Saturday, January 12, 2013

Self-torment and infallibility, reprise

After certain bits of feedback on my previous post, Why I Resigned From the Mormon Church, I feel it necessary to clarify something.

An issue bigger than Mormonism

* I think you are describing an issue much bigger than Mormonism and you are mis-characterizing Mormonism for someone like me... I see value for me, my family, and the world really in being "one with the Saints". I think that people who struggle often expect too much of themselves or the Saints; would be much happier if they took things more on their own terms; and can find validation in that approach by drinking deeply of the doctrine and advice of past leaders.
* I do disagree with you on one point: I think all churches are like that - just others are nicer and less insistent about it all. There is something about the mono-theistic god of Abraham that just leads to the creation of diseased, power hungry, organizations.
It seems that I started writing a blog post about the reasons I chose to resign from the LDS church, and ended up describing "an issue much bigger than Mormonism." The way that I described it may have made it appear that I was criticizing Mormonism in contrast to other religions. I apologize. While I was speaking of my personal experience (which is specifically with Mormonism), I wish to clarify that "this issue" is much larger than me, and much larger than any one religion. In this sense I may have spoken too narrowly. Again, I apologize.

I also want to mention that my perceptions and characterizations of Mormonism are not universal; they are probably most characteristic of "Utah Mormons" and growing up in the church, but even so your experience may vary. In this regard I may have spoken too broadly. Again, I apologize.

However, do note that I have also received several pieces of feedback echoing my experience and confirming that this is indeed an issue present in Mormonism. I don't highlight these to boast of my writing skill, but rather, to add weight to what I've said. I highlight these responses to help you, dear reader, to understand that mine is not a unique and unusual experience. This is much bigger than just me, but for taking the liberty of sharing my personal experience I do not apologize.
* ... never once in my whole life (well, the part when I started doubting) was I able to explain what was going on and why I felt that way, and you have done it.
* I've been making my own journey with the church and have realized many of the same things.
* Wow. This is so close to the open letter I wrote to friends and family.
* I felt like I was reading my own journal.
* Nice story... sounds almost identical to mine
* ... [this] really resonates with me and I had a pretty similar experience.

The larger problem of self-torment

The self-loathing problem is an issue that all people deal with. Anyone that fails to meet expectations (aka is human) is vulnerable: the addict that succumbs once again to addiction; the person that hates his body, forms an eating disorder, and then hates himself even more; the perfectionist that procrastinates. Guilt and shame are dangerous feelings, but it is important at least to recognize them and allow yourself to feel them. These feelings start causing the most damage with the addition of uncertainty, and accelerate into self-loathing. It is easy to wonder if you are the one "at fault" for something, and then place the burden of proof upon yourself, assuming guilt until proven innocent. Of course, it is just as dangerous to place blame on others. This whole idea of blame and fault has caused a lot of damage to the human race.

I am going to expand the "problem" to a classification larger than "self-loathing." This term implies an active and conscious hatred of the self. This is indeed a serious and very real problem, but I don't quite feel it accurately describes my experience. Mine was a passive and subconscious hatred. It was fueled by uncertainty, of questions left unanswered. It manifested itself not in the form "I hate myself," but rather in the subtler and more commonplace "I hate life right now; I can't wait until this phase of life is over." I feel this is closely related to self-loathing. I will use the term "self-torment" as an umbrella term for the general idea behind both the conscious and the subconscious torment I have described.

Some beliefs about God can exacerbate self-torment

As I detailed in my previous post, beliefs regarding a God that cares about and intervenes in the littlest details of our lives, and a God that causes or allows us to suffer the consequences of our own actions (particularly of sin), can lead to unintended guilt and shame. The failure to receive "blessings" at some given  moment when they are needed can make one question why. Some choose to blame God, but religions counsel strongly against this. "God is perfect; He is never to blame. If you feel angry with God, it is your own fault for doubting; God's ways are higher than ours, you should trust His wisdom." Some choose to blame themselves, assuming guilt in the absence of tangible ways to prove their innocence. Sometimes this blame may be justified. If guilt can be proven, then it can be accepted, digested, and resolved. What is worse is when you are left wondering, when that sneaking insinuation seems like it might be unjustified but you still can't dismiss it entirely.

Claims of infallibility can exacerbate self-torment

This is the concern I have particularly with Mormonism, though please recognize that again this sort of problem is much bigger than just this one religion. I touched on this already in the previous section: "God is perfect; He is never to blame." Most religions have some central kernel of truth which is considered infallible. For many Christian religions, it is the Bible. For some, it is the divinely chosen leaders. Even if the documents or people are considered fallible, there is often a sentiment that certain things they say are obviously the absolute truth, straight from God.

Whenever an individual reaches a personal decision or conviction that is in conflict with this perceived absolute truth, she experiences cognitive dissonance. How could I reach this feeling that is in conflict with the truth? Either I'm wrong, or my religion is wrong. Of course, this is often a false dichotomy; the religion may retract or rescind that particular teaching and illustrate that this particular teaching was not part of the infallible body of absolute truth. Nevertheless, this doesn't change how people feel prior to such a change. If the teaching is presented as if it were infallible, then the religious follower will probably take it that way. When she feels this way, the individual must then weigh this one issue against the entire truthfulness of her religion, and there is immense pressure to conclude "I'm wrong" leads her to wonder, why.

And thus the doors open again for self-torment to take hold. "I'm wrong because I've sinned, or failed to repent fully of past sin." Perhaps the sin is simply a sin of omission. "Did I do any good in the world today? ...if not I have failed indeed." High standards are dangerous things to a person that is already struggling with self-torment; every slip up becomes an opportunity to blame yourself for doubt, because the church's infallibility means that you are wrong.

