Spirituality Outside Religion


“There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies.
My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.”
Dalai Lama XIV

My religious label used to be a really important part of my identity. Mormon. My sense of self was defined by that distinction, and much of my time was devoted to making sure I was living my life in a way that felt worthy of that title. Disentangling my Self from my Mormonism has been a painful experience over the past year.

The things I was taught about God were wrapped up with the things I was taught about Joseph Smith and the temple and the hundred other facets that make up the Mormon belief system. I was told to pray and listen to the Spirit for confirmation that I was learning truth. I prayed as directed, and felt a warm comforting feeling when I thought about the Book of Mormon. I wrote in detail about that feeling when I was a believer, which you can revisit here. I had that same feeling when I thought about the temple ordinances, Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, Jesus as Christ, and God as my Heavenly Father. All of the times I felt I had learned the truth about something, that “confirming feeling” I had felt the same to me.

Quotes like this one were reiterated in a variety of ways —

“Finally, the Book of Mormon is the keystone of testimony. Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. … But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon be true … then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it.” source

Imagine a basket, filled with dozens and dozens of papers. Each paper has a statement or belief written on it, and all are ideas that came from authority figures in the belief system. One might say “God has a body like us” and another might say “There was no death before the Fall of Adam” and then “Millions of Nephites/Lamanites lived, fought, and died in Ancient America.” Each of these things are presented as unimpeachable truth by the authorities who lead and taught as fact by kind people who are doing the best they can. I took it all in and did my best to read from LDS sources to learn more, praying and pondering along the way to decide if I felt I was heading in the right direction. And then one day I started to read things not directly produced by the LDS Church and I realized that some of the things written on the papers in my basket were patently false. The more I read, the more I realized that my basket was full of lies, guesses, half-truth, hyperbole, and nice ideas that can never be substantiated*. I could never sort through everything and figure out what was right and what was wrong.

I left it all behind and decided to start over. And that is why along with separating from my belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet, or the temple ordinances as necessary for salvation, I also stopped believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ or the existence of God. It has been so devastating to acknowledge and understand the areas where I was deceived that I’m not sure how I will ever find a way to explore those ideas again.

When I told my parents in December of 2012 that I no longer believed, I claimed the title of agnostic. It felt safe, and open-ended. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether I’m an atheist. If I wanted to identify that way I would need to feel certain about something. When I was Mormon, I made lots of proclamations which I felt certain about and I now see how wrong I was. I don’t want to be black and white again when it comes to spiritual beliefs. John Dehlin did an online study of formerly-believing Mormons and 47% of his respondents indicated that they now identify as Agnostic/Atheist/Humanist. His study, combined with the many personal accounts I have encountered, have led me to believe that leaving religion altogether is a very common part of the ex-Mormon experience.

If I felt the need to identify with anything, it would be secular humanism.

“Secular humanists believe that this is the only life of which we have certain knowledge and that we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet.” source 

From now on I want to focus on feeding my soul, and enriching the life experience of those around me. Presently I am doing so absent any organized religion, but I am committed to remaining open to new experiences and approaches over time. Leaving has opened my eyes to a new world of beliefs, discussions, and people I had closed myself off from before. I look forward to growing and expanding throughout the rest of the time I have.
*For an excellent treatment of the problematic Mormon issues, see Letter to a CES Director. As John Dehlin said on Facebook, if you are an individual who has addressed all of these issues and continues to approach Mormonism from the standpoint of a believer I would love to hear more about how you are able to process all of these things.

40 thoughts on “Spirituality Outside Religion

  1. This is a clear and brave post. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the evolution of your spirituality with your readers.

  2. I can tell that years of blogging about religion (Mormonism) have left you well-prepared to write about non-religion, even though these kinds of posts are much harder to write. Gray is always harder to describe than black or white, right? Well done.
    I’m curious, without wanting to be intrusive, about how you and TH are approaching the subject of spirituality with your children? I ask because my husband and I are both “reformed” former observers of black-and-white, no-wiggle-room religions (him, Catholic, me, Pentecostal) that now best describe ourselves as secular humanists. Our oldest child is approaching an age where our indoctrination began and I want to instill the same kind of wonder about spirituality that we had at her age (3ish) but we are really unsure of how to go about it. So far, we have lots of “meadow at sunset” moments in nature and spend some time volunteering to instill a sense of service to others, but I still feel like I’m missing something in her spiritual education. Any suggestions? Anything you guys are doing that feels like it’s hitting the right target, parenting-wise, in that respect but is also age-appropriate for a young child? Thanks!

