By an anonymous author
I’m a big Disney music fan. In the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, there’s a song called “Human Again,” in which the characters sing about their dream of changing from household objects back into real people.
I love that song because it describes my journey, a journey of learning to feel again — of going from a mental prison of Mormon guilt to freedom and new life as an agnostic/atheist. This is my story.
I grew up in a devout, ultra-conservative Mormon family, in California. Religion pervaded every aspect of our lives: three hours at church each Sunday; daily family scripture study and prayers at home; and church activities throughout the week. Beyond that, religion was part of nearly every interaction and conversation in our home.
“The gospel” was the reason for all our happiness. Happiness came not from doing things that felt good, but rather from knowing that by your actions, you were being obedient to God.
God’s existence was certain, Joseph Smith (Mormonism’s founder) was God’s chosen prophet, and we were in the “one, true church.” What a blessing!
While this actually did give us a very real sense of wellbeing, it also came with a lot of restrictions. It wasn’t just traditional things, like no sex before marriage or avoiding alcohol. Movies and TV shows were also limited (no R, and not many PG-13 movies), coffee and tea were out, and even playing poker was out, just to name a few.
But Mormonism wasn’t just about the “don’ts.” There were also hours of “do’s” each week, from daily religious study, participation in hours-long temple rituals (beginning at age 12), service assignments in church, and so on. These weren’t bad, but were time-consuming.
And while social interaction wasn’t officially limited to Mormons, in practice it was, given our abstinence from many “worldly” activities. Plus, the constant encouragement to invite “non-member” friends to church fostered a sense of almost “tribal” connection with other members.
Now to be fair, Mormons are sincere, good people. Most of my family, and many close friends, are devoutly Mormon. But while I believe that Mormons have sincere intentions, the religion perpetuates so much denial of the self, all in the name of God, as well as a tragic 100%-confidence in supernatural beliefs.
Mormonism in a Nutshell
Officially, the Mormon religion is called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a Christian church, with a belief in Christ as the foundation of the church. However, in practice, the core tenet of Mormonism is this: The church is true.
If one goes to any monthly “testimony meeting” (in which members get up and share their religious beliefs with the congregation), the most-repeated phrase is this: “I know that the church is true.” Not Jesus, faith, or love — it’s “I know that the church is true.”
Think about that for a minute. Imagine someone in a business deal repeatedly telling you, “I’m an honest person. I’m an honest person. I’m an honest person!” You’d run like hell.
So what’s the appeal? Well social reinforcement aside, the fact is, the message of the church is great. Mormons believe in eternal life and eternal marriage (including eternal sex), meaning an afterlife like here, just without sorrow, sickness, or sinful things like Fifty Shades of Grey.
That’s very appealing! I for one would get bored sitting around with Jesus forever in a puffy cloud, singing Kumbaya. So the Mormon belief in immortal bodies, with the joys of dance, food, sports, music, sex, and everything else that makes life meaningful, is pretty great!
But here’s the catch. If we-have-the-truth is the fundamental belief of Mormonism, then guilt is often the fundamental practice of it. Everything in the church — everything — is targeted to get people to “repent,” so that they receive “joy.” The problem is, repentance doesn’t mean to be a good person. Instead, it means to do more, more, more.
In Mormon culture, you are typically never giving or doing enough. Church leaders teach you to ask questions like, “What lack I yet?”, sacrificing personal needs from your life so you can spend more time on religious study or service.
As you might expect, this extreme culture of guilt is very damaging, and eventually disintegrates one’s sense of self. In my case, it went even further, completely robbing my desire to live.
Doubt, Guilt, and the Loss of Self
My first major doubts about religion happened at 18. I was a freshman at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, and I was dealing with extreme guilt and perfectionism, to the point that I was seeing a counselor to help with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Somehow, along the way, I also began to wonder whether the whole God-thing was actually real. How did I really know that God existed? Having grown up with a belief in God, how could I avoid “confirmation bias” or circular reasoning in my beliefs?
As my faith unraveled, I felt shocked and disoriented. If God wasn’t there, then did anything matter? What did it even mean to exist? Why should I live?
I spent hours that night journaling, desperately seeking to connect with God, and found nothing. Making matters worse, I was preparing to leave for the two-year missionary service expected of Mormon men.My parents and church leaders felt my doubts were “Satan’s efforts” to stop me from serving, so off I went. Now I did choose, personally, to go — I wanted to be good, and I desperately needed to find God, to regain my sense of self.
