A Trajectory of Mormon Transition, by Bill Dobbs* ([email protected]) *my excellent father. He is a counselor, theologian, and historian.
I started the Religious Transition Group (RTG) in March of 2003, as a support group for former or current Mormons, or others in conflict with their traditional religious identity. 1 For more than 12 years I have had the opportunity to see men and women go through the turmoil of great religious and social changes. They often suffer heartache in the process, yet come through transformed and strengthened in the end. This article discusses the principal challenges and transitions one may expect when leaving Mormonism.
I was a devoted convert to Mormonism for over thirty years, and I still feel great affection for the Mormon people. I spent many hours reflecting on the pains, pleasures, and puzzlements of my own transition from Mormon to ex-Mormon, listening to others who are on this same journey. I am deeply touched as I see those transitioning meet their trials with courage and wisdom. Active Mormons are also my beloved family members and friends, and I admire the love and dedication in their lives. I hope that this discussion of transition phases will help reduce unnecessary suffering for all.
Someday transitioning Mormons and true believers will better understand each other. 2 As more people leave the LDS Church more understanding among family members will become a necessity. Meanwhile, I can promise those leaving Mormonism that you are not alone, and you can lead a new life as you draw on strength and insight you never knew you had. As saints and sages from all traditions have taught, life is full of unavoidable suffering. But once pain, fear, and anger have been accepted and confronted honestly, the road to compassion and new understanding is open.
This discussion is also informed by my own personal experience of divorce, a similar traumatic and life-changing experience, as well as by insights I have gained from reading about history, religion, and psychology. In these pages I suggest ways of framing issues that I have found satisfying and helpful. Whether you agree with these formulations or not, let them be a spur to your own thinking as your strive for a satisfying life through this difficult transition.
The transitional changes mentioned in this paper presuppose that you have had a vital emotional connection to the Mormon Church and culture, and a firm self-identification as Mormon. Especially if you live in the Mormon corridor, have been raised in a Mormon family with generations of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the church, and have married a spouse for time and all eternity in the temple, Mormonism is in your blood. If you were a convert from a family with another religious tradition you may find it easier to leave the LDS Church. Some of your extended family should at least give you support and sympathy, and you already know there are more ways to see life than through the Mormon lens. But whatever your situation, is no simple matter for those who have strong ties to the LDS Church to leave Mormon ways of believing and belonging.
Even someone who consciously comes to reject self-identification as Mormon will often bear a distinctive stamp on his or her life that those who have never been Mormons cannot share. Hence the importance of finding friends who will support you, engaging in continuing discussions, practicing new habits, and finding satisfying life goals. Ex-Mormon internet discussion groups, face-to-face support groups such as RTG, chapters of postmormons.org, and other groups can be a great boon to those in transition. I gain great satisfaction in knowing that RTG meetings have given seekers the relief of a safe place to share their honest feelings in the company of sympathetic people.
The last stage of independence and integration outlined here is my best vision of a successful and satisfying journey. Just remember that we do not march through Mormonism in a linear fashion. Think of transition as a spiral with widening circles. You may keep coming back to earlier phases, but with time your visits will be less frequent and less stressful. You may find comfort just in knowing that there is a pattern to this painful and exhilarating process. Take what works for you in this discussion, and discard the rest.
Here is an outline of the transition process:
Attempt to Restore Harmony
Breakdown: Distancing and Separation
Surviving Through Turmoil
Making a New Identity: Ferment and Experimentation
Solidifying Identity: Settling In and Reaching Out
Independence and Integration
This discussion is followed by consideration of the thoroughgoing changes that those separating from Mormonism face in multiple areas of life:
Religious and Spiritual
Marriage and Family
Here you are satisfied, feeling no conflict. You never question or see any reason to question policies or decisions of church authorities, who you closely identify with your childhood home and parents. You feel so close to the church that your worth and your meaning are inseparably bound to it. Living the commandments and obeying authority is satisfying. When obedience is not satisfying, you fear disobedience too much to consider it. You cannot conceive of acting contrary to traditional teachings. You take it for granted that your life would be meaningless without the gospel. Eventually you may question some policy, decision, or doctrine, but your questions are you readily dismissed from your mind. At some point, you may start to wonder a bit more seriously about issues, but decide to “put them on the shelf,” without any great strain to your faith.
It becomes harder to shut dissonance out of your mind. The shelf where you put your questions starts to sag. You may come to realize that you really don’t “know that the church is true.” You may question church doctrines, such as plural marriage, or be repelled by the church- encouraged violence and uninspiring behavior of leaders in early Mormon history. You may disagree with political positions of the church. You may suspect that church condemnation of honest history and historians is unfair and unjust, a sign that the authorities may doubt the truth they say they know without a doubt.
You question why love, rather than obedience, is not preached as the highest principle for those who follow Jesus. You wonder about preaching that emphasizes the evil of the world, and makes you fearful to give serious consideration to your own genuine thoughts and feelings. You grow weary of church emphasis on sexual shame. You see that church members who are honest in answering questions are sometimes denied callings or forbidden to go to the temple, while those who lie and secretly disobey standards are sometimes given those privileges. Similar things exist in other organizations, but this makes you doubt the system of a bishop declaring “worthiness.”
Death, serious illness, or other adversity may darken your world, and shake your faith. You may come to suspect that your warm feelings after prayer were simply based on your social conditioning, and thus no proof whatever that Mormonism is true. You may see that people who are not Mormons enjoy their lives and feel satisfied with their religion, or their lack of religion, making you wonder if the church is really the only way to happiness. You may wonder why you fulfill all the commandments and still feel miserable, not happy. Or you may despair of ever fulfilling all the commandments.
Attempt to Restore Harmony
You may fall back on stock explanations, follow the commandments more strictly, and say that adversity builds character. Or you may just run away from all dissonance, refusing to think “negative thoughts” because what makes you feel bad “grieves the spirit” and is “anti-Mormon.” You may decide that history isn’t important, that as the authorities say, it is only the “witness of the spirit” that counts. You tell yourself that church authorities know best. You blame yourself for your doubts and shortcomings, and wonder if you deserve divine punishment for them. You are unworthy, not the church. You keep busy with church work, yet your doubts keep nagging.