  3. I’m not a Mormon and was raised in a fairly liberal faith tradition, so my questionings didn’t force me to have to have a major break with tradition or to “come out” as agnostic. I am still raising my kids within the faith of my family, since it has progressive social teachings I support, and I like the sense of ritual. All the same, I have many of the same questions and feelings as you.

    I think it’s important to keep some family rituals that can be akin to religious practice even if they aren’t god-oriented. You could still “pray” before meals to acknowledge those who helped harvest the food, bring it to the store, etc. You could still have bedtime “prayers” thinking of family members who aren’t with you and those in the world who aren’t as fortunate. You could still sing songs and light candles in wintertime, or do some kind of meditative practice, or start every day with a song. You could read a poem for the start of each season. It would just be celebrating different things. You could also teach them about all different kinds of religions so they’ll have a sense of respect for believers.

    Incidentally, I found this site to be interesting–not in the sense that it convinced or converted me, but just because it’s helpful for me to think through why others have the faith that they do. I’ve just read a few testimonies; I think the most interesting ones are from people who live/work primarily in a secular context rather than somewhere like BYU. (I think it’s easier for those in power–often white men–to stay safely within traditions that support the sense of self they have already developed, even if they have doubts. If that religion was not supportive of their choices in work, marriage, child-rearing; if it said they had to give up power at work, home, or church; if it lowered their sense of worth or that of others they cared for…it wouldn’t be so easy to stay.) Here’s one example.


  4. There’s a really great Battlestar Galactica quotation that says agnosticism and atheism are two different questions. Agnosticism asks, “do you know” while atheism asks, “do you believe” – that’s what the Greek words mean.

    I am an atheist and ethical humanist. I agree that the label atheist can be a tough one to wear- and it IS very odd when you think about it. Why would you define yourself by your lack of belief in something that doesn’t exist? You don’t see anyone calling themselves an a”dragon”ist, now do you? But I think it’s important to not be afraid to say you are an atheist because atheists are so demonized in this country. If you look at polls, people would pretty much vote for anyone for president before an atheist. It’s important to show people that atheists are good, normal people.

    Olivia Reply:

    Jenna isn’t saying she is an atheist, though… ?
    Also, your comment “lack of belief in something that doesn’t exist”… it is YOUR belief that this does not exist. The simple truth is that humans will never know until their time on earth is complete. Then what? We will never know or be able to share with living people. Stating that there is factually NO God is no more accurate or incorrect than stating there IS.

    Michelle Reply:

    She says “I also stopped believing in … the existence of God” If you don’t believe in God, you are an atheist. You can argue all you want, but that’s the literal definition of the word. If you’re a German citizen born and raised in Germany, you’re German, and it doesn’t matter if you say you aren’t. I know people are uncomfortable with the word atheist, because it’s often maligned, but she fits the definition by her own words.

    My point is that it’s silly that atheists are defined by what they are NOT. “Non-believers.” I don’t go around calling myself a “non-baseball-player” or “someone who doesn’t believe in unicorns”
    It’s only because we’re a minority group, and non-belief is the only thing that defines us as a group. Maybe someday the world will be much less religious and we won’t need the label atheist anymore. One can only hope.

    Jenna Reply:

    I’m giggling over the idea that I would call myself a “non-tuba player.” Ha! As though the absence of something is the thing that needs to be delineated. It’s really funny when you think about it that way.

    Michelle Reply:

    You could even say “not playing the tuba” is your biggest hobby! You’ve been doing it your whole life! Non stop!

    Steph Reply:

    As a tuba player, I totally think everyone should define themselves as tuba-playing or non! What a great idea :-p I had never thought of it like that, but it makes sense that the category exists because believers frame the discussion. If only tuba had such precedence in human history and the human heart…. :-p

    Great post, Jenna!

    Sher Reply:

    Just a note re: the claim that “atheism asks, ‘do you believe’ – that’s what the Greek words mean.”

    I don’t think the Greek roots of “atheism” are related to belief. Are you sure about that?

    Michelle Reply:

    Yes, I am. I have a BA in classics from a top ranking university. I’m on my phone so I’ll make this brief.
    A means without. gnosis is knowledge. Theos is god. Theism is belief in god. There is also monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, henotheism, etc. You can check them all on wiki if you like.
    Agnostic can describe many things – such as agnostic software platforms. You can be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. You can be a gnostic

    Michelle Reply:

    Phone cut me off. You can be a gnostic atheist or a gnostic theist.
    The suffix ismos is used for doctrines out schools of thought. So theism is the doctrine if God whereas atheism is the doctrine of no gods.

