I opened it to find a lengthy, unfinished, unsent letter to my father that was basically my own little CES Letter. I summarized my journey from belief to disbelief and then began listing all the problematic issues I'd found since leaving. And since I've never actually shared my exit story here in any complete or cohesive format (which is surprising to me, considering this blog is approaching its fourth birthday), I thought it would be a good idea to quote myself here.
The general membership of the church is made up of mostly decent people. With the possible exception of a completely inept bishop I had at BYU, nothing any individual member has done to me would have come close to making me leave the church.
The problem for me is not the membership, it's the leadership—the people I've never met. Among many things that I dislike about the church leadership, foremost is their manipulative policies designed to perpetuate the church. The church promotes brainwashing. I think the decision to lower the missionary age is evidence of this. If young men can serve straight out of high school, they will have much less opportunity to mix with the general population and possibly encounter different viewpoints before heading into a two-year-long intensive indoctrination program. I think the church is hoping that they can hook kids from the nursery, and execute a decades-long full-court press. From the moment the nursery leaders start to teach the toddlers about Jesus, it doesn't stop. Primary, Priesthood, seminary, mission, marriage—there's always some new church-based goal to drive kids to until long into adulthood. I think the church leadership hopes that the kids they pushed into nursery won't wake up and think until they're 25, married, with two children, home teaching assignments and two callings...at which point it seems too late to abandon the lifestyle that's been drilled into them virtually since birth.
It almost happened to me. I want the first twenty years of my life back.
Think about how the church discourages dissenting opinion and exploration of differing belief systems. How many general conference talks have you heard that warn you not to look at anything that could be considered anti-Mormon? How many times have you heard opinions that differ from official church stances called "hateful" or perhaps "tools of the adversary"? Has the prophet ever advocated exploring Islam and Buddhism and Unitarianism and Scientology and Catholicism before making a decision about which religion is true?
Let's be honest—there's thousands and thousands of religions and belief systems out there. What do you think the odds are that you'd just happen to be born into the only one that's correct? I don't think the church wants you to believe the truth—they only want you to believe what they say is the truth.
But, of course, those are the things that occurred to me long after I'd begun the process of deconstructing my beliefs and discovering them to be wrong. The fact that I'd felt brainwashed may have been the thing that tipped the scales, but it didn't create the initial doubt or fuel the "faith crisis," so to speak.
So here's what did make me leave, in (mostly) chronological order. I'm sure you've heard many of these things before as a bishop and a stake president. And even though I'm sure you'll disagree, please think before you respond. Don't just use the same responses you've used on other people. I'm your son—I was lucky enough to inherit a certain mental capacity from you and mom. Give me a little credit for reasoning skills before you frame your answers.
1. Blacks in the Priesthood
This is probably not a surprise. I know a lot of people have problems with this issue. When I was a faithful, believing member in good standing, I heard a lot of teachings that I may have initially disagreed with (polygamy is a prominent example) that I managed to explain away. But I never received an explanation for why blacks were denied membership in the priesthood.
It always just sounded racist to me. And I always thought it was suspicious that the "revelation" lifting the ban came in 1978, when the civil rights movements in the US had made clear and irrevocable progress. It seems like the church was simply run by a bunch of racists who eventually threw up their hands and said, "Well...I guess we can't fight this any longer. Might as well let them in or we'll just look bad."
Since my inactivity, I've come across numerous quotations from past church leaders that are simply racist. Brigham Young said that intermarrying with "negroes" should be punishable by death. That really doesn't sound like something a loving god would advocate. Of course, he also wouldn't advocate punishing countless generations by denying them blessings simply because their ancestors were evil.
Imagine my shock when I read some of these quotes and saw them attributed to books that I know are on your shelves. Books I know you've read. Of course, I don't own these books, so I guess I can't be sure the quotes are correct. Just because something's floating around the internet doesn't mean it's accurate. But I've come across enough stuff on the church's website since then that makes me believe that, if I were to look up Brigham Young's racist remarks in the Journal of Discourses, I'd find them just as they're written on the internet.
2. Praying about the Book of Mormon
I know I've told you this part before.
In my first year at BYU, I began to realize that the time was quickly approaching when I'd be expected to serve a mission. I didn't want to. It sounded to me like I'd spend two years in a foreign (possibly third-world) country sacrificing the comforts I was used to in my first-world, middle-class home to bother a bunch of people who'd prefer I leave them alone. Even if I found success, I'd wind up teaching someone something that I didn't have much of a testimony of. I realized that any testimony I had was more out of habit than true belief.
