But My Experience Was So Good!


A little while ago, I had a conversation with my niece who had just returned from an LDS mission.  She was talking about growing up in a small town, returning to school, the ways friendships are different as an adult, and adjusting to post mission life.  She is a very thoughtful, intelligent person and I was really interested to hear what she had to say.

Her experience was so different than mine!  She said that she loved the place where she grew up, and it always felt warm and safe.  She loved her mission- I could already tell this from reading her emails to the family.  She buried herself in her work, and she felt an immense love for the people in her area. She was successful, and she had felt missionary life filled her with purpose and meaning.  It was an overwhelmingly positive experience.  She found it hard to go back to school, in part because it felt less meaningful to be so focused on her own needs and desires. She missed living in service to others.

I found myself wondering, how can our experiences have been so different?  For some people, the LDS experience works amazingly well. My dad, for example, was a convert to the church.  He told me that joining the church saved him. I believe him. He, too, lived a life of service because of his church membership.  He often served in leadership positions, and I always knew he loved the people he was serving. He told me the things that were most important in his life were his family, his church service, and his work, but that his family and church service gave him the most joy.  To him, the two were inseparably connected.

I think this is the way LDS life is supposed to be.  And for many, it is this way. There are ups and downs of course, but the experiences of many are so good!

I, too, have had a lot of positive experiences in the church.  I’ve had kind, loving church leaders and teachers, and at different times I’ve made good friends.  I have great memories of activities, projects, people, and events.  I’ve felt uplifted, and I’ve had chances to love and serve others.  At some points, I’ve felt loved by God, close to family, filled with purpose, and that I was living a good life.  But other times, I’ve felt disillusioned, depressed, filled with rage, hopeless, alone, traumatized, victimized, and damaged, maybe beyond repair. I’ve felt that in some ways, even though I’ve had many good experiences, my church experience deeply hurt me.  As a whole, it did not work for me in the same way it works for some. It was not good for me. Maybe I’ll tell some more of my story on this blog at some point, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

Some believers will probably say I’m being too sensitive, or that I’m choosing to be offended.  When someone has had overwhelmingly positive experiences in the church, like my niece or my Dad did, it can be very hard to understand or accept that for others, their church experience may have been damaging.  It must seem like, when you hear someone say that your church- your institution, your people, your gospel- that you love so much has hurt them, it just doesn’t make sense.  It must seem like a lie, a fluke, an exception, or that maybe this person is just blowing things out of proportion.  It may feel like a personal attack. And, sometimes any of those things may be true. But in some cases, this feeling can cause a person to ignore real suffering.

You can see this happening in a number of places.  For example, the recent protests of BYU’s Honor Code have been polarizing.  For most students, I believe the Honor Code has been a highly positive thing.  It creates a unique environment that many students really want when they attend.  However, some students have also had really terrible experiences with it.  I would guess that these kids are the exceptions.  Their bad experiences vary in seriousness (from being reported for breaking curfew to being afraid to report a rape to the police), but at least some have very legitimate complaints.  While some have supported their cause, many others accuse these students of making up stories, being “emotionally immature individuals” who are creating a “tempest in a teapot”, and being unappreciative and undeserving of their place at BYU.

You can see this polarizing phenomenon again in recent discussions about damaging aspects of youth interviews in the LDS church.  When Sam Young began publishing stories from individuals who felt their experiences with church leaders had been damaging (these experiences ranged from emotional trauma to sexual assault), many responded with incredulity.  Online commenters also accused Sam of publishing made up or exaggerated stories.  They often replied with their own stories of positive interactions with church leaders- stories which, I believe, probably represent the majority of experiences.  In effect, they seemed to say, “That’s not how bishop’s interviews affect kids. My experience shows how it really is.”

And, in some cases, those skeptics may be correct.  Perhaps some complaints are exaggerated. Perhaps some stories are made up.  And the negative stories certainly don’t represent the whole.  After all, most students have a positive experience at BYU, and so many kids benefit from their relationships with religious leaders and role models.  I, personally, have never had any issues with BYU’s Honor Code, and I have only had good, sincere church leaders.  But, could some of these tragic stories be true? Could some of these people have been truly hurt?  And if so, could there be problems within the policies, practices, or culture of these institutions that enable this kind of damage to occur, even if they only affect a minority of individuals?  And if they are hurting anyone, should we try to fix those problems?