If your attempt to quell doubts and perceived inconsistencies works, you may restore a satisfying sense of harmony. Doubts may linger, but you refuse to let them undermine your belief in Mormon authority. If you find further reasons to doubt in the future, however, you may feel the previous conflict even more keenly. When harmonizing attempts fall short, your identification with the church loosens, and further distancing or even complete separation is possible.
Breakdown: Distancing or Separation
Thoughtful examination of your beliefs requires that you at least provisionally distance yourself from traditional tenets of the faith. This provokes anxiety, and may lead to repression of anything conflicting with orthodox Mormonism from your conscious mind, causing you, in a psychological dynamic called projection, to blame other people for their lack of faith. Yet your subconscious is not fooled. Frantic attempts to suppress all doubts may someday lead to total collapse of belief, seemingly in one stroke. You are then left to pick up the pieces. Pascal said that “Denying, believing and doubting are to men what running is to horses.” 3 A mature and credible approach demands recognizing that truth, and deals consciously with doubts. Denied thoughts and feelings will take their toll, in any event.
The first level of conscious distancing begins with unorthodox thoughts, or deviation from trivial customs or practices, such as wearing colored shirts or drinking Coke. You may become less active, or inactive. You may actually no longer believe the church’s claims, but decide that because of community or family ostracism you must become a “closet doubter.” This denial of yourself and your feelings may suddenly collapse if you cannot stand to be silent anymore.
On the other hand, you may simply reduce your activity in the church, or become completely inactive, but still identify as Mormon. Or you may decide that you need to continue activity and belief in the church, but you bring wider areas of knowledge into play, including your own feelings, philosophy, history, science, alternative faith traditions. This is the position of a Mormon religious liberal. General authority sermons and church discipline, however, show you that religious liberals are not very welcome in the LDS Church these days.
Despite all attempts, you may fail to reconcile your conflict in any satisfying way. Church claims become so unbelievable, church actions so offensive, church sermons so irritating, that the clash between who you are and what your church espouses just becomes too great. You can no longer identify with the organization. You are stunned when you see that the officially taught version of history is far from the spectacle of polygamy, polyandry, power seeking, violence, and financial irregularities engaged in by early church leaders. Work for the church, paying of tithes and offerings, become burdens, not blessings. Church talk at meetings, home, or work becomes intrusive and annoying. General authority injunctions to follow leaders without question feel like counsel to regress into a childish world that avoids adult responsibility.
Sometimes it is only our desperation to be heard and seen that drives us out into the open, that demands we act authentically on our insights, regardless of the consequences. Criticism of authority is one of the greatest LDS taboos. If you are able to speak and act honesty, you feel a new sense of personal power. Things start moving when you are open. If you announce to your wife, family, or Bishop that you no longer believe, and that you no longer wish to participate in church, you open the door to many life changes. You feel you must be true to yourself to live a life worth living. You do not know what lies ahead, just that you must persist on our journey.
Surviving Through Turmoil
Emphasis in this phase is on just coping with the internal and external shocks as your faith and all the familiar signposts of your life collapse. You struggle to regain balance amidst the vertigo of religious insecurity. Everything in your life has been shattered, and your confidence is in ruins. The preexistence, mortal life’s test of obedience, faith in future life eternal with all your loved ones–all of these are gone. You have no north star by which to steer your life.
Depression, anger, and grief hit you like a wave. You struggle to stay afloat. You may first try to hide from your wife or husband. You agonize how to explain to him or her, when it seems almost incomprehensible to you. You try to hold on to something. You do not want to think of what your disbelief will do to your marriage. You desperately want your spouse, family, and friends to understand and sympathize, yet you know how much these disclosures will hurt them. In most cases you will get stiff resistance. Their fear, refusal to engage, or adamant arguments may provoke escalating disputes.
You doubt your own worthiness, making you question what you have worked so hard to see. Shame and guilt surface and this only makes you angrier. Your normal activities and friendships drop away. Friends stop talking to you or coming by. Husband or wife may retreat into ultimatums or silence. You feel alone, bereft of God, caught in an uncaring universe that mocks you. You may not know where to turn.
Making a New Identity: Ferment and Experimentation
As your normal activities drop away, so do your habitual Mormon cultural reactions. If you were a convert, you may fall back on past ways of thinking to understand and stabilize your life. You may take up with old friends you have neglected, or you may attend your prior church. You most likely will not feel completely at home, but may adapt more with time. If you leave Mormonism and quickly convert to an evangelical Christian church, you must adapt to new social customs and associates, but may avoid the feeling of being completely shattered.
You can allay your religious and social anxieties through another exclusive system that is certain of its truth. This can be fulfilling, but in avoiding much of the upheaval in leaving Mormonism, you may actually be missing psychological, religious, and intellectual growth. The typical path of those who come to our group, however, is not conversion to another religion, but disillusionment with all religion. This produces an aversion to organized religion, skepticism of religious claims, and especially the claims of religious authority.
You experiment with new behaviors. In this early stage, you cross old moral, social, emotional, marital, and religious boundaries of good taste. You flaunt your ability to dress and look differently, or practice formerly taboo behaviors like smoking or drinking, or even sexual experimentation. You seek out the unsavory history of the LDS Church, and may speak loudly and often against Mormonism–or you resent that you cannot. You flip from ardent believer to ardent skeptic. You can no longer identify with your old techniques to determine “truth” or “testimony.” Or you may hide your deep questioning or experimentation if the Mormon culture or your spouse still has enough hold on you. You eventually start seeking more of what you want, than of reacting to what you lost. You begin to understand and enjoy what your intellect and experience have found to be reliable, rather than pursuing rebellion just because it is rebellious.
Solidifying Identity: Settling in and Reaching Out
Your life has started to stabilize, your needs and daily tasks more clear. If your spouse agrees with you, you have avoided much pain. You may explore new ideas and ways of acting that comport more with conventional social boundaries. If your spouse clings to her faith, you have a better sense of how far you can push her. You have confronted the fallout of telling extended family. You miss your former friends and associates, but are reaching out to widen your circle. You find help from a friend, support group, or professional therapist.
