Since leaving Mormonism I’ve had a lot of requests that I share what sort of belief system and practices our family now espouses, and what now keeps us grounded. People ask for a lot of different reasons. Some are curious because they can’t imagine living without their religion and are afraid for us and our kids. Others I know are curious because they recently left a religion and are in process of rebuilding their foundations and want ideas. Others would like to leave their religion but are scared because they don’t know what alternatives they have and have only been taught one way of doing life. In any case, I’m ready and excited to share where we are at this point—almost exactly one year since we knew that the church was simply no longer a healthy place for us to be, whether part of us still wanted to be there or not.
Although I’m ready to share this post, I do hope people will be sensitive to the fact that when someone goes through a faith transition, their whole world has fallen apart. They may need some time to get their bearings and rebuild before you start demanding all the answers from them. There are phases that must be passed through. Please also keep in mind and be respectful of the fact that people often face severe social, familial, or marital, or economic consequences if they dare speak about any of these issues publicly. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been fearful about these kinds of consequences of “coming out of the closet,” but have felt that it is something I needed to do.
With that intro, we’ll dive into some of the practices our family has turned to since leaving Mormonism. Keep in mind that this is just what is working for us, and I understand that what works for others may be different. The basic idea is simple. It has been to take with us the positive habits we’ve gained from religion and Mormonism (sometimes newly re-invented or adapted), while adding helpful new perspectives, and letting go of the aspects that were either harmful or just no longer helpful.
OUR NEW FOUNDATIONAL “DOCTRINE” OR “CREED”
When my cherished faith that had formed my entire worldview and even my personal identity crumbled before my eyes I found myself looking at all the pieces on the ground and asking myself what parts of it were really “true.” I wanted a new foundation to build on. What did I truly still “believe” in? What could I still in good conscience and with full confidence “testify” about to my kids?
For me, the answer is a set of “values” that I’ll identify momentarily. I’ve come to believe that values were the real secret sauce all along. I’ve found that whether or not there is a divine being or an afterlife, I still believe in a set of basic values. I didn’t need religious packaging in order to believe in them. I believed in them and felt I could “sell” them to my kids on their own merit for two reasons: 1) Because they just inherently and objectively can be shown to make individuals happier, healthier, safer, more content, more fulfilled, more safe, etc. And 2) Because they make this world the kind of place we all actually want to live in together. If my existing values couldn’t be defended in those ways, then they were open to re-evaluation.
There are huge advantages to selling or “converting” people to values without putting them in religious packaging. The moment you put values in religious packaging, you limit the reach of your goodness. The goodness you have to offer can now only fully reach those who can assent to the religious dogma they are wrapped in–and trying to get the whole world to believe your religious dogma is just not going to happen. For example, much of the goodness in Mormonism will only ever reach a small set of humans because most will simply never accept Joseph Smith as God’s prophet. If the goal is simply to make the world better, then that is objectively a less effective approach. It’s a harder sell than simply selling values themselves!
In contrast, in his book Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama argues that if we make common values (which he calls “secular values” rather than religiously based values) our focus, then our goodness can reach people without limits! It can even reach into schools! And he demonstrates this perfectly as his messages are cherished by and influence people of all faiths, and even people who have no faith. He doesn’t spend any time trying to “convert” people to his religion, or even to theism. Rather, his focus is always on converting people to values, and as a result his messages have broad reach. He has not let his religion become his religion (no, that’s not a typo).
The countless hours that I used to spend “converting” my kids to various institutional or religious truth claims that seemed so important at the time are now instead dedicated to teaching and “converting” my kids to the values–and helping them see that they do in fact have inherent “value.” And if there is a God, isn’t that what this being would want? People who are converted to and have internalized the values themselves rather than simply acting out of either fear or expected reward? Ultimately, I don’t want children who simply obey a set of rules due to external motivations (fear of punishment, praise of others). Rather, I want children who are internally motivated and equipped to make their own decisions about the situations they face; children who don’t need a detailed set of rules to follow because they have developed and maintained focus on the virtues that lie behind the rules, and thus can adapt them in flexible ways to different circumstances and situations; children who can enjoy the greater personal growth and satisfaction that comes from having our actions be internally motivated and executed; children who not only “act” in virtuous ways, but have “become” virtuous people.
