Answers to Deep Questions about Faith
Some questions I’ve been asked and how I’ve tried to answer them, though I’m aware of how nearly impossible it is to explain anything to those on the other side of the divide.
1. Do you believe in God?
My answer to this is complicated. I spent many years as an atheist after I lost my daughter and felt that the Mormon God I had once believed in turned out not to be as I was promised. I wasn’t protected because of my faithfulness and following the rules. I didn’t feel buoyed up by my faith or by my community. I felt burdened and gaslighted. I started on a quest to see if I could believe in God again in 2011, and I thought that I’d come back to the Mormon God. But that isn’t what happened. The God I believe in now is a god of love, not a god of intervention, rules, punishment, or rituals. My god doesn’t demand payment for entrance into the holy of holies and doesn’t require me to believe I will be changed into someone unrecognizable in the next life. My god also doesn’t need me to embark on constant self-improvement plans that feed my soul the sense that I’m never good enough. I’m also keenly aware of the fact that this god may be in my imagination only. It may be what I need to believe. And I’m OK with that.
However, even as I write these words I know how they will sound to a current Mormon. I heard people say things like this when I was fully invested in the Mormon church. I thought they were just patronizing me and my belief in God. I thought there was nothing I had in common with them. I thought there was no way that they were ever going to make it to heaven.
2. Do you think the church lied to you?
I hear this accusation from post-Mormons and ex-Mormons a lot. I think the church lied to me in the same way that my parents lied to me, all my teachers lied to me, and every human I’ve ever met lied to me. That is, the church told me its best story of itself. America does the same thing. You can call it propaganda if you’d like, but mostly people believed this story who were telling it. I lie to myself all the time and I lie to other people. I’m not consciously doing it (usually), but I want to believe good things of myself. It allows me to continue to live.
Yet saying this kind of thing only sounds like a weird kind of apologetics from the inside. If you believe the truth claims of the church, then you’re in. If not, then what is the point of trying to stay? It makes no sense. You can call the church good at community and family if you’d like, but if you believe it’s false, then from the inside, you’re attacking it and you’ve become anti-Mormon.
3. Why do you read/listen to anti-Mormon sources?
I don’t categorize people in my head as “faithful” or “anti-Mormon” anymore. I used to do this, at least in the way in which I allowed myself to think about anti-Mormon sources at all. If I got a “bad feeling” reading something, I categorized it as “anti-Mormon,” and that was a wide range of things, even from some intellectuals within Mormonism.
These days, I honestly just look at things as interesting or not interesting. I don’t mean to say that if they’re interesting to me, they’re good. They’re just interesting. I like to be intellectually stimulated, yes. But like everyone else, I gravitate toward things that confirm my current worldview and that make sense of my life experiences. Mormonism often doesn’t do that. But then sometimes it does, and I love it again.
4. Why would you throw everything away like this?
I don’t think of myself as throwing everything away. I believe in some things in Mormonism and I don’t believe in others. What has changed most is me giving myself complete permission to discard anything I find less than useful. This includes things that make me want to kill myself. It also includes things that make me feel superior to others simply for how I was born. It also means that I don’t do leader worship of any kind. I know that Mormons reject the idea that they have a problem with this, but they do. The deference, the standing, the insistence that we never criticize the leadership — I don’t agree to that anymore. I will criticize if I feel it is right. I will think for myself and not let other people tell me what God says or wants or is.
Yet I’m aware that from the inside, this looks like throwing everything away. It looks like pride. It looks like me saying I’m smarter than all the leaders of the church. I don’t know how to explain it in any way that would make sense to those on the inside still. And the more I talk about it, the more offended they get.
5. Can’t you endure to the end?
The implication behind this is that I somehow am struggling to “finish” the work of my life. Trust me when I say that I’m a finisher. I’m the kind of person who can’t quit anything. I sometimes look back at some of the races I’ve continued in and realize after the fact I should have quit. It would have been a lot better for my overall health if I had. But once committed, I can’t let go. Or at least, it’s very hard for me to do so. I’m dogged in my commitments. Sometimes I feel like I stop thinking about anything outside of the commitment because I’m so focused on taking the next step toward the finish line.
