Last weekend, I spoke at the annual ExMormon Foundation Conference. The organization supports those who have left, or been excommunicated from, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “ExMo” conference is always held in “Mormon central,” or Salt Lake City. Many attendees came from Utah but I met people from all over the US.
The youngest attendee was a twenty-one-year-old man named Austin, a college undergraduate studying cognitive neuroscience in Houston, Texas. Austin grew up in the LDS Church and was an absolute believer until he entered his teenage years. When he was sixteen, he summoned up the courage to tell his parents that he could no longer believe Mormon doctrines. Despite the church’s proclamations about the importance of supportive families, Austin’s parents did what many Mormons do when a relative no longer believes—they emotionally disowned him.
I asked Austin about his story, which is one of both tragedy and hope.
HEIMLICH: What was it like for you growing up in the LDS Church?
AUSTIN: There was a lot of emphasis placed on living the commandments of Mormon doctrine and following the teachings of the prophet. Central to those ideas is serving a two-year mission (for men), to get married in the temple, and to have many children. These ideas were taught for as long as I can remember. To satisfy these goals, we had to adhere to strict moral guidelines. For example, drinking either coffee or tea is verboten. There is also a lot of sexual shaming in the church, such that members are taught to avoid sexual urges at all costs.
I seemed to take those teachings a lot more seriously than the other Mormons around me. I genuinely believed in following the scriptures of the church, and I felt a profound sense of guilt when I broke even a small rule. This became especially traumatic when I was going through puberty. Essentially, I was genuinely terrified of being attracted to a girl because I thought that attraction was the first step on the slippery slope to “sexual sin.” Even though I no longer believe in sexual sin today, that fear is something I still struggle with.
HEIMLICH: Did family life center around the church? How would you describe your parents’ religiosity and how did that affect how they interacted with you and your siblings?
AUSTIN: The church played a significant and central role in my family life. My father served in the local church leadership, as did my mother. I always thought that my mother was much more religious than my father, as she would always make time for the church, whereas he was slightly more distant from it. Since my mother was the one homeschooling us, she was always sure that we maintained a proper standing in the church, morally and spiritually. She always made sure that we completed the little “milestones,” such as “Gospel in Action and Duty to God.” This milestone requires children to memorize scriptures, the LDS articles of faith, and a few other things, while teenage men must perform community service and reach out to youth who are not very active in the church.
HEIMLICH: Were both your parents very devout believers?
AUSTIN: I think if it weren’t for my mother’s intense involvement in the church my father wouldn’t have been involved in the church at all. But even he went along with the church’s expectations of children. For example, perfection is something that is heavily emphasized in Mormonism, since the end goal is to become as perfect in this life as possible so that believers can then be fully “perfected” in the next. This belief of the afterlife actually affected my life as a child, because if I slacked off on doing chores, completing schoolwork, working in my Boy Scout group, or carrying out church-related activities, my parents would deride me and tell me that I was irresponsible, while ignoring past instances of when I successfully accomplished my tasks. It was as if I could do no good. To this day, I struggle with the belief that I am not living up to some unrealistic standard.
HEIMLICH: How young were you when you began to question whether what you were being taught about the belief system was the truth? Was there a pivotal moment in your life when you realized that you didn’t believe any of it or was it more like a slow drip-drip of doubt?
AUSTIN: My parents and I had a really close relationship until I stopped believing. I actually found myself questioning the teachings of the Mormon Church accidentally. I was about thirteen or fourteen and spending a lot of time on the Internet arguing with people on discussion boards about politics and other things. Inevitably, the subject would turn to religion and Mormonism came up. People were attacking the church that I believed in. I was determined to prove them wrong, so I ended up researching the history of the church. I didn’t realize that my search for “the truth” would end up proving myself wrong. When I stopped believing in Mormon theology, I was terrified of my family finding out. Given their emphasis on perfection, I didn’t think they would take it well, so I ended up hiding my true beliefs from them for the next two years. As these years passed, I grew more distant from my family.
HEIMLICH: When you were sixteen years old, you decided to be honest with your parents and let them know your feelings about the church’s teachings. That must have been a very vulnerable moment for you. How did they react? Did their reaction surprise you?
