That’s me in the corner

I really do feel that I’ve lost my religion–lost my faith. It was precious to me, and now it’s essentially gone. I don’t feel I made any evil choices that led to this situation, or at least none that I could have done differently and still been me. In that way, I suppose it feels kind of inevitable, but I hate those implications.


I dread anyone finding out, only because I know how Mormons respond. There’s an assumption–a deep assumption–that you can’t possibly be a rational, functioning individual and lose your testimony. Of course you either (a) did something wrong¬† in your thinking or testimony-building process and will come back into the fold if that can be rectified, (b) committed some sin and are distancing yourself from faith out of basic cognitive dissonance or shame, (c) got led astray by your pride or hubris or education or whatever…

(a) No. I’ve never been perfect, but that’s not it. (b) No. Though it’s none of anybody’s business (though here I am writing it quasi-publicly), I could still honestly pass a temple recommend interview, with the exception of questions about my testimony, church attendance, doing my home teaching, and paying tithing; obviously–not that this will necessarily be the case forever, because I have a great lack of reasons for keeping some of those rules. (c) Well, it’s impossible to defend oneself against this, since it’s one of those “whoever says it first wins” type of things, not actually based in rationality. There is an invisible line (defined ad hoc, by whichever person in the conversation is more visibly faithful) beyond which education is “too much” education, and thinking about truth, God, the universe, existence, and life is too much thinking. Nobody defines the line except in hindsight (e.g., “well, he’s no longer coming to church, so that was too much intellectualism”), so it’s essentially a useless concept. To be truly safe from accusations of being an “intellectual,” you need to be sure to drop out of school before you finish junior high, and never study any subjects besides those in a rural British 18th-century curriculum. Anyone else is unarguably “led astray by intellectualism” if their testimony changes in any way. Actually, in a weird way, leaving the church over personality flaws, such as those implied by marital infidelity, “being offended” by another member, or authority conflicts, is condemned less than leaving after the kind of honest soul-searching we value so highly when it leads people to the church.

I especially dread what my family might say to me–except my parents; they’re awesome, and they know I’m not active nor likely to be so again. It’s my siblings–some of them. The problem is that I was a lousy brother. And then I left home early and often, and since approximately age 13 I’ve been one kind of outsider or another in my family (before then I was one kind of asshole or another, to be honest). Even when I was around, I was too self-absorbed (often this was just social or physical fear, but the result was the same) to be useful, especially to my younger brothers, who needed an older brother, which I spent the first twenty or so years of my life not being. And then, after I was already dangerously different, I had to go off and get more formal education than anyone else. Ironically, I am in the same social position among my siblings that I was always in when we moved to new towns–I’m less conservative, more educated, and an outsider. Their approach to me hasn’t been as brutal as that of some of the people in the schools I attended as a kid, but it’s not always as friendly as I wish.

In my siblings’ eyes, I think I’m a patronizing know-it-all. I mean, I am a know-it-all, but I’m even worse in their eyes. I didn’t just get a PhD; I got it in a social science. No self-respecting Latter-day Saint can even say those words without mentally either sneering or adding several caveats and apologies. The social sciences have always threatened religion; in my opinion, this is because the two both claim the same domain–day-to-day behavior, aggression, sexuality, communality, independence, etc. They’re both prescriptive as hell, even though many social scientists pretend not to be. So they’re direct competitors for the “hearts and minds” of people.

Oh, well. I have to just accept that, when I see my siblings next, the predictable hazing ritual of “now let’s remind you of our version of the most humiliating things you’ve ever done so you know exactly what your place is among us” will be augmented by “…and see how you ended up?” No way around that.

My sibs aren’t bad people; they’re actually among the best people–I think they love me and some even admire me, in some ways. But they’re people, and I’m their brother, and I make them uncomfortable sometimes. And they’re Mormons, and when people become less-than-fully-Mormon, it makes all Mormons uncomfortable. None of this is mutually exclusive with love; in fact, I think love is sort of second cousins with these things.

So what happened, anyway? It’s really hard to say. I just became more and more apathetic toward the gospel, the church, etc. over the course of maybe two years. Maybe only one year. Revelations (now even admitted by the church, which used to excommunicate people for repeating them) that Mountain Meadows wasn’t all local crazies, that racism was apparently a driving factor in the denial of the Priesthood and temple attendance to Black members, and that Joseph Smith seems to perhaps maybe have been a teensy bit crazy with his power and/or a hebephile do not, strangely, seem to have been a big part of my “faith transition” (a term I loathe, though I can’t find a better one). The gospel can still be true in all the most important ways even if the members and even leaders are largely racist (see: most of the history of the world including the entire Old Testament), if the members and maybe leaders authorized horrible crimes (see David, Solomon, etc. in the Old Testament), or if a really important leader had some significantly horrific behavior (see… OK, Old Testament again). The gospel never rested on any mortal–including its leaders–being perfect. Which means they can be imperfect. Which means they might even be really imperfect. Not that our imperfect leaders enjoy being reminded of that fact any more than the imperfect members do; out loud we insist that our prophets are mere imperfect men, while we behave as if believing this mantra were a sin.

