men. I thought they were a guiding light to turn to at times when the "philosophies of men" create social and moral confusion. I thought they were supposed to lead social progress, not reluctantly comply with it, but the Civil Rights movement had been going on for decades before the church finally got with the program. And on top of that, the prophets were obviously racist! They were actively opposing the progress. Not leading it.

My next defense (I say defense because sometimes Mormons view facts as an attack on their faith) against these problems as a Mormon was to say that these were past prophets, and all that really matters is that we follow the current prophet. But that argument didn't work at all! We are supposed to believe in all the prophets, especially Joseph Smith. And making the distinction between the past and current prophets did nothing to refute the fact that the right thing to do as a member in the 1960s would have been to NOT follow the prophet.

What else were the prophets wrong about? Polygamy? It would be easy to see how prophets could be "products of their humanity" and confuse their sexual desires with the will of God, the way prophets had mistaken their own racist inclinations to be the Gospel truth. Couldn't living prophets be wrong too? What about women being banned from the priesthood? Or homosexual marriages being banned from temples? The prophets are probably "products of their time" in these aspects as well and will eventually give in to the pressure to do the right thing as society becomes more loving and Christ-like than the church, the way it happened in the 1970s.

The excuse that prophets were "products of their time" isn't a good excuse. If a prophet confuses his own will with God's will and gets things wrong in matters as important as the ability of black people to go to the temple, then he is no prophet in my mind. The right way to go in the 1960s was the opposite way that the prophet of the Mormon church was leading, and there's no reason to assume that following the prophet is the only correct choice in the present time. Prophets claim to have a special connection with God, but if I can't tell the difference between when the man is speaking and when God is speaking, then I think that's dangerous. It means I am putting the prophet's own thoughts and feelings on the same level as the word of God, even when it's not from God!

After realizing this, I decided that I would think for myself from that point forward. No more depending on the prophet to make my moral decisions for me. No more leaving it up to chance whether the guidance I followed was actually from God or not. If I lived in the 1960s, the right thing would have been to take a step back and ask the question, "Is the prophet wrong?" And if that was the right question to be asking in the 1960s, then it was definitely the right question to be asking in 2014.

August 04, 2016

7: Spiritual Experiences


I was standing at the balcony window. Soft music was playing in the apartment behind me and I was looking out at the night sky. The moon was shining brightly. Looking up at it made me think  of all the humans from around the world and from all different cultures, religions, and continents who have lived under that same moon. From generation to generation -- back and back to when we were just primitive humans and before that to whatever we were before we looked human -- all of us have experienced the feeling of living on this planet and under the moon that was glowing above me. I felt a connection with my ancestors, with humanity, with life, and with the world. I felt peaceful. I felt happy.

Church taught me that the feelings of this experience should have deep meaning. This should be an example of a "spiritual experience." The correct way to interpret these feelings would be to say that the Spirit was testifying to me of the magnificence of God's creations, or of the love God has for everyone, or of some other deep and meaningful doctrine of the church.


But at this point in my life, I didn't need the church interpretation of my feelings. I felt peace. I felt happy. Why would I need any more than that?


I decided then that I wouldn't let the church define experiences for me. It was comforting to know that I COULD find peace without anything remotely related to church. If I wanted to find meaning in my life, I could make it for myself. The church did NOT have a monopoly on "spiritual experiences", good feelings, or happiness. I felt free.


This post was really important for me to write because it captures the moment when I realized that the church has always tried to tell me I would miserable if left. Now I realize that this is like an abusive relationship where the abusive partner pressures the victim into staying by saying things like, "you'll never do any better than me," or "you'll never be happier than you are with me." The truth, though, is that there is plenty of happiness to be found outside of the church. They try to say that happiness outside of the church is just fake, that it's Satan's deception. All I have to say to that is I'm just as happy as I was before and now I don't have anyone threatening me with eternal damnation if I don't do what they want me to do.


If "true" happiness is only available through an organization that is quick to blame their members and make them suffer enormous amounts of guilt while the church as an organization never admits its own mistakes or gives apologies, then I'm fine with my "counterfeit" happiness, thank you very much.