Social pressure exacerbates the infallibility problem

Within Mormon culture, I've felt a lot of social pressure to conform. Again, this is hardly unique to Mormons; the related concepts of "holier than thou" and "keeping up with the Joneses" are widely known. In my Wikipedia-editing days (I'd like to say those aren't over, but I've not attended to Wikipedia for quite some time) I worked alongside a passionate ex Jehovah's Witness. I tried to temper his seemingly venomous desire to "expose" that religion as fraudulent and manipulative. Considering his experience in light of my own recent experiences leaving my church, I now understand his feelings much more clearly.
Over the years I became increasingly disenchanted with the regimentation of Witnesses and the imposition of rules, the denial of personal choice in many areas, the senseless parroting of stock phrases and ideas and the smugness of Witnesses about their own religion and their arrogant, derisive dismissal of the lifestyles and life choices of non-Witnesses. 
I became sickened by the mindless acceptance and sometimes ecstatic reception of empty and repetitive talks given at Witness conventions and assemblies. 
My concern grew over the ceaseless demands by the Watch Tower organization to report "field service" and I felt betrayed when I came to realise that the number of hours' service one was expected to report was used by congregation elders as the ultimate measure of one’s spirituality. 
I became dismayed to realise that for most Witnesses, their regular attendance at field service groups and congregation meetings was done mainly to satisfy the expectations of other Witnesses and to avoid accusations that one was "slacking off". Yet eventually that became my prime motive in attending meetings and pretending to "go witnessing" as well — to avoid the judgmental comments of other Witnesses. 
And so, after enduring much unhappiness, frustration and silent anger as a Jehovah’s Witness — for one cannot voice these criticisms, even to one’s closest friends, for fear they will report you to elders as an apostate and a murmurer — I chose to cease associating with the Witnesses. Those Witnesses I count as true, close friends were dismayed at my withdrawal, but because they have been well primed by Watch Tower publications and talks to be wary of anyone who strays from the norm, they also became immediately suspicious of my motives, even though I declined to give them any reason for my decision.I realised after some time that within their closed community — a claustrophobic, sycophantic, incestuous community they describe as a “spiritual paradise” — gossip and backbiting are the norm. One is always watched by other Witnesses, who are always waiting to judge, criticise and condemn the people they call their "brothers and sisters".
(Read the rest of the old version of that user page. I would link to a better source if I could, but I was in fact one of the people involved in suggesting that this content be removed due to its irrelevance to Wikipedia. Here's a text dump just in case it gets permanently removed.)

Guilt is used as a tool to suppress independent thought

This is what makes me mad. This is what makes me wonder if I will ever believe in God again. Self loathing is bad enough, but is especially so when it is compounded with the "doubt is your fault" issue heaped on top and reconfirmed by both doctrine and social atmosphere. It is bad because it does unnecessary harm to the questioning mind, but worse because it suffocates the healthy habit of asking meaningful, hard questions, and coming up with different, novel, unique answers.

This issue is larger, even, than religion. Pressure to conform to "the system" is present anywhere that a good system is sought after. I've seen it in schools, in politics, even in programming language communities. A particular dogma is upheld, and a group or organization's very existence revolves around it. Then people related to the group raise questions that challenge ideas that have, until that point, simply been assumed.

Asking the wrong questions

Let me pick on my favorite programming language, Haskell, as an example. Haskell is a fascinating language because it enforces certain things that other languages don't. It very strongly encourages a particular style of programming. A great community of people has formed around this language. There is a sort of "Haskell mentality" that must be learned in order to be effective with this programming language, because there are a few things that make it fundamentally different than most of the popular languages: C, Java, Python, etc. It is often the case that someone will come from another language, and try to learn Haskell. They will ask the Haskell community, "How do I do X?" Now, very likely, he has overspecified X. He wants to do something the same way that he did it in his old programming language. Although Haskell is fantastic at supporting multiple paradigms, it is common for the educated Haskeller to take this opportunity to indoctrinate the newbie in the ways of Haskell. "What you really want to do is Y." If we can just indoctrinate this newbie into "the Haskell way" of thinking, then it'll be much easier for him to use Haskell. This sounds fine to "insiders," but can alienate "outsiders" and come off as arrogant or annoying. (Whenever you have an "us vs them" situation, red flags should be going up in your mind.)

A few friends in the Haskell community were talking about another programming language which shall remain unnamed. Consider how similar this is to the religious/infallibility situation (names changed for anonymity/fun):
Alice: In the [Blub irc channel] it's impossible to get answers to deeper technical questions. Instead of admitting that they don't know the answer, people resort to annoying "you don't really want that questions".
Bob: “You don't really want to do that” kind of answers really bug me. And I wish people were happier with not knowing something. There's a tendency on IRC in general for people to try to maintain some kind of “clean sheet” of always being right, or appearing to be. That's profoundly unhealthy. Come on guys, no one thinks or cares that you don't know everything, they're happy that you're paying any interest at all.
Eve: I tend to do that (try to appear right) as well, and I find it's harder than I might think to change. It takes a lot of self-awareness to catch myself doing it.
 Alice: I wanted to [X] ... and I was asking if someone knew [about related thing Y]. Apparently I'm wrong for wanting this and it's not possible to answer this question [Y] (according to a couple of people on the channel) unless I explain why I want [X].
This is a tricky topic to talk about, and I want to touch on another aspect of it before I return to my main point. Jesus was a master of not answering the question asked, but instead striking at the heart the underlying issue. This is because the pharisees often asked Jesus questions with the malicious intent of tripping him up. I don't believe that it is inherently wrong to respond to a question with "you're asking the wrong question." However, it is nevertheless a warning sign that the respondent might be in a reality distortion field.

You're holding it wrong: shifting the blame

Keeping the discussion light before we delve back into the depths of seriousness. Apple fans are sometimes accused of succumbing to the "reality distortion field." I googled "apple holding it wrong" to refresh my memory on the iPhone 4 issue where holding it a certain, fairly standard way caused it to lose reception, and Steve Jobs simply suggested not holding it that way. I was amused to find more recent articles on the iPhone 5 "purple lens flare" camera issue. Apparently some unfortunate AppleCare support employee suggested angling the camera differently, and the internet again took the opportunity to make fun of Apple's reality distortion field.

