Growing up with a strict religious faith, I felt very secure in my beliefs about right and wrong through my teen years and into my twenties. While I questioned other things, religion was such a default that I often did not realize it was there. I still remember shaking my head sadly over my atheist friends who had to think about every decision they made and whether it was right or wrong. I didn’t have to do that. I just followed what the Mormon prophets had said and applied it to my situation. I don’t remember ever coming across a situation where I thought there wasn’t a right or wrong. I was studying Derrida and other post-modernists at Princeton University at the highest levels in a PhD program, and I saw gray everywhere but in my own religion.
Then came my faith crisis. I remember sitting in church and realizing that the person who was speaking at the pulpit on the topic of doubters and those who leave Mormonism was talking about me. He assumed that everyone in the room was in the same place that he was, and so he was free to disparage the faith journeys of anyone who was outside of his own experience. These were people who chose to drink and smoke, to disobey one of what has become a fundamental rule of Mormonis, the Word of Wisdom. These were also people who wanted to have sex outside of marriage, and who didn’t want to fulfill their commitments to children. They were reprobates, child-molesters, perverts, and on and on. The worst scum of the earth.
And I was among them because I no longer believed in the assurances of an absolutely black and white worldview. I hadn’t done any of the things he suggested that someone who stopped believing Mormonism would do. I have still never had coffee, tea, or alcohol. I’ve never smoked a cigarette. I still wear my Mormon temple garments every day. I still attend church almost every Sunday. I still teach in my ward’s Primary. But I don’t believe in many parts of Mormonism, at least not literally.
The most difficult part of my faith crisis was the moment I realized that I had no more foundation of morality on which to base my life. I had stopped believing that Mormonism had all the answers and had come to see the flaws in Mormon prophets. I didn’t believe in a God of miracles to pray to for help in difficult situations in life. I really stopped believing in any kind of authority, so that I cringed when someone advised me to read a book written by this or that person who might have advice to offer. I had an allergic reaction to wisdom presented to me by others. Which basically meant that I had to figure out everything on my own, through my own experience.
For the rest of you who were doing this all along, you might not see how terrifying this was to someone who had given up that judgment to someone else for so long. I woke every day with the sense that I was falling into an endless pit. I did many of the same things as before, but was aware that this was only out of habit, not out of conviction that I was doing something “right.” Every decision was fraught with a long and painful thought process. If my new morality was based on not harming others, and all choices could potentially harm others, could I do anything? I accumulated some new extreme habits (including veganism), on top of my Mormon health code rules, which meant that I basically could never eat with anyone else. Which was fine, since I’m pretty sure no one could have made sense of anything that I had to say at that time, anyway.
Some of my post-faith crisis Mormon friends spend time telling their family that they’re “still the same person.” I don’t feel like that at all. I feel like I’m a completely different person. In some ways, there was a psychic break in which the old me died because she couldn’t survive in the new world she was in. In order for me to survive, I had to cobble together scraps that were left after the old me simply stopped existing. It wasn’t an easy process.
Maybe this stage of my faith crisis was a kind of delayed teenagehood where I was angry and lashing out at the very people who were trying (in their own benighted way) to help me. I won’t say I didn’t go through real teenage years earlier, but it was pretty mild and my only rebellion was against my father and it was only in my senior year of high school. The other authority structures around me remained pretty much intact. I hadn’t questioned everything then, so when it hit me as an adult, it hit hard.
I’m still struggling with it, honestly, still frustrated that I don’t know anything when all the people my age seem to be so secure in themselves, their place in the world, and their sense of right and wrong. I change my opinions readily, but not through people telling me what they think. I have to try it out myself to come to conclusions. I don’t recommend it particularly. I guess this is why I don’t tend to talk to people in my personal life about my faith crisis. I have no wish to inflict this depth of existential crisis on anyone else. But if you’ve been through it, maybe you know what I’m talking about.