  5. I’m in a similar boat regarding leaving a conservative religion and embracing agnosticism. I have found that the United Church of Christ fills my desire for spiruality and community without requiring me to adopt or pretend to adopt beliefs that I am not comfortable with. They are recognize all levels and types of faith (for example, reading and prayers from the Quran during Islamic holidays) and are socially progressive (LGBT open and affirming, women in leadership, their 9/11 sermon about love across faiths was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard). I don’t attend frequently now, but, if/when I have kids, it’s one way I plan to convey respect for religion and a sense of spirituality.


  6. Very interesting thoughts. As a life-long active member of the Mormon Church, I’ve done a lot of my own research on those topics that always made me tilt my head and wonder, “What the…?” But, for me, I feel like being a member of the Church makes me a better version of myself. Not better than anyone else (especially non-members or non-believers), just a better version of *me*. So, even if I can’t wrap my head around everything, it doesn’t make me blind or ignorant to stay (not that you in any way are claiming that those who stay are blind, I’m just trying to make a point). I feel at my best when I am praying to God, reading the scriptures, and doing service for those around me within my community of congregants – something I’m given many opportunities to do (as an early morning seminary teacher right now, for example. You better believe that even I – a member of the philanthropic community of the Bay Area – would not give over 15+ hours of community service a week on top of my normal 40+ hour a week job without the support and encouragement of the Church – I’m just not that naturally selfless!!) So, what I’m trying to say is, we should always be seeking those things that makes us better versions of ourselves. No matter what they are. And for me, that’s Mormonism.

  7. I am sad for where the lies and teachings have gotten you. I can imagine that this journey has been very painful and I pray you are reaching more of a peaceful stage in this. I am also very sad that it has caused you to no longer belief in Jesus. For me there is so much truth and power there, it is my life and to go from where you were to nothing at all is sad. On the other hand, it’s not you are at ‘nothing at all’, you are seeking and still finding a way in all this. It is my prayer you find truth. Truth without a person or institution but straight from the Almighty to your heart. Much love to you.
    I also hope you hear from Mormons who read what you read and wonder what they have to say. And hope you are allowed to share their perspective. It’d be interesting to hear.

    Jenna Reply:

    That’s a nice idea Hope, to invite a Mormon to post about their own experience with these issues and how they continue to believe.

    Beth Reply:

    I’m saddened that you would through out the word “lies” when talking about another belief system different than your own. I’ve worked my adult life as an LDS person to not vilify or degrade other people’s religions. There are indeed differences of opinion in doctrine and such, but they can be discussed maturely without resorting to referring what others believe as lies. There are many similarities and common purposes we can find with others that believe differently, but that kind of conversation can’t happen if one thinks the other is just being seduced by lies and is inherently wrong for not having your exact belief system.

    Hope Reply:

    I know pretty much nothing about the Mormon faith so what I am doing is recognizing where Jenna is at. She did all the reading, she found she grew up with lies and false teachings and that must be a very hard thing to go through. Regardless of how I feel about her (old) or my or anyone elses faith.

  8. I think it makes a lot of sense to leave organized religion behind altogether when leaving the Mormon church, but on the other hand, I see and miss the benefits of religious community of many (most, close to all?) faith traditions. I love etymology — interesting to learn the difference between atheist and agnostic, and that they are posing questions not necessarily answers. Makes me want to study more!

  9. I have identified as an atheist for my entire adult life…but I also identify as a secular humanist, so I don’t think there’s anything mutually exclusive about those labels. Then again, I have found that throwing around the word “atheist” tends to piss people off, or at least evoke strong (and often misguided) reactions, sort of like the word feminist. So I like identifying as an atheist because I think in a lot of ways I don’t fit the definition of what people picture when they picture an atheist. I think I identify as an atheist rather than an agnostic because there is no doubt in my mind that there is no higher power that created human life and the universe…but at the same time I try to stay open minded about other people’s beliefs (for them, not for me) because I think religion is a deeply personal issue and I don’t like to get involved in other people’s spiritual lives.

    Michelle Reply:

    I agree! That’s what I was saying above. I’m an ethical humanist, but it’s important to identify as an “atheist” to show the world that atheists are good, normal people!