So I decided I needed to take Moroni up on his famous challenge. I prayed about the Book of Mormon—repeatedly. Over a few weeks, I literally spent hours on my knees begging God for a confirmation that the Book of Mormon was true. I never got one. I began to look for signs in my daily life that might be a delayed but perhaps more illustrative answer to my prayer. I never found any. Eventually, I gave up.
It came down to this—the Book of Mormon promised me something. I met all the conditions necessary to receive this promise, and I received nothing. I'd hoped that, if I had a testimony, my apprehension about serving a mission would dissipate with the knowledge that I was going to do the right thing. Instead, I began to realize that I really, really didn't want to go. I couldn't teach people something I didn't believe in—especially since it had just failed me. I began to think that maybe I didn't just lack a testimony—maybe my belief was misplaced. Maybe the church wasn't true at all.
3. Mormon Culture
During my second year at BYU I encountered the social stigma associated with an apparent lack of piety. I was nineteen and not on a mission. This made just about every personal introduction awkward. A lot of people were very understanding. My roommates didn't judge me—Ethan in particular was very gracious. He seemed to consider it a personal decision, a matter between me and God, and after that brief awkwardness upon our meeting, he never brought it up again unless I did so first. I never, ever felt judged by Ethan, and as a result, he became one of the truest friends I've ever had.
But others weren't so understanding. Because I was so clearly different from the Mormon ideal, people considered it their responsibility to push me in directions they thought were right. And, of course, I was undateable. I never even bothered attempting, because the social atmosphere made it clear that my chances of finding any girl on campus who was willing to enter into any kind of relationship with a missionary-age non-missionary were almost nil.
It is often said that the church is perfect but its membership is not. But I think that the church leadership implicitly encourages certain aspects of Mormon culture in an effort to force more young men on missions and propel them into indoctrinated adulthood. The social pressure is very strong. If you aren't living up to the standards, your best bet is to act like you are, just to avoid having that imaginary scarlet letter stamped on your forehead. You have to conform as a matter of survival. It's not an environment that's healthy for anyone to grow up in, but it does help the church create lifelong tithe-paying members.
4. The Inept Bishop
Going into that second year at BYU, I didn't really know what to do. I knew that I didn't have a testimony, but I also hesitated to commit myself fully to the idea of leaving the church. I couldn't fathom leaving behind the only lifestyle I'd ever known. I couldn't bear the thought of the inevitable familial fallout—which I imagined as ten times worse than when I decided not to go on a mission. Plus, there were some good things about the church that I didn't really feel it necessary to distance myself from.
But I also resented the culture and the people around me.
My bishop had decided he wanted to meet with every new member in his ward boundaries and had encouraged all of us to set up an appointment to meet with him early in the school year. I didn't want to meet with him, because I really didn't feel like going through an awkward meet-and-greet. I was content to simply attend church and I didn't want to be his friend and I didn't want him to give me a calling. So I avoided him.
He eventually emailed me, and I ignored him. But then he cornered me at church one Sunday about six weeks into the school year and suggested we have a quick talk right then. So I reluctantly accompanied him to his office, where he proceeded to demonstrate how much of a jerk he was. He clearly was not acting with any divine guidance whatsoever.
He began with the basic questions about where I was from and what I was studying. He asked why I'd avoided him, and I responded that I was just a private person. Then he expressed regret that my church attendance had been, in his words, "pretty spotty."
I'd been sick a few weeks earlier. I'd missed only one week. I told him so. I don't think he believed me. I think he'd assumed from the start that since I didn't want to talk to him, I was probably an emotionally damaged individual with tons of problems that it was his job to alleviate. So he started probing for my "issues" with all the subtlety of an atomic bomb.
He asked if my parents were still together. Because obviously my reluctance to talk to my bishop is because I'm so messed up over my parents' messy divorce.
He asked me if I kept the law of chastity. I said that I did. His follow-up question was even worse: "And do you resent that?"
That made me pretty angry. He said he was just trying to figure out "what made me tick," but it was clear to me that he thought there was something wrong with me because he didn't see me as the Mormon ideal, and he was guessing until he found the correct ailment.
I'm not sure I've ever wanted to punch someone in the face so much in my entire life. After I left (wordlessly), I managed to pull off some mental backflips and decide that I could respect his position as bishop without respecting him as a person. I avoided him even better after that. I don't think I ever spoke a word to him again, even though I continued to attend his ward every week.
