How I Grew Out Of Mormonism (And Into The "Jaws of Hell")

I was not supposed to grow up to be an apostate. Both of my parents served honorable foreign missions for the church and were married in the temple. All four of my grandparents were active and orthodox and one of my grandfathers served as a bishop. Before I left the LDS church, my father had served as a bishop and my parents had served a three-year mission in India. During the final stages of my apostasy, my father was a stake president. All of my siblings have been active most of their lives, although several sinned their way into receiving church discipline before eventually returning to full activity in the church.

Before turning 33, I had probably missed fewer than 10 days of church attendance in my life. I had various responsibilities in the church’s youth program and graduated from seminary and Brigham Young University. As a missionary in Rome, I served in every possible leadership position and made an impression of being diligent and conscientious. My mission was maddeningly hard work, but I never baptized anyone; so to anyone familiar with cognitive dissonance theory, it might come as a surprise that I am not spending the rest of my life justifying those two years to myself with incomparable commitment to the building of Zion.

After returning from my mission, I served as an Elder’s Quorom President and believed in those days that the promises of my patriarchal blessing meant that I would probably take on heavier responsibilities in the church as I grew older. I met my wife at BYU, was married in the Atlanta temple, and blessed both of my babies. But somehow, I became an outlier. As my LDS friends with similar backgrounds who turned out pretty much the way any church statistician would expect so poignantly demonstrate, I wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

There was no pivotal event that turned me away from the church. Although there have always been a few people at church I didn’t especially care for (as is typical when affiliating with a large group of people), none of them hurt my feelings in any memorable way. Nobody dear to me got sick or died at just the wrong time and made me angry with God. I wasn’t cheating on my wife, embezzling funds or drinking Mountain Dew and looking for a way to justify my sins. When I finally stopped attending church in the summer of 2007, I was worthy in every way of holding a Mormon temple recommend, except the most important way: the fundamental doctrines of the church seemed as true to me as the mythology of ancient religions.

So instead of any single pivotal event, I suspect that what drew me away from Mormonism was actually a culmination of many different events. In the seven posts that follow I speculate about what some of those events may have been.

Event #1: A General Authority Misleads Missionaries
Event #2: Brigham Young University Backfires
Event #3: Becoming a Father
Event #4: Visiting a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
Event #5: Reading Rough Stone Rolling
Event #6: My Wife Refuses to Lie
Event #7: The Fruit of Apostasy (or The Jaws of Hell)

Event #1: A General Authority Misleads Missionaries

The earliest event I can remember that may have launched my thoughts in a skeptical direction was something that occurred on my mission. While I was serving as Assistant to the President (AP), all of our mission’s zone leaders were called to Rome to join us and the mission president in a special meeting at which a member of the seventy would speak. (Seventies are just below apostles, who are just below the prophet and first presidency, in LDS church leadership.) Hans Ringer, the visiting seventy, more or less inspired us to “lengthen our stride” at that meeting. In reasonably gentle but blunt terms, Ringer told us our outcomes (my mission of about 150 missionaries baptized around 50 people per year) were unacceptable. He told us that what we lacked more than anything was faith that we could do better. I was as orthodox as possible at the time, so I was not the least bit skeptical that with prayer, fasting and just a little more hard work, we could increase our baptisms to some degree. But one small part of Elder Ringer’s presentation bothered me for years. At one point he paused and asked all those present to raise their hands if they believed baptisms could be increased by several factors in the next 12 months if the whole mission would just exert greater faith and effort. All right hands in the room shot up, including mine.

The “spirit” I had been feeling up to that point in the meeting vanished, and I was instantly angry about being pressured to raise my hand to endorse a goal so absurd that none of us, including Elder Ringer, could possibly have genuinely believed. I was a seasoned missionary and a leader at that point, so I knew our missionaries almost as well as our mission president did, and I knew that Salt Lake did not send the crap of the crop to Rome. The only thing that was going to produce a baptismal increase of the magnitude Ringer was contemplating would be an unexpected and highly unlikely change in the Italian people. So why did I raise my hand? With the benefit of education, I can say I did so because I am human, and I was in a room full of the Lord’s anointed, who all had their hands in the air. But I knew that day that Elder Ringer was too smart to really believe what he was implicitly promising. And I also knew that it was wrong to coerce missionaries to submit to a preposterous goal in front of their leaders like that.

