The following is a guest post by “Lehi,” an ex-Mormon atheist who was willing to share his story here. My usual house rules do not apply to guest posts. I allow readers to be pretty nasty to me before I show them the door. I expect a higher level of courtesy to be shown to those who have been brave enough to make themselves vulnerable in a public space. Thoughtful inquiry and respectful analysis are welcome. Nastiness is not. Should any of you have follow-up questions for Lehi, please do leave them below as part of my goal for guest posts is to stimulate the exchange of ideas.
This is my story of the challenges of being an ex-Mormon atheist married to a life long and devoted Mormon. My spouse (let’s call her “Sariah”) and I are both descended from a long line of Mormons. We both grew up very Mormon –- regular church attendance, paying tithing, reading scriptures, and saying prayers. We both graduated from Seminary. I went on a full time mission. We met in college when I returned, and married in the temple. It was a very happy marriage. We almost never fought and rarely even disagreed. It was so easy to be together and we were happy.
The moment our marriage took a turn was in 2008 during the Prop 8 campaign in California. (Prop 8 was a ballot proposition to eliminate the rights of same sex couples to legally marry.) During sacrament meeting, our ward Bishop read a letter from the pulpit written by the First Presidency. It declared that same sex marriage was a moral issue of serious gravity and urged all members to do whatever we could (giving of our time, talents, and especially money) to pass Prop 8 and protect the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.
After church I mentioned to my spouse how troubled I was by the letter. She, too, was upset and agreed it was definitely not something she would like to support. What she said following this, however, has haunted me ever since. She said that even though we disagreed, we should make a financial contribution to the Prop 8 campaign. It was a test of our faith, she explained, and by doing what is asked of us, even when we disagreed — especially when we disagreed — we would be showing our trust in the Lord and His prophets. In many ways that was the beginning of the end of my Mormonism and our happy marriage.
It was at this point I realized I was at a crossroads. I decided that it came down to either the Church was true or not. If it was really true, then I needed to give in 100% and stop questioning things, and turn my life over to it completely. If the Church wasn’t true, well, then what were we doing? Since I didn’t have a nearby grove of trees to which I could go and supplicate the Lord for direction, I took the 21st century approach of anyone lacking wisdom -I delved into books and the Internet. For the first time in my life in addition to reading all the pro-Mormon materials, I also took the forbidden path of reading things that were not approved by the Church. It took less than a week for the Mormon Temple of Cards to crumble before my investigation. It quickly became apparent that an honest inquiry and willingness to accept that the Church may not be true was all that was needed to completely dismantle everything I’d been taught about Mormonism my entire life of nearly forty years.
From my research and pondering it didn’t take long to go from losing my Mormon beliefs to losing my belief in God entirely. With my new beginner’s mind, I looked at not just Mormonism, but religion and faith in general, and observed the absurdity of all religions. Belief in God became so obviously based solely on wishful thinking, following tradition without examination, confirmation bias, and a general lack of critical thinking.
Having made this incredible discovery I was eager to share it with those I loved and free them from this fraudulent religion. I was too eager apparently, as nearly everyone I talked to did not merely disagree with what I had to say, but they didn’t even want to hear what I had to say. The most upsetting to me, of course, was with Sariah. I had foolishly figured she would just evaluate the evidence I presented to her, be as astounded and enraged as I was, and together we would leave Mormonism behind us. That was my own wishful thinking. She had no interest in what I had to say, and in fact, felt threatened. She truly feared for my soul and for our family (we had three young children at the time all under the age of eight). A divide in our relationship was forged. It became something we could not talk about without it being argumentative or leading to hurt feelings. After many discussions and tears, we finally just stopped talking about it. That, in my opinion, isn’t healthy for a relationship either — having a huge issue that is important to both of you and that comes up all the time, but cannot be discussed without it turning ugly. But it seemed like a better alternative than to constantly be arguing. So we just slowly drifted apart.
I recently started attending an ex-Mormon support group led by a licensed clinical social worker and I also began meeting individually with the social worker for therapy in dealing with this issue. The therapy has been incredibly helpful. My wife and I are now to the point that we can discuss religion amiably. It is still difficult, however, and there is seemingly an abundance of compromise on both of our sides, especially with regard to our children.
Even seemingly safe discussions are often polarizing and unpleasant. For example, during the ten-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, Time magazine did a special issue regarding that tragic day. There was a story of a man who survived being in the World Trade Center when it was struck by the plane. He was able to make it down the stairs and out of the building before it collapsed. He credited the choices he made to escape as directed by God. My wife found this story so inspiring. I found it appalling. She said it showed how humble he was to not take credit for his escape, but to rightfully give the honor to God. To me it is not a sign of humility to think yourself so important that the omnipotent Master of the Universe guided your every footstep while allowing a building to collapse with thousands of other people perishing in terror and agony. This is just one of many times when conversations quickly and easily turn into conflict.
The greatest challenge to our Mormon/Atheist relationship, however, has been in regards to raising our children. We have two sons and a daughter that we love dearly and want the best for. Unfortunately, to Sariah that means growing up Mormon, and to me growing up Mormon is the antithesis of a happy life. I so desperately want to get them out of what I view as a toxic environment, but to her their entire eternal salvation rests on their Mormonism.
