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Thursday, February 28, 2019

2. Personal History

I thought it would be a good idea to give some context regarding my background before I get too deep into describing my faith transition. Part of this is for those that don’t know me well, but the other part is to show that I was committed to the church. I really believed it. I want to dispel the idea that I was never fully a believer or not completely converted as that is sometimes what members may think is the reason for someone losing their faith.

Where to begin…I was born of goodly parents. Wait, I think that one has already been done. For the first few years of my life I was raised in a small town in southern Alberta called Raymond. For a bit of history on the area, it was in 1887 that the third president of the LDS church, John Taylor, sent a group of church members to create a colony that was outside the reach of the United State’s condemnation of polygamy (as per Wikipedia’s article on the LDS church in Canada).  This group settled Cardston and many other small towns in southern Alberta, including Raymond. Many of those small towns continue to be populated by an LDS majority to this day. The first stake (group of several congregations or wards) as well as the first temple outside of the United States was created in this area. So, there is a long history of LDS settlers in this part of Alberta. As per Wikipedia, in 2011 there were reported more than 182,000 LDS members in Canada, with the vast majority being in Alberta.

While I began my childhood in Raymond, I was not a member of the LDS church. I vividly remember wondering why the stores were closed and the streets were empty on Sundays. The church teaches members to not spend money on Sunday, so as to not make anyone work. It also teaches that Sunday is a day of rest to renew your faith. So, I was largely alone on Sundays. I don’t remember feeling out of place at all due to not being a member of the church. I would just ride my bike all over town not being bothered by traffic, as riding your bike alone as a very young child all over town was the norm back then.

My family didn’t have a lot but we had enough. My father was technically a member of the church but had not attended throughout my young life. At that time, I don’t think I realized that he had been part of the church at all. My mother was not religious per se but taught us about Jesus and the importance of prayer. At this point of my life I did not have much experience in the way of religion.

My parents separated when I was around 7 or 8 and I, along with my mother and two younger brothers, moved to Lethbridge. I’m not sure of the population of LDS members in Lethbridge, but it was and is a relatively sizeable percentage. Not the majority by any means but a good proportion. It was here that I spent the remainder of my childhood and teen years. My father was remarried to a lady that was a member of the LDS church and he began attending church again. My brothers and I would go to church with them on occasion. I remember the first significant event in my life regarding the church was attending stake dances. These were for youth between the ages of 14-17 and happened every two weeks or so. As these were good wholesome fun (and who isn’t down for good wholesome fun), I went often and many of the friends I made were members of the church. No one would push me, but I’m sure I was invited to church and activities at times.

When I was 16 or so I was dating a girl who was a member of the church. Because I was trying to spend as much time with her as possible, which is what you do as a teenage boy when you have a girlfriend, I accepted her invitation to a church fireside. Firesides are activities that happen outside of the weekly scheduled church meetings and are meant to teach gospel principles and to be spiritually uplifting. This one was about the life of Jesus. It was only pictures and music but I remember becoming emotional as I was watching.

Before I continue the story, I want to acknowledge that yes, I did have an emotional/spiritual experience. I won’t deny this. I have also had many other experiences similar to this one since that time. While I will not try to persuade anyone that their spiritual experiences are invalid (they are definitely not!) I have since re-evaluated what spiritual experiences are and what they can and do signify to us. I plan on writing more about this in future, but I digress…

To return to the story, as I was a teenage boy hanging out with my friends and girlfriend, I attempted to hide the fact that I was crying. But I wasn’t fooling anyone. For members of the church, a “non-member” crying at a church activity is like chumming the water for sharks. I don’t mean this to be derogatory in any way! But members of the church are taught that this is the Holy Ghost (or the Spirit), testifying to the person of the truthfulness of what was taught. And in the church, we are taught that our specific church is the one and only true church on the earth. So, I was introduced to the missionaries.

You may be familiar with the Elders/missionaries of the LDS church. They are young men (although some young women also serve a mission) who wear suits or white shirts and ties (or dresses as the case may be) with a black name tag. They travel in pairs or sometimes in threes. You may have had them knock on your door on occasion. They are typically very nice individuals who are doing what they believe is right, so please be nice to them if your paths ever cross!

To make a long story short, I was taught the discussions and was asked to read and pray about whether the Book of Mormon was true. The missionaries taught me that the Book of Mormon was an ancient record of the Native American people who Christ visited after his crucifixion. I did pray about it and received another emotional/spiritual feeling. So, the missionaries asked me to be baptized and I accepted. After this event I had many spiritual experiences within the church. I spoke in many church meetings about how I knew the church was true (or I bore my testimony as it’s called in the church), so much so that I was asked to speak at a Stake Conference, which is a meeting of several congregations of members that occurs once per year. Not too many people got to have this experience, especially as a teenager, so I considered myself both lucky and blessed.