So is that how I decided the church was not true? No, but that was my first confrontation with the fact that, like good people everywhere, general authorities occasionally do bad things. (Elder Ringer’s offense was obviously a small one; but it was the first time I had witnessed such a high-ranking church authority do something so obviously deceptive—and support it with his testimony.) I certainly did not believe that Elder Ringer was a horrible person or unworthy of his calling. But when my mission ended, I returned to BYU with a more mature and realistic view of the behavior of church leaders.

Event #2: Brigham Young University Backfires

I have no doubt that numerous mini-events at BYU were, in combination, the greatest force in directing me toward eventually leaving the church. One such event was my first exposure to controversy surrounding evolution in my biology class. I had grown up believing that evolution was a satanic fantasy. But to BYU’s credit, in my biology class I encountered the first evidence that natural selection had occurred and was occurring pretty much the way Darwin described. Having been exposed to the facts of evolution, within a few months I quickly became aware of several uncomfortable facts. For example, while the church itself has recently been quiet about evolution, many general authorities and some prophets have not, and the great majority of things general authorities have said about evolution have been against it. On my mission I had come to terms with the fact that general authorities are not perfect in their conduct; at BYU I had to come to terms with the fact that general authorities are not perfect in their teachings. (Later I had to grapple with not only what general authorities had said about evolution, but also what they had said about interracial marriage, birth control, the sexual practices of married couples, and other topics.)

Just as important, at BYU I had to confront the fact that most BYU students I spoke to about evolution held strongly anti-evolutionary views and were uninterested in any evidence that might support evolution. My BYU professors had taught me that Mormonism encompassed truths from all sources and that the pursuit of knowledge was a sacred effort. Now I had to cope with the knowledge that many of the people who testified in testimony meetings that they “knew” the church was true just as surely “knew” that evolution was a lie. The testimonies of my peers, which at one time affirmed and strengthened my own testimony, had lost some of their credibility. Just how serious was the average BYU student about pursuing truth anyway? And if this was the way smart Mormons evaluated scientific evidence, could they really be trusted to fairly evaluate religious evidence?

My respect toward scientific evidence and epistemology (which aligned me with some of my Mormon professors, but against some of my peers) is just one of many things that helped me feel like a different breed of Mormon at that time. The critical thinking I was using in the classroom stayed alive on Sunday mornings, and I found myself wondering why my peers seemed to have so few tough questions about what they were hearing in church. (In retrospect I realize that many of my peers probably did struggle with some of what they were hearing in church, but the culture among BYU students was often one in which students competed with each other in righteousness. Even a few skeptical questions made in public carried the real risk of harming one’s marriage and other social prospects.) Fortunately, I married a faithful Latter-day Saint who practiced her religion with tact and subtlety. She saw nothing wrong with asking tough questions as long as God himself was among those asked.

In a strange coincidence, my pursuit of research experience (to prepare me for graduate school) brought me into contact with a professor who felt even less attached to the dominant culture at BYU than I did. (He left BYU shortly after I graduated.) His primary gripe seemed to be with the climate of censorship (and self-censorship) that prevailed at BYU, but we both knew that BYU inherited its climate from the church that owned it. Obvious to both of us was the “love it or leave it” attitude of the “establishment” on campus—criticism was discouraged to a degree not typical of other universities, perhaps because one could not criticize BYU too much without also maligning the church. Neither one of us had much tolerance for being part of an organization with such a defensive posture toward negative feedback. I thus grew to think of myself as a “liberal Mormon” who believed the core doctrines of the church but was not afraid to privately criticize policies and peripheral doctrines that seemed misguided. But I was still reading scriptures and praying daily at that time.

