The Collapse of My Shelf
This is a story of an important part of my life. The decisions and feelings that follow could have eternal ramifications. While I am a fun loving person that enjoys joking around, this is possibly the most serious set of things I have ever gone through. I shed many tears, spent countless hours on my knees, I studied and read and pondered and prayed like my life depended on it, because to me my eternal life did depend on it. It is the story of my journey, my perceptions, my feelings and my final conclusion. I mean no disrespect to anyone in my explanations, there are many that have taken a similar journey and ended at a different conclusion. I wish them nothing but happiness.
* * *
The day had come to go through the temple. This time was different though, and not just because my oldest son is going through for his first time. I’m supposed to be happy about that and in a lot of ways I am, he is becoming a man, going out on his own. For me though, going through is a different story. You see I am really not sure I believe in my religion. I want to believe, but in many ways I feel I can’t. I wasn’t about to let my son go through alone though. I’m not about to make him bear the social stigma of parents waiting outside and besides; I still remembered how freaky the whole thing had been for me the first time. Thank God, I think, as we pass the doors that he doesn’t have to be naked in the flappy shield and make the death oaths I did my first time through. We go to the dressing room, my thoughts still churning. Part of me hoping there might be some great revelatory experience ahead that might bring me back from my disbelief. The other part worrying about my son:
Am I doing right by him?
He puts on the initiation attire; it had changed, no more open sides flapping in the breeze, whew! I think, at least this part will be easier for him. He makes it through the ordinance, even though he gets a little lost about where to go at first. We get lots of smiles from the workers; as usual they are all very helpful. For those of you who have not been in the temple, the older men and women, the temple workers, are some of the sweetest, most helpful people you will ever meet. Like a whole building full of grandparents who want to help you along. Going through the first time you have a whole entourage of these folks to help. It is however, the parents right to be there with their descendants and teach them as well. The temple is focused on ancestry and posterity, one reason I felt I had to be there for my son this day. After the initiatory, he comes out with a stunned look on his face, I ask, “How was it?” He replies, “It was … weird…” I grin. “Well you got lucky, it used to be a whole lot weirder!” I say and put my hand on his shoulder. “Kinda cool what they bless you with though, huh?” I whisper, still unsure if I mean it.
He just nods, still a little shell-shocked.
He changes garb; I answer questions over the wall about what goes where. Next we go to a room where the temple president meets with new initiates to answer questions and lecture for a few minutes. We wait in silence; then the president comes in, talks for a bit, and asks if there were any questions. I have several burning in me I want to ask. I had read so much history about these rites that I want to ask about. I decline though, it’s my son’s day and we are taught in the church that if you have questions that endanger a person’s testimony, it’s better to ask your leaders in private, not in a way you could destroy a budding young testimony, so I chicken out and don’t ask anything.
We go to the next room. Being a new initiate my son gets to be first, and as his escorts we get to be there every step of the way so we take seats of prominence. Then the rest of the family quietly enters the room. There is a subtle energy as grandparents, aunts and uncles enter and take seats. We get tons of loving smiles and nods from all of these people; they’d all been here before and did what my oldest is doing today. For me this is the best part of the experience, when it feels all about family. This doesn’t diminish my sense of trepidation though and I’m not sure what my son is thinking at this point. I know what is coming, and he has no idea. We aren’t allowed to tell the sacred things that are about to transpire. I personally had sworn oaths of death to not reveal them. I remember feeling pretty nervous at this point so I presume he is too. I put my hand on his knee and give a squeeze for reassurance. They start the ceremony. At the beginning you get a chance to back out. You can stand up and leave. Part of me is hoping my son will choose that and I am ready to follow him if he does, but walking out in front of all these relatives, how could you? I didn’t when I went through and neither did he. I am not going to describe the ceremony. There are many who hold this as sacred and I wouldn’t want to offend them. There is a point however where the mother, by tradition, participates with her son. My wife who I know is sharing similar doubts as me, albeit not near as deeply, does right by her son at this part and follows tradition. I feel happy that family is as important to her as it is to me.
