Mormons Coming and Going

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We’ve already heard from two gay readers in our special project on religious choice: one who is considering leaving the Mormon Church and one who already left. The next reader we’re hearing from is a straight guy, who states his choice right off the bat:

I left the LDS Church at age 34.

My wife and children, however, are still active, believing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church. This authoritarian, patriarchal religious organization was at the center of my life from the time I was a child. Beginning in my adolescence, I felt a growing tension between what others told me was true and what my mind and heart was telling me.

Nevertheless, I lived up to the expectations of my parents, my church leaders, and other role models in my religious tradition: I graduated from seminary (a four-year high school program for LDS youth); I earned an Eagle Scout award; I went to Brigham Young University on scholarship; I served a two-year mission for the Church in France and Switzerland; I married my wife in the temple in a private ceremony for only faithful members; I served in many volunteer capacities in my local congregations; I even made my professional career as a faculty member at BYU for five years.

Over the years I had felt increasingly constrained by my life’s circumstances and my own acquiescence into the Mormon religious culture. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone close to me about my struggle, for fear of losing their respect and causing them heavy pain. In my confusion and loneliness, I reached out online to various communities of Mormons going through similar faith and cultural struggles as I was. Over the course of seven years I deconstructed most of my faith in the Church, as well as my belief in God or any kind of theology. I was angry and hurting and depressed, which affected all aspects of my life.

In choosing to step away from the LDS Church, I threatened virtually every relationship in my life: my marriage almost ended; my 10-year-old children (twins) were confused and scared by what they intuitively could sense was happening but had no tools with which to process; my parents and wife’s family (all active LDS) were supportive but saddened and bewildered by my choices; and my BYU colleagues knew I wasn’t engaging in my work and was at risk of losing my job. My choice to leave the Church necessitated a career change and required that I go back to school for additional training in order to be marketable outside higher education.

It took two years to process through the stages of grief for this loss of faith. Along the way I had to learn again how to trust other human organizations and how to have the courage to apply that trust in meaningful, purposeful, and productive ways again. Along the way I found a way to honor my religious upbringing without feeling constrained by dogma or social expectation for my belief and behavior. Although I’m largely agnostic about ultimate questions of God’s existence, I find myself still passionate and committed to the vision set by the Jesus of the Gospels for healing the world through collective action toward social justice issues.

I enact and practice that commitment through regular worship and service at my local Episcopal church and in leading that church’s ministry with the poor and marginalized in our community. We serve at our local soup kitchen. We’re planting a community garden this year, out of which we’ll feed the hungry. We are setting up a “Garden of Warmth” closet to distribute free warm clothing to those in need during the cold winter months here in Utah. We’re looking for ways to bring in and sit with and serve alongside those who have felt rejected or forgotten by society here. These have been great sources of spiritual renewal to me.

I acknowledge, of course, that the LDS Church also does many good things for people in the world. My wife, children, parents, and many of my extended family are all still heavily involved in doing good through that organization.

Leaving the LDS Church was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but life in the aftermath of that decision has been filled mostly with hope, possibility, a rediscovery of meaning and purpose, and a healing of relationships that had been strained by my crisis of faith.

Fortunately this reader faired much better than the one who was shunned by her parents and five siblings after she chose to leave her Jehovah’s Witness congregation.

Let’s hear from one more reader. Compared to the agnostic ex-Mormon above, this reader went through the LDS door in the opposite direction:

I’m 24, and I grew up in a household with a nondenominational, non-church-going-but-Christian father, an agnostic mother, and an atheist sister. Two years ago, I decided to become a Mormon. (My family still doesn’t believe and I even married an agnostic, but thankfully they’re all supportive!) I’ll share two turning points that led me to my decision.

First, I went to a professional conference in college that had nothing to with religion, but I met some girls from a Catholic school and we stayed up talking all night about faith, politics, and the universe. At the end of our discussion, one offered me a beautiful, leather-bound embossed Bible and insisted I keep it, saying, “I have a feeling you’re going to need it.” I thought that was odd, but I accepted her gift and threw it in the back of a drawer in my dorm room.

Two weeks later, my father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly—an event which plunged my whole family into emotional and financial despair. I turned to that Bible and decided then that I was a Christian, but I didn’t know what kind.

The second turning point, years later: I had visited the churches of my friends—nondenominational, Protestant, Catholic, and more. Yet I always got into passionate arguments with my peers (and once, even the pastor) over doctrine. There were so many things I was taught in mainstream Christian churches that I had studied and prayed about but absolutely didn’t accept. Due to a job falling through unexpectedly and needing to find a place to live right away, I moved into a house with five roommates I found on Facebook. They happened to be Mormon.

I visited their church and asked them frequently about their beliefs, which resonated with me so much that I hunted down the local missionaries and asked them to teach me. I was amazed when I told them some of the things that I believed—things that people in my previous churches said were crazy and that nobody agreed with—and they told me they believed in them, too. Without having any Mormon friends or knowing anything about Mormon doctrine, I had still been prepared for my conversion.

A final note confirming how crazy my whole experience was: When I looked up my Family History (which the Mormon church is very involved with), I discovered that some of my ancestors had immigrated to the U.S. after being converted by early Mormon missionaries and had been part of the persecuted refugees who fled as pioneers to Utah. I had no idea.