You are more comfortable with yourself and have moved further toward separating your identity from the church. You try to deepen your learning about Mormon history, setting things in wider context for you. You review your past to look at the fears you avoided, or the desires and thoughts you were afraid to pursue due to the fear of group rejection if you did not conform.
You increasingly accept your past experience, and you start understanding yourself better. You feel relieved that you do not have to submit all your thoughts, impulses, and actions to a higher authority. You have explored different ways to think and act, and you move toward those that feel right. You are intrigued by what lies ahead, but you still feel incomplete. You know things will never be the same, but you are starting to let go of reactive rebellion and reflexive disagreement. You are starting to accept yourself, and have more confidence in your ability to get through turmoil which is becoming less frequent and distressing.
Independence and Integration
Congratulations, you survived! You are stronger for it. You found the courage to work through both resistance from within yourself and resistance from others. You used the energy of anger and your will to justice to motivate you through hard times, but you then skillfully let go of all resentment and worked your way out of the victim role. You felt your suffering but did not get bogged down in it. You found your human values. You do what you love, take satisfaction in work, and you are building the kind of world you want. You have friends to share joy and pain, and you have found meaningful tasks to accomplish. You know what you like and don’t like, you are more open to thoughts and feelings than ever before, you explore intellectual and creative interests. If your spouse has not come to agree with your view of Mormonism, you have either arranged a workable accommodation, or have ended the relationship.
You know you are not the only one on this life journey. You are increasingly at peace with your past, leaving behind bitterness and resentment. You look forward to new and very different future. You may want to help others who are going through transition, and while you have strong disagreements with Mormonism, you also give respect and compassion to Mormon believers or others with religious or political opinions that differ from you. You can live with religious diversity and uncertainty.
You may or may not find you want to attend another church, but you appreciate how much you don’t know, and you are willing to live with mystery. You are your own captain on this voyage. You no longer need to seek approval from an all-knowing parent-like institution for your adult actions. You no longer live reactively. You have constructive interests. If you have conflict with believing family members or associates, you can talk to them calmly. When things get upsetting, you know who you can talk to or what you need to do to soothe yourself and look for solutions. You do not need perfection. When you become independent, you no longer jump whenever the LDS Church sneezes. You accept yourself. You may spend large amounts of time entirely forgetting about your old religion. The past cannot contain you; you live in a wider universe.
Transition in Multiple Aspects of Life
As suggested earlier, coming out as a nonbeliever has far-reaching consequences that challenge religion and spirituality, moral life, social life, emotional balance, and marriage and family. When separating from your Mormon identity, you encounter questions you never before allowed yourself to face. Familiar sources of support collapse, and courage is tested to the core. Next we discuss your transition through various areas of life.
Religious and Spiritual— You lose your long-time purpose and sense of security. Often you no longer know what happens after death, if prayer is answered, whether trials have a purpose, or whether you can feel confidence in life. Many of us no longer know if there is a God to answer prayer. You once trusted in the complete safety of following authority; but now you realize trust was misplaced and there is no such safety. Yet often those in transition tell me that they have a sense their life is unfolding as it should. You lose everything you considered of religious value, but in return you now have the opportunity to think deeply and critically about the most fundamental issues of life. You determine what is really worth believing. There is no pretending, no running away, no covering up. You no longer know who or what to trust. Years of “knowing the gospel is true” may be balanced by years of not knowing anything of a religious nature. Patiently accepting this “beginner’s mind,” as Zen Buddhist practitioners would call it, can lead you to consider possibilities you never previously conceived.
Those who come to RTG during these past few years do not readily accept the doctrines of any other church, though they may sometimes attend a church where they feel welcomed and unpressured. They look at life free of prescribed thoughts and emotions. They sense that religion is part of life, and religious authority has no special guarantee. They are thoughtful about what they know, and how they know it. They feel that the religious rug slipped from under them, and they are cautious about religious claims. Though uncertain, however, they are also open to the possibility of religious truth. They just do not know now what it might be. They can live with uncertainty.
They are prone to appreciate or respect some religious beliefs they once dismissed, and they prize experiences of the sacred outside of conventional religion. Many find beauty and peace in valleys, mountains, and forests, coming in touch there with the awe that marks our perception of the sacred. You do not need to subscribe to any religion to find a sense of the sacred. After our religious disillusionment we may feel safest sticking to the secular. On the other hand, when we have learned the lessons of our disillusionment, fleeing all things religious may deny our deepest needs. Neither naive belief nor reactive cynicism are very good lenses through which to seek spiritual wisdom. Practice an intelligent openness.
Contrary to Mormon teachings, you need not think of one religion as “the only true faith,” and others as false. You need not take mythical stories literally, subscribe to the dogmatic elements of a religion, or accept its claims of exclusive authority to appreciate the truth it holds. Different religious traditions spring from different cultures. One can look at them in different ways. One might take them simply as expressions of varying cultural approaches to life. One may also discern a deeper unity among them. Despite real differences in dogmas and truth claims, each traditional religion has some form of the golden rule that calls on its adherents to treat our neighbor as our self. Each has mystics who speak of encountering the transcendent light and love that penetrates all life. Each has techniques of prayer, meditation or ritual for coming in touch with that ultimate reality. 4
As you mature in your transition you ask yourself: what gives meaning to my life? What is it that inspires you, gives you courage, and moves you forward? What experiences, music, or actions make you feel close to the sacred? Whatever you do, you will need to find a credible world view that satisfies your needs for reason, reverence, ethical ideals, and supportive community. Since different needs, personalities, cultures, and experiences, not simply differences in intellect, will lead sincere people to different conclusions on these issues, it is reasonable to look for a point of view that satisfies you, but does not demean others.
Moral– Mormonism’s highest proclaimed principle is obedience. What do you do when there is no authority to tell you what is right? You were formed by your awe of authority. You now have both the burden and the opportunity to discover your own moral truths. You still face shame and guilt. The internalized voice of parental warning will not disappear overnight just because you have changed your intellectual beliefs. Through the years forbidden behavior fascinated you, but you felt ashamed and denied your attraction to it. Perhaps you only obeyed because you feared social pressure, repressing awareness of your real desires. You may feel so angry and betrayed that you can no longer stand to wear masks of conformity and niceness.
