A guest post by Mette Ivie Harrison
My second daughter no longer considers herself a member of the LDS Church.
This isn’t because she hates Mormonism. She had some good experiences growing up as a young woman in the Church—and some bad ones. She struggled with reconciling science and religion, but she also enthusiastically worked on getting the Young Womanhood medallion when she was still twelve years old. She read the entire body of scriptures. She went to seminary for several years.
But ultimately, she said, she did not believe in God. She heard over and over again from others about how they saw the hand of God in their lives and how God heard and answered their prayers. She tried to do the things she was told to do, but she felt nothing. And rather than accept that this was because she was unworthy of God’s love or that she had done something she must repent of, she ultimately gave up a belief in any God at all.
What do Mormons do with those who genuinely experience no spiritual promptings, no connection to anything beyond this world?
I felt this emptiness myself when I went through a faith crisis about ten years ago. I remember going to a church therapist and asking her if I still counted as clinically depressed if I felt fine in every other aspect of my life but simply felt no spirituality at all anymore. She said that I was probably no longer depressed, but she didn’t answer what I should do about the block against all spiritual feeling.
I am still working on building up this aspect of myself, and I admit that I find myself questioning even the small spiritual feelings that I do get. Am I making them up? Do I wish to feel God more than actually feel him?
I honor my daughter’s choice to become an atheist. She has already taught me a lot in her life and I suspect she will teach me still more. I have no sense that she will eventually return to the church, but that’s not required for us to have a loving, deep, committed mother-daughter relationship. I don’t necessarily believe that she has to go through a Mormon endowment ceremony to go to heaven. I’m not so sure about what happens after death myself. When she says that she believes there is nothing there, I don’t argue with her. When I go to the temple with my other children, I don’t see “empty chairs,” as my father-in-law once said. I share something with them that I don’t share with her, but I share other things with her I don’t share with them.
Is there a way that Mormons could be more inclusive of members of our church who don’t feel God’s presence in their lives? Could they be part of church meetings and service projects, speak their own minds, and continue to feel that there is a place for them?
My younger sister who is an atheist is firmly convinced that she has to do something to save the planet right now. She gives money to micro funds worldwide and is extremely environmentally conscious because she does not believe that there is any supernatural force that will save Earth in the future if she doesn’t. I feel strongly that there are many atheists who are deeply moral and that we as Mormons need to acknowledge their views.
I loved Elder Uchtdorf’s talk “Come, Join With Us” and wish that its promise had been more fulfilled in the months since it was given. Secular Mormons have something to say to the rest of us. For example, they could teach us to talk about scriptures as metaphors without always insisting that Noah had an ark that he filled with every animal on earth (when, as my daughter pointed out in the last class she ever attended, not even every kind of beetle that exists today would fit into the ark as specified).
My daughter is not the only Mormon kid who grew up without a sense of spirituality, and plenty of adults experience the absence of God. Stretching our version of Mormonism to include them would be good for all of us. We could learn something about what spirituality really is, and about love and service.
Maybe we need them as much as we think they need us.
Mette Ivie Harrison is a novelist whose whodunit The Bishop’s Wife has earned rave reviews since it was released late last month. She has a PhD from Princeton University and is a nationally ranked triathlete. She is a monthly guest here at Flunking Sainthood (for some of her previous posts, see here and here).