When you first experience a religious faith crisis, it can feel like a terrible nightmare — like your world has literally fallen apart. It may feel for a time like you are lost, broken, and irreparably damaged. In a word, a religious faith crisis can feel utterly devastating.
And please don’t misunderstand me. There are countless deaths that you will likely experience throughout the course of your religious faith crisis. This can include the death of: 1) your identity, 2) certain family relationships, 3) close friendships, 4) your relationship with your faith community, 5) your basis for morality, 6) your source for spirituality, 7) the respect that you once enjoyed from believing family, friends, and community members, 8) certainty, 9) your once-cherished beliefs, and world view, and 10) your foundation for meaning and purpose in your life.
So. Many. Deaths. And trust me – each death will need to be mourned, through all the various stages of grief including: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and testing — ultimately leading (hopefully) to acceptance.
So please take your time, and shamelessly mourn each loss. In fact, lean into the mourning, not away from it, as the only way out of grieving, is through it.
But I have a message of hope for all of you who are experiencing, or will experience a religious faith crisis. One advantage that I have gained over the past 16 years of supporting literally tens of thousands of Mormons through their religious faith crises has been to see how these situations play out over time — after the “deaths,” after the mourning, after the grieving has concluded, and after the pieces of one’s life have been put back together into a new, authentic composition.
And as tragic as a religious faith crisis may feel, and in spite (or perhaps because) of the many deaths that can and will occur – what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the vast majority (99.9%) of Mormons that I have supported through their religious faith crises have emerged from the experience concluding that their religious faith crisis was in fact not a tragedy — but instead was an incredible series of priceless gifts. And the gifts of a religious faith crisis can include the following:
Note: This essay is about the move away from religious orthodoxy – whether it takes someone towards more liberal/progressive forms of Mormonism, or out of Mormonism entirely.
- You may lose your identity for a time, but if you do the work, you have the opportunity to gain an identity of your own construction. This new identity can be based upon your highest and most mature sense of values, integrity, truth, and authentic conscience. You have the change to exchange an inherited identity for an identity of your highest, truest, most authentic self.
- You may lose your extrinsically-based code of morality for a time, and you may even make some serious mistakes along the way. But from this faith crisis you stand to develop a more mature, intrinsic sense of morality, that is based on your own life-tested sense of right and wrong, and upon your own conscience (which you will come to know, once you allow yourself to listen to it). In short, you will trade someone else’s sense of morality for what you know for yourself to be right and wrong. You will not be “obeying” for the benefit of Gods and angels who may be keeping score, nor for an afterlife that may or may not come. Instead, you will choose to do what is right because you are deeply grounded in an intrinsic sense of authentic morality.
- You will likely lose friends, but you will learn the painful lesson that some (if not many) of the people you once called friends were never really friends to begin with. More importantly, as you discover and reach out to others who have also experienced similar losses to you, you stand to gain as a replacement the most deep, rich, and meaningful friendships you could ever have imagined — friendships that are based on authenticity, emotional intimacy, mutual respect, and unconditional love. You will exchange your superficial friendships for genuine friendships.
- You may lose your church-based source of spirituality for a time, but you will discover that spirituality can be found everywhere….in nature, in mindfulness and meditation, in art, in music, in cinema and theater, and perhaps most importantly, in authentic human connections. You will replace corporate, institutionalized spirituality with intrinsic, deeply personal spirituality.
- You may lose your church/faith community, or feel disconnected from the mainstream, but you stand to gain, if you search for it, a new community of more authentic and genuine relationships based on truth, tolerance, diversity, respect, joy, deep intimacy, and unconditional love. If you are lucky, you will trade a shallow community for deep community.
- You may lose respect for many of your church-based role models, prophets, and heroes. But you will gain role models and heroes of truly historic proportions, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Brene Brown, Alain de Botton, Carl Sagan…the Suffragettes, the Freedom Riders, etc.
- You may lose confidence and belief in some or all of the scriptures you once cherished, but you have the opportunity to acquire new scripture from modern (or ancient) authors. For me, these scriptures include books like A New Earth, East of Eden, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Chosen, The Promise, Out of Control, The Course of Love, etc.
- You may lose your sense of false certainty – but you will soon realize that certainty and control are always illusions, and are also the sources of much judgment, arrogance, insensitivity, and even violence. As your certainty fades, you will find that reality (over false certainty) is a much stronger foundation upon which to build a life. You will exchange a life based on false certainty for a life based on reality.
- You will likely experience a deep disruption to your marriage (if you are married) – but for many, this disruption either leads to: a) a much deeper, stronger, intimate, and more fulfilling marriage, or to b) new committed relationships that are much more grounded in authentic emotional intimacy and connection. You will exchange a marriage based on contractual, conditional love for a marriage based on true emotional intimacy and companionship.
- You could possibly lose a set of resources and community to help you raise your children (if you have children), but you stand to gain much more authentic relationships with your children that are based on mutual respect and deep emotional connection. And you will eliminate for them (and future generations) a potential source of incredibly toxic control, shame, and guilt. In short, you will replace the tendency to parent by control, manipulation, and guilt with parenting through deep, authentic connection.
- You may lose the somewhat superficial anesthetic that orthodox religion provided you regarding death and the afterlife, but you stand to gain an increased value for life in the present moment – life in the now – which is the only concrete thing you ever really had/have. You will exchange a life possibly wasted on an unknown, unforeseeable future with a life deeply rooted in the present moment.
- Finally, you will most certainly lose a sense of meaning and purpose in your life – as your life’s purpose (as an orthodox member) was to serve the church, and to earn Celestial glory in the hereafter. But what you stand to gain from this loss is the opportunity to develop your own sense of meaning and purpose in your life, and to base your remaining years on activities and endeavors that “give back” to humanity in ways that are deeply fulfilling for you. You exchange a life based on someone else’s constructed sense of meaning and purpose for activities and commitments that you personally choose, that are deeply meaningful and purposeful to you, and to those you care about most.
To conclude, you will certainly lose a great many things in your religious faith transition. It will be deeply painful, and you will mourn it. But in the end, you will gain the most important thing you could ever obtain.
You will gain the rest of your life.