The culmination of all this ritual is entrance into the temple’s celestial room. It is symbolic of our transition through life and returning to live with our Father in Heaven. You learn what is expected of you to attain the highest degree of glory and how to get there. Passing into that room is supposed to be a magical experience. The temple is consecrated so Satan cannot enter in there. Therefore it is a place you can ponder and pray without worry of being deceived, it’s supposed to be a beautiful room where you can dwell for a time and feel the presence of God on earth. As I pass into the room and take in all the beauty, I feel very conflicted. Do I really believe enough to be here? What is my son thinking of all this? I see him; I give him a hug and tell him I love him. I show him the opposing mirrors and how they represent infinity and posterity like my dad had taught me. Then grandparents and family flood into the room, giving hugs and quiet congratulations to my son. It is a time of joy for everyone, except me. I’m so torn, happy for him, all my life I’d been taught that this is the second to last ordinance to getting back to God, just a temple marriage to go. I feel happy because in my religion, this is definitely the most important personal commitment a person can make, I am torn because I don’t believe in it, at least not like I used to. I keep telling myself, just believe, and all will be well. I silently pray for that personal confirmation, that spiritual witness that I had gotten so often many years ago, but it didn’t come. I am conflicted because I still feel spiritual promptings, just not about the truth of the church anymore. I sit by my wife for a few minutes holding her hand; glad she’s with me when she knows how I feel inside. I think, man I really lucked out with her.
You are expected to not stay too long in the celestial room, but they don’t rush out the new ones too fast. After 20 minutes or so people start to file out. I hang back, and ask my son privately if he has any questions. You aren’t supposed to discuss details of the ceremony outside so like a good dad I want to see he had any. We have a pretty good level of communication, more so than many parents and teens I suppose. He even knew I had some reservations about being here today. (Not the whole long story or the depth of my belief issues, just that I was unsure.) So I ask him, “We have to leave now, do you have any questions?” He looked me square in the eye and said,
“Yeah, did I just join a cult?”
It hits me hard, devastates me. All the same angst I had felt my first time, the ‘freaked out’ feeling I had after making those oaths some 20+ years ago, the eerie feeling of being touched be a stranger under the shield, the fear about what I had just done like a bad memory flooded back all at once. I realize in that moment I had not been honest with myself for a very long time and that had led me to this point and to this question. I choke up with emotion. I can’t speak. I think about how I got to this point, how it started with a seemingly innocuous thing about 5 years ago.
* * *
I was raised LDS, by an incredibly amazing dad, and a mom with a hugely positive outlook on life. Being Mormon, family is important. It is also important to follow God’s will, and do what modern day prophets tell us to do. I did those things, I wasn’t a perfect kid, and I was always a bit of a daredevil. But I read my scriptures; I studied the Book of Mormon as well as the standard works of the church. One of my favorite pieces of LDS scripture is called the Book of Abraham. The concept of intelligences resonated with me. I enjoyed reading these books and did so often. Following council of parents and leaders I strove to get a testimony, to have a spiritual witness, to know for myself that the Book of Mormon was true, and by that reasoning Joseph Smith was a prophet. I got one. I felt the Book of Mormon was true, I felt the Pearl of great price was true as well as the other scriptures, my bosom had burned, I was confident that Joseph was a seer based on this testimony. I knew what God wanted from me, and it was to be part of the church. To spread the gospel and give the truth and light I had found to others so it would bless their lives. I served a mission, bore my testimony often and had many spiritual witnesses along the way. I got married in the temple, and started a family, I answered yes to every church calling I was given and did my best to magnify it, to use my talents to bless others as much as possible. Turns out I was a pretty good teacher, and not a bad leader either. I served in many callings, including Elders Quorum President, Sunday School President, and even executive secretary to a bishopric as well. My favorite calling though was Sunday school teacher. Especially teaching the teenagers. I’ve always been young at heart and felt a strong connection to youth. I loved to expound on the scriptures and lessons. My goal every lesson was to teach the gospel and help these kids gain their own testimony. For me it was very important that they get their own testimony, and that meant they needed to learn to think for themselves. My lessons’ often talked about agency and searching for truth, topics that meant a lot to me personally. I believed truth was essential to everything.