There are of course countless ways each individual or family could organize their own set of values. The core foundation I fell back on was the set of four principles that some ancient thinkers came to call the “Cardinal Virtues” (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude), as well as the virtue of Love/Altruism/Compassion. I’d first learned about the cardinal virtues in CS Lewis’ writings in his book “Mere Christianity” (HERE), but have since learned that these are also the core virtues taught in the philosophy of Stoicism (sometimes seen as Wisdom, Moderation, Justice, and Courage). The word “cardinal” is related to the Latin word for “hinge”—as in, everything else “hinges” on or can be traced back to these four “Cardinal Virtues” that basically everyone agrees on. C.S. Lewis proposed adding what he called the “theological virtues” of Faith, Hope, and Love to the cardinal virtues. Some may find that helpful but my preference was to just go with Love or Altruism or Compassion which in my view should be considered a cardinal virtue. In any case, Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, and Love/Compassion/Altruism became my rock when all else fell apart.
Includes things like self-control, moderation, patience, discipline, restraint, and finding the proper balance in all things.
Includes things like foresight, wisdom, good judgement and decision making, knowledge, thoughtfulness, tact, curiosity, and healthy skepticism.
Includes things like basic fairness, awareness of others, honesty, reliability, responsibility, trustworthiness, and integrity.
Includes things like courage (moral, mental, or physical), hard work, persistence, perseverance, strength, determination, endurance, confidence, and dedication.
Includes things like kindness, compassion, caring, service, generosity, selflessness, friendship, gratitude, tolerance, consideration, respect, forgiveness, mercy, gentleness, helpfulness, unity, courtesy, and humility, and alleviation of suffering.
Maybe we can think of some other values and virtues that don’t fit perfectly into those categories, but I think we’ll agree that those core virtues cover a lot of ground, and give a pretty solid foundation to start from.
As we’ve taught our kids these foundational virtues, and they’ve become familiar with this new terminology, it has become common to hear them referenced in our daily lives. For example, as we read a book, we can say “how did this character show prudence.” Or, when a child was struggling with tough homework we can reference fortitude. When a child sleights another, we can ask if they are being just, and so on. We hope to foster these virtues by consistently reading and discussing inspiring stories and examples of people (real or fictional) who demonstrate these virtues; by developing a habit of consistently using these virtues as a measure of our personal choices; and by doing things that help to build these virtues in us.
Some recent comments from the Dalai Lama:
“The first of my personal commitments is to work to increase human happiness by encouraging the cultivation of inner values and a sense of concern for others’ well being. These are the key factors to make us happy whether we are religious or not.”
“The time has come to take concrete steps to bring about a real transformation in the ways we educate our future generations. We need to combine both an education of the mind with an education of the heart so that our children grow up as responsible, caring citizens equipped to meet the challenges of today’s increasingly globalized world.”
I believe in actively instilling virtues in ourselves and our children together as a society. Although we may interpret or apply them in different ways, I think humanity would do well to adopt and teach a common set of virtues on which basically everyone can agree. In my view, temperance, prudence, justice, fortitude, and compassion would be a good place to start. It is these things I’d like to see people “converted” to.
OUR NEW SCRIPTURE
I’ve begun to discuss my changed views of LDS “scripture” in other posts on this site. Suffice it to say that I was in need of some new scripture. It has really been a beautiful thing. Anything that inspires us to be better or models virtues and values we hold dear can become our scripture. It could be fiction–like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Harry Potter. Or it can be about the inspiring stories of real people. Anything we can draw lessons from. But whatever our scripture happens to be, we have held on to the habit of reading with the kids every night before bed, and trying to draw life lessons from the various texts. I’ll share a few of our favorites from the past year.
I’ve really enjoyed becoming re-acquainted with the old “Value Tales” series that I had as a kid. The series explores (in a kid friendly way) the lives of real people like Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, and Marie Curie, and uses their lives to introduce values such as “Determination,” “Helping,” and “Learning.” When we read from these we typically do about 15 pages a night before bed, and discuss that particular value throughout the week. It is powerful to hear the stories and struggles of real people, and for our kids to get new perspectives about the world through them.