I had my own ups and downs after I was baptized but decided to serve a mission myself. Less than three years after converting, at age 19, I was sent to the California Ventura Mission to teach people about the church for the next two years of my life. I was an extremely hard working and obedient missionary. I woke at 6:30am, studied the scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants) for two hours every morning, and was out the door by 9:30. Between 9:30am until 9:00pm six days per week for two years I was out teaching, knocking doors, visiting with members, providing service and otherwise engaging in activities to teach people about the church and hopefully help them to be baptized. During this time, missionaries were not allowed to date, read material not produced by the church, listen to music that was not classical or hymns, swim, watch TV or movies, etc. At the time we were only allowed to call home twice per year with the only other contact with family being weekly letters. Anything else was considered a distraction and would reduce the ability of the Spirit to lead and guide us in our work. I followed these rules as closely as I could.

I progressed quickly through mission leadership. I was asked to train a new missionary after 4 months and a second shortly after. I was made a District Leader (over 3-8 other missionaries) at 6 months. I was made a junior Zone Leader (over 12-16 missionaries) before I had been serving for a year and a Senior Zone Leader by 14 months. I baptized a lot of people. I had more months that I had someone be baptized than months that I didn’t, which most likely made me one of the top baptizing missionaries in the area.

The reason I describe these things is to show that I believed with my whole heart that I was on a mission for God. I was doing His work. I didn’t slack off. I didn’t break rules. I didn’t take even one day off when I wasn’t permitted to. I remember watching TV twice during my entire two-year mission. Once was trying to fellowship an investigator (someone looking into the church and being taught) while watching the Olympics. And the second time was during the September 11th attacks. I didn’t go sight seeing during teaching hours. I worked extremely hard. I had a lot of great experiences during these two years and to this day I am grateful for many of the things I learned.

I returned home and was expected to get married quickly. I remember my Mission President telling me that this was my most important responsibility after returning home. In the church we are taught that any sexuality (thoughts, masturbation, sex or any other sexual contact) outside of marriage is a sin. So, getting married was priority number one to prevent these things from happening but also to begin a family, which is an important expectation within the church.

I did meet an amazing woman to whom I have now been married for close to 16 years and have four children with. I met her after having been home for four or five months. We dated for three months, got engaged and were married in the Temple three months later. We were 22. The brevity of our courtship and our young age when we were married is not uncommon in the church. I want to make clear that even with our short courtship I’m so glad that I found her as she is the love of my life and I thank the church for being the common thread that led us together. I do not regret my decision one single bit. I am extremely grateful for her patience and support through this past year.

After we were married, I went to school and worked hard. My wife also attended school and supported us for a time after she graduated and began working. Over the course of time I became a psychologist, as it was necessary for me to make an above average wage as the expectation in the church is that women stay home to raise the children. Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that my wife has been able to stay home with the kids.

I was given many callings, or volunteer assignments, within the church throughout these years. I have been in nursery caring for the children age 1.5-3. I have taught primary classes with children between 3-11. I have been a teacher and president in the Young Mens organization (ages 12-17). I have been the Ward Mission Leader 2-3 times, leading the wards efforts to teach and convert people. I have been the Sunday School President, organizing the classes taught on Sundays. I have been a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I have been the Elders Quorum President, the leader of the men between the ages of 18-50. I was part of the Priesthood Executive Committee and the Ward Council. In short, I had many leadership callings in the church. I was not perfect but I did try very hard.

I raised my family to believe. We prayed together numerous times per day. We read scriptures together and had Family Home Evening, where we spend one evening a week learning a scriptural lesson and spending time together. There were times when my scripture study and prayers became less frequent but I think this is generally normal within the church. My children were blessed as babies, were baptized, and attended activities at the church. My wife and I paid our tithing, which means to pay 10 percent of your income to the church in order to be considered a member in good standing. The belief is that we would be blessed if we did so. I never disobeyed the Word of Wisdom, which is a law of health to not drink black tea, coffee, alcohol, and to not smoke or do other harmful drugs. I did not watch R-rated movies or TV shows. I did not swear. I attended the Temple, which is a special building, different from regular church buildings, where special ordinances take place with the purpose being to bind families together. Only those that are deemed worthy are allowed to enter. As these ordinances are sacred to those within the church, I will not speak of those things in detail.