During those years I studied scriptures deeply. I also devoured books from prophets, things like Lectures On Faith, Calling on the Powers of Heaven, Mormon doctrine, Jesus the christ and many more. My mom taught me to read and love reading as a young boy and for me reading books has been second nature my whole life. Not that it was all church related, I devoured science and science fiction as well. It is important to understand that I had a strong and powerful testimony of the gospel and the Mormon Church being the one true religion on the planet. That God had restored via Joseph Smith the first latter-day prophet of this dispensation of time. Of course I knew it wasn’t easy to prove, you needed faith, God wanted you to have faith. I had given some great lessons on faith. I also understood God was a God of knowledge and learning, that God might reveal things that we don’t understand now, but that later science would prove him out. In fact I believed, as many others did, that the guidelines in the Word of Wisdom were proven by science in my lifetime. In the late 80’s and early 90’s it seemed to me that science was saying coffee was bad, and I thought, duh, Joseph Smith said that a long time ago! I have no doubt in my mind that in the early 2000’s my testimony was as strong as any person’s I had met.
That sets the stage for the next turn of events in my life. Being an engineer, and a writer, I published a book, and later a novella. I had always wanted to write a book and I wanted to write science fiction because I loved it so much. Luckily I got to do both. Writing my first book required a lot of research, no problem, we have the Internet these days, I learned to Google search like a pro, how to find the original documents and figure out if someone was just spouting drivel or something real. It was extremely important that my engineering book was accurate, if not your peers would slaughter you when you publish. During this period I was continuing my spiritual growth as well. The Internet became a tremendous tool to find out information about gospel topics. I steered clear of the ‘anti’ sites out there. I had met anti-Mormons on my mission and they seemed hell-bent on proving the church false and I wanted none of that. I studied church-approved sites, like FAIR and FARMs, places set up by spiritual greats I admired, such as Neil A. Maxwell. I loved learning.
That love of learning initially lead to some research on the Book of Abraham. I discovered reading FARMs that we had the original papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated. I remember thinking that is so dang cool! It turns out the LDS church has had it since the 70’s. I kind of wondered why this wasn’t more widespread knowledge but no biggie because we had it! For me, someone who believed that science eventually supports direct revelation of truth from God, this was amazing! Why you might ask? Well because this was a document that I knew from church history that Joseph Smith had translated by the gift of God. He was a seer! Seers could translate and they were even more important than prophets, it said so in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Abraham was verifiable proof that Joseph Smith was a seer! So I researched it, I couldn’t wait to see how science would back up what I already knew was true!
I soon discovered why current church leaders didn’t shout this about from the rooftops. There weren’t any Egyptologists that agreed with the translation. I had studied history and knew about the Rosetta Stone and how researchers had learned to translate Egyptian. The people who dedicated their lives to reading Egyptian, said the document was nothing more than a funerary text, commonly found with mummies. In fact there were several known papyri depicting full scenes like in the facsimiles in museums that you could compare to the ones in the Book of Abraham. To my untrained eye, the only place they differed was the missing parts on the papyri that Joseph used. The prophet had drawn in these parts to complete them; I had to wonder why the parts that were drawn in didn’t match the other dozens of images of similar documents I found.
I looked online for experts in Egyptology to ask them questions. No expert I found said they were a direct translation. In fact they all said he was way, way, way, off the mark. I figured I should go to the church itself, but the official church stuff is completely mum on the topic. The only place you could go for a church based opinion was FARMs and FAIR. However there is a clear disclaimer that these are opinions of men who’s intent is to defend the church, they are not sanctioned scripture or official doctrine. Since the church didn’t take a stance at all on it, I had no choice but to read up on the apologists’ opinion and do my own study. I even asked my bishop about it, but he didn’t even know the papyri existed. The apologetic opinion varied from ‘all the experts are wrong’ to ‘there are missing scrolls’ to ‘sure this was a funerary text, but that was just inspiring the prophet to write the words of Abraham, that it wasn’t really a translation of the papyri.’ How could you say it wasn’t a translation when Joseph Smith himself said he was translating it many times? Even the people whose goal it was to defend the church chased around in circles trying to make sense of it. I tried studying Egyptian, figured maybe all these experts missed something that I would see. I didn’t find anything new to add. The translation of Egyptian via the Rosetta stone had lead to reading Egyptian texts and following them to real world discoveries. These experts’ work had been validated with experimental results.
So I was faced with the fact that there was pretty clear proof that the Book of Abraham wasn’t what I had thought it was up to this point. I was definitely shaken in my testimony, but I still believed. I just couldn’t explain how Joseph Smith could be a seer and have such strong evidence that the Book of Abraham wasn’t a translation of the papyri. The church had to be true, I had my witness to rely on. I just couldn’t make sense of this.
So I put the whole topic on my ‘shelf’.