I didn’t step away from Mormonism because I lack commitment. I stepped away because it was harming me. I’m not asking other people to make the same decision, but I suppose I am asking them to consider if they really are happy there or if they’re just not ready to leave yet. And that’s fine. Really. But I think from the inside, it just looks like I gave up. I let my standards fall. I let the world get to me. I didn’t hold fast to the Iron Rod. And yes, it’s true I didn’t. I nearly killed myself trying to. But eventually I was able to get enough distance to stop doing that to myself.
6. Why not do it for your family?
I continued to attend church for years after I had lost belief in Mormonism. I went in part because it was a habit and I find it difficult to give up habits. I hate change and making all the tiny little decisions that big changes necessitate. I hate it when grocery stores change where things are on the shelves. I hate moving to a new city because I don’t know where I will go swimming. The little stuff often keeps me on the same old path.
And yet, it wasn’t enough in the long run. I did it for a long time even though it hurt me, and I finally gave myself permission to admit the truth and to face the consequences. And I understand absolutely why people who are still inside don’t want to talk to me about leaving and don’t want to associate with me in general. They’re afraid and also it just makes then uncomfortable. That’s fine. But it doesn’t help us understand each other better.
7. Did you ever believe/have a testimony?
This is perhaps the most hurtful accusation thrown at those who leave Mormonism. The problem is that if you leave, then by definition, your testimony wasn’t strong enough. I guess all I have to say here is that I thought it was stronger than most people’s. I was a Mormon evangelist. If you ask people who knew me during my Princeton days, they will all tell you that the first thing I said about myself in an introduction was that I was Mormon. I defended Mormonism right and left against attacks. I lived my life according to my beliefs. I prayed about having my children, about taking job offers, about moving, about everything. I prayed about spending money on the tiniest selfish things, for fear that God would be displeased with me.
But I stepped away, so I must not have had a testimony that was strong enough.
8. Were the rules too much for you?
Maybe this is the one thing I can push back on. I love rules. I’ve always loved rules. I make up new rules as quickly as I possibly can to make sense of the world and to tell myself what to do. When I was doubting Mormonism, I became a vegan so I would have a new set of really strict rules about eating that would make me feel morally superior to others. I have rules about exercise that I can’t break even if I know I’m sick (or just had kidney stone surgery). It wasn’t about me not being able to follow rules, trust me.
9. Are you trying to destroy the church now?
I don’t really know how to defend myself against this accusation. When I hear people inside the church throw it at me, I know what they mean. They mean that I’m telling people about problems. I’m making it look like it’s not terrible to walk away. And just by doing those things, I’m destroying the church. Any time you give people reason to doubt or offer them solace for choosing a different path, you are destroying the church. The only thing you’re allowed to do in these situations, if you’re truly faithful, is to tell them to get back on the “covenant path.” You can say you don’t understand why God has chosen this for them, but that’s about it. And that’s not enough for me.
10. Don’t your covenants mean anything to you? You promised to do certain things and now you don’t do them.
This one hurts, too. It makes it sound like I’m untrustworthy, and I feel like this is really not true of my character in general. I’m the kind of person who will kill herself to make sure she follows through on anything she’s promised to do. At the very least, I try hard to keep people updated so that if it’s truly impossible for me to do something I’ve agreed to do, I give a lot of notice and help to fill in the gap.
And yet, here I am, breaking the covenants I made in the temple. For a long time, I tried to massage this answer and say that I wasn’t breaking covenants, I was just reinterpreting them. But I guess now I’m too tired to argue with the judgment anymore. I broke the covenants. I didn’t believe in them anymore. I became a different person than the person who made them. And my experience with God now leads me to believe that God is also different than I thought. But all this makes no sense to the paradigm of those within and I’m not sure it ever will.