Life after the Church: Former Mormons reflect on their decision

LOGAN—Why would anyone leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? For church members who are happy with their faith, this question is often answered with dismissive stereotypes: “They just want to sin,” or “They were just offended by someone at church.” But out of 13 million LDS church members, nearly two-thirds are inactive or no longer consider themselves Mormon. Their reasons for leaving the church are often complex and varied. Post-Mormon students at USU struggle to be understood by their faithful peers and family members, but many have nonetheless found peace with their decision to leave the church. In an effort to bridge the canyon of misunderstandings between former and current LDS church members, four students in the USU Post-Mormon Club opened up to the Hard News Café. In an un-testimony meeting of sorts, they discuss why they left the church and how they feel about their choice today. For art student Jane Miller (a pseudonym), who grew up in a predominantly LDS community and a church-going family, the struggle with faith began in her teens. “I figured it was just my circumstance and the church was perfect, but the people are not,” she says. However, after getting married and having two children, Miller questioned her faith more, and found it increasingly difficult to attend church. “When my first kid was transitioning into primary, he was having a hard time,” said Miller, 26. “In his first lesson, I listened as the teacher talked, and I came to the realization that I didn’t want him to learn what she was teaching. “I didn’t want him to be taught something that I didn’t believe myself,” Miller said. “I didn’t want him growing up feeling alienated and constantly guilty as I had.” David Phillips, 23, agreed that one can feel alienated growing up in a predominantly LDS family and community without faith. “Without active membership you simply did not fit in,” he said. For Phillips, the desire to be true to himself had to trump fitting in. Now a business student at USU, Phillips said he left the LDS church a few years ago for two main reasons: faith and logic. “As a child, I trusted my parents to know the truth,” Phillips said. “In that sense, I believed because they believed. I never have had a personal faith, but more a faith through them. “I have never once felt the spirit,” he said. “This includes at church meetings, baptisms, priesthood ordinations, when tithing, or when talking to church officials. I prayed and fasted, hoping for some form of confirmation. It never came.” The lack of faith felt by Phillips prompted him to study the church and its history more thoroughly. In doing so, he found what he described as “concerning things.” These concerns include: Masonic rituals, scientific contradictions, polygamy and marriage of 14-year-old girls, secret handshakes, changing temple ceremonies, failed prophesies, the Book of Abraham, Brigham Young’s racist quotes, and changing accounts of “the first version.” After verifying the information with church authorities, Phillips said, “I simply concluded that the church was not true.” Pre-nursing student, John Albertson (not his real name), 28, went through a similar process of de-conversion while researching church history to prepare for an LDS mission 10 years ago. Born and raised LDS, Albertson says he always tried his best to live according to Mormon standards. When he turned 18, as he prepared for a mission, “I felt I needed to study more about my church to become a better teacher,” he said. In his study, he came across a video about the Book of Abraham, what he had previously believed was the writing of the Biblical prophet Abraham as translated by Mormon founder Joseph Smith. The video showed that the papyri used in translation were nothing more than Egyptian funeral texts. “I knew my church was true, but I couldn’t figure out how to rationally explain this discrepancy,” Albertson said. He decided to research more and spent the next year-and-a-half engrossed in church history. “Yet, the more I read, the more questions I had,” he says. “It seemed like Joseph Smith’s life was full of questionable events that I had never been exposed to. “Joseph Smith was a mortal man,” he said. “Mortal men make mistakes. The big question is: Did he make the kind of mistakes a true prophet of God wouldn’t make?” Albertson said. “For me that answer is yes.” For Albertson, “The night I had that thought was the night I stopped believing in the Mormon Church.” For other former church members, however, problems with church culture itself were the first sign that they might not want to be part of the LDS church anymore. Lindsey Adams (a pseudonym), a 22-year-old physics major, was raised as part of a large LDS family in rural Utah. She describes herself growing up as a “true blue Mormon.” “I had read all of the Book of Mormon and Bible and studied it thoroughly,” Adams said. “I was the girl who spoke up in Sunday school all the time and wept during fast and testimony meeting.” But when she left for college and began attending the singles ward, everything felt different. “I was horrified that instead of feeling spiritual, I felt like I was in a meat market,” Adams said. “Every lesson was on marriage. It made me really uncomfortable.” “I’m not anti-marriage,” she says. “I’m a romantic. But I felt like the ‘settle down and make babies’ attitude meant that some people settled for whatever they could get in the shortest amount of time possible, rather than what they deserved in a relationship: true love—Princess Bride-style.” Now married herself, Adams says this realization caused her to examine her views on virtually every tenet of the church. “A lot of my previous reasoning fell apart,” she said. “The church’s views on pornography, premarital sex, homosexual relationships, the place of women, and tithing—to name a few—are really misguided and don’t feel right,” Adams said. “It doesn’t jive with me, morally speaking.” When students have made the heart-breaking decision to leave the LDS church, they become caught with a new set of questions: How do I react to people who assume I’m Mormon? How do I find a place to fit in socially? And most nerve-wracking: How do I tell my family? Groups such as Post-Mormon and Ex-Mormon have sprung up to provide support for former LDS faithful trying to make sense of their questions. Albertson is a member of the USU Post-Mormons group. “It is a group where the members understand what the others are going through,” he said. “Having a club to help support them can ease the difficulty of transitioning out.” Miller, the 26-year-old art major, says the transition can be difficult both personally and socially. “It can be hard to be post-Mormon at USU,” she said. “People generally assume that as someone who grew up in Utah, you are a Mormon. I have corrected them sometimes, but for the most part, it’s not really imperative that your classmates know.” But Miller says “I am honest when asked directly” about her faith. The other students say they have similar dilemmas in relating to peers who simply assume they are LDS. “Generally people here assume that I’m Mormon,” said Phillips, the business major. “I commonly get asked which ward I’m in, who was my favorite conference speaker was, if I have a temple recommend. “This has happened in general conversation, during dates, and even during a job interview,” he said. “Although the intent isn’t bad, it forces me into a dilemma: should I lie and pretend or should I be honest about my views and be seen as an outsider?” Albertson said that when classmates learn that not only is he an atheist, but a former Mormon, their reactions are generally negative. “Maybe they don’t want to associate with me anymore or they want to change my mind in some way,” Albertson said. “On the one hand, this makes it easy to figure out who my true friends are.” Not everyone shuns him when they learn of his faith decision, however. “The reaction I get from non-Mormon classmates is primarily favorable,” Albertson said. “We have this instant bond and understanding for each other that is difficult to explain.” For many former Mormons, the most intense inner struggle is to figure out how—or if—they will discuss their newfound non-religious situation with their families.

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