I have since come to realize that every believing Mormon has a mental ‘shelf,’ a place where they store stuff that doesn’t make sense, set aside as unanswered until the day we get to meet Heavenly Father and ask about it. I already had a pretty good shelf full of things I couldn’t explain. Like where did all the swords go from the millions of Book of Mormon soldiers? What is the deal with evolution? If there was no death before Adam why are there dinosaurs? That type of stuff was already on my shelf. So I added this. It was by far the biggest unknown I had put up there by this point in my life, and it landed with a pretty big metaphorical thunk, but I did put it aside and continued to believe.
One thing I was taught to do when faced with conundrums was to study ponder and pray more. So I read scriptures all the time, and prayed even more fervently. I saw a book advertised during general conference that spring. It was called Rough Stone Rolling, a biography of Joseph Smith written from a believer’s perspective by a respected historian. In my research I had run into church history topics about where the papyri had come from. I figured that it would be good to understand the history and culture of the times better, which might lead to light and truth to help me develop a stronger testimony. So I bought the book and read it, figuring it wasn’t anti-Mormon since I had seen reviews from church leaders about how good a book it was. I devoured this book and learned a lot of church history that I hadn’t heard before. Things like how the prophet had started a bank that failed in Kirtland, and how they had obtained and displayed the mummies and papyri, how the Prophet had ordered a printing press destroyed right before he was killed. Some of the same things I had seen pop up in my Internet searches that I thought was ‘anti Mormon’ propaganda.
This surprised me. I want to point out that this research and prayer and study was happening over months of time. As I researched into church history I realized I needed to go to the source. So every time I found a point, I checked the references. Many of them came from the books Journal of Discourses and History of the Church so I read from these books extensively. They are major source documents for much of the church’s history. I read and studied them but that only uncovered more questions.
Not all, but many of the things I had dismissed as ‘anti’ really were just facts of church history, often corroborated by multiple accounts. I found the prophet himself deceiving others around him about polygamy; I found many things that made me question even more of what I had learned in seminary. I put them on my ‘shelf’ and continued to believe, having faith that somehow, some day it would all make sense. It wasn’t getting any better though.
My shelf was getting heavier the more I researched.
For a while I stop studying all together, the facts were just too upsetting, I did nothing but read scriptures, ponder the things I knew and what I believed. I prayed with tremendous desire to know the truth and have understanding revealed to me. One night when I was particularly distraught about it all, I had the strongest spiritual experience of my life. My prayers were answered, I felt like I was communicating directly to God. I heard a voice in my head and I asked questions and got answers. I asked about things like the blood atonement and why Brigham Young would do what he did, the answer was that he was the guy to get the Saints out west and was needed at the time even if he was messed up later. Why did Joseph lie to followers about polygamy? He was in fear for his life and if he had told the truth the church may not have started. I asked about many things I had questions about. The most basic way to sum up the response was that the ends justified the means. Sometimes things that we don’t agree with, lying, deception, etc. are required to move the work forward, even Nephi killed Laban to get the brass plates after all.
After that experience I was able to stick lots of the questionable things on my shelf (like the 5 billion dollar mall) under the heading ‘the ends justify the means.’ I became even more devout. During this time I had talked to my bishop a lot about the things that I had read and experienced, he told me that God was preparing me to be a bishop and by knowing these things I would be able to council others that would have similar experiences. I could still bear my testimony and truly say I believed, but I did have a massive shelf full of lots of facts that couldn’t be explained.
One thing this journey had done for me so far was instilling a burning desire to find truth. I also came to the point that the truth was more important to me than anything else. I had found true things that are glossed over in Sunday school or not talked about at all. They were very faith-disturbing facts, I had looked at them and decided that they were true. I figured God must have a reason for it even if I couldn’t comprehend it.