  10. Wow. I have been reading your blog for a long time. I went through a “faith crisis” about 5 years ago (grew up Mormon, went on a mission, married in temple etc. etc.) but as I had children I really looked at what I did or did not want them to be taught (exclusion, mostly). I have been tempted to comment many times, but I do want to tell you how you have beautifully articulated your journey and how it has resonated with my own experience. I have been scared to call myself “atheist” for years but am finally getting over that stigma….
    Have you ever heard Julia Sweeney’s (from SNL) “Letting Go of God”? You can listen to the whole thing on Youtube, it is about 2 hours plus, but it is the story of her faith journey. I listened to it this weekend while cleaning the house and “felt the spirit” Lol.

    Julie Reply:

    How does the LDS church teach exclusion? That’s not been my experience.

  11. In the past few years, I’ve either read the blogs of or personally known a few former Mormons that seemed to follow the exact same path as you. It’s interesting, but it does make me sad. I get the feeling they are so devastated by what they have learned, they only option seems to be a complete 180.

    I understand why you are at where you are at, but I hope you can explore religion and God more later. Don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” just yet. From what I understand, Mormonism is one of the more wholly insulating belief systems out there, though certainly not the only one. It is possible to question what you believe and have your belief system encourage you to do just that–if it doesn’t hold up to the test, then maybe it isn’t the truth. I say this as a Catholic who has a degree in European History (with a strong focus on religion and the Reformation) from a secular university…and I strongly suspect my favorite professors had no religious inclination whatsoever, though I never asked. The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t come out smelling like a rose in that period of history, but I always felt it was important to understand the whole dirty truth and work to understand what happened and what is and is not relevant to what I believe. I think that is why I could never become LDS, though I respect the friends I have that are very much–the historical inconsistencies stopped me before I could even fully understand the belief system.

    May you find more peace in your journey (though I’m honestly hoping this is just one step on the path) 😉

  12. thanks so much for sharing your story. I grew up as a Christian, but then had a spiritual crisis in my early twenties. I went to the extreme of being really against religion, but now I have found an equilibrium and have discovered my own unique spirituality. It took me about seven years, but it finally happened! Religion can be a positive in people’s lives, but it can also be very harmful. There is such a fine line. Much love for your journey!

  13. What a good post to see from you. I’ll admit: I found you through GOMI, but I really like the direction you’re taking your blog. It feels honest, especially your posts about parenting and this one. While I adore my fiance beyond words, I’m kind of terrified of the thought of having children because it seems sooooo hard… Anyway, religion. I’d love it if you did more posts about Mormonism because my future-mother-in-law is Mormon (tho the finace isn’t anymore) and I’m trying hard to understand the religion so I can know where he comes from and how best to interact with her. I know it might be overstepping a boundary, but I’d be really interested to hear what your husband believes currently, and how your marriage is changed (or not) through your personal search.

    tf Reply:

    im not sure an ex mormons blog is the best source to get correct information on the Mormon church. but honestly just be yourself with your future mother in law. no need to put on a different act around her. and when you have questions just ask her im sure she would love to answer them.

  14. this is authentic and honest. thanks for sharing jenna. there’s a lot that i want to say-or think i could write. but i’ll make it short-searching for truth and happiness is what brings us all together-believers, non-believers, old, young, men and women. whether you believe we are all children of god or not-that sense of connection to one another through our common search is stronger than any differences we might have. so i’m sending you cheers and positive thoughts to be successful in your journey. (and i’m praying for you too 😉

    Jenna Reply:

    I hope this comes across the way I intend, because there is no malice in this thought – more people would stay if the church was made up of people like you. xoxoo

    tf Reply:

    i think there are more people like this then you probably think.

  15. I appreciate your thoughts. Though I was born and raised in the LDS church and still practice it and believe in it, I understand it’s not for everyone. My dad is the only member of the LDS church in his family, and maybe that is part of what gives me a different perspective … I know what it is like to love and to be loved regardless of differences in beliefs and practices. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I wish more people could and would live their lives this way. I will admit that I was disappointed to see where your journey has taken you, but when it comes down to it, I believe that we are all children of God and all have good things that we can contribute to the world.

    Growing up, my best friend was not a member of the LDS church, but when it really came down to it, she was probably a better friend for me than a lot of the kids I grew up with in the church. We all have our challenges and differences, but in the end, we need to love and respect each other no matter what.

    I’m not sure where I wanted to go with this … I guess what I really want to express is that no matter what a person believes or how he/she lives his/her life, he/she can still be a good person. The differences in all of us are what makes this world a beautiful place!