Even the church’s approach toward gay members and women, and its recent authoritarian crackdowns on those who don’t toe the line (OK, certain lines; others you can stomp on with impunity) haven’t been deciding factors. As I said, you can conceivably be the Church of God and still be run by people blinded by petty human intolerance and common cognitive biases in many of their actions.

When I put the deciding factor in words, it’s something like “I could no longer reject the null hypothesis” or “The null hypothesis finally seemed a far better explanation for the data.” I have begun, in recent years, to reevaluate my youthful experiences. Mostly this is so I can remember what a ridiculous twit I have been, and cringe at how others must have seen me, and the annoyance and pain I must have caused. However, I’ve also thought a lot about the experiences that led to my testimony and maintained it over the years. In keeping with Church policy and doctrine, these were very emotion-centered experiences. Surges of emotion, ongoing tides of feeling, trickles of sentiment, etc. They were timed to coincide with spiritual moments in church or in my personal life. I haven’t had many of them in the past decade or so–except in connection with my daughter or my wife. A few other moments, but not many. And I’m a psychologist, so there you go.

In about 1991 or 1992, a friend heard I was studying psychology (at the Lord’s university, no less!) and misquoted Spencer W. Kimball (ever disdainful of anything smacking of liberalism): “anyone who pursues a degree in the social sciences will find that they have received a degree in nothing but the errors of men.” That isn’t really what he said–my friend misremembered–but it’s an excellent quote, because the social sciences do study the errors of men. This is, I think, one reason why conservative religion has traditionally been hostile toward the social sciences: religion has typically told people which of their thoughts were wrong and which OK. Now there’s this upstart with different answers to those same questions, and, lo and behold, many of those answers don’t exactly buttress the position of religious authority structures.

As it turns out, maybe the Nazis are the reason I’m not very Mormon anymore. That’s why social psychology really got off the ground: to explain how and why the civilized Germans could become the monstrous Nazis. The many attempts at answers led to the study of not just authoritarianism (one of the earliest suspects) but also stereotypes and prejudice, conformity, persuasion, and a laundry list of basic and more complex cognitive biases and heuristics. People aren’t as rational as we think we are, and the implications of exactly how we’re not-so-rational are pretty profound.

You don’t have to study psychology for long to realize that we can’t always trust our emotions as indicators of truth. OK, by “not always” I mean, perhaps, “almost never.” I don’t have some kind of evidence proving that the emotional experiences I had at youth conferences, on my mission, in the temple, in the chapel, on my knees at night, etc. are not truly manifestations of the Holy Ghost; I just have a very compelling set of alternative explanations. People feel these things because they are human and they live in this world, in these social realities. That’s why Pentecostals speak in tongues, why Buddhists feel communion with the universe, why Catholics feel the presence of the Virgin in a cathedral, why Muslims feel the presence of Allah in a mosque, why new age crystal people feel new age crystal feelings in new age crystal-relevant situations. It’s who we are. And it’s beautiful and amazing in its own way–I mean, brains and culture!–but it’s also banal and not necessarily spiritual. You do not need to postulate a higher power or a spiritual realm in order to understand why a 14-year-old at a youth conference feels powerful feelings when his peers express strong conviction about ideas they’ve all been taught are critical to both their long-term salvation and also their very immediate social lives. The same is true for surges of emotion and even clear thoughts prompting decisions when a twentysomething, terrified he’ll make the wrong marriage choice and desperately hoping to please both God and everyone he’s ever known and loved, and really hoping for a positive personal experience as part of the deal, prays for six hours straight, possibly after not eating for a day, about whether he should marry someone he’s been dating.

The feelings we have when hearing an especially powerful testimony are exactly what an anthropologist would expect, whether from suburbanites in a Fast & Testimony Meeting in the suburbs of Utah reinforcing their shared faith in the LDS gospel, junior executives in a board meeting of a family-run corporation in Tokyo expressing their commitment to the general manager and vice-versa,¬† women in a circle in Brazil confirming their shared understanding of the syncretic identities of the saints and Trinity with native South American and African deities, or community leaders channeling the wisdom of the spirit world in a sweat lodge in the Lakota Nation. This is how people think and feel, and how they reaffirm ties with others. It’s how they group together and form identities. It’s how we’re built. I have no evidence that the LDS construction of the Holy Ghost isn’t responsible for my spiritual experiences but, at some point, thinking these things through again and again, I came to the conclusion that this was not the most parsimonious explanation, and I had no experiences that could act as a test to diagnose between what I might call the “anthropological null hypothesis” and the “Latter-day Saint spiritual hypothesis.”

