Losing My Religion: On Walking Away from Mormonism and Finding My Own TruthMonica Bielanko
The hulking Wasatch mountains whiz by me in much the same way my 28 years in Utah are flashing before my eyes. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. All my life I’ve dreamed of New York City, and now it’s looming on the horizon. Granted, two thousand miles away isn’t exactly looming, but I’ve pictured it so often in my mind’s eye I can already see the Statue of Liberty beckoning me … Come now, she says. I’ve been waiting for you.
I spent most of my twenties in an angry funk.
Not a raging bonfire of anger, more like the slow burn of the red, hot wood after the bonfire. If I’m honest with you, it’s still flickering deep inside my heart. It probably won’t ever be totally extinguished. Embers flare up sometimes, sparking small flames of angry passion that I’ve learned to tamp out, for the most part. It’s a work in progress.
I was raised Mormon. My parents are Mormon, my grandparents were Mormon, my great-grandparents were Mormon. In fact, my great, great, great, great aunt, Desdemona Fullmer, was one of Joseph Smith’s numerous wives. Much like millions of other Mormons populating the planet, my indoctrination began at birth. I was told from before I could speak that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that I must follow a very specific set of rules imparted to him by God in order to gain access into the highest kingdom of heaven.
Indoctrinating children: a morally questionable business, at best, and yet so many parents don’t think twice. They view their personal belief as fact, as truth. What could be morally questionable about that?
I felt betrayed by all the adults who surrounded me as a child and perpetuated a belief I now consider to be categorically untrue and even harmful. Growing up in the heart of Mormonism — in Provo, Utah, home of Brigham Young University — thinking that this life was the way life was everywhere and then finally traveling and experiencing people in other parts of the world was not dissimilar to what I see Amish kids experience upon leaving their communities. The culture shock isn’t the same, obviously, but the realization that there is an entire world out there filled with people of many faiths who are equally certain their church is true was mind-blowing to me. I had always pitied the few non-Mormons I grew up with, felt bad they didn’t know the “truth” — and then I was finally able to view Mormonism and the culture I was raised in from outside the Zion Curtain, which afforded me a startling new perspective. And what I saw devastated me.
Everything I was ever taught to be true, everything I ever believed in, was a lie.
There was no Oprah-esque “a-ha moment” that led to this revelation, if that’s what you’re wondering. It was a bit like putting together one of those 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Over the years, I mentally snapped the pieces together, slowly revealing the bigger picture one tiny section at a time. Moving away and meeting new people allowed me to finally step back and behold what I had been working to understand, even when I didn’t realize it: there is no universal truth. There is only your perception and my perception, and none of us can know anything for sure. The important thing is to be a good person, to radiate love and acceptance regardless of what religion or spirituality you use as the framework for that.
While I’m aware that, for many, the church is a wondrous thing, a set of beliefs around which they frame their life and every breath they take, my experience was vastly different. I have always felt inferior, guilty over everything and nothing, never good enough, judged/judgmental, embarrassed by my sexuality … the list is endless, really. But those are small things in relation to the explosion that went off in my head around the age of 27 when I finally realized that all the things I had been taught as truth weren’t facts, but ideas and stories perpetuated by a parade of men beginning with Joseph Smith. Ideas that Mormons refer to as “doctrine,” and I now refer to as fantasy.
Reprogramming my brain has been the ultimate process. Letting go of the anger has been key, and I’m slowly learning to channel it into positive endeavors, like the fight for gay equality. It’s the issue that initially precipitated my official resignation from the church in 2008. But learning to let go has been a long road that began with a 2,000-mile trip from Salt Lake City to New York City when I was 28 and married a guy in a band who had a gig in Salt Lake City one night. We met in August, spent a couple days together here and there while he continued touring the country, and then got married the next time he came to Utah in October. At the time, I’d never met anyone like him. City boy from Philadelphia: non-Mormon, free-thinker, well-read, well-traveled, open-minded — everything I wasn’t but aspired to be.
