Losing My Religion: The illusion of choice in religious leave-taking

Losing My Religion: The illusion of choice in religious leave-taking July 15, 2013

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

— “Losing My Religion”, R.E.M.

Recently, Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow engaged in an online conversation at the Feminism and Religion blog over the question of whether or not to remain in the patriarchal religion of one’s birth, with Christ taking the position of the “leave-taker” and Plaskow taking the position of the “reformer-from-within”.

Christ writes that she decided to leave Christianity when she realized that she did not embrace the “core doctrines” of Christianity or its “core symbols” (i.e., God as Lord and King).  She writes that, even if she had been able to revision the masculinist language, “the continued repetition of these symbols by others was influencing their individual actions and the actions of the culture they were legitimating through them—and these actions were hurting others”.

Plaskow responds that, while she finds the masculinist language problematic, when she worships with her community, “I do not experience God as king or warrior, and my experience weighs as heavily for me as what you call the core symbols of the tradition.”  Christ questions whether Plaskow is concerned about how the image of God as dominating male Other will affect her granddaughter, to which Plaskow responds with this beautiful passage:

“Thinking about my granddaughter puts me in touch with a whole dense network of symbols, other than those most troubling to you, that is central to my experience of Judaism and that I hope will be part of hers. Already at fourteen months, when Hannah (my granddaughter) saw the table set for the Sabbath, she put a kippah (skullcap) on her head and pretended she was singing. True, her father recites the blessing over wine using male God-language, but is that more important than sitting with her family around the table for a relaxed meal, dipping her finger in the wine, or feeling the texture of hallah in her mouth? At her first Passover Seder, she got to see a table laden with symbols, to taste the crumbly matzah and dip parsley in saltwater, combining a taste of spring with the tears of slavery. In a couple of years, she will be able to spill ten drops from the second cup of wine when we name the plagues as an expression of sorrow for the drowning of the Egyptians. In the fall, she will taste apples dipped in honey for a sweet year, hear the blasts of the shofar,  and a couple of weeks later sit in our sukkah, decorated with pine needles and laden with fruit and gourds. Certainly, none of these symbols individually is as central as the male God, but together they make a web of sensuous, embodied connections to what it means to be a Jew. She will have at least one grandmother who will talk to her about how God is in all these things and can be thought of as a girl like her and not just as male. She will grow up in a family in which asking critical questions is part of what it means to be Jewish and will be taught to think about the stories and images she is being bequeathed. Do I wish that more Jews used Marcia Falk’s blessings instead of the traditional ones? Yes. Do I see her exposure to male language as something to be discussed with her and questioned? Yes. Would I prefer that she be deprived of all these experiences because of the centrality of male language? Definitely not.

I am deeply moved by Plaskow’s response, even knowing that her choice was not my own.  The power of these symbols shines through Plaskow’s words.

This conversation between Plaskow and Christ closely resembles several conversations that my wife and I had when I left the Mormon church.  In fact, the conversation resembles the one I had in my own mind often as I struggled with the question of whether to stay or leave.  Every year, the liberal Mormon community that gathers for the Sunstone Symposium and holds a session entitled, “Why I Stay” in which speakers answer that question for themselves.  (In fact, the Sunstone community might be defined as those Mormons who recognize that question as one which needs answering.)  An anthology of these stories has been also published by Robert Rees.  A lot of these stories have to do with the power that the symbols of Mormonism continue to have for these individuals.  For example, Joanna Brooks speaks movingly about the symbol of Zion in her interview with Krista Tippett on NPR.  I find these stories more moving the older I get.  I have no desire to return to the Mormon church, but these stories have caused me to question the narrative that I have been telling myself about my departure from the Church.

Like Christ above, I used to see religion in terms of creed or doctrine.  I was convinced that I knew what the “core doctrines” of Mormonism were.  And if I could not assent to the articles of faith of the Church, then ipso facto I did not belong there.  I wondered if I might do some good by trying to change the Church from within, as a loyal dissenter.  But then another voice in my head said I would do more good by petulantly depriving the Church of my talents and energy (similar to John Galt’s strike in Atlas Shrugged).