I graduated from BYU glad to be free of its culture of uniformity under pressure, and felt comfortable with my “liberal Mormonism” because it allowed me to keep my temple recommend without surrendering too much of my integrity. I wondered if some day I would have to choose between the freedom to ask and discuss tough questions about Mormonism and the freedom to remain an active member of the church, but I doubted I would ever have to give up one to have the other.

Event #3: Becoming a Father

Throughout five years of graduate school, I essentially coasted as a liberal but fully active Mormon. The scriptures seemed more ridiculous and contradictory than ever, but I was OK with that, because I blamed it on the transcribers, not the almighty being who supposedly inspired them. I read Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought off and on, because this “liberal” journal seemed to be the only place people were doing much thinking about Mormonism. Church publications responded very rarely and superficially to critics and questioners, but never proactively addressed tough questions about church history, Mormon intolerance, doctrinal contradictions and so on (publications such as the Ensign and Church News simply have different purposes).

With time, however, it became clear that liberal Mormons didn’t have any answers either. I quit reading Dialogue and similar literature and began to feel like one of the most intellectually lonely Christians on earth. Nobody seemed to have good answers to my questions, church was becoming increasingly annoying and God seemed to be “answering” my prayers by dragging His feet long enough that I would forget what my question was and quit worrying about it.

And then, the year before I finished graduate school, I thought I had an opportunity to get to know God like I never had before. For many new parents, having a child increases religious devotion. I’m not sure why—perhaps religion is their way of managing stress, or their hope for turning their child into a decent human being—but it did not work that way for me. Fatherhood changed my values, and things I might otherwise have let slide at once became extremely important to me. At no time in the preceding years had I ever seriously dabbled in atheism or agnosticism; but now that I faced the greatest responsibility of my life, I wanted, more than I had in years, to know and to know powerfully that God was there and wanted people to live a particular way. That is precisely why it bothered me so much that I never felt anything when I was praying.

No matter how trite it sounds, there truly is no other feeling like the feeling a neurologically healthy parent has for his or her child. I remember thinking at that time that God and I should be bonding in some way over this new similarity of ours: I knew what it was like to love a child and want the best for her more than anything. So as I prayed during that period with renewed fervor, I began to wonder whether the consistent non-response I was getting was the clearest message I was ever going to get.

Event #4: Visiting the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

By the time my first child was three years old, I had decided there were three possibilities regarding God’s existence:

a) He didn’t exist
b) He existed but was some kind of jerk or moron who couldn’t manage a just universe
c) He existed and was so infinitely more advanced than I was that it was impossible for me to understand the method behind the apparent madness

Most Christians prefer something close to “c”, but I was a father and a scientist at this point in my life, so I had grave doubts that in His infinite advancement God had somehow not acquired anything like the love I felt toward my daughter. If his love and intellect were more advanced, wouldn’t he just have more of the same love I felt? And if so, wouldn’t he move mountains, entire planets and galaxies just to ensure that none of the disgusting and meaningless harms that afflict daughters every day would afflict one of his own?

I hadn’t resolved the issue before my son was born—one month early, with breathing difficulties. During one of several visits to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where I saw many babies in much worse shape than mine, I recall feeling ashamed for all the thoughtless responses I had given people who had asked me the why-so-much-suffering question over the years. No loving father with omnipotence in his toolkit could stop himself from stopping this, I thought. And this was a miniscule (if heart-wrenching) fraction of the suffering presently occurring in the world. “c” wasn’t just an inadequate answer anymore, it was an intensely offensive one.

So in those blurry days when I had a moment to think about something other than when my son would be well enough to come home from the hospital, I had this fleeting thought about the existence of God: either God doesn’t exist or He exists but is an unfit manager. It was while I was in the NICU, fixed on the desperate rise and fall of a panting baby’s chest, that I first allowed my conscious mind to say, “I am an atheist”. That is when I stopped sincerely praying.