I’d like to take a step back and look at this from another perspective.  A while back, I ran across a blog post from a man who had spent years as a member of a small movement within the Catholic Church called Regnum Christi.  Members of Regnum Christi feel that God has called them to lives of more intense service and worship, and they feel that their participation and commitment to the group helps them be better servants of Christ and the Church.  They feel God is working through their organization. One member described her experience this way:

“In Regnum Christi, I developed a much deeper and more personal relationship with Christ. I grew to love the Church; I received solid doctrine and I received the sacraments in abundant measure. My directors showed me great kindness, patience, and love, and they walked the extra mile with me when I needed it. Those years confirmed and gave direction to my desire to lay down my life for the mission of the Church, to work for the salvation of souls. I am amazed at how much good I have received through Regnum Christi.”

-from blog comment by JK40 on amywellborn.wordpress.com

Others tell of joy and peace, a loving community, supportive religious leaders, spiritual growth, opportunities for service, lasting friendships, improved family relations, and learning to better follow Christ.  When I read their experiences[1], I believe they are sincere.

The group has had a controversial past, though, and eventually this man left Regnum Christi.  He, like so many others, had had extremely positive experiences within the group. He had felt that the strict lifestyle rules, kind mentorship, and spiritual environment of Regnum Christi had truly blessed him and his family.

From time to time, though, he would hear of negative stories from other members.  They claimed that certain practices, policies, or actions of leaders had hurt them or their families.  Some have reported what they see as troubling patterns of emotional and psychological abuse, unethical recruiting of children, isolation of minors from family and friends, damaging levels of perfectionism, intense pressure to make ever greater commitments, and an unhealthy culture of unquestioning obedience to the organization’s leadership, especially the founder, Father Marcial Maciel.  Some young people claim that their time in the organization had led to crushing guilt, depression, long term emotional problems, suicidal thoughts, and loss of faith.  But, he had a very hard time taking stories like these seriously because, as he said, “my experience was so good!” In his own words:

“I did hear of a few people who left.  I wondered if they had actually gone to the people in charge and tried to resolve things and assumed they probably hadn’t.  I figured if they had, it would’ve been fine and they would’ve stayed. I couldn’t understand why they would throw out so much good because of a few problems.  I certainly wasn’t going to do that. Yes, there were a lot of problems, but my experience had been so good.”

This was an idea he repeated throughout his story.  Each time he encountered a story of negative experiences within the group, he assumed the problem was exaggerated, out of context, or that it would be fixed- because his experience was so good.  These had to be isolated incidents. He had experienced life changing blessings. He had tasted the good fruit that came from his membership in Regnum Christi. He knew the good that came from the organization, and he felt that God was directing it.  Any harm must have been exceptional, and the few “bad apples” who had caused it would be rooted out. It would be OK.

I think this is a normal human thing to do.  For him, the organization was an obvious source of good.  It was bringing him closer to God. And if God was using the organization, how could it be hurting anyone?  If it was, it was certainly due to the actions of a few imperfect humans, and with work, faith, and some guidance from God, these could be overcome.  Those who harshly criticized or left the group entirely were throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Other believing members have also reacted incredulously to stories of abuse and trauma.  In response, they often tell of their positive experiences. They seem to feel that their positive experiences negate, or at least outweigh the negative experiences of others.  One member commented,

“I’m a +8 year member of RC. Never in those years did I encounter… anything negative.  I have been led to a better life of prayer, love for Christ, desire for the Sacraments, and intense love for the Roman Catholic Church…  My RC friends are holy, Catholic, fun-loving zealous women. Yes, zealous! Zealous for the life in Christ that we are called to live-knowing Him better, loving Him, and serving Him.
Take your negativity and stuff it, friends.”

-from blog comment by VDK on amywellborn.wordpress.com

To this person, the negative stories must have seemed unlikely to be true, or at least exaggerated.  They ran counter to her entire experience. Not only that, but they may have felt like a personal attack, or an attack on her community and loved ones.