Leaving Mormonism is like navigating adolescence once again. You reject childish behavior, and you cross old boundaries to test your mettle. You may feel strong impulses to experiment with new styles of dress, attitude, and forbidden behaviors, including drinking, smoking, or sex. An adolescent is impelled to cross childhood rules both to try out “adult” behavior and to prove that he really is a grown up. The formerly-faithful-Mormon-in-transition has been taught all her life never to disobey or depart from the fatherly direction of church patriarchs. If your Mormon past shut you in a miserable box, if you feel at sea now, you will make more dramatic efforts to break your past bonds. So you rebel, feel your oats, and sometimes relish shocking others. By breaking through the boundaries of behavior you once condemned, you seek to proclaim your independence. You demonstrate to yourself and others that you can flout disapproval.
If before your alienation from Mormonism you were more conscious about your desires, more confident in yourself, and more aware of what you wanted in your personal life, then this boundary crossing may not be so insistent. Acting differently changes your feelings and thoughts. The new behavior need not be dramatic or harmful to undo past conditioning. Attachment to an all-embracing religion like Mormonism is made up of many small habits of thought, speech, and action. Your need not act as dramatically as Martin Luther did to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. He held a Friday pig-roasting banquet to defy church-ordained meatless Fridays, and then broke his monastic vows of celibacy to marry a nun, vividly proclaiming his independence. Perhaps just seeing a good “R” rated movie, wearing a sleeveless blouse, or having a glass of wine with your dinner will do for you. Breaking such taboos can be surprisingly difficult, but can contribute strongly to independent decision making.
Honesty, clear thinking, and awareness of your needs and the needs of others are your touchstones through this period. However conservative or daring you are in your behavior, it is necessary for one who separates from Mormonism to feel his way toward a responsible and authentic sense of right and wrong. Maybe you and your spouse never conceived that a person could be moral without the church-given “gift of the Holy Ghost.” Yet the capacity for morality is present in anyone who has a normal sense of empathy, anyone who can think, remember, observe, and reflect on the effect of her conduct. Your moral fiber is revealed by the very fact that you exercised the courage to question cherished beliefs, that you pursued your vision of truth in the face of so many obstacles.
Once you feel more comfortable with your life, you no longer need to behave reactively. You do things because they work, not because a stern parent tells you, or because you need to rebel to separate from the group. You discover your own moral insights, with the voice of authority coming from within. You own your repressed desires, and deal with them consciously. You act morally not because of rules and guilt, but from inner conviction and awareness of consequences. You no longer obey moral injunctions simply to get approval and avoid social condemnation. You see from experience that observing traditional moral standards helps prevent unnecessary suffering for self and others. You have both the time and the vision to see that goodness runs through all the human family, not just one group. The entire world is now your moral field.
Social– Old ties disappear with friends, community, and perhaps employment. We spent long hours of church work and activity, and socialized with neighbors who were in our ward, so all our friends and associates came from church. If we stop participating in church, friends will probably discuss your apostasy with your believing spouse. They may stop calling or coming over. When it comes right down to it, most friends do not want to hear about the reasons you stopped believing. You make them uncomfortable. You lose your home teaching, Sunday School, priesthood quorum, Relief Society associations. You see friends in strained silence. Some, however, may want to use you as a kind of sounding board for their forbidden thoughts and doubts.
Your workplace may be filled with Mormons chattering about church work, projects, sermons, activities, temple attendance, etc. You may feel reluctant to come out to these people for fear of provoking severe negative reactions. If you confide your beliefs, they may try to reconvert you. You may be denied promotions. If you own a store, a dental practice, or a law office, you may lose business. People in smaller communities may find they can no longer make a living unless they move to a new area.
In Mormon communities, the homes adjacent to ours are filled with ward members. Neighborhood barbecues or other gatherings feel like church meetings. You no longer feel welcome. The bottom line is that you will lose most, if not all, familiar friendships and associations. You are now an outsider. You desperately need honest and supportive conversation, but you may actually be reluctant to hurt the faith of people you know. These days “come outers” can vent on the internet. The online ex-Mormon community can be helpful not only in understanding the history of Mormonism, but in seeing how others cope with leaving the fold.
This does not, however, eliminate the need for face-to-face conversation and support. There is nothing like the balm of sympathetic human presence. With so many areas of your life challenged, a good therapist can help you navigate unfamiliar waters. Or you will benefit from a support group. I’ve seen one or two visits to RTG give the seeker new hope that is evident in her entire posture. To make new friends, you might attend a nonjudgmental church, secular community activities, divorce support or singles groups. Social ties are crucial in getting through hard times.
Emotional–You cannot go through such change to your fundamental beliefs and activities without awakening deep emotions. The development and strength of feelings will vary according to personal disposition and circumstances. The ability to move through difficult emotions well may depend on how much healthy love your parents gave you when you were growing up. The healthier your church leaders in youth, the more guilt- free you will feel now. The more emotional security you felt as a child, the less likely you are to hold a grudge or to feel completely devastated for very long. As you learn views of Mormonism you never encountered before, you feel curiosity, fascination, and excitement. You also feel disturbed, then shocked as pillars of religious faith collapse. You question your own worthiness. Shame wells up as questions increase, but you feel compelled to keep learning.
Mormon parents teach children to revere their leaders. They are never to turn down a church calling. Bishops annual interviews probe youthful behavior, reinforcing obedience to parents and to church standards. You view general authorities with feelings of awe, the prophet most of all. Without their authority your family could not stay together. Pictures of these men are everywhere, on walls at homes and meeting houses. Church general authorities, and the legendary founding prophet Joseph Smith, are truly fathers-writ-large. These revered prophets tell us what the ultimate father, God, demands of us. But then you discover Joseph left unsettling discrepancies in first vision stories, and his marriage and sexual practices would be thought shocking and offensive if taught at church today. General authorities today have chosen to clamp down on those who try to tell the history of Joseph Smith and plural marriage honestly. Any public criticism of views espoused by general authorities, however well founded in fact, is considered apostasy. As scholars, intellectuals, and feminists meet with church discipline, general authorities deny their obvious involvement.