Event #5: Reading _Rough Stone Rolling_

By the fall of 2005, I had a clear idea of what I did and did not believe, but I hadn’t figured out the details. God could not possibly exist, and emotions are easily mislabeled as spiritual promptings, but how could I make sense of, for example, how little time it took Joseph Smith to write the Book of Mormon? For helping me resolve those kinds of questions, I thank Richard Lyman Bushman, who is not a skeptic, but a careful and honest historian, an active Latter-day Saint and a biographer of Joseph Smith. When you look carefully at the historical record, Joseph Smith’s tales remain interesting but not especially remarkable. Smith was born rather smart and exceptionally charismatic in the right place at the right time. If you gloss over some of the details (and accept the LDS church’s revisionism), the early history of the church seems amazing and divinely directed. But when you look at the facts (as Bushman does so admirably in his book), Smith’s life and works appear (to me) to suggest that he was just a lucky guy with gifts of leadership and storytelling.

Event #6: My Wife Refuses to Lie

By early 2007 it was clear that neither my wife nor I believed the church was true. We also loathed going to church and made something of a Sunday evening ritual out of mocking what we had heard that morning. As our daughter became old enough to actually understand and parrot what she was learning in her church classes, we also found ourselves growing uncomfortable with the idea of our children growing up with the same myths on which we were raised.

Nevertheless, we had no plan to leave the church. It wasn’t clear how we would do so, and what the full implications would be. But an opportunity to initiate a clean break presented itself in the late Spring of 2007, when my wife was invited to attend her brother’s endowment at the Atlanta temple. Both our temple recommends had expired a few months before, so she would need a temple recommend interview very soon. After thinking it over, she decided that she would not lie to get a temple recommend and would instead attend her brother’s event without entering the temple. As this was the first concrete step either of us had taken toward apostasy (by not scheduling an interview, she was admitting to me that she was no longer uncertain about the church’s falsity), we discussed how we wanted to proceed. We decided it was time to ask the ward bishop to release us from our callings.

When asked for an explanation, we told the bishop we had concerns about the church’s truthfulness. He asked us to write our concerns down so that he could research them and get back to us. I thought this was a waste of time (the Bishop was a kind and capable leader, but did not strike me as much of a thinker), but at the same time was curious about how this would all play out, so I obliged him by creating the list below. (When I looked at the list about two years later I was tempted to edit it, because it had been quickly composed in one evening with the idea that it probably wouldn’t accomplish anything. But for fidelity’s sake, what appears below is the original text.)

A Few of My Questions:

1. We are taught that wanting to have a testimony is a prerequisite for having a testimony (Alma 32; Moroni 10; etc.). What troubles me about this teaching is that we all know that desires can distort our beliefs and judgment. A republican’s opinion of a democratic presidential candidate for example, is of course going to be biased by the republican’s desire to have a republican president. Similarly, is it possible that I only believe Church doctrine because I wish it were true, not because it really is true?
2. How do I know the feelings I attribute to the influence of the Holy Spirit aren’t just feelings? People who are not members of the church are moved to the point of tears while singing their national anthem, while holding their babies for the first time, and while defending their most cherished beliefs. These are natural human feelings that don’t require the presence of the Holy Ghost. Why can’t I distinguish the promptings of the Holy Spirit from these feelings? And why would a loving Heavenly Father not communicate with us in a more direct and clear way?
3. If God is a loving Father, why does he allow babies to be born with horrendously painful and incurable diseases, little girls to be gang-raped by soldiers, and people to be cut into pieces by serial killers? If he has to allow people to exercise free-will, why doesn’t he stop the murderer’s bullet after the murderer has freely chosen to kill? If he has to allow suffering, why? What is so sacred or purposeful about a baby’s suffering?
4. Why, on my mission, was I taught to invite people to be baptized before they had been taught about the word of wisdom, law of chastity, or tithing? (In sales and in psychology experiments this is called “low-balling”.)
5. Why, on my mission, did a general authority bear solemn testimony that our mission could baptize 100 people a month if we were only more faithful? (In the Italy Rome mission, we averaged three or four baptisms a month. And as an assistant to the president, I knew that our mission was filled with outstanding missionaries who were exceedingly obedient and diligent—after all, the church doesn’t send second-rate elders and sisters to Rome.) So if general authorities are knowingly bearing false testimonies now and then (remember Paul Dunn?), who else is?
6. Why did Joseph Smith marry 10 women who were already married at the time to other (living) men? And why did Joseph Smith marry teenage girls? (These facts do not come from anti-Mormon literature, but from Rough Stone Rolling, a history of Joseph Smith written by a faithful Latter-day Saint history professor. I reference this book several more times below.)
7. Why did Joseph Smith’s story of the First Vision evolve in his lifetime, such that each version is conspicuously different in detail? (For example, in the first two versions he did not say that both the God the Father and Jesus were present.) (Again, see Rough Stone Rolling.)
8. Why hasn’t the church ever apologized for the Mountain Meadows Massacre like the Catholic Church has apologized for the Inquisition?
9. Why didn’t God strike down Brigham Young for repeatedly making racist pronouncements? Although racism was “normal” among 19th century white Americans, drinking and smoking were too, and God clearly took pains to ensure that those vices were condemned.
10. And why didn’t the revelation for blacks getting the priesthood come until 1978, as the Church contemplated missionary work in Africa? Doesn’t that timing seem very convenient (like the timing of the repudiation of plural marriage)?
11. Why would a loving Father leave us to depend so heavily on scriptures that are so confusing and open to myriad interpretations? Even if you are faithful, if you read the scriptures honestly, you notice striking contradictions, prejudices, oversimplifications, etc. If they are really God’s word (written down by prophets) you’d think they’d be written so directly and clearly that many more people would become converted to God’s true religion though them. God is omniscient, after all, and he wants as many of his children as possible to return to him, right?
12. Let’s suppose a horrible person sins continuously for 78 years, never repents of his sins and then dies. Would a just and a loving Father make this horrible sinner suffer for his sins not for 78 years, not for 780 years, but for ETERNITY? What kind of a Father punishes his children like this?
13. Why are LDS temple rituals so similar to the rituals of the masons (Joseph Smith was a mason for some time, as acknowledged in Rough Stone Rolling)?
14. Why did the angel Moroni take the golden plates back? If he had left them here on earth and Joseph really did translate them correctly, there would probably be a billion members of the church right now, which I would think would please God very much (and people would still have to exercise faith to believe Joseph’s account of how he got the plates).
15. Pieces of the papyri from which Joseph Smith supposedly translated the Book of Abraham have now come to light. However, these items are actually ordinary Egyptian funeral instructions and they say absolutely nothing about Abraham. Why not? And why on earth would the book of Abraham be packaged with a couple of Egyptian mummies anyway? (Rough Stone Rolling)
16. Why did Joseph Smith, according to historical records (Rough Stone Rolling), translate parts of the Book of Mormon by staring at a “seer stone” in the bottom of a hat (without looking at the plates themselves)? And why should we believe that Joseph Smith’s seer stone was special when many mystics were roaming around upstate New York in Smith’s day using similar divination methods?
17. Why is it that DNA samples taken from all over the Americas conclusively demonstrate that Native Americans carry no Israelite blood (only central Asian, as anthropologists would expect)? This contradicts the Book of Mormon.
18. Why does the Book of Mormon mention things that could not have possibly existed in pre-Columbian America (e.g., steel, certain animals, etc.)?
19. Why does God require our faith? Why would a perfect Father live far away and command his children to believe in him instead of staying here to maintain a loving face-to-face relationship with his children? Communicating with us through ambiguous ancient texts (which everyone is left arguing about) and ambiguous spiritual promptings seems exceedingly indirect and distant. God seems to violate the most basic principles of good fathering.
20. Why is it that virtually everyone who bears their testimony in the LDS Church KNOWS the church is true with so much confidence? The reason such confidence troubles me is that this kind of confidence can come just as easily from dogmatism or closed-mindedness (e.g., not asking tough questions, not studying history, ignoring what critics are saying) as it can from a genuine conversion. (Consider the confidence of Born-again Christians, jihadists, or any other fundamentalist group, for example.) When a person is 100% certain that only their religion is right, we have good reason to suspect that that person is not an authentic truth-seeker.