I don’t want to blame my Dad, but in another sense this is a direct result of what I think he taught me. He taught me to fearlessly ask questions and go where my best understanding of the evidence takes me. I didn’t actually do that–I asked with great fear and tentativeness, incrementally increasing my courage over the years–but the principle is there. Live by the evidence, die by the evidence. And it’s your understanding of the evidence that matters. Sure, others can persuade you to change your mind, but they have to persuade you. If feelings are evidence, and if your own intellect is all you have to make sense of those feelings (and everything else in the world), then that’s what you have. It’s all you have. Anything else is patently useless. You can’t take someone else’s word for a belief–the closest that will get you is “faking it.” Nobody else can believe for you. You are the one who believes–or doesn’t.

Once I got to this point–spring 2014–I was boxed in. I had two hypotheses, and I had a lot of evidence. Perhaps unfortunately (though I believe otherwise) I also had a fundamental belief that this is how reality works as a biological being: there are always multiple hypotheses to explain the data, with no 100% certain way of choosing among them. Writing this, I can’t imagine what situation–short of rewriting half my life and who I am–might have led to a different outcome. For many years, I evaluated the evidence and concluded that either it seemed more consistent with the LDS Spiritual Hypothesis, or it was at least no less consistent with that than the Anthropological Null Hypothesis, and I preferred the former. But now I came to a different conclusion, and it is difficult to imagine that specific fact changing (though I’m famous for not being able to imagine things–see: this whole story). A few years ago I spoke to a youth fireside group (a big one–stake-wide). I told them that it was not necessary to reevaluate their faith with every new apparent piece of evidence or assertion that popped up. I told them to use reasonable rules of evidence, and not even risk throwing away their hard-won spiritual gains unless there was “probable cause” or a “good faith” demonstration that there was some seriously good reason to consider another viewpoint or some new (to them) evidence. I followed my own advice.

I don’t know if this null-hypothesis explanation is why I “lost my faith.” It’s just the most cogent explanation I have. I don’t have a good sense of introspection or self-knowledge in this area. I’ve never been very good at know-thyselfing anyway. Maybe I got everything wrong, but in any case, I stopped thinking the church was true. I don’t think it’s false; but I don’t feel I personally have reason to believe it’s true. And in following my conscience and my intellect (as well as I think I can at this point in my development) I’ve thrown away the only community I ever really felt a part of (well, except UTPA Faculty, but I threw that away shortly after the events I’m describing).

I don’t have people; I don’t have a hometown–I don’t even have a homestate–I don’t have a tribe. I keep moving around (and not keeping in touch with people), so I have very few friends. I alienated most of my family, apparently, by just being me and not being home much. I had a close relationship with one brother, one sister, and a cousin. The brother and I argued about politics in 2008 (things I would do differently if I could…). The cousin’s husband kind of attacked me on Facebook once, throwing out accusations of excessive education-based hubris (with strong overtones of religious authority) stemming from–I kid you not–a discussion of whether the US turned away a ship full of Jewish refugees during WWII. I called him on using dirty rhetorical tricks, and my cousin hasn’t really spoken to me since. OK, maybe it wasn’t that; maybe it was that she has noticed I’m not part of the Politically Conservative Mormon Tribe any longer. I have hope for those relationships… someday…? and there’s also another sister who, despite (I think) taking Glenn Beck seriously, also seems willing to take me as I am. There’s also Mom and Dad, though I think I cause them disproportionate grief.

Can you tell I feel a huge amount of self-pity about this? I do. I’m really whiny about it inside my head (and pretty regularly to my wife). Why am I posting it to a blog nobody reads? Maybe so I can say I publicly “had my say,” while knowing probably nobody will ever hear the say I say I had, but still throwing it out there, so if it makes its way into social circles that used to know me, and I feel the consequences, I can sort of say, “who could have guessed?” Juvenile. I know.

I don’t know what comes next. I’m in full-on existential crisis. Personal meaning, such as it is, is derived from my work (which is less satisfying than before, due to the characteristics of the faculty, culture, and students of my new university), my wife (who, for all her qualities, has her own battles to fight, and has approximately as much attention for mine as I have for hers), and my daughter–who is the best thing in this world.

As far as I know, this might be the only world I have left. That’s a terrible thought.