As a faithful Mormon you may have felt painful guilt for your failure to live up to high standards, deep shame for normal sexual impulses. You struggled to be truthful in all your dealings; now you discover your church has lied. Your revered founding prophet fostered bizarre sexual practices. When your revered religious fathers show their feet of clay, you are not simply disappointed, you feel betrayed. Your sacred expectations collapse, your security disappears. The child within you feels abandoned and humiliated. You are left on our own to make sense of a newly naked and unfriendly universe.
You feel lonely as relationships break down. You feel grief at your loss, and at times a nostalgic longing to return to your lost innocence, but you have learned too much ever to feel comfortable with your old ways. You may become depressed at all your losses and your seeming inability to control anything in your life. You will be anxious as you try to find new ways to continue meeting your needs for security, companionship, affection, family support. You need to find a reassuring sense of your place in the scheme of things. You start to realize believers are afraid of you. Even strangers greet you with shock if you say you are ex-Mormon. As you get beyond your initial shock and indignation, you feel more confidence in yourself. A new sense of freedom wells up; you no longer censor your thoughts and feelings. You feel whole in yourself, perhaps for the first time. You accept your situation. You savor the free-flowing thoughts and feelings as they move through you. Your body wakes up. You became aware of repressed emotions and impulses. You are frightened, but also exhilarated. You want to pursue new ideas wherever they lead. Life is opening, and you have reason to hope
Marriage and Family–When a spouse tells his devout partner he no longer believes, it threatens the foundation of the relationship. An eternal marriage is impossible without priesthood, temple worthiness, faith, and continuing obedience to LDS authority. If you have a good relationship, are emotionally close, and communicate well, you may have a fruitful encounter. Be prepared, however, for a more fearful reaction. Your spouse may feel many of the emotions mentioned above–including shock, fear, anger, indignation, and betrayal. They are directed at you for your failure to fulfill life expectations and eternal covenants.
The believing spouse wonders where he failed. This may make him dig in his heels, presenting you with ultimatums of obedience to the church. He will fall back on the fear of apostates and the traditional belief that you can lose faith only because of moral failure. You may be shocked to find that your bishop and your spouse both ask whether you had an adulterous affair. It is too threatening to confront actual reasons for disbelief. They will blame you, not the church, because their identity is so tied to the church. Indeed, wife, husband, or church authority become rigid because they fear you will make them lose their faith if they talk honestly to you.
If your spouse can separate from his or her self-identification with Mormonism, your task of transition will be lightened considerably. You have a partner and confidante to share your search for a new life. If not, you must exercise patience. It may take time for the new and distressing information to penetrate to your spouse. You cannot expect beliefs that fulfill deep social and religious needs to disappear in a moment. It may help if you talk tentatively and reasonably about you insights and feelings, with acknowledgment of how hard it is to face this information. Gain control of your own emotions before talking, and don’t forget to exercise compassion toward your spouse or other believers. Show your love. Sudden and dramatic moral behavior changes are not likely to help loved ones understand or accept you. To the best of your ability you need to make your loved ones feel safe.
Attempts to overwhelm your partner are not very effective. The more you insist, the less your confidence. In any event, attack will provoke defense, and what is needed is honest, truthful, and heartfelt dialogue. If your marriage is to continue, you must overcome theological differences by finding common human values now. What common activities, goals, values, loves can you still share? You have the potential to share more than you think. 5
Often we seekers find ourselves faced with an ultimatum: obey and believe or the marriage ends. If your spouse stays a true believer, and your marriage goes on, she will often refuse to talk about religion. This frustrates any hope for a more intimate and honest relationship. It is my sense that compassion, patience, and the search for common human values are the only things that might help your partner to open up.
If religious differences become a constant bone of contention you must evaluate whether the marriage is still worthwhile. Honestly assess your contribution. If your spouse consistently acts in ways that show she thinks you are intrinsically defective, if she does not act differently when you repeatedly request it, and if you have done everything you can think of, there may not be much hope for a fulfilling future. Do not forget to try therapy. You will need to find a therapist who is willing to take an neutral attitude about your status with the LDS Church.
If over a significant period of time your spouse, despite all the patience and understanding you can muster, persistently refuses to see any meaning in your common activities but that given by his Mormon identity, all efforts to reach a common ground may fail. At times, separation may help put things in perspective. Ultimately divorce may be the only viable decision that can preserve your sanity and allow you to live the truth you see. Acting impulsively, however, is not advisable. RTG members have told me that their believing partners gradually became more flexible after they stopped trying to persuade them to disbelieve. Much depends on what you have in common outside of your relationship to the LDS Church, and how well the two of you have been able to resolve conflicts in the past.
Whether you believe in Mormonism or not, strained silence, constant conflict, or ultimatums that demand your spouse abandons her beliefs are not good for children. What is done in secret will be shouted from the house tops in any event. Despite divorce, kids will encounter the different beliefs of mother and father. You cannot build impervious border walls in spiritual or emotional life. You can pretend differences do not exist. You can demean, demonize and shun your partner, if you choose. Or you can deal consciously, openly and compassionately with differences now. What do you think is best for your children? What will they learn from you?
Whatever your beliefs, the most important thing you can do for your kids is to model the courage of kindness, honesty, and confidence. The character of your children will be formed not primarily by your words, but your behavior. Opposing positions proclaimed with equal harshness teach the same negative lessons. What does it matter if it is your religious obedience, or your religious ridicule, that moves your children to unkindness, dishonesty, or fear? In either case, you harm them. Whatever your religious beliefs, teaching your children sound values should be your first objective. Treating a child’s father or mother shabbily will not do. It certainly cannot build any real strength in you or your children. Emotionally and ethically negative communication overwhelms any facts in your position.
Extended family may have much the same closed attitude as your spouse. With a large extended family, though, you may have a chance of finding at least one sympathetic listener. You may be shunned and feared at first, but find sympathy later. Most family members will be afraid to talk to you about what is really in your heart. In the long run, patience and compassion give the best odds for a good response.