It can be hard to believe it when someone claims that something we love has hurt them, especially when that person is angry, as people who feel hurt often are.  But why do we have to negate the experiences of those who are different from us? Is it possible that both groups’ experiences are real?

I’ve seen this within my own faith background, too.  I’ve seen people negate the experiences of others[2]. Believers sometimes say that those who leave are just easily offended or are expecting church members (or history) to be unreasonably perfect.  Or, they say that they left in order to justify their sinful lives, or that they have weak character. If a leave taker seems angry, this is often seen as evidence of a negative attitude. It can be hard for believers to accept that the organization may have truly, deeply hurt anyone, especially since their own experiences have been so good.

I can’t say whether these people claiming to have been hurt by Regnum Christi were abused deliberately or if they were harmed unintentionally by well-meaning leaders with good intentions.  But there are many, many tragic stories recorded online[3]. I believe them when they say they have been hurt. With so many people sharing similar stories, can we be justified in ignoring them?  Can we simply say that these were unfortunate exceptions?

Sadly, the alleged damages were not limited to emotional abuse.  In 1998, nine men who had been members of Regnum Christi as young boys made allegations of sexual abuse against Maciel to the Vatican.  The Vatican did not investigate these allegations until 2006, when Maciel was removed from his position and was invited to a life of prayer and penance, but the investigation was halted due to Maciel’s age and poor health.  In 2010, two years after Maciel’s death, the Legion of Christ, Regnum Christi’s parent organization, released a communiqué finally acknowledging the truth of the accusations, and the Vatican began an official process to reform or eliminate elements of the culture and structure that enabled this and other abuses to occur.  In 2014, the Legion issued a formal apology, acknowledging “with sadness the initial incapability of believing the testimonies of the persons who had been victims of Fr. Maciel, the long institutional silence and, later on, the hesitations and errors of judgment when setting out to inform the members of the congregation and others.”

So, whose experience was real?  Was Regnum Christi a blessing to the world and its members?  Did the organization do legitimate good? Or was it an organization of deceivers and abusers?  And, if so, why for so many years was there an “incapability of believing the testimonies” of those who had been hurt?

The answer, I believe, is that both were real.  Regnum Christi was both a source of real good and still produced some harmful effects.  Some greatly benefited, but others were hurt.  And, unfortunately, it can be very difficult to accept or believe another person’s experience that is so completely different than our own.

The excerpt below is from the forum post I mentioned earlier.  It was written on the Life After RC blog in 2009, the year before the Legion acknowledged Maciel’s abuses.

“During my six years in Regnum Christi, I heard it over and over.  And yes, I admit, I said it myself: ‘My experience has been so good!’
…I assumed that those who spoke of ill treatment, duplicity and using people for the kingdom had just encountered some bad apples in a great organization.  It had to be, because my experience was so good. And it wasn’t just good for me. It was good for my family.
…I wanted these people to straighten up their act because I was sure that this was not an organizational problem because my experience had been so good.
…Since I left, I’ve talked to some of my friends who are still in RC. If they ask me why I left, I will recount a few of the stories.  They usually agree that those things are unacceptable. But then I hear it. ‘It’s really hard because being in Regnum Christi had been so good for me.’ It didn’t take too long for me to realize, to my great horror, that I myself had been using this same logic since I joined RC. I knew people had been hurt and not received any apologies or restitution. Yet, I stood with the people who had hurt them because my experience had been so good.
I was terribly wrong. It was wrong for me to ignore the red flags for all of those years because I wanted the benefit of being in Regnum Christi and it is still wrong today. To turn a blind eye to the injustice of others indicts the one who refuses to see.”

-from Life After RC blog post, “The Logic of My Experience”

I believe that this writer is a good man, trying to do his best for his family and beloved community.  However, his utterly positive experience blinded him to the fact that others were suffering inside the same organization that had brought him so much happiness.

If you have had positive experiences in Regnum Christi or any other organization, I am happy for you.  I hope your positive experiences continue. The negative experiences, and even horrific abuses suffered by some inside this movement do not negate the positive experiences of others.  If, though, you are happy- if you have found something that brings you the same joy as Regnum Christi has brought to some, I do not want you to be similarly blinded.  You can have and keep all of your positive experiences. They are meaningful and powerful to you, and you should treasure them. But, if you hear someone claim to be suffering, please do not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear.  Please do not immediately assume that the problem is their fault, or that theirs is just an isolated incident.