So what should Apple have done? "No good deed goes unpunished," so the saying goes. Just because dearly departed Mr. Jobs or some AppleCare employee tried to suggest holding the phone in a way that avoided the issue, they got a lot of flack. Was this justified? Perhaps. People wanted a full apology, a public admission that serious mistakes were made, especially considering the level of care, thought, and pride that Apple invests in its user experience. Instead, by this sort of suggestion, the blame subtly got shifted from Apple to the consumer. Having a problem with your iThing? It's your fault. Now, Apple didn't say this, but nevertheless, the connotation was there. It was felt. The unspoken infallibility. The upheld dogma and ideal, the discouragement of doubt in the organization. Do you see how this issue infects not only Mormonism, not only religion, but the entirety of our society? Do you see how it isn't just a problem with the ones transmitting the message, but also with the ones receiving it? There is something wrong with the way we perceive the world, the way we value dogma and high standards. But there is something right about it, too; it's not all wrong.

Infallibility, insufficient apology, and suppression

The Mormon church, starting at an unknown time and up until 1978, denied blacks the priesthood, and therefore, also denied them temple ordinances, which are (according to Mormon theology) necessary for exaltation in the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. The first presidency issued an official declaration in 1949 called the "Negro Question" declaration.
The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time.
It goes on to imply (though does not state in clear terms) that blacks would become white and then be given the priesthood, but only after "all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood," which seems to me to refer to the resurrection. In 1978, the first presidency issued and the church membership accepted what is now known as "Official Declaration 2." Here are some excerpts:
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood... He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come... Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.
If we are to believe both of these documents, then we conclude that God for some reason banned blacks from the priesthood, and then later un-banned them, without supplying a reason. Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle of the church, had the following to say at a CES Symposium:
... all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet... It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.
Absolutely chilling. Throw out all logic, all reason, all questions, and get in line. And if you don't, then you obviously need to repent; your disbelief is your own fault. I used to look up to McConkie as a great scholar, but this disgusts me. Nothing could be farther from the spirit of scholarship. This breaks my heart.

In 1997, the church was asked to officially repudiate the 1949 declaration, but President Hinkley responded "The 1978 declaration speaks for itself ... I don't see anything further that we need to do." This saddens me. President Hinkley was my hero. How could he not see the damage the church has done? How could he not see "anything further that we need to do," in the face of a direct request for apology? Ironically, in 2004 (While Hinkley was still president), the state of Illinois issued an official apology for the persecution of the Mormons which drove them from the state in the mid 19th century. Wasn't it enough that Illinois laws now prohibit such discrimination based on religion, and welcome Mormons with open arms?

A related aside: The Family

As a gay man, President Hinkley has dealt me yet another slap in the face, issued in 1995 by the first presidency, known as The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
WE, THE FIRST PRESIDENCY and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God... We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife... Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.
In other words, my natural inclinations to seek and love a male partner are not of God, and children are entitled to better than being raised by me and my true love (whomever that turns out to be; it will certainly be a man). Why don't you just stab me in the heart, it would probably hurt less than this. This proclamation additionally makes some claims about gender which invalidate the feelings and choices of transgender people. I am not transgender, but as I have learned more about the LGBT community I have learned more about these wonderful, terribly misunderstood people. It just breaks my heart that the church I loved so dearly, the church I believed in so sincerely, would say these things. I hope that one day the church will issue an apology for this hurtful proclamation. If there is a God, then there is no possible way that these wonderful feelings of love and affection inside of me are not from Him, just because they are for the "wrong" gender.

These things don't just make me sad. They make me angry. I feel rage when I think about it. I feel furious. I feel betrayed. I feel vulnerable, and wounded, and put on the defensive. I feel like lashing out. I feel like decrying the Mormon religion as an awful lie. There are so many good aspects to the church; decrying it as a complete fraud would be a very skewed view of what it really is. But can you see why some people feel driven to speak out against the church after they leave? The church teaches that this is because they hate God, hate the light, hate the truth. They have joined Satan and his cause: they are hellbent on destroying God's work. This illustration is so terribly mistaken.

It isn't because of Satan, or sin, that I feel like speaking out against the church. It is because of the pain, the rage, the betrayal. It is because the church made it so agonizingly difficult to leave. It is because of how deeply I loved the church and the ideals I thought it stood for. It is because the church broke my heart. As the saying goes, the only ones that can hurt you the most are the ones you love most dearly. I will avoid pointing to things and saying "look, this is evidence that the church is wrong," despite the temptation to do so. Instead, I will merely point out the things the church does that I feel are hurtful, and I will share my personal feelings and experiences. But I can see much more clearly now, why some people do speak out. Why after they leave the church, they want to tear it down.

Validation and understanding

The next time someone asks an uncomfortable question, or raises a serious doubt, that challenges your own dogma, your own assumptions, your own beliefs, do yourself a favor. Don't blame them for questioning or doubting. Don't just try to indoctrinate them with your dogma. It is unhealthy to just ignore it. You don't have to have all the answers. It's OK to say "I don't know." But remember, people need validation. People crave acceptance, they want to be heard and understood. When you tell them "you shouldn't ask that question" or "you shouldn't have that doubt," or to "fall in line," or that "it doesn't matter," you are invalidating them. You are telling them that you don't care, that it's their fault, and they need to go fix themselves. This hurts. It damages relationships, and drives them away from you and your dogma, because nobody likes feeling invalidated. Voicing honest questions and doubts puts people in a vulnerable position; the last thing you want to do is betray that trust by taking advantage of the temporary vulnerability.

Instead, try to reach a mutual understanding. What does that person feel? Why? It is extremely therapeutic to hear the words "I know how you feel," when they are sincere. (They can be very insulting when perceived as insincere or inaccurate.) The next best thing to hear is "I understand why you feel the way you do." You have the opportunity and responsibility to heal the self-torment of those around you.