Be willing to respect people with different beliefs, while steadily pursuing the truth you see. Rejection, judgment, and silence from spouse and family cause members of RTG the most daily heartache. It is difficult to exercise patience with a frightened spouse, to communicate with compassion if your own emotions are raw, your own needs unmet. Be kind to yourself. Pursue activities you love. Separation from the church stresses the seeker in many of the same life-changing ways that divorce does, and it only adds to the stress when we must go through both divorce and exit from Mormonism at the same time. Reach out for support and new friends.
When you separate from Mormonism, you are commonly met with fear, misunderstanding and condemnation. You lose your friends. You feel fear and shame. You feel alone, abandoned, and vulnerable. You have been taught from the cradle that the church is perfect. You were never to criticize the Lord’s anointed–indeed, never to think a whiff of any critical thought about a church leader. When finally the dam breaks, and everything inside and outside of you says you are in the wrong, is it any wonder you get angry? We need to acknowledge our anger, experience it honestly, and channel its energy.
Anger is like the booster rocket that pushes us beyond earth’s gravity. When we drop it, we know we are free. While anger gives us the energy to accomplish change, and the courage to demand justice, when held onto doggedly it turns into resentment. Resentment ties us to the past and makes us victims. We become zealous anti-Mormons, as we were once zealous Mormons. We forget compassion for the believers that we once were, and for other believers now. We stay bitter, enmeshed with a religion we no longer want.
Anger blocks our awareness of vulnerability, but in the long run it is becoming open and vulnerable, if only we can stand it, that our greatest strength can be found. When in due time you give up your anger you accept responsibility for your life. You surrender your righteous victimization. Realize that any social group punishes individual member who violate its norms. Though they are essential to individual integrity and human progress, men and women who act contrary to group norms are not popular. Mormonism is particularly tight in its control over individual behavior, extreme in the near-infallible mantle it throws over its leaders.
Our greatest happiness and our greatest misery both come in the company of others. It is only in community that individuality realizes itself. If we had not been hurt in Mormonism, we would have been hurt elsewhere. Most of the time people do not hurt us intentionally. They are merely doing what they think is best. When we leave Mormonism, we search for a community that will truly give us scope for individuality, and that will nurture us today while we learn the lessons of our past. If we are wise we realize that we can never find perfection. Realistic expectations minimize pain.
Leaving Mormonism means you not only change your beliefs, but your identity. A satisfying transition involves leaving behind reactive emotionality. Freeing yourself from bitterness is at least as important as freeing yourself from incorrect beliefs. Indeed, until you do both, your liberation is incomplete. Once we have been able to overcome internal and external pressures to conform, have recognized our own reactivity in the struggle to get free, and have made significant progress in following our new truth, we are in a better position to see good in the tradition we have left.
Things look clearer from the vantage point of an independent and satisfying existence. I believe that we will not find personal peace until we can completely accept our past. We need to practice forgiveness for self and others. We need to consciously move through anger so that we can experience a new future. 6 Letting anger go improves both our mental and our physical health.
We do not find new awareness until the pain of life forces us out of our familiar beliefs and habits. That is both our burden and our opportunity. There is no creation without destruction. If we recognize this we can be grateful not only for the gifts, but even for the adversities of our Mormon past. When we lose, we find. The best journey from Mormonism entails not simply becoming more intellectually discriminating, but also more inclusive, tolerant, open-minded, and compassionate.
If you are continually harassed and abused, you may find it helpful to move to another state, or to withdraw from all contact with Mormon family, at least for a time. Do what you must to preserve your sanity. But look first to what you can do where you are now. Most of us will continue to live with believing Mormons who remain important people in our lives. How can you live well with Mormons while keeping true to yourself? Your success at doing that will more than anything else define your quality of life. This means learning to cope with others fear and judgment.
Become aware of how others press your hot buttons of anger, shame, guilt, self-doubt, so that they can no longer disturb your inner peace. You cannot control reactions of believers, but if you are confident in yourself and your insights, steadily exercising compassion, patience, and tolerance, you can find serenity. Your attitude will be contagious, perhaps making others feel more comfortable with honest discussion. Reassure your spouse that you are committed to living a principled life, whatever your religious beliefs or doubts. 7 You may not be able to satisfy a rigid partner, or preserve your troubled marriage, but through this trial by fire your new self will be born.
As you move toward living the truth you see, you separate your identity from the last painful cultural adhesions of your old life. You will sometimes long for a lost Eden. It will pass. Seek support from sympathetic men and women who affirm you. Look for causes you believe in and do something to help, however small. It will give you a sense of personal power. Steadily pursue the life you think is best. Once mature in your transition, those I have met say you will neverwant to go back to your old way of life. Despite the challenges, it is wonderful to awaken, to feel life unfolding as you follow the truth you see.
1. The basic norms of RTG for the those attending are:
~Respect for the privacy and feelings of others
~Speak honestly and vulnerably from your experience
~Mutual support of each other on our different paths
~Seek perspective, including views that may not agree with yours
~Seek constructive actions
And for the group as a whole:
~We do not try to convert (or deconvert) others
RTG exists to help people through difficulties as they leave a religion they once loved, face judgement from others and self, and search for their own authentic and satisfying way of life. It exists to empower each individual to find and follow what they believe, and to respect and get along with others who may have different beliefs.
We firmly believe that each individual has the right to formulate his or her own views, religious or irreligious. Being affirmed by others who have gone through similar experiences may help you not only to accept yourself, but to treat your believing loved ones with more patience and compassion.
2. If you are a Mormon firm in the faith please understand that people of sincerity, intelligence, and character who conscientiously look at the evidence may conclude that it simply does not support belief. These people are wives, husbands, children, siblings, parents, grandparents and extended family. Integrity demands that we live the truth that we see. Changing beliefs stress both those coming out and the believers who remain. We both are still entitled to love and respect. We could lessen tensions if we could really listen each other, not to change each other, but to really understand how we each feel.
3. Pensees, by Blaise Pascal (translator A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books, copyright 1966, published 1984), page 208, section 505.