To the sincere members of Regnum Christi who simply could not believe the stories of former members- I do not blame you.  Your observations only made sense. Your experience had been so good! How could the same organization that had been such a blessing in your life produce these damages?  If you had only heard rumors, it would have seemed impossible. But, it’s very possible. Please, if you hear claims of suffering, take them seriously. See what is wrong.  Listen to the sufferers’ stories, even if it is hard, and even if their stories are counter to your experience.  If you can, withhold judgement, at least for a time.  Try to understand, even if you disagree.  Please do not make the same mistakes we have seen here.

To members of my own faith background, I say the same to you.  If you hear someone claim that some aspect of their church experience has hurt them, please listen.  Even if what they say runs completely counter to your experience, please listen.  Perhaps, after listening, you will still disagree with their claims.  But, maybe you will find that some people have been truly damaged.  Maybe some part of the culture, policies, or procedures can be changed to prevent such hurts.  At the very least, YOU can change how you see, treat, or talk about this person. And in doing so, maybe suffering can be prevented, and lives can be changed or even saved.

Further Reading

The Legion of Christ’s official communiqué from 2010 contained the following statement:

“We had thought and hoped that the accusations brought against our founder were false and unfounded, since they conflicted with our experience of him personally and his work.
…We ask all those who accused him in the past to forgive us, those whom we did not believe or were incapable of giving a hearing to, since at the time we could not imagine that such behavior took place.”

From a Fox News investigation into Regnum Christi’s internal problems:

“However, a Jesuit canon law professor, the Rev. Ladislas Orsy… said sections of the Regnum Christi statutes, which were approved by the Vatican in 2004, could lead to potential abuse.
…Former superiors now say there was something terribly wrong with the way they exercised authority. Denisse, who ran a house for consecrated women in Mexico, said she left last year after more than a decade when she realized the psychological harm the movement was causing.
‘If you had a fragile personality, people who wanted to be perfect, they broke you psychologically,’ the 40-year-old Mexican woman said.”

From 2012 to 2017, the Australian Royal Commission conducted a deep investigation into institutional child abuse.  In addition to other factors, they found that:

“[T]he central factor, underpinning and linked to all other factors, was the status of people in religious ministry.
…The power and authority exercised by people in religious ministry gave them access to children and created opportunities for abuse. Children and adults within religious communities frequently saw people in religious ministry as figures who could not be challenged and, equally, as individuals in whom they could place their trust.
Within religious institutions there was often an inability to conceive that a person in religious ministry was capable of sexually abusing a child. This resulted in a failure by adults to listen to children who tried to disclose sexual abuse, a reluctance of religious leaders to take action when faced with allegations against people in religious ministry, and a willingness of religious leaders to accept denials from alleged perpetrators.”

-from ARC Report, see “Common Contributing Factors Across Religious Institutions”

Many former members of Regnum Christi allege that they were not allowed to criticize organization leadership in any way, and were to obey leaders as they would obey God himself (see Thomas Berg’s and El Trastevere’s comments).  Many also allege that this culture of unquestioning obedience enabled abuse to take place.

Relevant documents:

Vatican Communiqué, May 19, 2006.  Maciel is removed from his position and investigation is halted.

Vatican Communiqué, May 1, 2010.  Vatican confirms Maciel’s abuses and reports on systemic problems within Regnum Christi that enabled abuse to occur.

Letter from Fr Álvaro Corcuera, sent with the Legion’s 2010 communiqué.

Legion of Christ Statement, Jan. 20, 2014.  Formal apology and description of reformation process.


[1] I’ve collected more positive experiences from Regnum Christi members here.

[2] For the record, I’ve also seen former believers negate the experiences of believers.  They may call believers deceived, dishonest, unintelligent, or other epithets.  This is just as unfair, inaccurate, and hurtful!  Please, please do not do this!

[3] I’ve also collected negative experiences from Regnum Christi members here.