AUSTIN: When I was preparing myself to tell my parents that I no longer believed in the church’s teachings, I didn’t expect them to react well, but I was completely unprepared for the way they did react. I wanted to tell my mother first, since I felt I could better predict her reaction. She was absolutely shocked when I told her and asked me how I felt I could still be a good person without believing in the church. Later that week, both of my parents confronted me. My mother accused me of practicing satanic rituals, and they both told me that they would no longer love me nor consider me a part of their family if I didn’t believe in Mormonism. They also told me that I had to stay away from my siblings and ordered me to remain confined to my room. I obeyed, not wanting to further inflame the situation.
HEIMLICH: I can’t imagine what that must have been like, isolated in your room, knowing that your parents didn’t want to have anything to do with you.
AUSTIN: The situation was so traumatic, I can’t even remember just how many days it went on for. It could have been a week or two, but I honestly don’t have a sense of time for those moments. I was so incredibly shocked, so hurt, I didn’t know what to say. There I was, sixteen years old, hearing my parents plainly state that their love for me was conditional—that it hinged on me completely adopting their beliefs. After a while, I couldn’t withstand the pressure any longer, so I decided to lie to my family and pretend that I had renewed my faith in Mormonism. I lived this double life until I was eighteen.
HEIMLICH: You left home right after you graduated from high school. What was life like for you once you were on the outside?
AUSTIN: Life on the outside was both difficult and freeing. It was difficult because I had just left my home, my younger siblings who I love, and everything I was familiar with. My parents also did everything in their power to prevent me from leaving successfully, such as trying to alienate me from my friends outside the church by threatening to sue them. Fortunately, I did find some very good, caring, and generous people who were willing to look out for my wellbeing and who found a home for me. I maintained contact with my family via email for the next two years, but my parents were so verbally caustic that I had to cease contact.
Life on the outside has been freeing, because I can now live my life without the constraints of Mormonism. I can now live my life honestly and authentically. Despite the pain that I went through after leaving home, the past three years have been the happiest I have ever experienced. I have wonderful friends who accept me for who I am—unconditionally. There are still many wounds left to heal, but each year my life gets better.
HEIMLICH: How much do you attribute church teachings to the way your parents treated you when they found out you were not a believer? I wonder if some Mormons reading this will say, “His parents were not ‘true’ believers. No ‘real’ Mormon parents would do that to their offspring.”
AUSTIN: The Mormon Church implicitly and explicitly encourages Mormon families to alienate relatives who no longer believe. There are also similar messages about not doing so. Mormon doctrines are so contradictory that a member can take either a hardline stance or a fairly relaxed one and still feel devout, so I think the “true believer” label is a bit of a misnomer. Interestingly, I heard through the grapevine that some of the Mormons who knew my parents thought that their response to me leaving home was cruel. But I think these reactions are made at an individual level. How a given family responds depends on which parts of Mormon doctrine they listen to and take seriously. For example, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of ex-Mormons whose families have treated them with kindness. But I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting an even greater number of ex-Mormons whose families treated them horribly.
HEIMLICH: What kind of relationship (if any) do you have with your parents or other family members?
AUSTIN: My parents saw to it that I didn’t have a relationship with family members or friends by lying to them about why I left. For example, my parents said I left home because I was jealous of my younger siblings, or that I wanted to prove to everyone “how much of a man” I was. The last one particularly surprised me since the only thing I left with was a backpack filled with clothes and a duffle bag of books. I am hopeful though that I will one day reconnect with all of my siblings.
HEIMLICH: What kinds of changes do you think need to happen in the LDS Church to prevent other kids who have doubts or flat out don’t believe in the doctrines from suffering the same kind rejection from their parents and other difficulties? Or do you think that all religious organizations should be done away with?
AUSTIN: That’s a tricky question because of how conflicting a lot of Mormon teachings are. On one hand, the Mormon Church claims that it’s all about strengthening families. But on the other hand, Mormons who want to be considered worthy of entering the temple must state that they do not associate with “apostates” and that includes apostate family members. So, aside from a significant shift in doctrine and culture, I don’t think there is much that can be done to prevent others who leave the church from having similar experiences. I do think that religious organizations provide important social utilities, such as community and group identity, but I don’t think that theology is necessary to provide such benefits. I think that any tightly knit social organization can provide the same benefits that religious organizations do. And if they can do that without dogma and zealotry, all the better.
Are you someone who feels lost after having left or been rejected by the LDS community? Or are you still in the church and looking for a way out? If so, here are websites that offer support:
And feel free to join my closed Child-Friendly Faith Facebook group.