I took courage to leave from a short story written by Ursula LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”.   In LeGuin’s story, Omelas is a paradise that is built on the suffering of an innocent child.  People in Omelas are told that the happiness of their paradise depends on the suffering of this child.  And most eventually come to terms with it and return to their happy lives.  But occasionally one does not.  The story ends with the rare the inhabitant walking away toward an unknown future:

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all.  Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.  These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone.  They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas.  Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.  Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields.  Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains.  They go on.  They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.  The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.  I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.  But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

At the time, I saw my departure as a grand statement of principle.  My exit letter requesting that my name be removed from the Church rolls was 10 pages long, single spaced.  And I envisioned myself boldly walking into an unknown future like the leave-takers from Omelas.  In retrospect, I think my exit from the Mormon church was less of a choice based on principle, and more of an inevitable result of a growing tension building inside of me — which is perhaps actually more like the people in the Omelas story.  What’s interesting about LeGuin’s story is that it is not at all clear that the ones who walk away are in the right. Is there not perhaps a third option? Something between leave-taking and consent to abuse? Might we not attempt to free the child? But what if it is true that the happiness of the community does depend on that child’s suffering. Is the cost to the community justified?  Are the people who leave happy?  Is there something better than happiness?

In the end, I realize, it was out of necessity, not principle, that I left Mormonism. I could no longer dwell meaningfully in the symbols and the rituals of the LDS Church. The Mormon God had died for me. I felt no community in the Church (I never really had, except when I was on a proselytizing mission in Brazil). And I had begun having strong negative emotional reactions to all things LDS.

When I read Christ’s arguments for leaving Christianity, I hear my own voice. And I can’t help but think that, for her, leaving Christianity may not have been about her rejecting the symbols of Christianity, so much as those symbols losing their power over her. I think that is the difference between Christ and I on the one hand, and Plaskow and my wife on the other. For Plaskow and my wife, the symbols of their respective traditions are still alive to them. When the “core” symbols died for Christ and I, there was nothing left but a corpse, built up of tradition and appeals to authority. But our “core” symbols are not everyone’s “core” symbols, and a symbol may die for one person and not for another. Which is why Christ and I appear to Plaskow and my wife to be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Jung writes that “Only an unparalleled impoverishment of symbolism could enable us to rediscover the gods […] Since the stars have fallen from heaven and our highest symbols have paled, a secret life holds sway in the unconscious.”  I remember reading those words — “an unparalleled impoverishment of symbolism” — for the first time and knowing that this is what I had experienced.  How it the symbolism became impoverished is a complex story, and not the result of any single decisive moment.  I guess my point is that perhaps we have less choice about these matters than we think.  Jungians are fond of saying that “we don’t have complexes, they have us”.  Perhaps the same could be said of symbols.  Perhaps I did not let go of the symbols of Mormonism, so much as they lost their grip on me — for better or for worse.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes that “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”  I can say from experience that it is an equally terrible thing to fall out of the hands of a dead God.  I count myself fortunate that other divine hands found me.  If nothing else, this question challenges me to recollect with greater humility my “choice” to leave my religion of origin.

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  • Dandini

    How true. . . many would have God the Father neutered. . . at least in their own hearts. . .

  • E David Ferriman

    People are jerks, stay for the truth. Whenever I get fed up with the members of the church I just remember that Christ’s grace is good enough for them too. And the words I live by: “What’s the point of giving up, leaving won’t change anything.” – Skinny Puppy.

    • John Halstead

      Thanks. I didn’t leave because of the people though. The people were great to me and they still are.