My Reaction to “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families”


I picked up Dale McGowan’s book hoping for strategies that would help a mixed-belief marriage work. I have very mixed feelings about it.  This is not a full review, just my thoughts (I skipped a chapter, more on that later).

McGowan is an atheist, and has had a very successful marriage to a believing Christian. To write this book, in addition to using his own experiences, he ran a study of people in mixed belief marriages to find out what made them work and what made them fail. He shares some encouraging results- mixed belief marriages are not necessarily more likely to fail.

Unfortunately for me, it was a somewhat painful read, and I think many couples in a situation like mine will have a similar experience. As I read the worst failure stories, I could see many of my own experiences and emotions mirrored. For example, when one partner in a fundamentalist Baptist couple became atheist, the believing spouse felt betrayed, felt that a covenant was broken, and feared the family was in danger of hell. The anger and frustration described by the non-believing spouse was painfully familiar, too. McGowan shows that intense experiences like these, where spouses feel betrayed or trapped, or where spouses have strong negative feelings about each others’ beliefs, are strongly correlated with divorce.  This couple was NOT able to work through their differences, and they eventually did end their marriage. Even though a lot of the pain associated with my initial crisis has now passed for both my wife and I, this part was still difficult and unhelpful to read.

McGowan gives examples of marriages that worked well, too, but these felt foreign to me in most cases. Usually, the believing spouse interpreted their faith in a very non-literal, non-fundamentalist way. They had faith in God, but usually weren’t strongly connected to a specific set of doctrines or practices.  Obviously, this would make it easier to compromise.  My spouse is a deep thinker, open-minded, and nuanced in her religious views, and I consider her a thoughtful believer, but she’s not a “non-literal” believer (I think she’d agree with my assessment). She has very specific beliefs and practices related to her religion, and she values them highly. So, many of the compromises he suggests, like going to a Unitarian Universalist church where specific beliefs aren’t that important, just won’t work for us.

McGowan does make a very helpful point about the need for both partners to be non-dogmatic. He shows how both believers and non-believers can be dogmatic, and why that is a problem. He also gives useful criteria to evaluate your own level of dogmatism.  His criteria really helped me to examine my own thought processes, and it gently encouraged me to be more open-minded.  A word of caution- please use his criteria to evaluate your OWN level of dogmatism.  It won’t be helpful to use it to criticize your spouse.

McGowan has a few more pieces of very important advice, especially regarding not wanting to convert your spouse.  A strong desire to convert the other is a major failure factor, so it’s incredibly important that each spouse is respectful of the other’s faith journey, no matter how it turns out.  It’s so important that you learn to really accept your spouse as they are! You have to come to a point of mutual respect, even when you disagree on some big issues. This has been critical in my marriage. When you read this section, make sure you apply it to YOU. YOU need to be non-dogmatic, whether you are the believer or non-believer. I also loved his idea about accepting “the ultimate compliment”.  That is, if your spouse thinks that you are a good, worthy person despite your differences of belief, then that is a great compliment indeed! You still support and validate each other, even if you disagree on religion.  You can still be accepted and accepting of your spouse.

The book’s best chapter is the one about raising kids. It’s excellent, especially since I’ve had no other examples to look at of mixed belief marriages with kids. His advice to keep hell and other scare tactics out of a child’s teaching is so important! McGowan gives useful strategies to encourage a child’s search for truth, and for letting kids know that they will be fully loved and accepted by the family.  They can pick beliefs without having to pick a parent!  Love is not contingent upon beliefs!  They should know that beliefs can evolve as we learn and grow, and that’s OK.

He also emphasizes the need to be on the same page with your spouse on how kids should be raised and gives practical suggestions to accomplish this. I hadn’t previously thought through most of these issues. My wife even liked a lot of his ideas when I talked to her about them.  This was the most encouraging section I read.