Another series we recently went through is one by Joy Berry that addresses various behaviors such as “whining,” “being messy,” “being forgetful,” or “being a bad sport.” The kids enjoy choosing a character and reading their parts in the dialogue. We’ve also found some other books similar to these at the local library. Sometimes about various virtues. Sometimes about important life skills. As the kids get older we will shift our choices accordingly–probably turn to some classic novels or other inspiring works, but we plan to maintain the habit of learning and being inspired by books and narratives together as a family.
OUR NEW “FAMILY HOME EVENINGS”
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about here, the LDS church has long asked its members to set aside one night a week as a family night. Sometimes just a fun activity together. Often including family planning or a lesson. It’s another valuable habit, so we have continued it.
Maria paid the one time fee to have access to ValuesParenting.com which has been a nice resource. There is a “value” that is focused on each month, and lesson resources available to work from. This past month was “courage.”
I tend to use a lot of youtube videos. Probably partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I find them effective. In my last lesson on courage, since our oldest is into Harry Potter, we discussed how Gryffindors are distinguished by their courage, watched the scene where Harry jumps on the Troll’s back, and discussed these other examples of courage from Harry Potter outlined HERE. We then picked a few real life examples from this list HERE. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a particularly potent one.
Below are some other examples of family night lessons we’ve done that you could use if you have young kids. Again, I’ll often use a youtube video in there to get their attention, and I often pull out the guitar and we sing a song that relates (I may cry if they get old enough that they don’t think this is cool anymore). Our version of Hymns I suppose. In a few cases we found Karaoke/Lyric videos on youtube for the songs.
Video HERE. We sang “Another Man’s Shoes” by Drew Holcomb.
COURAGE/DOING THE RIGHT THING:
We circle back to this one often, so here are a bunch…
Video HERE. We sang “Nothing More” by the Alternate Routes.
Video HERE. We sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Video HERE. We sang “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers.
Video HERE. We sang “Brother” by Needtobreathe.
Video HERE. We sang “Washed By The Water” by Needtobreathe.
You get the idea. Family nights are alive and well. In fact, I’d say they’re better than ever.
OUR NEW RITUALS
Whether we are religious or not, I believe ritual is important for us! It can ground us. It can help us to maintain positive habits that benefit us. It can help us appropriately celebrate or mark life events. It can just add peace and predictability to our lives. Keep what works. Dump or alter what doesn’t. Invent your own helpful rituals.
I’ve found that the benefits I gained from prayer can be found by simply having a meditation/mindfulness practice that involves setting intentions for the day, and taking some time to list things I’m grateful for. My kids already do quite a bit of this.
Instead of family prayer to start a meal we’ve taken turns sharing something about our day.
As noted above, we saw no reason we couldn’t keep the “Family Home Evening” ritual with our young kids.
As noted above, you can now choose anything you want as your family’s “scripture” and could still choose to read something together every day or every week or month if you miss doing family scripture study.
We’ve found that the time spent as a family at church each week could now be spent identifying some other activity to do together as a family. Sometimes it’s just a hike or bike ride together with good conversations with the kids. Sometimes instead of a talk or sermon we watch a TED talk together or listen to a podcast together in the car (Kind World has been a favorite). Sometimes we play music together. Sometimes a meal. Maybe watch a movie together that includes good life lessons or demonstrates our family values.
We’ve imagined inventing our own family “rites of passage” at various ages.
Religious holidays can even be reinvented in the spirit of “Festivus” (Seinfeld episode if you haven’t seen it).
Perhaps you still want to have your own sort of weekly “communion” or “sacrament meeting” where you actively let go of your mistakes and shortcomings and look toward the new week. Perhaps your morning coffee is your new bread and wine?
Miss paying tithing? Find a new charity. (less than 0.5% of the LDS church’s income (at least 8 billion per year was estimated even before we knew about their literal 100 billion dollar investment fund) goes to anyone outside the church which includes maybe 5 million active members, so there are lots of opportunities to do good).
