Breaking up is hard to do
The struggle to leave a faith you no longer believe in
At 15, I was baptized into a religion that emphasized everything I thought I lacked: a stable, loving family; purity in thought and action; selfless service; and unwavering faith. I wanted to be one of those beatific saints glowing out of an Italian Renaissance painting; in this world but not of it, as peacefully obedient to God as the proverbial lamb.
As it turned out, age 15 is a hard time to be a saint.
Eventually I got tired of the endless cycle of sin and retribution, the addictive rush of transgression followed by penitent hours of abysmal guilt. Leaving the religion I had chosen was sort of like breaking up with a self-righteous lover. “You’re leaving for all the wrong reasons,” I imagined it saying. “Without me, how can life have meaning?”
Author Carol Harper found herself facing this question when, as a married mother of two, she left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and embarked on a quest for her own truth. After four years of intense religious study and Goldilocks-style “church-shopping,” Harper became an “unorthodox” born-again Christian, joined Calvary Chapel of Amador, and recently published a book, Through the Eye of a Needle, about her journey.
Andy Flowers, on the other hand, is exactly the type of pastor Harper spent hours debating in her rebel-rousing seeker days. A Christian by birth, Flowers attended Christian school from preschool through ninth grade, and “started following Christ in a more serious way” when he was 14. After attending a Southern Baptist college in Phoenix and Western Seminary in Portland, Flowers returned to his hometown of Woodland, and 10 months ago filled the pastoral position at Calvary Baptist Church.
Together, Harper and Flowers offered practical—and personal—advice for someone looking for a controversy-free way to transition out of their proscribed religion.
I have left the religion I grew up in and am struggling in the transition. My family is confused and angry, claiming that my decision to leave the church is breaking up the family. I don’t want to cause trouble, but I can’t pretend I still believe in something I don’t. How do I keep the peace while staying true to myself and adjusting to this new life?
“Be true to yourself,” Harper said, with the confidence of someone who’s been there. “I would never recommend going cold turkey. … Take it one step at a time. But you have to get out of there. You have to be true to yourself. You can’t pretend. It’d be torture on you, on your soul, on your mind.”
Harper herself survived the “cold turkey” method, which she describes as “devastating. Like a death, or a really painful divorce.”
Raised in the Mormon church, Harper went to college at BYU, where she married her first husband in the Salt Lake City temple and, “like most Mormon girls,” had a family right away. Everything changed when, in 1996, her husband came home “looking like somebody had died,” pulled her into the bedroom and told her, “I can’t be Mormon anymore.” While researching for a church talk, he had happened upon a Recovery from Mormonism Web site, and after reading every story, knew he was out of the church.
Harper initially saw this news as her “ticket out” of a marriage that was “riddled with domestic violence.” Since divorce was taboo in the LDS church, her husband’s apostasy would be the perfect foil for a blame-free split, causing church members to “rally around” rather than shun her.
However, something kept gnawing at her: What did he read? The next day, after reading the stories herself, Harper was out, too.
“It’s a painful thing to do,” she said, referring to the shock and sorrow of abandoning one’s beliefs. “We live so much in our comfort zones that we don’t want to go out of our little bubble. But after a while that bubble’s going to burst if you don’t do something about it and be true to yourself.”
For Harper, being true to herself meant studying every major religion, from Islam to Zen Buddhism, which ultimately led her to a fundamental belief in Jesus Christ.
“It’s not gonna be the same for everybody,” she allowed. “It all comes down to faith. We’re not born atheists. We’re born with innate faith. As a baby we rely on powers greater than ourselves, and it’s still true. We have way too much belief in the world today.
“Belief is taking the place of faith,” she added.
“You certainly can’t force somebody to believe something,” conceded Pastor Flowers, returning to our struggling nonbeliever. “And if they don’t believe whatever their tradition is anymore, then they need to find a way to make their family understand; maybe simply ask their family to pray for them and respect them as they try to figure things out.
“You can’t pretend to believe something you don’t,” he reiterated. “You need to be honest with yourself and with your family, and hopefully they can still love and respect that, even though they might still want to get into religious discussions with you. You still have to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t do anybody any good to sit in a church when you don’t believe what’s going on there.”
“I know there are people who are just sitting [in church] going, ‘I don’t believe a word of this,’” agreed Harper. “They’re drones. I hated the temple, even when I was a Mormon, but I’d go there and do the rituals, and I’d be sitting there going, ‘What the?’”
“I don’t want people there at church if they don’t believe it and if they’re not really there to worship God, or at least there searching for some answers,” said Flowers. “If they just start to completely disconnect, then yeah, they shouldn’t feel forced to be there, or stuck there. But some people do, because of lots of different cultural things. Your friends are there, there’s connections, social circles.”
“I think it might help that people know that there’s people who have done it,” suggested Harper. “I’ve helped at least 13 Mormons come out of the church, just by being there, listening and letting them know, ‘I’ve been through the same pain you’re going through now.’”
Nevertheless, Harper contends she is glad she was raised in Mormonism, for the solid morals and standards that the religion instilled in her.
“It’s a trade-off: Are you content living a lie, or do you want to know the truth? The truth,” she said soberly, “can be devastating.”