Because they were already attending church when I stopped going, Sariah continued to take the children with her each Sunday. Then one Sunday morning our oldest son lamented while getting ready for church that it wasn’t fair that they had to go to church while I happily stayed home. I felt guilty and like a hypocrite. He was right, I thought, ‘why did he have to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself?’ In an instant of self-righteousness, without consulting with my wife, I said, “You are right, it isn’t fair. You can stay home with me.” Realizing this also wasn’t fair, I quickly amended it, “You can have a dad Sunday and a mom Sunday rotating every week.” On my Sunday I allowed them to stay home with me or go to church with her, their choice. On mom’s Sunday, they were required to go to church. Like all compromises, neither my wife nor I were satisfied with it. I was unhappy because they were still going to church and being indoctrinated with all kinds of idiocy even if only at half the rate. She didn’t like it because 50% church attendance was unacceptable to the Lord and thus to her. And yes, on dad’s Sunday they never opted to go to church, no matter how much guilt their mom heaped upon them, and like a good Christian, she can lay it on thick.
Church attendance is just a small fraction of the potential conflicts inherent in trying to raise children with two drastically different worldviews. Do we have family prayer? Scripture study? Bless the food? Do we encourage the children to pray and study the scriptures on their own? Do they get baptized? Pay tithing? These are things we are dealing with currently. Upcoming battles include seminary attendance, missions, and temple marriages.
Our home continues to be a Mormon home. There are framed pictures of Mormon temples and Jesus hanging on our walls, and Mormon paraphernalia scattered throughout the house -– pamphlets, church magazines, photos, etc. She has the children pray every night. In an attempt to help our marriage and under the advice of my therapist, the children are back to going to church every Sunday. The oldest two children have been baptized, not by me obviously (nor by their worthy and believing mom, ironically, but the Church is NOT sexist), and our third child will almost certainly also be baptized when he turns eight. I’ve been forbidden to bring alcohol or even coffee into our home. In exchange, my wife would say that she is compromising by allowing me to have atheist and anti-Mormon books such as ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘No Man Knows My History’ in our home. The presence of such books in our home is very distressing to her.
I want to end this with a hopeful conclusion since this is my actual life I’m writing about. And the place I find the most joy and hope are with our children. Although the children seem to be the main source of our religious conflict, they are likely also what keeps us together. We both love them unconditionally and want what is best for them, including having a happy family life. We have come to accept that neither of us will accept the other’s position regarding God and Mormonism, but are striving to work on compromise with respect and love. We clearly have a long way to go, but it is certainly worth struggling for. I guess you could say I still have something that I have faith in –- our family.
Follow-up Q&A with Lehi:
It seems like you approached deconversion with the same sort of missionary zeal Mormons are so famous for. Have any of your Mormon acquaintances grasped the irony of them slamming the proverbial door in their face when you showed up unannounced to let them know about the truth you’d discovered?
It is interesting to think of myself preaching against Mormonism with Mormon Missionary zeal. It didn’t feel like proselytizing when I was doing it, however. I was just so shocked at what I was finding about Mormonism that I felt compelled to share it. It was like I was sitting at a gourmet meal with people I love and discovering maggots in the food. Not just a few maggots either — it was maggot ubiquity. I naturally wanted to tell everyone I was sharing the meal with, ‘hey, this food is not the healthful meal we were told. In fact, it is rotten’. I guess I was naïve to think that my family and friends would listen to what I had to say, observe the maggots, thank me, and we would all get up and leave.
As to if they ‘grasp the irony of slamming the proverbial door’ as you so eloquently put it, well, I doubt it. If they have, they don’t give any indication of it. It is frustrating because I know what they know about Mormonism because I was a Mormon my entire life. They know I know what they know, and I still left. That they aren’t the slightest bit curious as to why I would leave it all behind and endure all the heartache and life-quakes those changes have brought is both perplexing and disappointing to me. Frankly, I feel as if they never even opened the door to slam it in my face. They heard me knocking at the door and ran and hid under with the food storage.
You mentioned that therapy has been beneficial to your relationship and has enabled you to have conversations about religion that are no longer traumatic. Would you say that your spouse now understands the rationale behind your loss of faith and subsequent transition to atheism? If she understands your reasons, what would you say is the main reason she does not consider them valid reasons for leaving Mormonism?
I presume she understands my rationale as well as a true believer possibly can without giving up being a true believer. I think it comes down to wishful thinking and a fear of change. She once said to me that she tried to understand my perspective, but it was too scary and upsetting and that she finds great comfort in the Mormon doctrine and the Mormon lifestyle and she cannot let it go. I don’t think she is foolish though, in fact, she is a very intelligent and highly educated person. I do think, however, she possesses heroic amounts of cognitive dissonance. She would refute that of course.
Your therapist advised you to require that your children attend church every Sunday, even if this is against their will. Has this benefitted your relationship with your spouse without any cost to your conscience or your relationship with your children?
