My wife and I, and our young child, have just recently moved across the country for a new job. We've used this as an opportunity to quit church altogether. I hadn't been attending much anyway, but my wife was attending most of the time because she had some friends in the ward. Now that we are here, we will no longer attend the LDS church. Our young son would have just been entering primary, so this was a very convenient time. We won't have to unplug ourselves from the ward, and there will be no close ward friends or leaders to have awkward conversations with. This severance of church participation, however, brings us unavoidably to the largest hurdle in the process: telling our extended family.
There just isn't a viable way to keep it a secret from them. I've heard more than once the question, "Why do you have to tell them? Why do they need to know?" There is a part of me that would love for this to be a secret from them. After all, what business is it of theirs whether I believe in the same myths that they do? Why can't we just get on with our lives and enjoy the tangible relationships we have while we're here? The answer is that the church is so much more than just a set of beliefs to them. The church is their way of life. Every week the family gets an email update from my mom about the goings on at home (I have many younger siblings, and most of them are still dependent on my parents). About 50-70% of each email is church-related. Their lives are filled with church activities, meetings, and callings. Every once in a while there'll be a testimony. My sister is at BYU and she also sends weekly updates, filled to the brim with anxious testimony stories. My family eats, breathes, and sleeps Mormonism.
There are two main reasons why my unbelief cannot remain a secret from them. First, the issue will inevitably come up in normal conversation. In fact, I'm convinced the topic of church will come up in our next phone or video chat. I would literally have to lie outright in order to keep it a secret. They will ask how the ward is and what callings we have. Lying to them is absolutely out of the question. Also, none of my younger siblings have married yet, and when one of them does, we'll have to explain to them why we cannot attend the ceremony. Trying to keep them in the dark about our disaffection without actually lying to them would require a lot of work.
The second reason why this cannot remain a secret is that I simply do not want to hide this from them. Sure, there are advantages to keeping it a secret, but there are also big advantages to coming out, and I prefer those advantages. I want to be authentic. I want the people close to me to know what I think. The fact is that right now they think that I hold certain convictions that I no longer hold. I will not try to force my worldview on them, but I want it made clear to them that I do not accept what the old men at the head of the LDS corporation preach. I want them to know that there is an unbeliever and an atheist very close to them, and I want them to think about that. I want them to experience that cognitive dissonance in their minds. They cannot have this cake and eat it too. However they reconcile it is up to them, but reconcile it they must. Their belief system gives them very little choice. Either I must be evil, or there must be something to what I say. I expect that their conclusion will be the former, but I want them look at me straight on as their brother or son, who loves them, and tell themselves that I am evil. I want them to look at me while they conclude that people who leave the church aren't happy or are deluded. If they want to demonize apostates and atheists, I want them to know that they demonize their own brother. I want them to realize that the logical conclusion of their beliefs as dictated to them by the old holy men is that their brother and his wife are bad, unhappy people.
I haven't been very optimistic when thinking about the possible ramifications of our coming out. I've imagined so many different scenarios. The best possible scenario is that my parents send a warm email about how they love us just the same regardless of our beliefs. I would be awestruck by a response like this. It would render me speechless. I would probably feel bad for having underestimated my parents, and my apprehensiveness would melt away entirely. I'd feel silly for having spent so much energy on the topic, and life would quickly move on.
But every time I think about my dad, I'm almost sure that it will not be that way. He is a very opinionated man (one thing that I inherited) and very devoted to the church, and I can't imagine him being okay with this in any way. He is the stronghold of political/religious opinion in the home, and my siblings have for the most part aligned themselves with him. A conversation with him is typically a 1-way lecture, not a lot of give and take. There are a thousand great things about my dad, don't get me wrong, but these are just some reasons why I don't think this is going to go down as smoothly as I'd like it to. I'll talk about our strategy for coming out in the next post, but we're going to need to send a family-wide email because if we just told my parents first, I know my dad would gather everyone around and let them know the news in his own way, infusing the announcement with gravity, sadness, and that oh-so-poignant spiritual anguish, followed by exhortations to keep the faith. It would be like announcing the death of a sibling, inoculating them as much as possible from any potential cognitive dissonance for whenever I got around to telling my own story.
I've pictured in my head each of my siblings, trying to think of how they will react to the news. Will they draw away from me? Will they challenge me? I don't think many of them will challenge me, as I think they know I can hold my own in a debate, but I suspect that there will be a quiet distrust there, possibly for the rest of my life.
I've thought about how this is going to go down for so long that I've developed a sort of detached curiosity about it. I feel like just sending the email right now just so that I can observe their reactions and compare them to my expectations. I've thought about how I will respond to their reactions, whether I would be very accommodating and forgiving of insulting behavior or whether I would toss it right back in their face. I've decided that I will not stand for insulting or accusatory reactions, nor will I allow myself to be angry in my responses. I will try to be calm and firm.
Depending on what the reactions are like, I may post them here. I have been at the receiving end of a few blogs and forum posts where people have told their exit stories and shared the reactions of family members, and I have greatly appreciated their sharing them. I think these stories are important and need to be told in a public way. One of the most insidious things about the church in my opinion is its destroying of family relationships over something a simple as a belief, and they cannot and must not be able to do this without the stories being heard.