You get the idea. I do believe very much in the value of ritual. I’ve found no need to dump that just because I left my religion. Just a need to establish new ones.
OUR NEW COMMUNITY
I wont sugar coat it. Community is the one thing that I have found hard to replace after leaving Mormonism and religion. Hard to replace in the same way at least. I believe community can be developed again but it takes a bit more work, and I don’t expect any community will ever replicate all the unique aspects of Mormon community. But that’s okay and to be expected. The upside is that I now feel that my connections and friendships are capable of being deeper and more authentic than they’ve ever been before. I no longer feel a need to fit myself into the Mormon priesthood mold that is prescribed for everyone, so I now feel free to be myself, and being myself means attracting people to me who appreciate exactly what I am and as I am. I may never again have a large instant community anywhere I go, but I now know deeper and more authentic friendships than I’ve had before. I think focusing on just finding one or two friends like that is a good start.
For those seeking new community I would suggest that it may take more work and effort. Community wont fall into your lap like it does in Mormonism. It may take effort. It may take finding “meetup” groups in line with your interests. It may require taking more initiative and better communication than was ever required before.
I do have interest in some sort of “secular church” or “values church” and wonder if it’s something that could catch on if done right. I imagine a group that meets with the intent to simply inspire the various values I mentioned elsewhere here, but without any religious dogma. A group that uses any good literature or film as scripture. Fictional or historical. Anything that helps inspire those values in us. I imagine the use of inspiring but not religious based music. I imagine the use of multimedia. The goal would just be to leave feeling inspired to strengthen some shared secular value. I know some have tried some similar things (Community of Good, Oasis Church, etc), but not sure if they were quite what i envision. In any case, I do feel that one valuable thing about religion has been the way it brings people together to encourage shared values, and as more and more people leave religion I wonder if something like this might be of interest to people if it was done well.
OUR NEW PERSPECTIVES
Many of these perspectives I would say run directly counter to those I used to maintain:
Uncertainty is awesome. We don’t have to have all the answers to everything, and pretending we do when we don’t can be harmful. There’s a good TED talk about “possibilianism” that I adore. Some things we know. Some we can only speculate about and assign various degrees of probability to. There’s something beautiful about having a mind open to different possibilities in cases where we really don’t know for sure. Embrace the fact that some things are mystery. As Brene Brown has said, “Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you’ve got all the answers, then don’t call what you do faith.” Or as Belle says in Beauty and the Beast: “I was innocent and certain; now I’m wiser and unsure.”
Heaven is now. Don’t delay happiness for some imagined future life. Don’t fall into “The Happiness Trap.”
The sky is not perpetually falling. Yes we have our problems, but for most people the world is so much better now than it was even 50 years ago. I think that’s a lot easier to see when you’re not a white, straight, cis male.
Secularism is not scary. It is and should be an ally–even for religious people who’ve benefited greatly from it. Many of society’s greatest moral advances in the past century came not because of religion, but in spite of religion. Civil rights. Gay rights. Women’s rights via the ERA. All of these were opposed by my childhood faith. Many of our greatest scientific advancements have come not because of religion, but in spite of it. Secularism is not and never was the enemy. An apathy toward the values I identified earlier is the real enemy. If you really want to change the world, stop focusing on the wrong enemy and looking for imaginary scapegoats. Both religious and non-religious have given us plenty of examples of barbaric behavior. The real enemy is an apathy toward and lack of focus on basic values we could all agree on. Denmark, Sweden, and Japan show that secular societies can get along just fine. It’s not about theism. It’s about values.
There is still so much to be in absolute awe about even without any active theism. Evolutionary awe. Cosmic awe. It took something like 13.7 billion years of processes to let you be here right now! Resulting in at least 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, with a single galaxy such as ours likely having 10’s of billions of solar systems, one of which contains our earth. Our earth is something like 4.6 billion years old. Think of all the sometimes brutal evolution that had to happen for us to live here and now. I think I respect life more now than I ever did. I think I view life as an even greater miracle and want even more to fiercely defend it (and the planet) now that I don’t have any expectation of an afterlife.