The tone is very important to mention. Lots of amazon reviewers say that their believing spouses enjoyed and found the book helpful. I believe them, but I imagine those spouses are very liberal, non-literal believers. A small number believing reviewers found the book offensive. I think a believing Mormon who is still hurting from feelings of loss and betrayal will likewise be offended. McGowan really does try to be inclusive, but he just can’t see his own bias creeping into his writing. He spends too much time telling faith crisis stories, and doesn’t give equal time to conversion stories. He never portrays believers as deep thinkers. The worst part of all is that toward the end of the book, he reveals that his wife eventually de-converted, too. That felt like an ambush, and I felt mislead, since he used his own mixed faith marriage as an example of success.  The bias is subtle, but I could not recommend the book to my wife. Instead, I told her a lot about the useful parts, and warned her that she would likely find the book alienating. We talked about things I liked and didn’t like, which I think that was the best approach for us.

Sadly, I found a lot of this book pretty depressing. When he talked about the factors that brought success, I saw only a few of them in my marriage (though there are more now- that can be changed with effort!). When he talked about the factors that brought failure, I felt I could relate with lots of them. It was hard to get through. I had to stop and start a couple of times because it was a little overwhelming. In fact, I totally skipped the chapter about divorce (that’s why this isn’t a real review). It was just too painful to read about, and besides, I was looking for something encouraging! To be honest, I got into a pretty bad emotional state while reading parts of this book. At times it actually reduced my hope for a happy family. Other parts, though, did give great, positive advice for having respectful family relations, honoring each person’s journey, including everyone, and being non-judgmental and non-dogmatic. This stuff is, like I said, critical.

Overall, it was a mix of good and bad for me, personally.  Even though he had some useful advice, I had to grit my teeth at much of his data and anecdotes in order to get through this book. I had to remember that my marriage is NOT like any of the stories, and I don’t HAVE to be like any of the people in the book. In truth, I’m pretty lucky, because my wife is a believer who really listens to me and thinks I’m a good person, despite our differing beliefs. She’s got my back. And I think she’s perfectly intelligent, moral, and a good human being. I’ve got her back, too. It was hard to get to this point, though, and sometimes things are still hard. I think if I had read this book earlier in my faith crisis it might have been extremely discouraging. It could possibly have made me feel like there was no way to make things good.

So, there you have it! It might be useful for some of you, especially if you have already settled into a stable, fairly happy situation and just want strategies for raising kids or other specific issues.  It would also be very useful for a mixed faith couple who are not yet married and want to evaluate their relationship.  If your marriage is currently in crisis because of faith differences, though, I would not recommend it. To be honest, I think this book would be more useful to someone who is CONSIDERING a mixed faith marriage, rather than someone who has unexpectedly ended up in one.

Compassion for the Other: Faith and Doubt among Jehovah’s Witnesses


Disclaimer- I am not, and I have never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  My observations are based on my own interactions in person and online with both believing and former Witnesses, as well as my study of official Jehovah’s Witness publications, and written experiences from members and former members.  If you feel that any of this information is incorrect, unfair, or incomplete, please comment on this post. I would love to hear from you!

“Not noticing her at first, I had sat down and began looking at a travel magazine. Then, my wife whispered to me, ‘There’s your mom.’ I looked up, and sure enough, there was my mother seated across from me: huddled in the corner of the room, silent and motionless, her body pulled in as if trying to disappear, her smartphone held in front of her face at such a distance and angle so as to hide as much of her face from my view as possible…”

This story comes from a man who left the Jehovah’s Witness religion.  In his religion, believing members, such as his elderly mother, are required to completely shun those who deliberately leave the faith[1].  This is, of course, devastating to those who are shunned.  As you read the rest of his experience, you will likely feel some of this man’s pain as he tries to show love for his mother, who cannot return his expressions.

But I want you to imagine yourself not his place, but in his mother’s.  In the encounters this man describes, both his love for his mother and her love for him are apparent, even though she cannot speak to him.  Let’s start back at the beginning:

“Six months ago, on a balmy September evening, I went to [my mother’s] house to announce in person our decision to disassociate from the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion…
After a few hours of tearful dialogue, I was satisfied that I had explained our position to her in a way that she would accept it. As I got up to leave however, my mother gave me one last long hug, and then, as if turning off all emotion, stated that it was her wish that we no longer have any communication whatsoever.
…Since that day, I have done my best to respect her wishes, despite the pain and sadness it has caused me. I still worry about her and often drive by the house just to make sure her car has changed positions in the driveway on a regular basis.”