Additional advice

If you are the one with questions and doubts, then I applaud you. That doesn't mean you have to abandon your beliefs. That doesn't prove that your church is wrong. It just means that you have a healthy, functioning brain and a good sense of curiosity. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions and raise the doubts. The truth will outshine everything else. Again, it's OK to not know all the answers. That doesn't mean that you should stop looking for them, though. And that certainly doesn't mean that you should "fall in line" and mindlessly join the rest of the drones. You are unique. No one on earth has the same biology or the same experiences as you. We are all lenses through which the truth can be discovered. Don't just rely on the tradition you grew up with. Use your head. Follow your heart. Ask a Mormon convert to share her story with you; you should recognize these elements in her story: questions, doubts, individual experience, breaking from the norm, being true to one's self. Never succumb to the idea that you just "got lucky" and struck gold on the first try, that you stumbled upon the whole truth and need look no further. Always reach for more. Always be open and receptive.

If you are dealing with self-torment, know that you can change this. Inspect your feelings and admit to yourself that sometimes you lay too much guilt on yourself. Forgive yourself. Talk with those you love about it. Give them a chance to validate you. Find the people that can help you, and don't expose yourself to people that consistently invalidate you. Seek out a therapist or support group as appropriate. There is healing. There is hope. There are people that will love you and help you. Even if you think you have no one else (which is probably not the case), you can always shoot me an email.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Why I Resigned From the Mormon Church

I resigned because I feel there is something fundamentally wrong with it. There are many, many good things about the church, but at its core I feel there is something wrong. This "something wrong" has caused me significant pain. I no longer wish to be associated with this wonderful, beautiful, but somehow secretly wrong church. Please allow me to elaborate.

Early years

I've been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since August 1995. I was baptized at the age of 8. As a teen I gained a strong conviction that I was a member of the one true church, the only church on the face of the earth with true authority of God. All other baptisms were nice gestures, all other priesthoods were well intended. But they were all ineffective to me. I knew with absolute certainty that I had found the truth.

I really "feasted on the words of Christ." I loved participating in Sunday School and seminary. I learned the doctrines of the church backwards and forwards. I loved both times I went to EFY, a week-long religious youth retreat. I loved it when the youth of our stake went on the "pioneer trek," a week-long (ish?) experience of travelling the old pioneer trails while pulling handcarts, playing old pioneer games, and sharing spiritual experiences. The weather was unexpectedly rainy, and we had a harder time than anticipated. This, of course, only made it that much more real, that much more spiritual for us. I bore strong testimony in church the following Sunday of Christ's love for us. "The pain and suffering I experienced was only a tiny fraction of what the real pioneers went through. But their pain and struggle was only a tiny fraction of Jesus's atonement. If He suffered so much for me, then the least I can do is follow His commandments."

Missionary service

I served two years as a Mormon missionary. I loved the Argentine people deeply, and sought to share my joy and conviction with them. Christians sometimes find it hard to understand why Mormons try to convert them, when they have already found Christ and been baptized. I tried to convince those people that Mormonism had something more: the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, living prophets. It's the same gospel that you know and love from the New Testament, but augmented with life, with a God that is actively guiding His church, revealing truth, and performing miracles.

I was often irritated by the superficial commitment I saw in a lot of inactive members. They had been convinced that they should be baptized, but didn't take the covenant seriously. I saw missionaries that were focused on baptisms. Not all, mind you. But enough to disturb me. These people needed to see and feel the truth in their hearts first. Baptism should not be rushed, it would come as a natural consequence of merely being exposed to the truth, which outshines everything else. The Holy Ghost can convince these people, but it happens on God's timetable, which can be as short as hours or days, or as long as years or decades. The Church's published guidelines for a recommended minimum amount of church attendance before baptism led to many missionaries striving to "mass produce" baptisms, only focusing on those investigators that looked like they could be convinced to fit this expedited schedule, and pushing those that had reached the formal minimum requirements to take the next step. This bothered me. Couldn't these missionaries see that the most important thing was to convert these people first, and that the rest would follow naturally? The mission president encouraged us to focus on true conversion and not just a number of baptisms. Weren't they listening? Well, I can only assume that each missionary was trying his best in the way he felt was best. But at the time, I just didn't see them following the absolute best path. The truth was pretty obvious to me, why wasn't it to them? Again, I remind you that I did not feel this way about all fellow missionaries. But I did feel this way about too many of them to be comfortable about it. Was I a perfect missionary? Of course not. But I followed my heart, and I tried. I truly did. Yet I never held a position of leadership, other than being the president's financial secretary for 6 months. The usual track of leadership involved being District Leader and Zone Leader. Why had I never been promoted even to DL? Even the most apostate missionaries were usually granted this position for at least one or two transfers. I shrugged it off, simply trusting that God would put me wherever I needed to be. But I was, to some extent, depressed by what I saw. Why would my fellow missionaries, which seemed less devoted both to the rules and true spirit of missionary work, be promoted instead of me? It weakened my own resolve to adhere to the strict missionary schedule, particularly in the mornings. Regardless, my conviction burned within me; my love of the Argentine people compelled me to action. "I can do all things in Christ which strengtheneth me."

Upon returning from my mission, I carefully prepared my "homecoming" talk. I selected the topic that was most meaningful to me: God's love for us. I gave a very compelling talk in sacrament meeting, sharing my missionary experiences and emphasizing God's unconditional love for His children: every one of us. I pointed at the congregation, and gently, slowly, but firmly asserted: "God loves you." It was an incredibly emotional and spiritual experience.