In retrospect, he was just a bureaucratic jerk trying to do his job. He was just a guy (and not a very good guy) doing his supposedly divinely-appointed duty without any actual connection to anything divine. I know that bishops make mistakes like anybody else (and that's what I kept telling myself) but later I recalled this experience as a small piece of evidence (but not enough for proof) that the church and its leadership structure were not inspired of God.
5. Acting Pious
I entered a long period of simply going through the motions. I went to church, but I approached the lessons more appraisingly. Instead of soaking it all up as the truth, I began to assess each piece of information on its own merits. Slowly, I began to uncover more things that didn't make sense or didn't seem right. A scripture here, a Talmage quote there, and I began to come up with plenty of reasons to question the veracity of the church. And I began to transition from simply not having a testimony to actively doubting.
There was a time when I decided to take a step back and actually consider what it meant if the church wasn't true. I began to consider what I would believe if I didn't believe in Mormonism. This was a revolutionary idea that I'd never considered before. All the things I'd been taught in the church were written on some massive blackboard in my head. Over the previous months I'd crossed a couple things out, but what would happen if I just erased everything and started over completely?Following this was a collection of evidences against the church that I'd discovered only after I'd mentally checked out of Mormonism. I had sections for Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Church History, Brainwashing, and Finances. The document ends with another section header that said "Homosexuality," but apparently that's the point at which I realized I'd never have the balls to give my dad this letter and I gave up.
This happened before I came home from BYU for the last time. By then, I'd mentally given up on the church, but I didn't know how to leave it. I didn't want you guys to worry about me even more than you already did, so I attempted (poorly) to continue attending and acting pious until I could figure out how to extricate myself with minimal damage.
I don't agree with all of the stuff that I wrote more than three years ago. Most notably, I don't think it was fair of me to characterize that bishop as "not a very good guy" purely based on my single unpleasant interaction with him. In fact, maybe I should thank him for giving me the strongest evidence I'd yet come across for a lack of inspiration among church leaders. But he was trying to help, even though it was completely unwanted and pretty insulting. For all I know, he was a devoted father who volunteered every weekend at a homeless shelter.
But that's basically the chronicle of my shift in beliefs. The first time I remember doubting or feeling uncomfortable with something I learned church was when I was taught about the priesthood ban. My habitual piety mixed with inner ambivalence became a big inner conflict during my freshman year at BYU. Returning to BYU after not serving a mission because I wasn't sure if I had a testimony kind of helped seal the deal for me. And then I tried to attend church for the sake of appearances for a while, and that was absolutely miserable.
What I didn't mention in this letter was what finally made me stop attending.
All the doubting and the questioning of the faith I'd built my identity on took a heavy toll on me emotionally. I spent my second and third years at BYU hating Mormon culture more passionately than ever before and wondering if I really didn't believe in any of it. I was miserable, I felt pretty much alone (good thing Ethan was around though), and I had no idea what I was going to do. It was difficult to motivate myself and my already shaky grades plummeted. Eventually I just didn't bother going to most of my classes. I decided that it wasn't worth even attempting to continue my studies and about a week later I received a letter from BYU informing me that I'd flunked out anyway.
So when I came home from BYU for the final time and hung out at my parents' house going nowhere and not having any clue where I'd want to go anyway (geographically, religiously, professionally and mentally), things didn't exactly get better for me. Especially since I tried to appease my parents by pretending not to completely hate going to church every Sunday.
But once the normal school term started up again, my bishop realized that I hadn't left for BYU again and he learned that I was going to stay put for a while. And that's when he called me into his office to talk about maybe getting a calling and definitely getting set up with a home teaching assignment.
I thought about the families I'd helped my dad home teach when I was in the Aaronic priesthood and I couldn't stomach the thought of preaching something I wholeheartedly disagreed with and contributing to the indoctrination of a new generation. I couldn't bear the thought of subjecting someone's children to the same brainwashing I objected to. I gave the bishop some vague, noncommittal answers because I couldn't bring myself to tell him (a man I'd known for a while and still have great respect for) that I wanted nothing to do with any of this.
So he suggested that we talk again later. I shook his hand, left his office, and never attended his ward again. Since I'm a wimp who's never been good at confrontation or important, emotionally-charged discussions, I typed up a summary of why I didn't want to go to church anymore, printed it out late one night, and left on the desk in my Dad's office.
And then I slept in on Sunday morning.
And that's how I left the Mormon church.