  16. I’m really curious about what the experience has been like of leaving behind religious practice. So much of religious identification is behavioral, even when you mentally stopped believing it seems it would take some time to transition into not acting like you believe. Do you have moments where you wake up and think, ‘oh shoot I’m late for church’ and then remember that you don’t go anymore? Was it strange to eat on days when you would have been fasting? As an orthodox person I’m always interested about that transition, when do you get to the point where you aren’t thinking about what you would have been doing and this lifestyle becomes your default instead of your alternative.

  17. I love the comment above clarifying the difference of “do you believe” vs. “do you know.” I believe, but I don’t know without doubt.

    One thing I do know, a cornerstone of Christian faith in evaluating whether something is from God or not is whether it produces this feeling of love, faith, understanding, peace, gentleness, etc. I often separate those into individual things, but it’s really this one feeling of all of these things in one.

    When I look at a majority of what organized religion (of any type) produces, that peaceful love and unity is just not there. It’s divisive. It’s condemning without any grace. It ranks people by race, gender, or sexual orientation. There’s not really any room for people who are struggling. When I attend church, I’m kind of boxed into this image of perfection that isn’t real. I call it brokenness, but really it’s just humanness. I am an animal that acts like an animal in my worst moments.

    When I look at individuals that claim faith, that “fruit” is frequently there. Through volunteerism and good works. Through helping the hurting, and giving of their resources for a better world. There isn’t one religion that lays claim to this type of lifestyle. It can be found in every country and every religion. I don’t know what that means, but I do know my days of thinking that Christianity lays claim to goodness in the world are long gone.

  18. I love your honesty, Jenna. I am having an issue right now with “lies” from religion. Mostly, just from interpretation. I grew up Christian and was constantly singing or learning about different stories like David and Goliath, Noah’s arc etc. thinking they were actual events. When you grow up and find out that much of the bible was actually figurative and not literal, it feels like you’ve been lied to and it’s hard to not question it all. It’s similar, to me, to realizing that Santa and the Easter bunny are not real.

    Jenna Reply:

    I think for those who didn’t believe that the flood was literal, it can be hard for someone to understand why someone like me would feel so devastated by the revelation that the things I was taught as fact are actually stories that people told. How am I supposed to figure out which things are facts and which things are stories?

    liz Reply:

    Exactly. Now you have to go back through and decipher what was meant literally and what wasn’t. And for that matter, was it all just one big story?

    Jenna Reply:

    My conclusion is that it’s all just a story, but I respect that others come to different conclusions. It’s all just much harder to figure out and more complicated than was represented to me as a child. I think that’s what I feel the most frustrated about, I was always told that there was only one answer, and if I didn’t get that answer I wasn’t trying hard enough. I wish the message had been that this was an answer that some reach, but others have found different answers, and I would be loved and accepted no matter what conclusion I came to.

  19. As I left my faith (Judaism with parents who converted to Christianity when I was a very young adult) I found a need to identify as something for a long time. Now 16 years later, with a long marriage and a teenager I discovered for me that what was important was exactly what is summed up in the quote about secular humanism. And it meant I could free myself from the so considerations on whether or not there is actually a god and if that even matters. I can not and will not know. I only know concretely that this life exists, so I must act, absolutely as if this is all.

    I am glad you are finding your place in the world.

  20. Hi Jenna,

    I’ve been a reader of yours for a long time and have followed you on your Spiritual Journey. I, too, have been on a Spiritual journey for a few years now. I was raised Christian (Methodist) and always felt like the whole “believing in God” thing was incredibly forced. For years I considered myself Agnostic and then I married an Atheist. We’ve always been very open about our beliefs about how the world works and where it came from and all that. Through our discussions, I’ve become more and more curious to keep searching. I read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and throughout the whole thing I kept feeling that there has to be something. I didn’t want to refer to “It” as “God” but I felt there was more. I then read “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu and it really spoke to me. I also started getting into the Zen philosophy of Alan Watts and his perspectives have really touched me as well. I think this Spiritual Journey is one that I will be on forever. I hope it never ends because I truly enjoy learning and growing and feeling and understanding. I’d highly recommend The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts as well as watching some of his YouTube videos.

    At this point in my life, I don’t like to put labels on myself. I identify with Taoism in some ways and as a way of life I [almost] completely identify with Rastafari. But for the most part, I’m just someone who is in the process of Awakening.

    All the best in this journey called Life.

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