Temple worker and choir leader

After my missionary service, I returned to Brigham Young University (this 2-year hiatus is a common occurrence for men that attend BYU). I chose to live in the Foreign Language Student Residence (FLSR), a wonderful opportunity to maintain my Spanish and eat great dinners 5 times a week. It was a blast. As an added bonus, I lived just about as close to the Provo temple as you can get! I served as a veil worker at the temple, offering a few hours of my time once each week. It was very soothing to go there and participate in the temple rituals on a regular basis. I poured my soul into my service there. I tried very hard to make everything I did there special. Each ordinance I participated in, I made sure that I did it properly, with clear pronunciation, with a brisk but appropriate and purposeful pace, and with gentle emotion in my voice. I wanted to give the very best experience to every temple-goer that I came in contact with. I was warned to avoid becoming a drone, a machine, delivering a monotonous and routine dialogue. I did avoid this, but couldn't help noticing that some of the other veil workers did not pour as much energy and effort into the work as I did, they seemed more focused on getting people through as fast as possible. Another uncomfortable encounter with the sense of "mass production," undermining the very sensitive, very spiritual, very sacred nature of it all. Some of these people were quite old, perhaps they were expending the same comparative amount of effort, donating the widow's mite? Perhaps some of them had performed this very service so many times that it was simply burned into their memory, and they delivered it merely as a trained impulse, similar to memorizing a piano song or practicing a tennis stroke. Could they be faulted for that? Again, the impulse I felt to expend all effort and pour my soul into my temple service seemed obvious. I saw it as a natural result of being exposed to the truth. So how could some people not feel that way, not feel absolutely compelled to do their best on every occasion? Again, this was not my observation of all of them, and I can only assume the best intentions of those wonderful people. But again, it was uncomfortable to observe too many instances of insincerity. Was I a perfect veil worker? Well, in all honesty, I am tempted to say "yes." There are times on my mission I can look back on and think, "maybe I didn't give it my all there." I cannot think of any such moment in my temple service. Perhaps that is because the way you spend your time as a veil worker is so clearly defined: there is no room for interpretation, no need for creativity or innovation.

While I lived at the FLSR, I served as the ward choir director. I loved that calling. (Ever since then, I wished and hoped that I could get that calling again, but at the same time, I didn't want to deny anyone else of that wonderful experience.) I again found an opportunity to pour my heart and soul into the church. It was extremely rewarding. I put careful thought and effort into every piece we performed. I directed the choir with enthusiasm and passion. For our last song of the school year, I prepared the choir spiritually by reading them passages of scripture about unity. The song was "Make us one." I included my all-time favorite passage of scripture: John 17, Jesus's intercessory prayer. Was I a perfect choir director? Not nearly. I could have spent more time planning, I could have organized a few things better. But I did invest a lot of emotion in it, and a nontrivial chunk of my time. I was very graciously complimented by choir members and listeners that recognized my effort. In past choirs that I have participated in (including other ward choirs), I also gave it my all. I tried to remember everything the director instructed, and I tried to do my best to reflect the beauty and emotion of the song through my voice. I encouraged my choir members to do so, and every time they sang, I was very satisfied. However, there were times that I was irritated. Can you guess why? Yep, I noticed this person not caring. That person not motivated. How could this be? Weren't they paying attention to the beautiful lyrics, the touching message conveyed by the music we sang? It baffled me. Sure, they always delivered spectacularly whenever we "performed," but why didn't they grasp at every opportunity to feel the meaning of the song?

A turning point

Something didn't add up. My world view had flaws, and I was starting to notice this. "Exposure to the truth" did not have the unavoidable effects that I thought it should have: the effects that it had on me and some other people, but not all. Dedication and motivation did not spring out of people's souls under the circumstances that I thought were sure to cause such things. Could it be that some people were just rotten? Surely not, for the gospel teaches that anyone can change. The Lord's arms are outstretched to all. So how then could I explain this phenomenon?

During this time, I was editing Wikipedia. Yep, I'm geeky like that. Being the good Mormon boy that I was, I watched over articles related to Mormonism, especially the article on Joseph Smith. I carefully reviewed all of the policy pages on Wikipedia. I wanted to cast the church in a good light, but not by obscuring the truth or going against the policy of "neutrality." The truth of the gospel would surely outshine any legitimate embarrassments, criticisms, faults, or blemishes. I did not go out of my way to read anti-Mormon literature. Nevertheless I was exposed to a lot of criticism that I had not encountered before, and probably would never have encountered any other way. You'd be surprised at how insular the "Utah/Mormon bubble" is. Well, of all people, I considered myself to certainly be the best equipped to handle criticism. I had noticed my conviction and passion were above average. I would not be swayed. How could I ever deny that which I so clearly knew to be true? The thought was absurd. The truth outshines all falsehood. I knew the truth. I knew that in the end, logic and reason and evidence would all be pointing in one direction: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because that's the nature of the truth; if it ever appears to contradict this, then it must be that we have either applied faulty logic, or we are missing evidence that will clarify and resolve the apparent contradiction. Such was my mode of reasoning, and this is why I remained stalwart in working on Wikipedia. Others would get offended by the criticisms aimed at the church. They would encounter someone on a Talk page and have a disagreement and just give up, considering Wikipedia a lost cause. Not me. I saw a lot of good in Wikipedia's policies and guidelines. Just present all the evidence: let the truth speak for itself.

Criticism after criticism, I found myself going to the sources: Bushman and Brodie, mostly, regarding Joseph Smith. I needed to make sure that the criticisms were legitimate, that respectable critics had actually said these things, and that their words were not being twisted in ways they would not agree with. I was assaulted with new facts about Joseph Smith that I didn't know before. I learned that he was a treasure hunter as a boy, and used a seer stone to locate the treasure. I learned that he founded the Kirtland Safety Society, a bank that utterly failed and caused many to defect from the church. I learned that his First Vision story seemed to evolve over time, becoming more grand at each retelling. I learned about the immense social, political, and military power he commanded in Nauvoo. I learned that he had a gun on the day he died, and he shot and injured or killed several men.