4. Ian Barbour outlines five ways that religious communities have looked at each other. This is also a good description of different ways anyone can look at religion.
~Absolutism: My religion is true, all others are false. Religious authority resides in my tradition, which has authoritative prophets, scriptures, etc.
~Approximations of Truth: Other religions hold elements of truth that come to fullness only in my tradition.
~Identity of Essence: Different religions are basically the same, expressed in different cultural forms.
~Cultural Relativism: Each religion is an expression of human culture with its own unique symbols, rites, language, and doctrines. Truth is not at issue, only views, rites, and customs.
~Pluralistic Dialogue: Your faith is a carrier of the sacred, but other religions are also carriers of the sacred. Different religions are indeed expressions of different cultures, but they each attempt to describe a common spiritual reality. None of them does so perfectly. Each religious community has its own symbolic ways of articulating understandings of this ultimate reality that is in itself beyond description. Religions can learn from each other. This viewpoint accommodates changing beliefs.
See Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (HarperCollins, 1997), pages 154–156
To this we can add one other position, skepticism. This can be held in as absolute fashion as the belief in one true religion, or more tentatively. It may be combined with relativism or some of the other approaches mentioned. In the traditional sense, coming from ancient Greece, a skeptic was one who wanted to learn as much as possible about an issue at hand by not drawing any conclusions. More commonly today we see people who are willing to rule out in advance evidence they do not consider credible.
How skeptical we are may depend on what evidence, what experiences, we are willing to consider credible. Traditionally, religions have been carriers of value for their cultures, but secularism has perhaps done most to bring tolerance for a variety of religious views. Whether we are religious or secular, we need some way to see dignity in diverse points of view. Indeed, the continued survival of humankind through this perilous time in world history may depend on it.
I personally lean toward pluralism, through the lens of a Universalist Christianity. Here is a quotation from the philosopher John Hick that describes his formulation of religious pluralism:
“[R]eligious pluralism…[is] the name that has been given to the idea that the great world religions are different human responses to the same ultimate transcendent reality. That reality is in itself beyond the scope of our human conceptual systems. But nevertheless it is universally present as the very ground of our being….
This means that the different world religions–each with its own sacred scriptures, spiritual practices, forms of religious experience, belief systems, founder or great exemplars, communal memories, cultural expression in ways of life, laws and customs, art forms and so on–taken together as complex historical totalities, constitute different human responses to the ultimate transcendent reality to which they all, in their different ways, bear witness.” See The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm, by John Hick (One World Publications, 1999), 77.
According to Dr Roger Walsh, each of the world’s great religious traditions teaches common practices to help experience the sacred. Through these practices, “[w]ithin ourselves we find our deepest self, our true Self,” the most important thing we can gain from life. He lists sayings from the different traditions that point in this direction:
~The kingdom of heaven is within you. (Jesus, Christianity)
~Those who know themselves know their Lord. (Mohammed, Islam)
~He is in all, and all is in Him. (Judaism)
~Those who know completely their own nature, know heaven. (Mencius, Confucianism)
~In the depths of the soul, one sees the Divine, the One. (The Chinese Book of Changes)
~Atman [individual consciousness] and Brahman [universal consciousness] are one. (Hinduism)
~Look within, you are the Buddha. (Buddhism)
Dr Walsh concludes that these religions “contain a common core of practices for training the mind. These practices cultivate the same profound states of mind, and qualities such as wisdom and love, that the religious founders had originally discovered. Yes, religions contain an enormous amount of popular nonsense, but they also contain a core of wisdom and practices of remarkable transformative power.”
Dr Walsh goes on to describe these practices, with exercises anyone can do. See Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, by Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D. (1999, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) 5,6,11 & 12.
5. See Viktor Frankl’s compelling book, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, (Touchstone Edition, 1984, Simon and Schuster), as well as his The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (Alfred A. Knopf, Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
As a Nazi death camp survivor, Dr. Frankl tells us that everything can be taken from a human being but one thing: the attitude we choose to adopt toward life. If a survivor of the Holocaust like Frankl could live with hope even in the death camps, and after the war reject the concept of collective guilt, then keeping hope through the process of leaving Mormonism does not look so hard anymore. Dr Frankl, a psychologist, founded logotherapy, sometimes called the third school of Viennese psychoanalysis. Logotherapy involves working with the patient to find meaning in her life. Dr. Frankl noted that a camp inmate who had something to look forward to was much more likely to survive. A vision of the future is crucial to all human beings. If she was to survive, a camp inmate had to think of a loved one who wanted her to return, or some task that life was calling her to do. Dr. Frankl commented that it doesn’t make sense to ask a chess master, “What is the strongest move in chess?” because that depends on the context of the position. As different moves would be best in different chess positions, so each person has to look at her own personal disposition and individual circumstances to find meaning in her life.
Frankl says we all may find meaning in the categories of creative or experiential values. Creative values are those of work and accomplishment. Experiential values include experiences of beautiful music, art, or loving and being loved. When your health declines so that you cannot work, create, or even enjoy beauty, one thing more remains: you can suffer with dignity. Your experiences of beauty, your creative work, your past relationships, can never be taken from you. They are safeguarded in the existence of the past for all time. You can suffer with dignity to the last minute of your life. Frankl leaves room for God, as well, noting that the religious person is aware not only of the task, but of the task-master, but each person must find meaning. We can survive through the most awful circumstances if we find meaning in them.
How would this apply to those who separate from Mormonism? Well to begin with ask: What attitude will I assume toward life? What task calls me? What beauty do I want to experience or create? How will I react to unavoidable suffering? When life demands something of her, each person answers with her own disposition and talents. Certainly, if we have children, we want to empower them to bring forth their latent talents, and to create works of worth and beauty in their lives.
I have also found insight and help in my life in ideas about personality type originating with the great psychoanalyst C.G. Jung. As developed and refined by David Keirsey (who notes he differs significantly from Jung) in his book, Please Understand Me, there are different types of personalities, each with its own native talents and insights. Some find meaning primarily in people, some in duty to society, some in theoretical knowledge, and some in spontaneous physical expression and experience.