      • E David Ferriman

        Well, that’s good to hear 🙂

  • What a deliciously heart-felt post! Thank you for sharing it with us; I also left my attempt at monotheistic religion even though I found much beauty and grace…and yes, worth, in some of it. I do not find that “God” dead so much as direly misinterpreted, perhaps? I am constantly “leaving” something behind in my life, change and re-examination seem my only constants; and yes we would all be better to recollect our choices with humility…and dare I say, greater humanity.

    • John Halstead

      Thanks Labrys! You make a good point about perpetual leavetaking.

  • Jamie Hooton

    I too grew up as a Mormon and have since left. Although I see nothing wrong with the church itself, it was not for me. I always believed something was wrong with me because when I would question my beliefs I was told to pray and I would be shown that the church was right. Sadly, the more I prayed, the more uncomfortable I became with the religion until I eventually became inactive and began researching other belief structures. My belief structure is now made up of several religions. Right or wrong, this is what feels right to me.

  • Me too! That is, my apostasy did not feel like a choice. The difference being, I suppose, that it didn’t even feel like a choice to me at the time, but only simply a necessity, a truism, an admission, a confession. My heart had changed. My understanding of reality had changed. To stay in the church would have been a falsity, a charade, a betrayal. I was crushed, actually, and it took years to recover. But I also found the Omelas story deeply moving.

    • John Halstead

      Thanks. It’s good to hear from another apostate. 🙂

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Interesting article, thank you.

    I don’t think I could reconvert after the last few decades of mystical experiences. I have to work with the symbols and mysteries I’m called to.

    • John Halstead


  • This is a fine article, John, and one I enjoyed reading. 🙂

    I do note, however, that there is a single point of disparity between the stories from Ms. Christ and Mrs. Plaskow that seems to create the appearance of an apples-vs-oranges issue. In Ms. Christ’s article, she says, My answer that feminism had put a question mark over all doctrines for me was not considered acceptable, whereas in Mrs. Plaskow’s article, she says, I always felt free to raise critical questions and, indeed, understood doing so as part of what it meant to be a Jew. So while we see two different approaches for addressing a disparity of beliefs within a religious structure, we also see that one religion allows a certain level of disparity where another does not.

    In all three cases (the two articles and your own experiences) I do believe the common thread is a persistent need to be honest and genuine with oneself. So while you may feel it was a “necessity,” I believe it was also a matter of principle.

    • John Halstead

      Good point!

  • Anna H.

    A very timely post. I have left one religion and was considering leaving another; however, its symbols are still very alive for me; it’s the culture that I have a problem with. This article helped me with my decisions.

  • Heather Awen

    Hi, sorry to bug your comment section. I just wanted to invite you to do more ABC sharing and maybe pass this on to those you know who may be interested. I likethe diversity you brought last month! Thanks, Heather

    While many of us are still working on a BIRDS contribution
    for the August Animist Blog Carnival (deadline July 29th) hosted at
    animist jottings (http://animistjottings.wordpress.com/), I wanted to give
    everyone a head’s up on September’s theme: BIOREGION. It shall be hosted by
    Lupa at Therioshamism (http://therioshamanism.com/). Please have your essays/poems/pictures/etc
    posted on your blog before August 28th and a link sent to Lupa on or
    before the 28th (http://www.thegreenwolf.com/contact.html).