None of these things phased me. None. With relative ease, I could find a reasonable explanation for each criticism, each complaint, each embarrassment. But something else bothered me about all this. I considered myself to be fairly well-read when it came to church doctrine. I was no scholar of church history, but I thought I knew quite a bit about Joseph Smith, just from the Sunday School lessons and common materials that the church provided. But for some reason, these things were not addressed in the materials. There was simply no mention of them. And that made me uncomfortable. Again, I found myself clinging to an ideal: that truth outshines everything, that all evidence should be presented and the truth will speak for itself. Again, it seemed absolutely obvious. This is the nature of truth: it's just obvious once you get to the bottom of it. Again, I found myself irritated. But this time it wasn't with the investigators. This time it wasn't with the missionaries. This time it wasn't with the veil workers. This time it wasn't with the choir singers. This time it wasn't with any particular person. This time it was with the church.

The church is wrong?

"The church is perfect. It's members, however, are not." I had heard some form of this statement many times in my life. And I believed it, absolutely. "God will never let His chosen vessels lead you astray." I had absolute faith in the prophets and apostles of my church. The investigators, the missionaries, the veil workers, the choir singers, these were all just people. And of course people are imperfect, people make mistakes. Irritated though I was, I could make sense of their imperfections within the framework of the gospel. But now I was assaulted by a new doubt, a new thought that I had never before allowed myself to consider. What if the church isn't true? And if it is true, if God's church is perfect, then why hide this? Why paint a pretty picture of the past, rather than painting the gritty truth, and letting it shine, despite people's imperfections? Why sugar-coat that which is sweet and easily consumed already? I found no resolution. How could I address this concern? I had heard of how carefully the top church leaders combed over the new missionary manual, Preach My Gospel. Surely they review the other church materials, or at least appoint appropriate people to review them. How could this slip by? Or did they encourage this? Did they allow, or even demand, the sugar-coating? If so, why?

Somehow, my unshakable testimony had been shaken. Somehow, I had been pulled out of my personal bubble of belief and truth, and had been shown something that I could not deal with. Now, let's rewind back to when I was on my mission. I spoke with a lot of people that were firm in their own, non-Mormon convictions: Evangelists, Jehovah's Witnesses, atheists. I spoke with many people that didn't seem to have firm convictions, but did have a strong sense of tradition: Catholics. (Which is not to say that no Catholic has strong convictions; I very clearly recall one particular Catholic woman whom I respect greatly. She loved the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, etc, but believed in particular miracle she witnessed which tied her loyalties to Catholicism.) Overall, I encountered a lot of people that just weren't interested in hearing the Good News, the "Christianity Plus!" that I had to offer them. And I decided something. I said to myself that if God ever revealed to me that Mormonism was not true, that I should join some other church instead, that I would listen to Him. My loyalties were not to a tradition. My loyalties were not to a church or a set of doctrines. My loyalties were to the truth, and to God, the source of all truth. This was a consistent theory that applied to me just as well as it applied to all these people. If only they would give the truth a chance, as I myself was willing and open to new truths, then they could see for themselves. Within this framework of discovering truth, I therefore needed to more carefully consider the possibility that my own tradition, my own set of doctrines, was wrong. A thing which I had never before seriously considered.

So, what was I to do? This train of thought didn't happen all at once. It was not some huge epiphany. It happened gradually. The small seed of doubt had finally found a little tiny crevice where it could begin to grow. It softened up the soil of my heart, and suddenly, other seeds of doubt, which had previously fallen on impossibly hard rock, were now finding root.

Dealing with doubt

Well, chronologically, next I was a Sunday School teacher. I loved that as well. I took every opportunity to challenge the class and ask soul-seeking questions. Why would God command this? Why would Isaiah say that? What's the purpose? What's the meaning? I found this to be incredibly rewarding and faith-promoting. I may have secretly been harboring small doubts, but let's face it, who doesn't have doubts? As usual, I simply said to myself that the truth would outshine all else. Rather than rejecting my doubts, I should give place for them in my soul. The truth always sorts itself out. By investigating the facts, the evidence, regarding these doubts, surely I would come to the correct conclusion and in the end my faith would be stronger than ever. Suppressing the doubts, just hand-waiving them away with philosophies that essentially amount to "God works in mysterious ways" was not an option for me. I had a strong conviction that the truth would prevail. Good would triumph over evil. All this I quietly kept to myself; I didn't need to trouble anyone else with my doubts. I would surely overcome them, through faith and sincere truth-seeking.

I took classes over the summer, and loved the accelerated, more focused pace. I made a plan to graduate as soon as possible, cramming in a reasonable amount of coursework each semester. I was effectively a Junior in school, with about two years of work left. Graduation was on the horizon. But something was different the following Fall semester. I'm not sure how or why, but somehow I ended up missing classes, missing deadlines. The diligence, motivation, and rigor that had marked my personality were slipping. As you can probably tell, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. So missing deadlines, getting less-than-stellar grades, was devastating. It led to worse and worse performance. I ended up flunking the semester. What happened? I was probably just burnt out, I said. Too much school, not enough break. Perhaps I shouldn't have taken classes during the summer. This reasoning was wrong, but it seemed plausible. "You've already had your vacation," my parents said, referring to the flunked semester. I agreed. I could surely start anew the following semester and do just fine, like I had done before. Too much TV was to blame for my bad semester. Time to drop Netflix.

But something was not right. I had failed a semester once before: the semester right before my mission, I became addicted to World of Warcraft. I skipped classes to play it, I missed deadlines to play it, I eventually just gave up on the semester and kept playing it. I sometimes slept through or skipped church to play it. Of course, after that semester I repented, heeded my mission call, and figured that those problems were behind me. My zeal was renewed. Well, this time it was different. There was no mission call to renew my zeal, for one thing. Another difference was that now I had doubts. Could that be the cause for my faltering performance? Was I being punished for straying from the gospel? No, that didn't make sense, how could God punish me for seeking truth? He didn't punish Joseph Smith for sampling different religions and praying about which to join. But that explanation -- that I had done something wrong to deserve a drop in motivation -- still lurked in the back of my mind. After all, wasn't that a fairly good explanation of my WoW semester?