July 20, 2016

6: The First Crack



The First Vision story I grew up with is the 1838 account found in Mormon scripture. At one point, my young women's group was asked to memorize this selection: 


"I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me... When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Joseph Smith History 1:16-17) 


I'm not the only Mormon to be told this version. Mormon paintings depicting Joseph Smith kneeling in the woods with two white-robed figures in the air above him are common. The church has put out a number of videos showing the same scene. Mormon missionaries teach this version of the First Vision. Mormon congregations sing hymns like "Joseph Smith's First Prayer" (Hymn #26) that describe when God the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith in a glorious pillar of light. It's a very important part of Mormon theology. The prophet Gordon B. Hinckley even said: 


"Well, it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world... And that's exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Interview "The Mormons"; PBS Documentary, April 2007)[1] 


I always considered myself lucky to have an understanding of the true nature of the godhead. God is our father, Jesus is his son, and they are two separate beings. I knew from my history classes that there have been times when Christian factions debated the true nature of the godhead (i.e. Nicene Creed). I didn't have to waste my time with that. I knew what the godhead was like. Joseph Smith had seen God and Jesus. They were two separate beings. I knew it was true because the church was true. 

Then one day I was doing some reading. It was probably an article about the Joseph Smith Papers. This set of documents was published by the church in 2008, which meant it was safe to read because it wasn't "anti-Mormon" like the other stuff people could find on the internet. The documents were meant to provide more insight into church history, and I was excited to learn more about the history of my religion. During my reading, I learned for the first time that the 1838 version of the First Vision wasn't the only version. I thought this was very interesting. What did the other versions look like? I decided to look them up. 

I started skimming the different versions. I saw that in some versions, only one personage appeared to Joseph, and in some versions, God and Jesus were both left out altogether. The nature of the godhead changed depending on the version. How was this possible? 

I stopped reading. My head was spinning. I didn't want it to be real. If the godhead was different depending on the version, then how was this any different from the debates leading to the Nicene Creed? As far as I understood, that creed had been decided on because a committee got together and picked the version of the godhead they liked best. Had a committee picked the version of the godhead that would exist in Mormon theology? I didn't want to think about it. 

I quickly tried to throw it all on my mental shelf, to suppress the doubts and bring back faith. But faith in what? The 1838 version? Why not one of the other versions? 

This information was incredibly heavy, and a shelf can only hold so much weight. I would never be able to trust the church version of "history" again. I had found that there were different versions of the founding story of my religion. What if other things I thought were constant, like the godhead, actually had "multiple versions?" I still wanted to have faith, despite the doubts. My shelf was intact. But it was starting to crack.


Notes: 

1. Another quote from Hinckley: "Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. ... Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign Mag., Nov. 1998, pp.70-71)
2. Snippets from the different versions:

"I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world"
---
"I called on the Lord in mighty prayer, a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon me, and filled me with joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; and I saw many angels in this vision"
---
"[I] gave him a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from 6, years old up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14, years old"
---
"I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to 'go not after them,' at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me"
---
Brigham Young quote: "The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek, the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him."

July 13, 2016

5: A Shelf Full of Doubts



Mormonism has a language of its own. This can lead to some funny situations, like asking God to "nourish and strengthen our bodies" while praying over a box of doughnuts. At other times, the language is used to manage thoughts and steer doubt toward faith. "I guess we'll find out in the next life" and "it's not important to my salvation" are phrases used in response to questions that don't seem to have answers. If past leaders said things that are disavowed today, then they were "speaking as a man," and if current leaders aren't acting the way they should, then a version of this old adage applies: "The church is perfect, even if the people in it aren't." A new saying that seems to be rising in popularity is "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." All of this language focuses on turning thoughts away from questions and doubts and towards faith in the church and its leadership.

Another form of thought management in Mormonism is the mental shelf. I didn't think in terms of this analogy while I was a believer, but it's a helpful metaphor often used by former Mormons in explaining their experience in Mormonism.  The idea is that a Mormon takes information or experiences that aren't faith promoting and puts them on a "shelf," which holds the information and doubts that could lead them to question their faith. Using a mental shelf means that the member suppresses whatever information or experience has caused them to doubt something about the church while focusing on increasing their faith with information and memories that are faith promoting. 