What I didn’t realize, of course, is that fundamentalist religion is based in the denial of self. In essence, I lived in constant fear of offending a supernatural being, a being who could only communicate with me in my mind. Talk about a recipe for mental self-destruction!
And self-destruct I did. I continued to practice the religion, and so it’s remarkable that I didn’t end up hospitalized, given the extreme depression and anxiety I had in the years following. Ironically, I actually overcame many of my other obsessions — like compulsively checking locks, social anxieties, and so on. But I couldn’t make progress on the religious OCD. It just got worse.
The Beginning of Change
In my late 20s, after years of study, continued faithful religious practice, questioning, and therapy, I began to wonder if maybe God wasn’t in my anxiety, after all. Maybe he wasn’t offended by every movie I watched, every “damn, that woman is sexy!” thought I felt.
Maybe my personal desires for my life weren’t evil?
Then in mid 2017, at age 30, I went to a work conference back east (I was living in Utah at the time), and for some reason, that weekend changed my life. Everyone I met was different than me — they cussed, they had tattoos and body piercings (also against Mormonism), and drank alcohol. Yet I’d never felt more at home. I felt peace! It was crazy. I instantly wanted more.
So that fall, I moved out of Utah. I kept practicing the religion, but changed my social circle to be mostly non-Mormon, to explore these feelings. Meanwhile, my career was taking off. My business, my dream, was coming to fruition, and it was frankly the most exciting time of my life!
But then, of course, OCD struck again. Here I was, happier than ever before, but I was constantly reminded that in the eyes of God, I wasn’t “doing enough.”
On the one hand, I was on top of the world, loving life. Yet, on the other hand, I literally got to the point where I could not enjoy anything, any feeling, because I believed it was “wrong” — I had learned to deny myself, to deny all my humanity. Ultimately, I lost my desire to live.
Leaving and Finding Light
During this time of deep depression I came across the book The Body Keeps the Score, and discovered my symptoms resembled PTSD. By constantly avoiding my feelings, in the name of a god, I had lost the ability to feel. It’s what Dr. Marlene Winell calls “religious trauma syndrome.”
Around the same time, I started to again struggle with cognitive dissonance in my faith — like believing the Bible to be “God’s word,” yet knowing the book of Genesis was factually false.
I also began to realize that I had woefully misjudged the world, in believing that only the 16 million Mormons in the world had the “fulness” of God’s truth. Was I truly to believe that God just left his other 99.8% hanging, waiting until the “next life” when Mormon missionaries would come convert them to the true religion, in heaven? (That’s an actual Mormon belief.) Didn’t God care about these people’s lives on earth, before heaven?
Among other things, I was also troubled by Mormon temple ceremonies, considered a pinnacle spiritual experience for Mormons, with its focus on strange handshakes and “tokens” that, even after years of practice, bore no spiritual feeling or meaning for me. (They’re actually Masonic.)
It just didn’t make any sense. So I started asking more questions, and eventually realized that Mormonism being false made so much more sense. I then did a test — I tried violating church standards, to see if I felt guilty. And for the first time in my entire life, I felt… no guilt.
Here I was — twenty years of constant, obsessive guilt — and now guilt-free, for the first time, ever. It was unreal. It was like a sign from God… or, perhaps, a sign of no god.
Now Mormons like to refer to their religious practice as bringing a “fresh view of God, one’s self, and the world.” Well, I am happy to say that this is what I found when leaving Mormonism. I found joy and healing that I could not find in religion.
I’ve now realized that life is finite in time, yet infinite in what we can do with that time, with our talents, our emotions, our curiosities, and our relationships. While perhaps it lacks any “cosmic” meaning overall, life is nevertheless awe-inspiringly beautiful — here and now — and that gives it rich meaning. I am determined to live that life to the fullest. And doing that has involved re-learning to feel, and to accept, love, and serve myself and others, just as we are.
This isn’t easy for me though. It is a complete paradigm shift to realize I have only one life — no afterlife, no forever splendor. I believe that when I die, my consciousness ends. And that’s horrendously and soul-wrenchingly sad for me, after 30 years of believing I’m immortal.
But I’m grateful to find story after story of those who left religion, and found meaning in their lives, even absent an afterlife. I am sharing my story as part of my own healing.
If I can take the pain and struggles I’ve had, and share those to another’s benefit, then that gives me joy. I can take this cosmic accident that is my life, and live it to the fullest, taking in every joy, every moment available. I can feel.
And I think that hope, that ability to be human again, is incredible.