As an adult, after escaping “Zion” and fleeing for New York City, attempting to wrap my brain around the fact that all I had been told since birth had as much of a chance of being true as Santa Claus, proved to be horrifying. It’s been hard to let go of the anger. For a long time anger replaced the hole not identifying as Mormon left in my soul. I was now the former Mormon, the apostate, the “recovering” Mormon, as I occasionally still refer to myself.
Even now, with my awakening nearly ten years in my rear-view mirror, I find it extremely difficult to articulate how it feels to have been raised within a certain culture for 20 years; to have been told over and over again by every adult in your life, that this extremely specific set of beliefs is true; to realize in your twenties that you’ve lived in a bubble for your entire life, that there is a whole world out there filled with beliefs and facts, and the two are very different animals. I didn’t even know to view church doctrine as a belief. I accepted it all as fact. All of it. “I know my church is true.” The repercussions on my personality and, as a result, my life, have been devastating.
Now that I’m nearly 37 years old and have my own children, I can appreciate a person’s desire to raise a family within the structure of the very family-friendly Mormon church. But, in my experience, for every person it helps by providing safety, security and a framework around which to base one’s life, the church forces just as many others to repress their true personalities. It strangles beautiful people filled with natural, harmless curiosity about love and life. It makes them feel like living life by learning and exploring who they really are is wrong, a sin. Does being religious mean you stop critically thinking individual issues and just go with the flow even though your gut might be telling you differently? There are a number of wonderful things about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they prefer to be called, just as there are nice things about most religions, but, to me, the rampant dissemination of instruction, policy, and “knowledge” passed off as fact and then utilized to condemn others who don’t hold the same beliefs does far more harm than good.
I’d like to give my children a choice when it comes to something as life-consuming as religion. Explain all sides of the issue and let them explore for themselves. All good decisions come from information and knowledge, which means giving my children as much information as I can and allowing them to make an informed decision at an age one can truly comprehend spirituality and religious repercussion.
If my daughter is impressed by something and wants to explore it, that’s fine by me so long as I’m around to supervise the situation and keep what happened to me from happening to her. But if, as a young adult, she wants to join a particular religion, then that’s her business. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job, it’s something that fulfills and uplifts her and all of humanity and not the kind of religion, like the one of my youth, that is in the business of hurting people in the name of God.
The biggest casualty of leaving the church has been relationships with loved ones who I struggle to communicate with. It isn’t that I can’t wish them well or even love them, but I mostly find it’s best done from afar. I don’t feel comfortable being myself because at the core of who I am resides a flickering anger at the beliefs foisted upon me during my youth, and not just an anger at being told what to believe but outrage over the very beliefs themselves. So, while I can respect my friends’ choices to believe what they believe, I can’t respect the actual beliefs themselves. Just as they feel a moral duty to speak out about issues like gay marriage, I feel an equal responsibility to champion the cause. The resulting awkwardness between our beliefs lingers in the air between us, polluting any possibility of a meaningful relationship.
I don’t know if the process of letting go will ever reach a conclusion for me. Each year of life brings new realizations. I’ve had to re-learn my entire belief system. It isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. It’s worth living a life of mindfulness; a deep-thinking search for ultimate truth, learning to trust yourself and your own instincts without blindly following anybody else’s lead while attempting to cultivate a respect for those who choose a different path.
My only blunder? Hanging on to anger for so long. Anger at the religion itself, those who preach it, those who follow it. Anger serves no purpose but to obscure your vision and keep you from moving forward on your journey in life. Ironically, my anger at Mormonism was doing to me the very same thing the religion had once done: blinding me to the endless possibilities life presents to someone viewing the world with a clear head and an open heart.
Let it go.
I’m awake now. I see the big picture. Or as much of the picture as I’m meant to see for now. It’ll keep yawning wider and wider until I’m on my death bed, I guess, and only then will I truly see the “big picture.” Then I’ll reach up and unzip the universe in hopes of an even bigger view.
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