It gets worse

Following semesters were a struggle. I sometimes pulled through in one or two of the classes I really liked, but several semesters of failure and academic probation followed. What was wrong with me? What had changed? What would happen if I flunked out of school? Uncertainty about the future did not help my situation. I was dealing with depression; I wish I had recognized that sooner. My church attendance faltered. My commitment to home teaching faded. I was no longer the one that prodded my home teaching companion along; instead I was the one being prodded. My doubts grew. It was a confusing and painful time of my life. Where did my faith go? What happened to that burning conviction that compelled me to action like clockwork? I didn't realize it, but I was going through a crisis of faith.

Now, how did the church help me through this? What I was supposed to do was share my doubts with my family and possibly my ecclesiastical leaders, and let them help me overcome them. I was supposed to renew my zeal for church attendance and temple attendance and reading scriptures and all of those good things. By getting closer to the Holy Spirit, I could have overcome those doubts. This is essentially what the church teaches. So why, then, didn't I overcome them? According to this stance, it was my fault. I wasn't faithful enough. I wasn't diligent enough. I wasn't humble enough. Can you see now how something is wrong? We as human beings constantly seek the answer to the question, "what caused this?" Especially when something goes wrong. What caused this miscarriage? What caused that massacre? What causes cancer? We want to know the cause so we can fix it. Can you imagine a world without cancer? A world without massacre or miscarriage? A world where nobody leaves the true church? So what, then, caused me to leave the church? If only we could find the cause, then we could prevent good people (like me! I hope) from leaving the one true church.

Now, a Mormon will never say to your face that your problems are of your own doing. But to some degree, that is what they believe. If God works miracles, if God blesses the faithful, then what causes bad things to happen? Well, obviously, it's a lack of being worthy of God's blessings. Mormons believe very strongly that God is an active participant in our lives. That God cares about even the tiniest details of your life. That God is just waiting at the door, ready to bless you, if you would just open it and let him in. So the church's answers to "why did [bad thing X] happen?" are these: either Satan is tempting you, God is testing you, or it's the consequences of your own sins or mistakes. This seems reasonable, right? Actions have consequences. Every parent wants their child to take responsibility for their actions. If you sneak a cookie from the cookie jar, you get time out. It makes sense, right? God is a loving parent that wants to teach his children to be obedient. And the "testing" part makes sense too. How are muscles supposed to grow if you don't put them up against some resistance? By adding this to the "it might be your fault," we can soften the blow, we can explain more situations where it might not be your fault. Reasonable though it seems, there's something wrong with all of this. Something subtly, deeply, and disturbingly wrong.

Something wrong

Reconsider the life story I just told you. Now, returning to the question. What caused me to leave the church? The answer is doubt. I entertained doubt, and eventually due to my doubts I concluded that the church is "not true." So let's dig deeper. What caused doubt? Was it a sin to allow myself to consider that the church might not be true? Did I make some fundamental mistake, which caused me to be susceptible, caused a moment of weakness? Well, whatever the answer, I've decided that I no longer believe in Mormonism. Then why leave the church? Why not just remain a member until they kick me out? After all, leaving the church means that I forfeit the "Gift of the Holy Ghost," I forfeit the blessings of temple covenants. If there is even a sliver of a chance that it is all true, then shouldn't I just stick close and give the church a chance to re-light the flame of faith?

No. It sounds very reasonable, but there is something wrong. Something very wrong. We've been over what I should have done. How I should have responded. Well what did I actually do? The church teaches that we all have our own cross to bear. And for most of my life I had been the one that was helping others bear their crosses. My own seemed light enough back then. So I wanted to keep shouldering my own cross. I did not want to burden others. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be faithful. I wanted to show God how committed I was, by grinding my way through one day at a time, one step at a time. And to my horror, I discovered I wasn't good enough. Of course this is perfectly normal, nobody but Christ leads a perfect life. I asked for help. I shelved my concerns, set the past behind me, and moved on. Sometimes I felt the need to run away from it all. I would bury myself in TV or internet news or video games or whatever I could find. It didn't matter what. Just something to get away from it all, something to let me forget my failures and my pain and my guilt. I wasn't supposed to feel that way. My burdens were supposed to be light, because I put my faith in the Lord. I may have been making mistakes, but Christ's atonement makes up for that. Repentance washes that away. Was I not repenting fully enough? Bursts of faithfulness came out every now and again in an attempt to kick-start myself back into my old ways of diligence and consistency. Why couldn't I muster up the motivation to keep doing the things I used to? The church's answer is two-pronged: either God is testing you, or it's your fault. Maybe it's not your fault, but maybe it is. This is what is wrong. I had the evidence before me: failing semesters, lack of motivation, as well as missing church, lackluster scripture study. And the church handed me a nasty way of putting two and two together, the assumption, the basis, the insinuation that maybe it's my fault.

When isn't it my fault?

This is maddening. You subconsciously flog yourself, over and over. You constantly wonder, what am I doing wrong? Are these misfortunes preventable? Am I to blame? The church doesn't say yes, but it doesn't say no. And then it says something really nasty. Probably. If you are faithful and true, then you could receive revelation, you might be blessed, if it is God's will (because it is certainly within God's power). Look on the bright side! Be an optimist!

Will I find the right girl to be my wife? Well, if you're faithful and diligent, then God will probably put you in a collision course with your one true love within 6 months after your mission. But if not, then don't fret, he's just testing you! Or... it's your fault. You didn't do your part.

Will I succeed next semester? Well, if you just have enough faith, then I'm sure that God will help you! Through Christ, you can change. You can become better. But if it doesn't work out this semester, then just hold on, because God is putting you through the refiner's fire. You will come out stronger than ever. Or... it's your fault. You didn't do your part.