Embracing impermanence is life changing. Buddhism taught me this. Mormonism tries to make a lot of things last forever. Expecting everything to last forever creates un-necessary suffering. Better to know that all things can have an end. That sometimes it’s better for things to have an end. To be deeply involved with life but not too attached to it. To know that it can change at any moment, and to be like water and flow with it prevents a great deal of suffering that we create for ourselves. By closing ourselves off to change we often close ourselves off to growth.
I now view morality not based on gods or devils but based on what 1) Can be objectively shown to make individuals more content, more fulfilled, more safe, more productive, etc, and 2) What values, if agreed upon by all, can make the world the kind of place we all actually want to live in together. Evolution has put instincts into us that in the past aided our survival. Sometimes they’re still helpful. Sometimes they’re not. We can choose which ones to feed and which ones to control. As uniquely sentient beings with so many resources available to us, we can choose to evolve and focus on the instincts in us that build each other up and support each other. Or we can choose to feed the instincts in us that promote tribalism and competition and aggression. I believe we’ll all be objectively better off if we choose to promote the former.
While some claim that without God there are no objective values, I feel that religious values are no more objective and no more unchanging than anyone else’s. The history of the world demonstrates over and over that the morality of religious folks changes as much as anyone else’s. In fact, it demonstrates that people often form their conceptions of God around their already existing morality and prejudices, and not the other way around. If I am prejudiced toward people of color, then my God just happens to be as well. If I think women should be subordinate, then so does my God. If I think we should stone people for breaking various laws, then my God does too. If I think non-believers should be the victims of acts of terror, then my God does as well. If I think God wants us to sacrifice humans to him on an altar, then my God does as well. We don’t even have to look beyond the Bible to find all of these things. Theism clearly does not automatically bring about moral behavior! From my perspective, the morality of religious people is every bit as “relative” and subject to change as anyone elses. It’s simply “relative” to whatever man they view as speaking God’s will, or whatever book they believe speaks God’s word, and whatever interpretation of it happens to be popular at the time. Thus the need to look for objective reasons for our moral positions and values, and to be willing to question dogma of the past. I feel that my standards of identifying my values are far more objective than simply appealing to the words of ancient men in an old book or old men in Salt Lake City and calling the discussion over–especially when those ancient words include absolute barbarism (claims that God approved of slavery, sexual slavery, genocide, stoning people to death for minor offenses, buying and selling women and identifying women as inferior, etc, etc). Although I recognize the role religion can play in preserving and encouraging good values (and sometimes bad ones), it’s fair to note that theism does not automatically bring good values. That’s still up to us.
OUR NEW END GAME
My end game is to be awesome. To be a good man. To live a great life. To have a great family and be good to them. To raise great kids. To make the world better. To lift others up and ease suffering. To learn and seek truth. To develop charity, temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. To be present and intentional in each day–and not continually delay happiness for some future date (or afterlife). To be able to say on my deathbed that I tried to live a life authentic to myself, and not being ruled by fear or by the expectations of others. All of that truly is my end game–not because it’s what is expected of me by any outside force, but because it’s what I want to do, and what I believe will bring a happy and fulfilling life both for me and others.
If there is an afterlife, it could be an awesome added bonus to this already incredible spinning ball that we’ve had the already incredible good fortune of living on as human beings. If there’s not, then I kinda still hit the jackpot to get to ride this ride–especially at THIS time in history rather than so many other far more difficult times and circumstances I could have lived in. If there is some divine judgment based on my heart, my desires, my efforts to improve myself and live an honorable life, and the way I try to treat other people, I have no doubt that I’m headed the right direction (despite my many faults). Given all that I’ve learned, I no longer have any fear in me that I or my family will either face punishment or be denied blessings from a divine being because I am no longer part of the .061% of people currently on this earth who attend Mormon church at least once a month and dedicate huge portions of their lives to that institution (often to the detriment of more important things). If I’m being honest, if there is a God, I think he would give me a high five for fearlessly seeking truth rather than protecting dogma, and for managing to see a beautiful and inspiring new world outside the box I was in.
“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.”