I enjoyed putting some of these thoughts down on paper, but felt some sympathy when we delivered our lists to the bishop. I think he expected to have to discuss blacks and the priesthood or plural marriage or the like. After several weeks with no meeting, the bishop did not address our questions at all and just bore his testimony. We subsequently went out of town for a few weekends in a row (for summer traveling), and used this opportunity to make a smooth exit.

I must highlight that it was my wife who actually had the courage to act on her convictions. Until she refused to renew her temple recommend, I was an atheist in sheep’s clothing (and still teaching a youth Sunday school class—that paid no attention anyway) with no exit plan.

Event #7: The Fruit of Apostasy

My wife and I have been warned throughout our lives about the tragedy that would materialize if we were ever foolish enough to leave the church. Apostates, we were taught, become drug addicts, get divorced, declare bankruptcy and more or less stumble into the gaping jaws of hell. Being well-acquainted with at least as many non-Mormons as Mormons, I knew at least from my adult years onward that these were exaggerations. But when my wife and I finally decided to quit paying tithing and attending church, I quelled any worry I felt by telling myself that if we were making a mistake, we would surely find out swiftly, if not painfully.

And the results were swift; but they were also something short of painful. Since leaving the church, my wife and I find ourselves with more family time than we have ever had (because we attend no Mormon meetings or appointments), more money for charitable contributions and family vacations than we have ever had (because we no longer pay tithing) and most important by far, a sense of peace I had not previously experienced during my adulthood. The reasons for this peace are complicated, and I’m not sure I understand them all. But at least a few of the reasons are easily identifiable.

Being LDS is stressful, and it is difficult to appreciate how stressful it is until you fully divorce yourself from all church commitments and correspondence. When I was a member, the church made astounding demands on my family’s time, especially time that most people would think belongs to families (e.g., Saturday mornings, Tuesday evenings, Sunday mornings and afternoons). After I left the church, I stumbled upon a research article on “time affluence” (and the benefits of reclaiming your time as your own) and the article helped me realize why, even though I had always felt a powerful sense of duty while a member of the church, I had rarely found much joy in my membership. I recall that even as a missionary I had moments when I quietly admitted to myself that I hated proselytizing and was probably experiencing depressive episodes, but my feelings were irrelevant and I had to press forward. I was convinced at that time that there was no greater work than preaching the gospel, so what did it matter if I felt terrible sometimes?

A second way in which leaving the church has brought me peace is that it has allowed me to live authentically. For most of my adult years there have been portions of LDS doctrine that have bothered me, but because I had no constructive means of discussing my concerns, I generally kept quiet about them and played the Peter Priesthood I was expected to play in Mormon circles. I remember watching a documentary about boys in a yeshiva and feeling envious about the freedom of orthodox Jews (but perhaps not Jewesses) to argue about what their scriptures meant. Where in the LDS church do members debate? For years I acted as though all was well with my testimony, and now I feel the peace that comes from living according to what I believe, with the freedom to adapt if my beliefs change. Free of any imposed code of conduct based on a religious order, I even have the freedom to follow my beliefs if they change again. There is no such thing as being excommunicated from atheism, and ultimately, I’m going to follow the truth wherever it leads me.

But perhaps the greatest source of peace in my life outside the church comes from experiencing a deep meaningfulness that is neither mysterious nor contrived. I now believe that life has no meaning independent of the meaning we assign to it ourselves, and I feel empowered by that belief. I no longer depend on a mysterious, semi-estranged and highly unlikely father from a distant corner of the universe to tell me what my place in the cosmos is and what I should do about it. The meaning of my life is not available in obtuse verses or in mandatory weekly meetings. I have constructed my life’s meaning for myself, by contemplating what ends I want to achieve (for myself and everyone else I care about) and how best to achieve them. No one else can do this for me, and I don’t want them to.

So in my case at least, the fruits of apostasy have included more control over my time, a greater sense of being true to myself and an increased sense of meaning in life. If these are the gaping jaws of hell, then I recommend them to everyone.