I decided to read the Book of Mormon again that this point. One thing that I had heard over and over was that this book was the keystone of our religion. Elder Holland even issued a challenge that it could not be proven false over the pulpit at general conference. When he did that I figured I ought to take him at his word. So I poured myself into study of that book. This time was different than previous times I had read it though. So many more details stood out to me than ever before. There were many contradictions and issues that I just couldn’t explain and they kept filling up my shelf. I got really interested in the book of Mormon geography, probably because of my mission to Guatemala; there I believed was real Book of Mormon stuff! I served in a place my mission president said meant ‘narrow neck of land’ and I believed him. One doubt I had though was the whole ‘it took less than a couple days to walk from sea to sea’ description in the book. That just did not match the place I had been, there was no way possible to make that walk in a couple days. There was also the hill Cumorah question, are there two? Is there one? How did the plates end up at the hill by Joseph’s house? I was discussing this with a friend at work one day (a believer) and he mentioned something called the small geography model. He said he believed it all took place right there near where Joseph lived. I hadn’t heard about this theory before. I was from the ‘it was all the Mayans’ camp on that point. So I did some more digging. I looked at all the thoughts of FAIR on it, I had spent a ton of time on FAIRs website over the years, but I had started checking their sources just like any other. They played as loose with the facts as anyone I had ran into. I remember one time I found them slaughtering David Whitmer in one of his statements for being an apostate so you couldn’t trust what he said at that point in time. Then later using that very statement (just a few lines farther down from the original quote) to support a point they were making, so to them if you read the first couple lines he was a bald faced liar, but the next sentence, that was gospel truth. In short when I checked FAIRs sources, they weren’t playing very fair. Still though for a believer this was the place to go to make sure you didn’t get the ‘anti’ spin. That meant I was on the pro-mormon sites the majority of the time.
So to summarize my state of mind before this next discovery, I had found real problems with the Book of Abraham being an actual translation, I set that aside, I had found more unsettling things in church history, and set those aside, I had prayed and felt like I had an answer. My personal shelf of things I didn’t understand was loaded clear full.
Now here I was studying the keystone of the religion, the book of Mormon. I did a Google search one night on the small geography theory and in my digging found this map below. My first impression was wow! That fits perfectly, the narrow neck of land make sense, the lands and descriptions of the terrain fit! It also made sense that the plates made their way to hill Cumorah so close to where Joseph lived. The positions of the towns and places fit way, way better than any map I had ever seen about Central America. Maybe I had been wrong about the Mayan connection after all. In all my study I had learned that some times I had made presumptions, just because it was a ‘popular’ idea among the saints, I had learned to not to presume anything, instead you should research. This map fit really well, far better than anything I had studied before. Then I looked at the map below it.
ACTUAL PLACE NAMES
|BOOK OF MORMON NAMES
Alma, Valley of
Noah, Land of
Ripliancum, Waters of
Land of Midian
Copyright 1989, 1992 by Vernal Holley Used by permission.
The map below the first was a map of that part of the US and Canada circa 1819. I looked the names on that map. I saw the comparison of names, I need you to understand how hard this hit me. Pretend for a minute that you were a mom, and you had raised a child for 20 years, then by a random DNA test you found out you weren’t the parent of that child. All at once you would be full of questions! Your world would be turned upside down! That is how looking at this map hit me.
First, I am writer; I had published not only technical books, but also a little science fiction. I’m not saying I’m a great writer. There are many that are far better than I will ever be, but I do know something about writing fiction. With fiction, you don’t start with a blank sheet, you start with things you already know, then tweak them and change them and weave a story in and around them. It helps you put emotion into the writing. It is part of the process of creating a work of fiction. This is the way all writers of fiction I have ever known work, including myself.
I stared at the map.
Literally stared for minutes on end; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were the names lehi-(gh) and Onidah (Oneida) starting at me. Name after name slightly modified, geography that certainly fit. I knew I couldn’t put this on my ‘shelf’ it wouldn’t take it; mentally I could not ignore this. For the first time I actually thought it might be possible that Joseph had made it up. I had to be sure though, I didn’t trust this map, heck I didn’t know this Holley guy, maybe he was publishing out right lies to discredit the church. Long ago I had learned to check out things I read. I searched online and in libraries. I Found the USGS (united states geological services) had scanned and stored hand drawn maps going all the way back to the early 1800s. After a few hours of searching I found original maps from 1819. I studied them deeply, I found the names were there, not always towns, some times rivers and valleys, but the names were there. I was devastated to find that the map was legit, but I didn’t give up! My whole testimony was at stake! This book was the keystone! I thought, ‘so the names are there, but maybe they have been there since the Book of Mormon days?’ That would explain it! So I started searching out the history of the names of the towns and places, again I was devastated. Most of the names were clearly brought by the immigrants to the US, they had no connection whatsoever to the original Indians, the only one that had a clear connection was the name Tecumseh (Teancum) I read about that and found a story of the revolutionary war times that was very similar to the story of Teancum. So that connection didn’t help at all, it only made it more obvious that the Book of Mormon was fiction.
