When I was Mormon, I looked around at people who had no religion and thought how difficult it would be to figure out their own ethics. How would anyone know what was right or wrong without religion (or God) to tell you what it was? I think I genuinely believed that without a system of rules to tell me what I was allowed and not allowed to do, along with a series of punishments (from social disapprobation to the threat of God’s eternal condemnation) to keep me on the straight and narrow, I would likely become all sorts of bad things.
A drug addict.
A serial killer.
A liar and con artist.
In a world without religion and its commandments, why would anyone be prevented from doing what was solely in their own benefit rather than doing what was good for the larger group? In addition, how would anyone be able to gather enough information from millennia of human experience to see what actions were likely to lead to bad outcomes for children or anyone else? It seemed an impossible task to me, then.
Fast forward twenty years, and this lack of a foundation for my own ethics was one of the major reasons that my disintegrating faith in Mormonism was so distressing to me on every level. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t know which way was up. I didn’t understand anything the way that I had before. The whole world had changed and it seemed a dark place now that I wasn’t clear which way was true.
One of my ex-Mormon friends told me that his mother said when he left the church, “If I didn’t believe anymore, I’d kill myself.” What is the point of life once you give up the idea of being special and “saved” for this time, and your job is to save the world? It’s also even more painful when you feel that all of your relationships, your place in your community, will disappear when you step away.
Mormon missionaries begin discussions with the promise to answer the question “What is the purpose of this life?” They also promise that families are forever — if you do all the Mormon things. But if not — then your family won’t be forever. And if you’re not Mormon, it is really true that there may not be the same purpose in life anymore. Instead of getting your purpose from the “Plan of Salvation” that has been given to you by an outside source, combined with a patriarchal blessing that purports to be a guidepost for the rest of your entire life, and the temple endowment ceremony, which is your rite of passage into adulthood, and which you are encouraged to go back to every week (or however often you need to) in order to understand your gendered place in the universe — leaving Mormonism means that you have to figure ALL of that our for yourself.
Instead of being told “I am a child of God” and learning each week from teachers who are “inspired by the Spirit” and “called of God,” you have to find your own new sources of knowledge. Sometimes, you find new books that inspire you in the way scriptures once did. Maybe you even find people who are a kind of prophets — but never in the same way. You’re never going to find the same certainty that a fundamentalist religion offers. Instead, you get to sit in uncertainty and know that things will always be changing, that you will always be changing. You will not only have to figure out what you love and value right now, but you’ll have to do it all over again tomorrow and the next day. It turns out this humaning thing is a lot of work.
Fundamentalists religions are very good at community precisely because of the ways in which they teach fear. Fear can draw people together, especially when they are given a cause to fight for to stave off that fear. Fear of “the world” or “evil,” fear of “Satan,” and “bad influences.” Fear that you can’t be a good parent unless you teach your children a set of religious rules. Fear that anything bad that happens will be proof of God’s punishments. Fear that you have embarrassed your family and your community.
At the beginning of this whole thing, it didn’t feel like a great idea for me to be able to figure out my own value system. It felt like a huge burden, work that I had never done before and didn’t necessarily want to do. It made every moment of life harder. The simplest decisions took a lot longer. I kept wanting to feel that same certainty I used to feel, the sense that I had done “the right thing” and could sleep well that night in that knowledge of my own goodness. I just don’t get that anymore. And I miss it. I admit that freely. I miss a sense of self-satisfaction.
When I was a Mormon, it was so clear what I had to do to be right. It was a long list, but as long as I was busy doing things on the list, I didn’t dwell in existential angst. And feeling it for the first time in my late 40s has not been a particularly pleasant experience. I don’t know what’s “good” anymore. When I’m feeling low, Mormonism taught me that I could just do some service, read some scriptures, go to the temple and I’d feel better. And most of the time, at least temporarily, it worked. Now, I don’t have those simple fixes. I don’t have the same structure for service, and even when I do help others, either financially or in other ways, I spend a lot of time wondering what my own motivations are and what it even is to be “good” anymore.
It turns out life is very complicated and the purpose of life is, too. It’s what *I* make it, not what someone else tells me it is. So instead of getting a free pass by saying “I’m sorry” for making a mistake, I spend time really looking at myself and wondering who I am and if I want to still be that person, and how I can change that person without supernatural intervention.
Yes, that means that I sometimes wish I could go back to that other, easier system. But I tried that. It didn’t work for me. So I’m trying to embrace this new space I’m in, even if it’s really noisy in my head these days and there’s a lot of gray. I don’t believe in a perfect right or wrong anymore. I don’t believe I can pray to find out what I’m supposed to do. I have to try things out, see what the results are, and move forward. If there’s no right or wrong in this new world I live in, that also means there are a rainbow of choices that lead to different futures. And while that can feel overwhelming at times, it can also feel liberating. And authentic.
The longer I lived here, the more I find I am trusting myself. My 5-year-old self knew she wanted to be a writer, and it turns out she was right. I forgot that for about a decade before going back to it, and the older I get, the more often I ask myself what my 5-year-old self would have to say about what is right and wrong and what I should be doing with my time. I’m not asking for her approval so much as I’m surprised to discover that I always knew who I was, underneath all the rules of Mormonism, and I only have to dig a little deeper to find the answers to a lot of the deepest questions I have.
Who am I?
Where am I going?
What is important?
How can I best live my life?
Who are the people I should trust with my life and my love?
I don’t know if these are “missionary questions” I’d ask anyone who is newly leaving Mormonism, but they’re not bad ones to start building an inner authority on. When you’ve spent your entire life looking outside of yourself to find the answers, it takes a lot of time to make it a reflex to start looking inside instead, but I’m getting there.