Again, the reason I list these things is to help you get an idea of how integrated I was. I was completely converted. I was a believer 100 percent. I was not just filling a seat. I was not a “Jack Mormon” or someone that attends but doesn’t follow everything that is taught. I took the church and its teachings very seriously. Which is why I feel like many members of the church saw me as an anomaly after I professed my disbelief.

Most people that leave the church do so in their teens or in young adulthood. Common beliefs about why people leave the church are that they wanted to sin (drink, smoke, have sex). That they were lazy or that staying in the church was too hard. That they were never really converted or didn’t have a testimony in the first place. That they were sinning, such as having an affair, which made them lose the spirit or stop feeling the Holy Ghost’s influence teaching them what is true. That they had been offended. But these were not my reasons for losing my faith, which, I believe, makes some members uncomfortable. I did not fit the common narrative about why people stop believing. In the end, any reason for leaving the church is deemed invalid. There are no good reasons, no reason at all really, to leave or stop believing in the church. Because members of the church believe it’s true. No, they know it’s true. It’s God’s church. There is no way that it could be wrong. To reiterate, I believed it. I lived it. I spent time, energy, and income on it.

This sets the stage for my next post where I will discuss what brought me to the beginnings of doubt. The analogy of a shelf is one that many in my situation use to describe their difficulties regarding the church. The analogy is that there are many questions about church history, doctrine, science, etc, that are difficult or impossible to answer in a way that makes sense if you believe in the church. So you put these items on your shelf. You store them away with the belief that one day, perhaps in this life or maybe the next, there will be answers. But there are no answers now. And the problem is a shelf can only hold so much before it begins to crack and eventually break. Once your shelf breaks, there is no room left for continued belief. This may be the crux of what people are interested in. Members of the church likely wonder, what went wrong? How did he lose his testimony after all those witnesses that the church was true? I plan on answering those questions over the next several posts.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

1. Introduction

This blog is for me. It is my way to externalize. It is my therapy.

The topic will be about my faith crisis and transition away from believing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon church) is the one true church on the earth. Many that are not affiliated with the church may not have any idea what I’m talking about, or may find these topics strange or that it doesn’t interest them. If anyone in this situation would like to chat, I’m very open. If not, there is no pressure to continue reading. This is the same for members of the church. But before I get too in depth, I want to clarify what I hope to accomplish by writing this as well as reasons that are NOT a factor.

Reason 1. This process is extremely difficult

            I’m not doing terribly; I want to quickly put that out there. I am actually doing generally well. My relationship with my wife is strong, as well as with my children. I have been more successful in my career over the past year than at any other time in my life. I am generally happy and upbeat. But, as is common with those entering, proceeding through, and coping with the aftermath of a faith transition, there are many difficult changes that occur.

For one, I can obsess on church related issues, among other things. Now, many within the church may think, “See, he left the church but can’t leave it alone,” or “the adversary is working through him to further his plans,” or “I knew people that lose their faith are miserable.” These things could not be farther from the truth. I struggle because the church was my life. It was my community, my tribe. My life revolved around family home evenings, cubs, scouts, lesson planning, sharing the gospel, church activities, and church meetings. Almost all of my social contacts were and are members of the church. My relationship with my wife, including our shared direction for the future, was based on our belief in the church. I knew my path. I knew the path for my kids. I knew what to expect.

            I no longer know. I can’t say that “I know” too much of anything anymore. And while I am becoming okay with that, it is a struggle to figure out where I go from here. Where my family goes from here. I struggle with re-evaluating everything I ever thought I knew. Because when you believe something so strongly for so long and then are forced to re-evaluate the whys of your belief, you have to start from the ground up.

            So, I study hours per day. I research everything: church history, doctrines, statements made by past and current leaders. I study about evolution, minority rights, LGBTQ issues. I study politics and climate change. I study bible scholarship and world religions. I have had to take a hard look at almost everything that I used to believe and under that microscope decide what I currently believe and why. It’s definitely an ongoing process. And it is extremely time consuming and stressful as my past has come crashing down and my future is not clear to me.

            While most of my relationships seem intact, there has definitely been a shift. While I used to have the commonality of the church with many of my friends, family, and acquaintances, now I am an outsider. And not only an outsider, an “exmormon.” While I don’t know that I currently identify with this label, people who leave the church are generally put into a box by those that believe. The labels on the box are “LAZY,” “OFFENDED,” “WEAK,” “DECEIVED,” “SINNER.” While no one has actually said this to me, these are things that the church has taught for many years. If anyone is interested, I can provide sources. But this is not the purpose of why I mention these things. My relationships with member friends and family has been negatively affected. And while I am extremely grateful that no one has disowned me, gotten upset with me, or has been rude to me, I feel the difference. It is not your fault. I understand why things are different. But it is still hard.