[After several months have passed, the man accidentally finds himself in the same doctor’s office waiting room as his dear mother.]

“I looked up, and sure enough, there was my mother seated across from me: huddled in the corner of the room, silent and motionless…
Being so happy to see her, I instinctively flung myself across the room and landed in the empty seat next to her. She pretended not to notice as she continued playing Solitaire on her smartphone. I threw my arms around her, and whispered in her ear: ‘Hi Momma. I still love you.’ I gave her a squeeze as I hugged her. She stiffened up quite like a statue, and as I drew her in to me, to my horror, all I could feel were bones. She was so thin! My first thought was, ‘My God, they’re killing her!’, and as the anger set in, I started to phase out of reality. I looked at her again, her eyes now clenched shut, her face wincing as if I was hurting her. I felt embarrassed by the immediate thought that the other people in the waiting room who had witnessed the event were probably thinking that I had abused my mother in the past, by the way she was reacting to me. Collecting myself, I loosened my hold on her, and as I did, I whispered again: ‘Ok Momma, I understand. I’m going back to my seat now.’ At that statement, her eyes still closed, she half-nodded in approval, which was the only response I was able to evoke from her during the entire exchange. I returned to my magazine, not really looking at it, trying to process what had just happened. Within a minute or two, she was called back to the examination room, and that was the last we saw of her.”
Source- reddit post from a former Jehovah’s Witness

Were you able to do it?  Could you put yourself in her place?  What do you think this poor woman was feeling as her son tried to embrace her?  Why, despite the obvious anguish it caused her, would she be willing to shun him?  What grief, pain and sorrow must she be feeling, having been required by God to cut off her own son?  Maybe she feels something like Abraham as he went into the wilderness to sacrifice Isaac.

We may be tempted to judge her, but this woman is not a monster.  It can be difficult for us to understand what another person is feeling, especially when that person’s beliefs and experiences are very different from ours.  To really understand her situation, it will be necessary to know some of the teachings and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians.  They believe that their organization is the one and only true religion on the earth, and that obedience to the teachings and authorities of their organization is required for salvation.  All other versions of Christianity have fallen away from the Truth[2]. In fact, Witnesses often refer to their religious organization as “The Truth”[3].  Witnesses often describe the wonderful experiences they have in their faith, and how their faith has helped them to feel the love of God and of his people.  They claim to have a cohesive view of scripture, the gospel, faith, and life[4]. For these believers, being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a sacred experience.  When asked, “What do you love most about being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”, one person replied,

“[Y]our question has brought tears to my eyes.
…I can’t even BEGIN to explain all in how I feel! My wife and our children are HIS property, they belong to HIM and He has granted me the privilege to experience them and have them within the life that He has blessed me with.  
There are no words to describe how grateful, thankful, honored and HAPPY that I am to be privileged to be called ONE of His Witnesses… no words can truly describe it.
…I look at ALL of you who are of Jehovah’s modern day Christian Witnesses (as well as those who are in association with us in sincerity that are learning about our God) and I see just how incredibly BEAUTIFUL you ALL are. This beauty radiates as a beacon due to the grace of the light of the truth which abounds within you.”

Another responded,

“The joy I receive from following the one and only true God. When I am out in the ministry and find someone who wants to talk about God or even just being out with the friends brings me joy. A joy like I had as a child when I had no worries. Also the hope I have that I will soon see my sweet daughter and work together with her to bring the truth to those resurrected.”

In another post, a Witness stated,

“Being a Jehovah’s Witness gives you an inner peace that ‘no one’ can touch, not Satan nor worldly government or those that persecute us can touch how good we feel about being one of Jehovah’s people”

To these Witnesses, their beliefs are very real and sacred.  They give them hope, meaning, purpose, and identity.  Jehovah’s Witnesses that I have interacted with have likewise been sincere, kind, thoughtful individuals, and they truly believe that they have “the Truth”.  They love their faith, their people, and their God.

