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Leaving God or Religion?

Most ex-Mormons that I know are staunch atheists. I’ve tried to analyze why this is so often the case. Part of it is, I admit, skewed data. The Pew Research studies seem to indicate that plenty of ex-Mormons move on to other religious spaces, so perhaps the ex-Mormons I know who are on-line or adjacent to me are a special group of very devoted exes. But I think it may also be true that Mormonism wrecks many people for other religions. Why?

One of the problems is that Mormonism teaches its members to think in black and white ways, and to think of Mormonism as “the one true church.” When you see how messed up it is to insist that only one church has “authority” from God, it seems easy to see that no other church has authority, either. Even if you like another church, it’s never going to fill that hole from Mormonism, that certainty, and without that, it can be hard to really invest.

Another problem is, in my opinion, Mormon God. My experience with Mormon God was as a strict task master, always eager to point out my shortcomings and to demand perfection. Some Mormon church leaders push this view of God strongly. Others not so much. But for someone like me, who was primed by my own father to experience God as a disciplinarian, the Mormon God experience was so traumatic that it became difficult to conceive of God in any other way. Certainly Mormonism didn’t give me the tools to use my own imagination to reconsider God. There was an insistence that there was only one right way to see God and that if I didn’t accept that, then I was just wrong. See above on what happens when your certainty is taken away.

Then there are the historical issues with Mormonism, from Joseph Smith’s problematic accounts of the First Vision (TM) to claims of angelic appearances at specific times, and then polygamy and the “martyrdom” followed by the succession of Brigham Young. Most Christians probably don’t spend much time thinking about these things because they aren’t part of their history. In fact, most Christians probably feel sorry for those poor deluded Mormons.

But the truth is that once you see the problems with Mormonism, it is very easy to see the same problems in the origins of Christianity. We’re told as Mormons that Joseph Smith did more “save Jesus Christ only” to redeem mankind, and when you give up Joseph Smith, you often give up Christ as anything other than a historical figure who might have said some good things but who was likely never resurrected and whose words were written down a century or more after his death by people who never met him in real life and then were altered over centuries to massage them into whatever was needed at the time. It just feels all too familiar.

For some ex-Mormons, they left because of epistemological reasons. That is, they began to see that their own way of seeing the world and finding “Truth” was deeply flawed and subjective. They become enormously suspicious of everything offered as truth from outside, and even more so from within themselves. And that doesn’t lead to religion, particularly not any kind of institutional one. I’m not one who would describe my transition as epistemological, but I definitely understand this point of view. My belief in God at this point is deep and satisfying, but I’m also likely to say that it may be entirely made up — and that doesn’t bother me at all now, but certainly would have when I was still an orthodox Mormon. It would have sounded crazy, in fact.

When you lose your entire community as an ex-Mormon, there are some real traumas that are hard to get over. You’ve spent your whole life being told about the next life and what it will be like, what sacrifices you should make to get there, and on and on. Then everything drops out and you become suspicious of other people. At least, this was my experience. Some of this is just that I hadn’t learned how to interact in the real world, making friends for myself, and so on. Maybe I will at some point start to trust other people, but for me right now, this is a deep problem. I don’t trust people who say they like me and I certainly don’t trust them not to be selling me some kind of religion for ulterior motives I don’t know about.

The idea of “grace” was taught to me as cheap and illogical, that God or Christ would give us something we hadn’t “earned.” So it’s hard to go back to that from this side, even though I wish I wasn’t so suspicious of it. Why is it so bad to think that there could be an all-powerful being who loves me no matter what and doesn’t need or require me to do anything in order to deserve it? I don’t know that I can explain that except to other ex-Mormons who I am pretty sure are nodding along as they read this. When you’re trained to think of checklists, it’s hard to give them up. It’s hard to think of the world as anything other than a series of steps to improve yourself instead of letting go of the whole project and sitting in your own filth.

And then there’s money. Mormonism has made me cautious of giving money to almost any cause because I believed for so long that the lack of transparency and accountability was somehow proof that it was a better charitable organization than the Red Cross or United Way. The idea that a lot of work is being done by amateurs was supposed to be so good. And then when I realized that was actually not a great plan, I’m not sure where to turn to because I now don’t believe much in any kind of organization that wants my money. They all seem self-serving on some level.

So that’s where I am now. I started this year imagining that I would detox from Mormonism and spend next year searching for a new religion that would fit me better. That timetable might sound ridiculous, but it’s also very Mormon. What I’m learning about myself is that I’m never going to stop being Mormon, even if that drives me absolutely insane. And also that I’m probably not going to be trying out a new religion any time soon.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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