            I had many acquaintances but few friends in my ward and town before “coming out” with my unbelief. I now feel like creating friendships with members is even more difficult. I realize that people are busy. I also realize that certain people have tried (THANK YOU!). But I feel like I have the plague. This may be in my own head, but my perception is that people keep their distance further than they did when I believed. Everyone is very nice, don’t get me wrong. But very few have reached out or dug deeper into how I have been doing or why I have made the decisions I have. So, I also pull away.

I am not meaning to blame. I think it’s natural to the human condition to distance yourself from those you may not agree with. I bring this up because I feel judged, whether I actually am or not. When I was a believer, I used to judge those that decided to leave. As a result, I now worry what people think of me. I shouldn’t, and I’m working on it. But I do worry that people think less of me for my decisions, that I’m leading my family astray, that I will be miserable for the rest of my life, and that I will lose my salvation. I’m not trying to convince you otherwise, but hopefully through the process of writing this blog, some few of you that actually read it (I’m not holding out for too many to actually keep reading it) will at least understand how and why I got here. So, whether you agree or not, you can hopefully understand the process.

My relationship with my wife was strained as a part of this process. Living in a mixed faith situation was not what either of us expected to have to deal with. My beliefs and values are changing. Not everything, but enough to make things a bit uncomfortable. This goes back to re-evaluating the whys of my past beliefs and decisions. While many of my values remain (being a good father and husband, doing what is best for my children, providing for my family, respecting and helping others, etc.) some values have definitely shifted. I hope to include a topic specifically on these changes, so for now I will keep this brief. But things have been very difficult within my relationship. My wife and I are currently in a very good place (unless she tells you otherwise) but it has taken a lot of tears, talks, disagreements, arguments, compromise, and love to get to where we are. We are both completely committed to our relationship and to making this work, so no worries there. But to reiterate, our relationship has never gone through something as difficult as this.

So yes, I am struggling. It is getting better, but I hope that by writing I can get out some of these thoughts and feelings. By externalizing rather than bottling up these things, I am hoping that I will come to terms with my recent transition.

Reason 2. I am processing

            Processing is a word we use in psychology. Loosely, processing means to evaluate past events in your life, then to analyse them with current knowledge, which hopefully creates new insight.  I am hoping to gain insight into how to consolidate recent events in such a way as to clarify my future direction in life. By facing difficult aspects of the past year and processing them in different ways I hope to improve my perspective and move forward towards becoming my best self. This may sound very “delicate snowflakey” but it’s what I need right now.

            For example, through my faith crisis and transition, I went through the various stages of grief. I was grieving the loss of my faith. I was grieving the loss of trust in the church and its leaders, past and present. I was grieving the future I was planning. The five stages of grief are: 1. Denial; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; and 5. Acceptance. Thinking back on the past year, I have been through every one of these stages. I hope to write on these at a later date, but I will talk briefly about one stage: Anger.

            I felt betrayed by the church. I felt betrayed by Joseph Smith. I felt betrayed by God and Christ. I felt betrayed by my own body for making me feel both the positive feelings we attribute to the spirit as well as the negative feelings of going through this difficult process. I have felt anger during church when someone would say something from the pulpit or in a lesson that I believed was not corroborated by the history of the church. I was angry when someone would speak out against LGBTQ individuals. I felt anger when someone would teach that I and those like me are “less than” for not believing in this church. I was angry that in order to be authentic to myself and to maintain my integrity, I had to give up the opportunity to perform ordinances for my children with the accompanying judgement from others.  

            I don’t want to feel angry anymore.  So, this is to help me process these thoughts and feelings in a way as to change the narrative of my past, my present, and my future with the church and to move forward in a positive way.

Reason 3. To help people understand

            One of the most difficult aspects of this process has been the worry about what other people think of me. Most importantly, I did not want my wife and children to think less of me. From the beginning this has been one of my greatest fears. The tough thing is, many people leave the church because of integrity. Now I’m not saying anything about truth or who is right or wrong when I make this statement. To clarify, due to my study and research I no longer believed the church is true. Which means that while leaders of the church are trying their best, from my perspective at least, they are just men. They are doing the best they can, but they are just people. People who were influenced by their past experiences and beliefs. My integrity came into play when I no longer felt I could pretend to believe all that was taught. I feel that in many ways, my current values and standards are higher than those taught in the church.