    Your contribution can be older writing/art that relates to

    Some ideas: Water shed, native food shed, foraging. Geology.
    How does one bioregion in your life feel different from another? Photos of your
    bioregion. Famous poems, slang or songs about/from your bioregion. Climate
    Change/development affecting bioregion. Internet or facebook as a bioregion.
    Totem of the bioregion. Saying hello to a new bioregion, saying goodbye to one
    when you move. Topophilia. Guide books for your bioregion. Ceremonies about a
    bioregion’s seasonal changes. A personal almanac. Astrological chart as
    bioregion. Local economy, locavore eating, local arts, local music scene. The maps in children’s books- what if you
    made one for your bioregion or one from your past? History of bioregion. Art
    made with found items from bioregion. Idealized goal for bioregion. Resources
    for studying bioregion. Teachers about your bioregion. Soil testing, putting in
    a garden, who grows where the best.
    Symbiotic relationships in your bioregion. Natural disasters. Why tourists come. Why you
    live there. What your role is in the bioregion. Body as bioregion. Weather
    patterns, animal migration, other cycles. Indigenous people of the bioregion,
    where are they now? Land restoration and wildlife rehabbing. Invasive species
    and extinct species. Interview with a
    human, tree, river where you live. Globalization and bioregion. A scene from
    your animist life interacting in some small way with the bioregion, the return
    of a migrating bird, the first rains after a dry spell, tending the community
    garden, shoveling snow, the first fruit of the year at the farmer’s market. An
    annual vacation spot. Bioregions of the past: where felt right for you, where
    felt wrong? How does the bioregion
    affect the human civilization, behaviors and cultures there?

    Contributor Guidelines

    Write an essay, poem, memoir, conduct an
    interview, etc about the month’s theme. (To check the theme, go to the ABC HQ.)
    Or film a song or photograph an image or art piece that is about the theme.

    Post on your blog with a link to the month’s
    hosting blog and a link to the ABC HQ (http://ecoanimism.com/blog-carnival).

    Send link to your post to that month’s host by
    the 2nd to last day of the month.

    I created a bioregional re-indigenize quiz, which is in the
    TerraMystes (http://ecoanimism.com) wiki.
    Yep, Glen built a wiki just for bioregional animism and sacred ecology, to have
    another aspect of collaborative work.
    The quiz is meant as a jumping off point for getting to know your
    bioregion. If you take a look at it, it might spark some ideas. I filled it out
    myself on my blog ​(http://ecoanimism.com/author/heather-awen).Glen
    and I think it would be cool if the wiki someday had a section of people
    worldwide’s answers to the quiz, so if you ever fill it out, please let us
    know! TerraMystes is rather ambitious
    and still in beta phase with me as the beta tester, but Glen hopes it will be a
    collective center for bioregional animists and sacred ecologist types. He’s
    still tweeking it so if it is down for a day, that’s why.

    For those thinking even farther ahead, September 28th
    deadline is for DEATH, hosted at Pray to the Moon.

    anyone want to choose to a topic and host for Nov, Dec, Jan or Feb?

    If you are on the fence, going “Am I an animist?” this month
    I’ll share some quotes from Emma Restall Orr’s book on animism, the Wakeful

    “As a metaphysical monism, animism is based upon the idea
    that nature’s essence is minded. We have no language just what that essence is,
    but- and indeed because – fundamentally it is all that there is. Moment by
    moment, interaction within that essence generates data that utilizes nature’s
    capacity for mind, rousing it to perceive and respond.”

    “(I)n his practice of learning and reverence, the animist
    will acknowledge the spirits of a place, the spirits of a river, of fire and
    storm, the spirits of tribe, of motherhood, of the dead, the spirits of a
    gathering, of an event in time, and so on. In doing so he is reaching to
    perceive those fleeting patterns that, so filled with energy and potentiality,
    are the essential moments flowing into moments, the raw creativity that
    manifests each form, saturating each experience. (He) is aspiring to play an active and
    respectful part on the creative process of life, even if only though gratitude,
    awe and devotion. (T)he animist will also acknowledge the soul, reaching here
    to catch a glimpse of what is the summation of all that has been.”

    “Everything in nature is awake, both perceiving its
    environment and with its own being….However, I am not proposing that everything
    is capable of making considered decisions, nor that everything could be then
    said to be accountable for its actions as if it were self-determining.”

    “(E)verything exists for itself. The conviction that
    everything has its place within the greater soul of nature, that everything is
    in wakeful relationship with every other member if its community or
    communities, confers to everything an inherent value…. “(E)verything is

  • That LeGuin story is amazing. I’ve come back to it many times since I first read it in adolescence, precisely because of the unanswerable questions it raises.