This is a paper I wrote for a course called Writing for Social Change in 2019, then presented at the Utah Valley University Conference on Writing for Social Change in March 2020.
It’s 6:00 in the morning and still dark outside. The tiny white chair I’m sitting in feels like I’m perching on a wood fence, and ceramic tile radiates cold under my feet—both of which are probably good things because I’m so tired that otherwise I’d fall asleep. The year is 2002; I’m a senior in high school, sitting in my early morning seminary class, and I’m about to take the first hit to my Mormon belief system.
Sister Paulson is explaining the special names Mormons receive when they go to the temple for the first time. To give us an example of faith from her own life, she tells us with her trademark cheerful enthusiasm that her husband knows her name, but she’s never allowed to know his. Ever. I feel this like a punch in the gut. Something like dread or shame floods my whole body, and for a minute I think I might throw up. I’ll struggle with this information many times over the next several years, unable to comprehend why it bothers me so much, why I can’t get on board with something so important and sacred as the temple ceremonies. I know it can only be a lack of faith on my part, and for years I fight my own mediocrity to try and gain the perspective I need.
It’s 2008, and I am twenty-two years old. I’ll be getting married in two months; in just a few more than that, the foundation of my life is going to start dissolving under my feet. For now I sit in my half of the bedroom, back against my pillow, my laptop on my thighs. As I write on my blog, feminism is dawning on me.
It’s been coming on for a long time, but my new political exploration is the catalyst which kicks it off in earnest. This is the first campaign season I’ve ever followed, and I’m coming to it in near-total political ignorance; my family never talked politics growing up, so my only ideas about it are those I’ve absorbed passively through the culture around me.
My friends and I have been blogging for over a year now. We respond to each other’s posts, carrying on extensive conversations in the comment sections. I don’t know it yet, but we’re your typical conservative Christians: pro-patriarchy, anti-homosexuality, anti-separation of church and state (though we wouldn’t put it in those terms). Although this kind of political and philosophical exploration is new to me, none of it remotely questions my faith—in fact, it’s because of my Mormon beliefs that I find these new liberal ideas of social justice so intriguing. And yet because of this, I’m about to be publicly declared an enemy by some of my best friends.
In April BYU updates its Honor Code policy regarding gay students, saying they won’t be kicked out just for being gay, only if they act on it. My friend Drake has made a name for himself by having “repented” of homosexuality, and he is enraged by this capitulation to “political correctness” on the part of the Lord’s University. Seeing his distress, mutual friend Melissa and I comment to say that we don’t think BYU is saying they’re “in favor of homosexuality,” as Drake put it in his post (called “David vs. Goliath”)—they only mean that you won’t be kicked out simply for struggling, which we think is very compassionate. Drake and his sister, our roommate Lisa, are shocked by these opinions.
Two days and several uncomfortable conversations later, Drake writes a post about how people he “thought were friends and allies” have “suddenly turned on him” with “hatred and intolerance.” Now I am shocked, because I have certainly not turned on my friend. As if she’s attempting to be as hurtful as possible, Lisa asks me when I became an “anti-Drake activist.” This is the first time I’ve encountered absolutism directed toward me, and it’s as bewildering as it is upsetting. Because I have thoughts on Drake’s post rather than fully agreeing with him, because I won’t blindly condemn BYU’s update to the policy, two of my close friends literally declare me their enemy. It takes at least a couple years before I can think of either of them without breaking down.
At the end of 2011 I start a new blog, which I name after Emma Smith’s words: “I desire the spirit of God to know and understand myself[.] I desire a fruitful, active mind, that I may be able to comprehend the designs of God, when revealed through his servants without doubting.” My political exploration of the last four years has led me to the realization that most of the people I know are very uncomfortable with questioning, even on non-religious subjects; I’ve had multiple traumatic experiences with friends and family members calling me “anti-Mormon,” telling me I’m “immoral,” and unfriending me on social media. But I have started to notice—partly because of their behavior toward me—that there are some things about my worldview that I need to work out. So I keep writing.
The next two years feel like running downhill, as my beliefs continue to morph in response to the philosophical exploration I’m doing. I get deeply involved in politics and the online Mormon feminist community; I spend the vast majority of my time reading, thinking, or talking about the intersections of feminism, politics, class, race, and religion. Every few days, it seems, I learn about an injustice or oppression I’d never known could exist. I spend countless hours discussing these topics, not to mention fighting misogynistic internet trolls. I begin to realize that, while I was taught some good values growing up, the behaviors associated with those values were not what I’d been told.
These are golden years, in a way. They’re traumatic years, too, in which I lose not just my friendships and community and the entire structure of my life, but the faith that was deeply personal to me. I cry, a lot. I agonize over my online posts and comments, checking and rechecking to be sure I haven’t said anything offensive or incorrect. But at the same time, this kind of intellectual community is something I’ve always wanted, and I’ll spend most of my time trying to replace it once I no longer feel I can participate in a religious group—which is something that happens, actually, within two years.
Starting out in 2008, the only thing I intended was to watch the presidential debates, like the new adult I’d recently become. But this turned out to be a crack in the dam holding back the flood of who I really was, in contrast to the person I’d been raised to be. Because I started thinking about politics and feminism, I began to see that my religion required shutting off certain parts of my brain. I saw that questioning was not welcomed, and I felt that this was wrong. Most importantly, I saw that claiming to follow Jesus Christ was not an indication that someone would be committed to social justice; in fact, it was much more likely to be the opposite. The contradictions inherent in conservative Christian culture led me away from everything I’d ever believed. Instead of worrying about sleeve length and what people were drinking, I now worried about dismantling the racist, misogynist, ableist, classist structures which keep the vast majority of people in the entire world living in misery.
When people say that no one ever changes their mind, they really mean that they are unwilling to change their own minds. Because of the metamorphosis my beliefs have gone through, I know that people do change their minds. I know that if we want to commit to social justice, we must be willing to change our minds—and to challenge inequality wherever we find it, no matter how sacred the place.
The world is slowly becoming more secular, and I honestly think that’s one of the best things that can happen for all humanity’s sake (not to mention the rest of the planet). The belief that “God will sort things out in the next life” prevents people from doing what they can to fix things in this one. The belief that “God has ordained things” in a certain way closes people’s minds to what actually exists in the world. The idea of faith teaches people that it’s virtuous to believe something for no reason, and actually in spite of evidence against it. Religious thinking is both the problem and the thing that prevents us from fixing the problem.
Up until the last few decades, it’s been nearly impossible to even discuss that idea without having your life destroyed, if not taken away. Now that we can talk about it, I think it’s important that we do. Losing my religion was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I can say with certainty that I’m a better person as an atheist than I was as a Christian. Some people will always be terrible, with religion or without it. But the more people who take conscious, thoughtful steps away from religion, the better off we will all be.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky said, I believe that we are all, individually and collectively, responsible for becoming more ethical than the society we grew up in. Waking up is desperately hard to do, but the process of coming to consciousness is worth the pain of seeing the world for what it really is.