            Again, I am not trying to create problems. All I am saying is this: when you see the difficult things that leaders of the church have done and said, when you fully believe that LGBTQ individuals are just living their life rather than engaging in sin, and when you cannot continue believing the truth claims of the church, you have to make a decision. That decision is to continue pretending to believe, and pretending to agree with these and other difficult beliefs of the church OR you make the decision that maintains your integrity. Namely, you make the choice that you will follow what you believe is true and you begin living in that way.

            Many in the church will not agree but I hope you understand. For one reason or another, I no longer believe. And as such, I need to live my life according to what I do believe. In the end, I have many reasons for my loss of faith in the church. The vast majority of those reasons are unknown to almost all of my family and friends. This is because no one wants to know. Or maybe they are afraid to ask for fear they might be contaminated by my doubt. I’m not exactly sure what the mechanism is that creates this tendency to recoil from the whys of my faith transition. In the end, I have legitimate reasons for no longer believing. And until others know those reasons, they cannot judge me for my decisions. The vast majority of this information was unknown to me until I made the decision to dig deeper and follow wherever the truth led me. I was a convert and thus had all the missionary lessons. I went on a mission for this church for two years of my life. I lived it for 20 years, and so much of this information was unknown to me. So, whether or not anyone actually listens to my issues or not, hopefully some understanding can be had for my decisions.

            I will not be the last person you know that will stop believing in this church. It may be your parent, child, friend, sibling, or co-worker. It could be anyone. I hope that by reading about these topics that you will learn how to best empathize and support those that go through this process. You never know, you may be in my exact position someday. Never say never, I certainly didn’t expect to be here.

Reason 4. To be a safe place

            A faith transition is an extremely lonely and isolating experience. I felt like I was the only one that I knew that was going through it. I was lucky to have one friend help me through the process, but I know many do not have this luxury. After I published my Facebook post regarding my faith transition, I have had several people approach me to say they were also going through the process. Some were not as far along and some had been going through it for much longer than I had. Some had also “come out” to either their family or the public and some had not. Having the knowledge that there were others struggling with these things as I was, and being able to chat with them and bounce ideas off them was extremely helpful.

            So, for anyone that is having doubts, I am a safe person to talk to. For anyone that hears difficult “anti-mormon” material, talk to me about it. The odds are that I have heard about it and have either corroborated it with historical sources or dismissed it as false. If you are struggling with an aspect of history or doctrine, I will give you honest answers without judgement. If you have “sinned” or are struggling with a particular issue, please reach out.

So, these are the reasons I am posting this blog. It’s to release some pressure for me, to externalize my feelings. It’s to help people to understand where I’m coming from, for those that wish to know. And it’s a way to have others know that I can be their safe person to talk to about anything. Now for the points about what I am not trying to do.

Potential Misconception 1. I’m not trying to convince anyone I’m right

I’m not trying to destroy anyone else’s faith. As I have said in my post from August, if being a part of this church brings you community, happiness, spiritual fulfillment, etc., I am honestly happy for you. I would not want to take that from you. I know of people that know many of the issues that I am aware of and they make a nuanced faith work. But information is neither good nor bad. It is true or false. And it is up to each of us individually to decide what is true and what is false.

Potential Misconception 2. I am not here to bash the church

In previously discussing my anger stage, I am mostly through those feelings. I realize that there are amazing aspects to this church. It teaches people that they should be honest, provide service, sacrifice of ourselves for others, be humble, etc. There are great programs for youth in the church. There can be a sense of community. I realize all of these things. While I may not agree with specific doctrines and policies, I am not writing these things to say the church is completely bad. In the end, it is not completely good either but it is not my purpose to vilify the church, the leaders, or the members. I am here to discuss the realities of my faith transition.

On another note: please respond if you would like. You might completely agree with me, you might disagree with almost everything I say, you might want to tell me off. Please do! I would rather you add to the dialogue I hope to create than to have you quietly unfriend me or leave things unsaid.

So, we come to the close of my introductory post (thank goodness, that was long…). But before I bring this to a complete close, I wanted to outline some topics I plan on (eventually) writing about:

            My personal history, how doubt began, how doubt progressed, the pain of a faith crisis, why people leave (shown by research), changing relationships, feeling alone, positive aspects of the church, how to support someone in faith crisis or who no longer believes, specific changes to my beliefs and values, what do I teach my kids, navigating a mixed-faith marriage, my current belief system, moving forward, and how the church could make room for me.

            These are not all the topics I wish to discuss but it is a good sampling of some of the things I want to write about. I am also open to any topics that anyone would like to hear my perspective on. So, if you are still interested, I’d like to welcome you along for the ride…