Jung teaches that we each have the opportunity to realize the unique self that our nature makes it possible for us to be. Living a life that is truly your own involves moving past conventional boundaries and expectations, exercising and developing your own singular talents, and then over time expanding into other areas that are normally not congenial for you. In this way you widen your consciousness, make yourself more complete and well-rounded, and fulfill the gifts of your greater self.
See Keirsey’s Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types (Prometheus Books, 1978) and
A Primer of Jungian Psychology, by Calvin S. Hall and Vernon J. Nordby, (New American Library, 1973).
6. I highly recommend Dr Fred Luskin’s Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (HarperCollins 2003). Luskin has conducted the first extensive psychological study of forgiveness. He has given workshops for parents of murdered children, including parents from Northern Ireland, with good results in increasing their happiness and sense of peace. For Luskin, forgiveness involves letting go of the misery brought by past hurts in order to feel peace now. We let go so that someone who hurt us in the past no longer has the power to make us unhappy today. Forgiveness is taking the power of your life into your own hands. It is not pretending that no wrong was done to you. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself, not for the offender.
According to Luskin, when we become bitter and unforgiving, three things happen: First, we have a distressing experience that we take too personally. Next we blame the offender for making us unhappy. Finally, we develop a grievance story we keep repeating, perhaps for decades. This makes us a victim. To break free of this cycle, first you look at the wider context (what he calls the “impersonal” part) of your trauma. You understand, for example, that many people have suffered hurts similar to yours. You can use this knowledge as a way to find support from others in similar circumstances, and in turn enjoy the opportunity to give them your compassionate support.
Then you have to know how you feel about what happened, how the action wronged you, and share that with a few trusted people who will support you, but not encourage you to be a victim. Go through the details and acknowledge your pain. It is proverbial that “a burden shared is a burden lessened.” By sharing we stop being isolated, gain perspective, and allow other people to care for us. We realize we are responsible for how we feel now.
Finally, we change our grievance story to a survivor story that makes us the hero. We acknowledge that in the past we wanted something better to happen, but it did not. We cannot control what has happened, but we will nevertheless create value in our lives now.
As part of his program, Luskin recommends that we spend time thinking about the things and the people we are grateful for. He has exercises to do this in meditation. He also recommends forgiveness as an approach to life: e.g., letting go of the hurt when someone cuts you off in traffic. Why make yourself miserable by demanding people follow your “unenforceable rules?” The great virtue of this book is that it is practical and specific. Forgiveness is something you can work on without feeling you are excusing the person, or in our context, the institution that has done you wrong. You cannot control the actions of others.
Letting go is a key skill develop in our pursuit of happiness.
I do not believe, however, that he has spoken the last word on forgiveness. I think that the natural and complete function of forgiveness is to bring reconciliation between offenders and offended. Recognizing and acting appropriately on our own need to be forgiven by others helps us to better accept ourselves. We accept the imperfection of life. Actor Peter Ustinov beautifully pointed out the forgiveness inherent in love when he said that “Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look that becomes a habit.” Love could not exist without this habit of forgiveness.
By effectively teaching people to let go of hurt so they can stop their own suffering, Dr Luskin has done a great service. He offers us the opportunity to leave our misery and live truly satisfying lives. When we let go of hurts as he teaches, then future reconciliation with an offender becomes possible.
7. As suggested in my discussion of transition, I think that neither belief nor obedience represents the highest religious values. As I see it, religion can serve an important instrumental role toward making us less self-centered and more loving. One need not go to church or follow a particular religious practice to be ethical, loving, or spiritual. My own view is that a mature spirituality unites us with others in love, expanding our sympathies beyond self, tribe or nation, ultimately to embrace all of humanity, and even all of life. Such is also the highest ethical ideal, as expounded, for example, in Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy of reverence for life, which calls on us to act with conscious care for all living things. Religions provide a “way,” and a technique to put us in touch with the transcendent. This may enrich life, but the test, once again, is the love that it brings to life in this world.
Whatever practices expand love, nurturing individual gifts to bless the world and the giver, should be encouraged in family and friends, believers and nonbelievers. A person who takes this view creates bridges of understanding that uplift us over differences of religious dogma. We all thrive on appreciation, not carping criticism, compassion for our imperfection, not impossible demands. Love should be the center, not rule-keeping; life transformation, not dogma.
The preaching of the great Hebrew prophets of justice, the teachings of Jesus and of sages in many cultures, the illuminations of mystics from all major religious traditions, the “peak experiences” analyzed by Dr Abraham Maslow, and the visions of wholeness in the near-death experience, all support this orientation toward love and away from mere obedience or perfectionism. For a beautiful exposition of the compassionate oneness seen in both near-death experiences and modern day mystical experiences, read The Journey Home: What Near-Death Experiences and Mysticism Teach Us About the Gift of Life, by Phillip L. Berman (Pocket Books, division of Simon and Schuster, 1996).
We can even find support for the importance of compassion and the golden rule from Charles Darwin, who said:
“As our species has advanced in civilization, and small tribes have united into larger communities, reason would first tell each of us that we ought to extend our social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to us. This point being once reached, however, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent our sympathies from extending to the people of all nations and races.”
Psychologist, systems scientist, and evolution theorist David Loye says that Darwin thought the human moral sense, not natural selection, played the most important role in human evolution. According to Loye, Darwin thought it was no accident that the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” evolved in various cultures all around the world. The human moral sense developed from social and sexual instincts combined with high intelligence, and the golden rule is the highest evolved expression of human morality.
Darwin said “[G]rant reason to any animal with social and sexual instincts and yet with passion he must have conscience.” Loye points out that increasing development in the human brain brought not only more reasoning capacity, but more emotional range and the ability to remember past right or wrong behavior and compare it to current circumstances. Darwin notes that our humanity is developed “from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused until they are extended to all sentient beings.”
See David Loye, Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love: A Healing Vision for the New Century (iuniverse.com, 2000), pages 90 to 95, 154, 187. See especially chapters 5 to 7.
Please contact Bill Dobbs at [email protected] for more information about RTG. (Relgious Transition Group Support meetings)