On May 25, 2012 I received the phone call that my mom had suddenly died while I was at lunch 1,500 miles away. I remember saying, “oh wow.” I remember looking around the cafeteria and seeing others eating in slow motion. I was eating a cheese quesadilla. I drifted to my desk and encountered a colleague. I mentioned I needed to head home, she looked puzzled. I had to muster the courage to say aloud, “my mom just died, I need to go home.” The world was grey around me. I had to call the hotel van to come pick me up. The driver and I exchanged pleasantries and I sat there, experiencing the void.
It happened so quickly. I did not have time to prepare myself for the possibility that mom might die. It wasn’t cancer, a stroke, or the slow decline of old age. It was a call in the morning about mom collapsing and receiving another call a couple hours later that she had died. In the aftermath I experienced the emptiness. The emptiness that is losing your closest human relationship. Who is your closest human relationship? What would you want to tell that person before they died? How would your priorities change if you knew they would soon die? These impossible questions occupied my mind for a long time, and still do.
Picking up the pieces
We are about 6 months into my spiritual journey story. It was September, and moving quickly into winter. I was experiencing the entire gamut of emotions as I unpacked my loss of faith and the collateral damage that followed. It was terrifying to lose my personal identity. My childhood, my adolescence, my missionary work, my marriage, my children, my reason to live were exquisitely connected to my now lost faith. On the flip side of the same coin I did have moments of complete ecstasy realizing I was now able to make up my own mind about how I would view the world. I would be able to search, ponder and come up with my own conclusions. It really was a whole new world. This new world both terrified and invigorated me.
During this moment of ‘what now’, I found myself searching out the meaning of life and the path that might lead to it. During this search I found a quote that described my blight:
Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark. For the straightforward path had been lost. – Dante Inferno 1320 AD
I was lost. I was in that forest dark. I searched out books, YouTube videos, podcasts, and the stories of other people that had gone through similar experiences on exmormon reddit. Linked below are those videos that I connected with most. These made me feel the ‘spirit’ in the very same way that I had experienced spiritual feelings in the past. I may have found myself in the dark forest, but I was finding meaning in the darkness.
- Alan Watts: Life is not a Journey
- Jim Carrey: What really exists
- Christopher Hitchens: Greatest Speech
- Rick and Morty: Finding Meaning in Life
I began to read books about Stoicism like How to be a Stoic, Ego is the Enemy, and The Obstacle is the Way. I moved into the book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris that talks about the very real spiritual experiences that people all around the world have and contrasting that with an atheist perspective. He attempts to bridge the gap between the spiritual and religion. Many atheists will say all talk of spirituality is, “a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception.” But Sam attempts to relay a message of a type of bridge between atheists and very real spiritualism. Here’s a quote from his book:
Spirituality must be distinguished from religion because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience — self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light — constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work. (page 8)
There is a lot to unpack there and will leave that to another blog post.
I spent lots of time on YouTube watching debates between the Abrahamic religions and Atheist. I grew fond of Christopher Hitchens and his ability to describe his case for humanistic morality. I began to see the logical fallacies in religion. I found myself being more comfortable with the idea that feelings can lead people to believe not only unscientific things but things that are intellectually and morally grotesque. These feelings drew me to valuing reason over feelings.
There is an important clarification that I deem necessary when we discuss atheism. This is because I once held a skewed perception of what atheists believed. Here is the description from atheist.org:
Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not a belief system or a religion. To put it in a more humorous way: If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.
As I dived my attention into observing the perspectives of other religions and non-religions alike, I began to encounter the heavy questions of the religious mind and the atheist/scientific mind. Questions like:
- What is consciousness and where does consciousness come from?
- What is the meaning of life?
- How did the universe start? Why did it start?
- Where does morality come from?
- Can science answer moral questions?
- Is there such thing as objective morality?
- What is the self and is it real?
- What is free will and do we actually have it?
- What is truth and how do you find it?
- What are the best methods to determining truth?
- Are feelings a reliable source of truth?
- Can feelings lead people to believe in something that is false?
- How can I use epistemology to form opinions about objective truth?
These were both exciting and dark times. There were moments in which I wished I could go back to the belief in Mormonism I once held firm to. I once had a blueprint for life. This road map was so profound and understandable and also very comforting. I would often find myself in an existential crises crying out to the universe? “What is the meaning of life? Does anything matter? Who am I? Mormonism has answers!”
As strange as it sounds for a 31 year old to say it, but in many ways I was tabula rasa. I was that blank piece of paper that you eagerly gaze upon as you decide what drawing you will attempt. Will I wander into creative flow and paint my masterpiece? Or will I shrink and cower in the weight of the meaninglessness of life and the way the universe looks upon me with indifference and do nothing or crumple up the paper and give up?
Losing my faith was very similar to losing my mom. Out of all the human connections I have made during my life, my connection with my mother was the strongest, the most meaningful. When I look into her eyes I can see pure love. That emotion, that energy is real even now as I write it. I hope that I will see her again. That hope, and those feelings are real. They are just as real as my internal conscience that tells me that the Mormon church is false. Integrity, intellectual honesty, and reason, led me out of its grasps. This struggle was not taken lightly. I found myself not liking the way that I felt when I thought about the Mormon doctrine on eternal families (as it relates to my family and my kids) and my new perspective. The faithful will say, “you felt uncomfortable because the spirit is telling you your path is false, and you need to get back on the mormon path so you can see your mom again.” I repulse in disgust at that thought.
In many ways the Mormon church hijacks the family unit and holds it hostage. “If you drink coffee you cannot be sealed (connected eternally in heaven) to your family. If you do not pay us, you cannot be sealed to your family. You are putting your eternal family into jeopardy,” they will say. “If you begin to doubt the teachings of the church, or find fault with its leaders, you are putting your eternal family at risk, you would not want to do that would you?” Relating to this control mechanism Korihor, a character in the Book of Mormon described as an anti-Christ ironically described what I now conflate with current actual Mormon doctrine:
The Prophet and High Priests ask Korihor: “…Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord?” He responded, “…because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words. Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage.” Alma 30:22-24
I honestly feel that way about much of the Mormon doctrine. From my perspective the church is about control and authority which keeps people’s heads down praying, paying and obeying. I chose to no longer be afraid of choosing authority and control over reason because of what it might mean for my eternal salvation and the salvation of my family relationships. I felt free knowing that I was being honest with myself. I was being true to my internal integrity. I found myself unshackled, but left alone in a dark forest, without a compass, or caring guide, or direction. Some came, others are a work in progress.
Do I believe in God? I do not know. Do I think that God is the Mormon God, no. In reference to the formidable questions about the meaning of life, is it okay to say, “I don’t know?” I have come to find the answer to this question to be a simple beautiful yes.
My new guiding star when it comes to a belief in a God and finding meaning in life comes from Marcus Aurelius:
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.