I didn't realize it at the time, but I used my mental shelf a lot. The Bible includes plenty of things I doubted were from the God I knew: murders, genocide, incest. I could chalk most of that up to the Bible being mistranslated [1], but Mormons still teach from it. The Book of Mormon also contains disturbing stuff. Nephi beheading Laban? Ammon cutting off people's arms? I put the weird stuff from the scriptures on my shelf, meaning that I focused on the faith promoting parts of the texts and tried to ignore the parts that made me doubt.

Then there was polygamy. When I was a believer, I didn't know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy or that the church today still allows men to be sealed to multiple spouses in the temple.[2] But I still had questions. Was Brigham Young "speaking as a man?" Why would a loving God allow polygamy to happen? I put polygamy on my shelf and went along with the idea that "we'll find out in the next life."

The older I got, the heavier my shelf got. Scriptures can be mistranslated. Leaders can lead in the wrong direction. My feelings can be interpreted incorrectly. Prayers aren't always answered. Bad things happen to good people. Suppress, suppress, suppress. Have faith despite everything else. 

At some level of cognition, I knew there were problems with Mormonism. I told a friend during high school that I'd be an atheist if I weren't Mormon. I didn't recognize how ridiculous that sentiment sounded because I had compartmentalized my brain very effectively.

I could have been an atheist if I thought about the information on my shelf. But that's why I had a shelf: so that nothing, not even truth, facts, or evidence, could keep me from being faithful.


Notes:
1. Mormons "believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly" - Article of Faith #8
2. A woman can only be sealed to multiple partners after she has died. Before 1998 women could not be sealed to multiple partners

July 02, 2016

4: Oh Say, What is Truth?



I was born into Mormonism. My parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my great aunts and great uncles, my cousins, my second cousins, my neighbors. All Mormon. I really didn't have a choice in becoming a Mormon. What else was I going to do? Respectfully decline to have my name put on the record when I was a baby? Refuse baptism when I was 8 years old? Of course not. Like all children, I was raised to believe in what my family and community taught me. I was taught that the church is true, and I had no reason to believe that it wasn't.

My parents taught me that I am a child of God. They taught me that my family loves me and that being together as a family is important. I was taught to use the atonement of Jesus Christ to repent of my sins. I was taught that I can feel God's love and find answers to life's questions when I read my scriptures, especially the scriptures revealed by modern prophets like Joseph Smith. I was taught to pray to find peace, and to seek counsel from priesthood leaders. My patriarchal blessing says that trials in my life will be resolved through the gospel of Jesus Christ and tells me twice to listen to "those who preside". I accepted these things as truth. I felt good living in line with the values of my family and my community. The teachings felt true to me. I prayed about the Book of Mormon and felt a confirmation that it was true, and I did find peace when I prayed for help during hard times. "By their fruits, ye shall know them." (Matthew 7:20) I saw all the good things around me as the good fruits of the LDS church.

I believed the church brought happiness to people because the ultimate goal of the religion was to have faith and find truth. I treated my doubts as trials. Did God really ask Abraham to kill his son? Was I supposed to believe that Noah's ark really happened? I followed the directions in my patriarchal blessing and tried to fix my doubts with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the counsel of "those who preside", who counseled me to pray and read my scriptures. I often found myself reading the story of the man who pleads with Jesus, "help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24), and then I would turn to prayer with the same request.