That was the night my ‘shelf’ collapsed.
I kept thinking about my spiritual witnesses and tried to prop it up. I could not. It was not only possible that the book had been made up; here was clear and definitive evidence that it was. I could not deny it. I also had many spiritual experiences that I could not deny as well. Needless to say my soul was in a lot of turmoil. That night I prayed as hard as I ever had. I had faith I would get another answer because I had before, but none came.
For the next few weeks, I moved through life in a daze. I prayed with no results, I couldn’t make the facts of my study agree with the religion of my youth, the one I had dedicated so much to. I realized if it were just a story, if it was made up and Joseph wasn’t a prophet all then the issues that were on my mental ‘shelf’ made sense. All the things that just didn’t fit didn’t have to. I had dug to the very beginnings of the religion I found dear and I hadn’t found any evidence to support what I believed. Not a single fact.
Except one, I had experienced a witness.
I had one just like I was told I would have if I prayed hard enough and wanted to know bad enough. I had even had more than one, some pretty amazing ones when I compared mine to others. If this was false, why would God tell me himself otherwise? Why did I have those feelings? More so why when I prayed now could I not get them about this topic? I noticed that I wasn’t broken spiritually; there were things that still moved me like before. There were flashes of inspiration, there were deep spiritual connections when talking to my wife about our kids. I could still look up at the night sky and get that feeling of wonderful expansiveness, a story with a great moral was still able to touch my heart.
So I had no physical evidence, in fact the physical evidence very much supported the idea that the foundation of the church was a hoax or a con. It might have been with good intentions, and even might have done good things, but the evidence simply was not there to support it as historically factual. All I had were the memories of my feelings and experiences. One evening I was thinking about these things, arguing with myself. My head would say, ‘you got to look at the facts!’ my heart would respond, ‘but I had these feelings!’
Back and forth I pondered this quandary.
That’s when I had a epiphany. I remembered as a youth that I loved to hear Paul H Dunn speak; I loved his stories of the way he fought in the war (my dad is a personal war hero to me) So I connected to Paul H Dunn’s lectures and talks. I remembered how often I felt the spirit when he spoke, I had often been deeply moved. Then as we all know he confessed that he had been lying about it. In that moment I had a flash of insight! It is possible to have spiritual witnesses from fictional stories. Logically that meant how you felt was not a reliable indicator that the story itself was true. There could be principles and ideas in any story that resonated with your spirit for sure, but that didn’t mean the story itself was true!
This realization was like a light shining down and clearing away the mists of my confusion. Suddenly I could see it all laid out in front of me. This is why other people in other religions have spiritual confirmations. This is why thought provoking uplifting emails get forwarded all over the planet claiming to be true stories, but when you research it they aren’t anything but fiction. It was all starting to come together in a cohesive picture. Even if the Book of Mormon was made up, it could still have stories and ideas and concepts that made you ‘feel the spirit.’ It just made sense and fit together in a way that had I had never realized before. Logically the book was not what it claimed to be, but spiritually reading it could make you feel good. I could trust my feelings to an extent, but realized I couldn’t rely on them to validate every truth.
So now what? That was my next thought. Now what do I do? I realized I could not believe that Joseph Smith was literally the prophet he claimed to be simply because the book was not the history of the Indians that he claimed it to be. Two things happened; first my ‘shelf’ disappeared. I didn’t have to stick things away to hope to understand them some day. You have no idea how liberating that felt! Second I thought, ‘what about my family?’ Do I tell them? Do I keep going to church?
What should I do?
I talked to my wife about it. We had been through a rough time when I first dealt with these issues. As a believing LDS woman she feared the loss of her eternal family, but after a while we had figured out how to communicate and she stuck with me through it all; I dearly love her for that! She knew where I was and why, ultimately she came to a similar conclusion. So far as church goes, her story is her own to tell not mine (so you won’t get anymore of her details here).