My therapist didn’t advise that I require the children to attend church, he just recommended that I reevaluate if it is worth destroying our relationship over this one issue. When I gave in and allowed her to take them every Sunday things between us improved immensely, but it is always tricky when the children are caught in the middle of our disagreements. I hate for them to feel like pawns in a game of chess between their parents. As they get older I will certainly reassert their ability to choose for themselves. Putting the choice to them, however, is still placing a burden on them: Do they continue to live as Mormons and risk their dad thinking they are making a huge mistake, or do they stop and risk disappointing and upsetting their mom? Not great options.
Letting Sariah take the children to church every Sunday has benefitted our relationship in that she is much happier and doesn’t resent me every other Sunday when the children would opt to stay home and she had to go to church by herself. You are correct that it has taken a toll on my conscience, but I rationalize it by reminding myself that they are smart kids, and they can figure things out for themselves. I admit that I’m banking on the probability that they aren’t thoroughly brainwashed in the meantime. I think back to when I was a child, and especially a teenager, and I wonder if things would have been different for me if I had one person in my life, just one single person, that offered a bit of critical thinking in the ocean of faith I was swimming in. If I had one person that gave me the option to leave, or validated any questions or the doubts I had, I think that would have made a world of difference for me. That is what I want to be for my children.
I should confess that on Sunday mornings while they are getting ready for church, I tell them to not believe everything they are told at church. I actually think it is good advice for life in general –- don’t believe everything you are told. When it comes to church though, sometimes I wonder if instead of saying ‘don’t believe everything you are told ’ I should say ‘don’t believe anything you are told’.
My relationship with the kids hasn’t suffered appreciably since they restarted attending church regularly. They recognize that it makes their mom happy and has brought peace to our home, and so they dutifully go with her. I’m not sure how long it will last though.
For now while your children are young their participation in church does not presumably receive much financial support from you. Down the road, if your children serve missions or wish to attend BYU, how would you feel about funding such activities?
Excellent question. I’ve stewed over this at great length. We live in a predominantly Mormon community. The vast majority of high school graduates go on Mormon missions. Anyone who opts not to go on a mission is looked at in askance. If I refuse to fund a mission I am almost certain this will add to the community belief that I’m an evil apostate and generally poor father and husband. I also don’t want to drive a wedge between my relationship with any of my children by not supporting something they want to do.
Will I pay for my child’s wedding if I cannot attend the ceremony? It isn’t a pleasant thought. I don’t know what will happen in the years to come, but I certainly do not want to pay for Mormon missions, nor to I have any desire to send any money to BYU, but I also do not want to drive my children away. I still haven’t come to any conclusions or formulated any plans. Perhaps your readers could offer me some direction here.
How successfully do you feel your children are being indoctrinated in Mormon beliefs? Of your three children, how many do you think will be orthodox in their faith when they reach adulthood? Have any of them expressed a desire to disaffiliate from Mormonism, or do you anticipate that any of them will?
Our oldest child is 11. He has told me he doesn’t think there is a God, but he plays along to appease his mom and grandparents (and practically everyone else he knows). We rarely talk about it, so I don’t know how strongly he feels. I don’t hide my atheism, however, so the kids definitely know what I think. Our second child is 8. She seems more inclined to Mormonism. Whenever I make light of Mormon doctrine, she asks me to stop. Our third is 5. He is currently interested in Mormonism only so far as there are treats involved. I think that for all three children the conflict between choosing to be Mormon like their mom, or being secular like their dad will only become more acute as they get older. I can’t see into the future, and I don’t want to speculate. My main goal is simply to make sure they know they are loved, and to try to make them feel accepted and secure with themselves whatever they choose.
The presence of atheist literature in your home is distressing to your wife. Is the presence of Mormon paraphernalia in your home distressing to you? If so, does your wife know that or acknowledge that her religious choices are more prominently displayed?
The presence of Mormon paraphernalia in our home is beyond distressing to me, I find it downright disturbing. Take for instance the Proclamation to the Family, it is a clearly homophobic document that is intolerant of anything outside of the traditional husband, wife, and children family structure. Or the Articles of Faith, which tell us what we believe. How is that not a form of brainwashing? My wife hasn’t hung any more Mormon pictures on our walls since I’ve left the church. But she also hasn’t taken any down either. The church magazines, manuals, and other church propaganda are constantly coming in our home. Wow, I haven’t put much thought into this before, and now that you’ve got me thinking about it I wonder if I shouldn’t be more vocal about my disapproval of all the Mormon crap in our house. Hm.
What do you feel is the likelihood of your wife one day leaving Mormonism? What is the likelihood of you going back to the church?
I would like to think she may leave one day, but I have to accept that she very well may not, and I am resigned to the great likelihood that she won’t. She has not shown any inclination of doing so since I’ve left the church. It has been over four years. If anything, I think she has dug in her heels and become more fundamental since my leaving, perhaps to counterbalance my apostasy.
As for me, the only way I see myself ever going back to church is if I develop a brain tumor, have a stroke, or suffer some other kind of brain trauma. In short, the odds of either of us changing are very slim. This is why trying to figure out how to accept and respect each other’s beliefs and make it work for our family seems so vital.