When I needed direction in other areas of my life and felt that I wasn't receiving answers to my prayers, which was fairly often, or that my leaders weren't answering my questions, which was very often, I could turn to my scriptures. My go-to scriptures were the ones that talked about how to make righteous choices:

"For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil" - Moroni 7:16
"If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things" - A of F #13
"The Lord looketh on the heart"  - 1 Samuel 16:7
"It is not meet that I should command in all things" - D&C 58:26
"O be wise; what can I say more?" - Jacob 6:12
"Behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind" - D&C 9:8
"The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth" - D&C 93:36

These scriptures taught me that I am able to know right from wrong for myself, that I can know truth for myself, and that I can trust myself to make righteous choices because my heart is striving for the virtuous, the lovely, the things of good report, and the praiseworthy. They taught me that I can be a good person without being told what to do every step of the way. I gained the confidence to stand up for my decisions and for the truth I found without fear of what other people thought and without fear of asking questions because the truth is never hurt by questions. In fact, the Mormon church exists because a 14-year-old boy asked questions as he was searching for truth. I had faith in the Mormon church, and it felt true. I knew the right thing to do was to keep learning and studying because that's how I would gain more light and truth. Ironically, it was learning and studying that eventually led me to find that not everything in the church is light and truth, and it was my ability to trust my inner moral compass that led me to resign from the church.

June 25, 2016

Part 3: Unpacking

I am a good person.
I am valuable just because I'm alive.
I know how to decide what is right and what is wrong for myself.

I said this to myself over and over one night as I was curled up in bed, sobbing. This was the moment I realized it. All of this shame? This heart-wrenching, soul-crushing guilt? It was all in my head.

I had focused on the humanizing Mormon scriptures when I was a believer:

"The worth of souls is great in the sight of God" - D&C 18:10
"Men are, that they might have joy" - 2 Nephi 2:25

I thought Mormonism viewed everyone this way. God loves everyone, and we are all meant to be happy! But what I didn't realize until I left is that in Mormonism, that happiness only comes to good, obedient members. And if you CHOOSE to walk out of the church like I did? Well, see you in hell, you family-wrecker. You have no business taking part in happiness now because you just wanted to sin, you were just offended, you're influenced by the devil, or you weren't trying hard enough to be faithful. Your marriage will be sub-par because it's not in the temple. Any bad things that happen to you will be because you left the protection of "the one true church", and you will deserve them. And any happiness you have? Well, that's just the world's happiness. Church members will pity you and feel bad for how naive you are in thinking you could ever possibly be happy as an apostate. Some of these things were said to me literally. Others were expressed through social pressure and implications of the doctrine. But the emotional gut punch was real to me, no matter how it came. 

I was weighed down by so much unnecessary guilt when I left the church. I don't need that guilt. I don't deserve it. No one deserves it! To feel like nothing you do is good enough or that everything is all your fault? That's no way to live. I don't need to believe that I'm damned because I left "the one true church". I don't need to believe that my life is going to be less beautiful or enriching because I've chosen a different path. I don't have to be a Mormon to be a good and happy person who likes learning and growing and trying to make the world a better, happier, more welcoming place.

The rest of this blog will be posts to help me keep "unpacking" as I try to unload the weight of Mormonism and as I bring my authentic identity, which Mormonism shamed me into hiding, up to the surface. I hope to do this by discussing why leaving the church was the right thing for me to do and why I can never go back. I'll talk about the information and thinking that led me to that decision and about why I don't need to carry the pain of leaving anymore.

June 22, 2016

Part 2: Carrying the Weight


Fear.
Anger.
Sobbing.
Body shaking.
There is so much pain.
My community has turned on me.
I ruined my family's eternal togetherness.
Knees pulled to my chest, I rock back and forth.
My family relationships will never be the same again.
They say they miss the person that I was like I've died.
People call me disingenuous, ungrateful,  a disappointment.
They want me to stop talking, they don't want to listen.
I didn't try hard enough. I wasn't good enough.
They feel pain, and it is all my fault.
Gasping for air between sobs.
Everything is my fault.
It's all my fault.
My fault.
My fault.
My fault.

They could have said, "Wow, this must have been a really hard decision for you. How are you doing?" No. Instead, it's questions like, "Don't you know that you are just being deceived? Don't you now that you are hurting all the people you love?" Heap on the guilt, pile up the shame, tell me that I am causing So. Much. Pain. And it's all my fault.



This post is hard to write, so it's short. I don't like rehashing these thoughts in my mind, but I wanted to try and convey how much emotional weight I've carried, for months, because of leaving the church.