We talked about whether or not we should tell our kids how we felt. Way back at the beginning of this experience the bishop had warned me about telling my kids my true feelings about things, didn’t want us to damage any budding testimonies. So up till this point our kids had no idea of the struggles I had went through. Even at the time the bishops council didn’t seem quite right to me, it was as if I were being asked to mislead my family for the good of the church. Now with my testimony shattered I could not in good conscious hide from my kids the things I knew. We told the boys. The oldest ones first, we made sure that they understood that they had every right in our house to believe and go to church and we would support them. I told our oldest that even though I now didn’t believe in the veracity of my religion that I had learned good things on my mission and if he still wanted to go and serve we would support him. We were open and honest with our kids and allowed them to choose their direction in life. I will always believe in the sanctity of human choice. That doesn’t mean though that you can’t council and have healthy debate. If you think a person is making a choice they will later regret you should be willing and able to voice it. But it is still their choice. The older boys chose to still attend church. Sometimes we went with them, sometimes not. Our oldest was stronger in his beliefs and decided to serve a mission, I’m not sure how strong because of some of our conversations but I did get the feeling that he felt like it would be a good experience for him. I told him I would support that decision. Life was starting to present quandaries however. If our son were to serve a mission that meant going through the temple. How could I support him and be honest with myself? There were some good things in the church, you are taught to help each other, to be good people and so and so on. I wasn’t ready to toss the church completely out of my life yet; it seemed like a good way to raise a family. I wondered if there were others like me, searching online I found out about NOM, or New Order Mormons, people that had done much of the same research as me and had drawn similar conclusions and found a ‘middle road.’ To various degrees they believed some of the doctrine and some not, they recognized the deficiencies in history and lived with it, some had no testimony at all but went along with the flow. Some focused their belief on the good things and good people in the church and just ignored the other stuff.
I decided to try the NOM route.
I tried to fit in for the good of family and friends and community. When I bore testimony I would avoid the clinchers, not talking about Joseph Smith, but instead about love of family. I skipped the stuff I couldn’t believe anymore and focused on what I could. I definitely believed in family, I had come from a great family, and I was doing my best to raise a great one. That was when my son decided to serve a mission, the date rapidly approached that he would go through the temple. I worried about that, what should I do? I knew how important family was, and how important me being there would be to him, also I remember how odd, strange and uncomfortable I felt the day I took out my own endowments and so didn’t what him to have to experience that on his own. I needed to believe for my son; somehow I had to answer the temple questions so that I could be there for him.
Most of the temple questions are not that big a deal, any decent human being tries to be honest with their fellow man and so on, but there are a couple that were going to be hard. For example; Do you believe in the restoration of the church? Now that implies a whole slew of things, that Joseph was a prophet, that God talked to him and gave us the church today. I couldn’t answer that without reservation, not now. When asked this I said yes, I wanted so much to believe that I tried to just do it and hope for the conformation after the fact. (Kind of like how the apostles council that you get a testimony by bearing it.) I answered all the tough questions that way. I wanted to believe for family, I wanted to be there for my son. I lied to myself to answer those questions in the affirmative. I’m not proud of that fact, but I did it. Now you know all the things that were on my mind when my son asked that question.
* * *
There I was, my son had just asked me “did I just join a cult?” I couldn’t speak; I realized that in my heart of hearts if I were totally honest with myself the answer to that question is yes. I had thought I was being brave, doing the right thing finding the middle road to be there for family and that lead me to this point. I still had trouble facing the fact, so I said “kinda feels that way doesn’t it” put my arm around him and we left the room.
* * *
Shortly after he left on his mission. We corresponded every week. He became known in the MTC as the kid that knew tons about church history and thought more deeply than anyone else. I was proud of him for going and knowing how tough it was, especially when he knew so much more about the more questionable history of the church than most. It wasn’t easy for him but he stuck to it. His goal was to make it into the field and he did. I kept telling him it would get easier once he got out of the MTC, but it didn’t get any easier. In fact it got worse for him. The letters started to scare me. He was clearly getting depressed, and then he was hit by a car! For me that was really hard, I had supported my kid; he went out on a mission and was hit by a car! I really wondered about my choice to believe in spite of the evidence, especially if it leads to these things. My son was struggling with his mission, getting more and more depressed, we stayed as positive as possible in all our emails, told him to hang in there. At home my wife and I were getting worried sick about him. Personally I kept thinking why didn’t I tell him more about what I knew was coming, I still to this day regretted not telling him in advance what he was in for in the temple. That question ‘did I just join a cult?’ still rang in my ears. I felt like I had gone along with the flow and now after all this my son was in the worst depression of his life.
Why couldn’t I be honest with me?
Why couldn’t I just say what I believed?