How do you ever know whether or not you've done your part? You never do. This is what is maddening. This is the thing that I never struggled with for two decades of my life, and then slowly, surely, quietly, it happened. I started doubting. I considered an alternate explanation. Maybe bad things happen, just for no good reason. Maybe God isn't watching out for me. Maybe when good things happen, it's just because. Things became easier for me to understand when I took God out of the equation. Why did the church behave this way? Because it's not inspired of God. Why did things X Y Z happen to me? Why didn't God intervene, or aid? Was it my fault? Is God testing me? Or is there no God at all? Maybe it just happened because it happened.

There's a simpler explanation

Suddenly I allowed myself to consider that there isn't a jokester God that whimsically selects moments to try us and moments to bless us, but always punishing us for wrongdoing. Suppose God exists. Maybe he doesn't employ this mysterious "higher logic" that is beyond our understanding. It is arrogant to pretend that we know everything, but I think it's fair to say that logic and truth are consistent, and characteristically simple. (This is something I love about Mormon doctrine: it goes back to very fundamental and simple concepts. "God loves you," is probably the most fundamental of all.) When religion fails to deliver answers, I now have a harder time accepting the response that "some things we just will never know until the next life."

Call it "occam's razor" if you wish. But I feel that the church has done me great (though subtle) harm, and the best explanation for this is the simplest: it's not true. How do I explain what I call the "false advertising" of the church? The overly optimistic promising of blessings, the rosy portrait of the past that conveniently leaves out certain details, the recounting of faith-promoting experiences, and the shunning of any document that might challenge that faith. I tried for years to explain it. I tried for years to justify it. In fact, during the earlier years of my life, I did explain it. I did just trust in God. But then the doubt came. Then the pain came. Then the guilt and the subconscious self-loathing came. It was crippling. It was too much. Was it my fault? Or perhaps was there some grand mystical explanation that would be revealed to me someday?

There's a simpler explanation: the church is wrong. How do you think the church responds to this proposition? With the pain. With the guilt. "No, you are wrong. It's your fault. If you'd just come back and really embrace the gospel, then you'd see." But there is no line. No limit. No point at which you can say that you've given it a good go, and that the church failed to deliver. No point at which you can confidently exclaim that it isn't your fault. Do you see why I don't believe in the church anymore? Because something about this system is wrong. Do you see why I resigned from the church now? Because of the pain it caused me. Because of the pain I see it causing in others. That silent pain, that personal burden. How can my parents, my siblings, my friends, ever be really confident that my leaving the church isn't their fault? They can't. That possibility always exists. Sure, they can ask church leaders, they could get a letter from the first presidency guaranteeing that it's not their fault. But the rhetoric of the church silently brings it back up, again and again, no matter what you are told, no matter what you think you believe. Maybe it's your fault. You silently, subconsciously flog yourself one more time.

Unspoken infallibility

That is why I hate the church. Now don't forget, I also love the church. There are so many good things that come from the LDS church. But there's this one thing. This hidden thing. Something wrong. It makes my blood boil. If you dare to say that the church is wrong, then according to the church's rhetoric, the church's mentality, it's your fault. By extension, if you even consider that the church is wrong, it's your fault. It is so hard to leave the church for this reason, and it isn't supposed to be this hard. If I feel that I've found the truth elsewhere, then the ideal for me should be this: Good for you! Go for it! Seek truth and embrace it wherever you find it! Instead the church shuts down independent thought. If you disagree with the church, you are wrong. If you'd just wake up and smell the roses, you'd realize that. If you'd just pray more and stay closer to the church, you'd see. It's your fault that you don't believe the church is true. Can you see how nasty this rhetoric is? Because whether or not the church is actually true, the church will subtly tell you that it is your fault for disbelief. It is your fault for nurturing doubt. It is your fault because you must've done something bad that made the Holy Spirit leave you, which is why you are even considering the possibility that the church is wrong.

Not all churches are like this. Some are. The Mormon church is notable for not accepting baptisms from other churches. Mormon belief is that their prophet is the only real prophet. Their priesthood is the only real priesthood. The essence of this is quite clear and undeniable from the temple recommend question:

Do you sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator? Do you recognize him as the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys?

Quoted from Gospel Principles > Eternal Marriage

And the scary thing is, it all makes perfect sense. It only takes one convincing spiritual experience to set you up to know for the rest of time and eternity that this is the only true church. You don't even need to consider other possibilities or options!

This affects my loved ones

The mentality encouraged by the church causes ignorance and pain. That is why I resigned. I do not want to be officially affiliated with the organization that encourages my family, my friends, my neighbors, to be ignorant and to feel that silent, subtle self-loathing. What makes it worse is that the church still causes pain to me and to those church members whom I love dearly because I have chosen to leave. On one level, there is the concern that my soul may be lost. That I can understand. But on another level, there is the creeping question. That curiosity that human beings can never get rid of. Why did he leave? Whose fault is it? Are my current pains and struggles well-deserved, because I had some small part to play in the reason this man left the church?

Dear friends and family, I plead with you to stop blaming yourself. I know you do it (maybe not for me leaving the church, but for other things in your own life relating to your closest and dearest love ones). I think everyone in the church reaches that point. You may not even know that you do it. You don't have to stop believing, but you do have to start thinking for yourself. For those of you who honestly seek the truth, who allow yourselves to consider new evidence, even if you think you know and have no reason to doubt, I applaud you. Whether you find yourself within the church or without, I'm rooting for you. I am happy that you have found what you believe to be the truth, and that you don't have to stay in a bubble in order to maintain that belief. It is my goal with this blog, not to convince you that the church is untrue, but rather, to pop some bubbles, to expand your comfort zone. Please, oh please, admit all evidence, and let the truth speak for itself. Don't obscure it with revised history or excessive optimism.

Oh, and did I mention I'm gay? But please do not tell me that I left the church because I'm gay. I think I've fairly clearly detailed reasons completely orthogonal to sexual orientation. Now, does being gay additionally convince me the church is not true? Yes, it does. I'll elaborate on this more in following posts.