I think I was scared, after a lifetime of suppressing what you think for what you are supposed to think, I needed time to get the courage to be me. We got a letter; our son was so depressed that he was contemplating suicide. On Christmas Eve the mission president called us and relayed what we had already read in the letter. I realized then and there, I had to stand up for what I believe or didn’t believe. If there was any truth that was being shoved under the rug, I should not remain quiet! I could be right or wrong, but I could not live with myself anymore if I kept pretending to be someone I am not. If anything happened to my son and I had “gone with the flow” when in my heart I didn’t want to… Well I just couldn’t live with that.
I resolved to be honest with myself first and foremost, and then from that point to be honest with others. I realized that for years and years by putting things on my mental ‘shelf’ I had only been deceiving myself about facts I knew.
Coming clean about how I really saw the history of the church was not an easy decision. It was the hardest one of my life. It meant I needed to tell my parents, it meant that I couldn’t be part of the ceremonies, baptisms, priesthood blessings etc that all our families participated in. An open declaration of disbelief is apostasy. Leaders don’t care if you have doubts so long as you just shut up about them. If I were to be honest I couldn’t just shut up anymore, I knew it would break my mom and dads heart. I thought I might get cast out of the family. I realized that my children might one day get married and I wouldn’t be able to be there with them. It worried me sick to open up about it.
It terrified me.
However I had resolved to be honest with what I knew and no longer hide or shirk away from it. It was the scariest thing I have ever done, and a lot of you know I do some crazy scary things! I did it though; I openly expressed my disbelief in the religion of my youth and most of my life. I was lucky, my wife was with me on this, I was lucky my parents took it pretty well and still loved me. My siblings still treated me right. Many LDS families are torn apart when one member doesn’t believe. I was lucky that mine stayed in pretty good shape. There are many that are far worse off. There is one thing I am sure of. Being honest with myself and being open about it to others as scary as it was…
It was the right thing to do.
* * *
So that is my story, how I went from 100% belief to somewhere in the middle to adamant unbelief today. Some have walked the path I have and landed in the middle ground and made it work for them. I could not, that is not in my nature, learning to be honest with myself helped me understand my nature. Some will never even care to look under the rocks and can go on blissfully believing being none the wiser. That is also not who I am. Call it God or my genes, but I am blessed with an insatiable desire to learn. I believe that now I am more mentally stable now than I ever was, I recognize that every day I might learn new facts or have experiences that could change my future outlook on life and I am ok with that. It used to scare me to not know, or at least think I knew what was ahead in life. Being honest, completely honest with myself, clearing off that mental shelf was the most liberating soul fulfilling experience of my life. I realized I could be fine with not being 100% sure I knew the end game.
Spiritually, I still feel inspiration; I still feel the insights and feelings that I used to attribute to my beliefs and religion. These feelings could come from God, or they might be the product of evolution, I realize that I simply do not know for sure, (if you have to define me, that makes me agnostic). Since they happen in any religion and outside of religion, I do not believe that we need any organized religion at all to get back to God if there is one. It doesn’t make sense to me that he would be so tricky to his kids to require faith in something so easily proven wrong to be the one true way back to him. I no longer try to make things fit in my head that do not make sense. Like I said, Inspiration still comes to me, as strongly and deeply as ever. I feel moved simply sharing this story of what went on in my life, a deep and profound spiritual connection to any whom might read it. I have found living a life authentic to who you are is what works for me. What works for you isn’t for me to say. All we can really do is share our thoughts, logic, experiences and emotions, compare notes and do our best to get along. I think the most important thing we can do is be nice to each other.
* * *
Some may wonder about how my wife and kids handled this. It’s really not my place to say in detail, they each have their own story. My wife accepts me for who I am. She no longer attends church either after working this all out for herself. Our relationship is better than it ever has been. We no longer judge each other based on what the church thinks is right or wrong. Personally from my perspective she is far happier and more self-confident now than she has been since we got married. Our kids are all doing great now! Turns out you don’t have to be religious to have good kids. You just need to be a good parent.
Families can survive a crisis of faith!
Update, March 2014
Turns out that I’m not the only one that the temple disturbed, even General Authorities are aware of this fact as can be seen here:
Maybe that is why they changed the ceremonies to remove the blood oaths, I think it would do the leaders of the church some good to read up on how cults are formed. Because just removing the blood oaths isn’t enough to remove the creepy feeling some people get as evidenced by my sons experience.