Let me tell you how I imagine the poor mother in our story must feel.  If she is at all like the people mentioned above, her beliefs are also real and sacred to her.  I imagine she has likely spent most of her life in God’s service as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps she felt led by God to the Truth, and like so many others, she was changed by it. It gives her meaning, identity, hope, and purpose. It answers her most important questions.  Maybe she has experienced answers to prayers and seen God’s hand in her preaching work. I imagine she feels close to God when she sings hymns and studies scripture with her beloved congregation, and she has felt forgiveness and love as she has repented and done her best to obey Jehovah. She looks forward to the day of the resurrection, when she will see her departed loved ones again- perhaps her husband, her parents, her siblings, or even children.  She hopes with all her might that her family will be with her forever in paradise on Earth. To her, all of these things must feel right and good. To her, they must be evidence of Jehovah’s hand in her life and religion, and they are part of the very core of her identity.

When a person has experienced all of these things, what could possibly cause them to fall away?  But her dear son has rejected the Truth. To her, it must seem that he has rejected his chance for salvation and eternal life.  How could he have done this? Was his heart somehow filled with pride? Did someone offend him? Was he deceived by those who hate Jehovah?  Surely, deep down inside, he must know the Truth! Did he not learn from the same scriptures at the Kingdom Hall? Did he not experience the same joy she had while out doing the preaching work?  What will happen to him? Perhaps she has seen others leave, and has watched them become hateful, bitter, and angry. Perhaps she has seen them fall into drunkenness, addiction, and other vices. Likely, it seems that these leave takers try to tear down the faith of believing Witnesses, just as scripture promises.  Will he, too, attack her faith? Unless he repents and returns, he will soon be like those wicked apostates, and God will destroy him[5]. This must be a terrifying thought.

Perhaps she is wracked with guilt.  Does she feel like a failure, weeping alone at night, wondering what more she should have done to instruct her son in the truth, and keep him on the right path?  Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a boy in the way he should go; Even when he grows old he will not depart from it.” Where did she go wrong?

From my perspective, the key to understanding this mother’s actions is knowing that she really, truly believes that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is true.  Leaving it really is apostasy. It is betraying Jehovah. And leaving Jehovah always leads to destruction. Horrifyingly, because of his pride, her son has allowed himself to be deceived by Satan, and now he has become a spiritual danger to himself and others.  God has required believers not to associate with such persons. How can she possibly obey such a difficult commandment? But she must.

While shunning loved ones seems terrible to outsiders, Witnesses do not see this practice as a punishment.  They teach that shunning may lead sinners to return to the Truth, and thereby gain salvation.  They hope that those who are shunned will feel the loss of their treasured relationships and desire to again be part of Jehovah’s Kingdom.  To believers, it is a loving, life-saving disciplinary measure[6].

In regards to shunning loved ones, an April 2015 Watchtower article states,

“Consider just one example of the good that can come when a family loyally upholds Jehovah’s decree not to associate with disfellowshipped relatives. A young man had been disfellowshipped for over ten years, during which time his father, mother, and four brothers ‘quit mixing in company’ with him. At times, he tried to involve himself in their activities, but to their credit, each member of the family was steadfast in not having any contact with him. After he was reinstated, he said that he always missed the association with his family, especially at night when he was alone. But, he admitted, had the family associated with him even a little, that small dose would have satisfied him. However, because he did not receive even the slightest communication from any of his family, the burning desire to be with them became one motivating factor in his restoring his relationship with Jehovah. Think of that if you are ever tempted to violate God’s command not to associate with your disfellowshipped relatives.”

To a person in this mother’s position, ideas of tolerance must feel hollow.  These are matters of eternal life or death. Tolerating her son’s behavior would be to give him up to destruction.  It would be a disservice to her son, and it would be disobedience to God. It’s not because she is angry that she shuns him, but because she loves him.  She must show him the awful consequences that come from his actions. She loves her son, and is terrified for him. She cannot support his actions.  She can only pray for him, and follow Jehovah’s command to withhold the affection she desperately wishes to give.  She must hope that he will see that his path is the path of sorrow, and return to Jehovah.

I do not believe that this woman is shunning her son out of hatred or intolerance.  She does it because she loves him, and she values his eternal happiness more than the fleeting happiness of this life.  Though it torments her to lose her son’s association for the present, and though it tears her family apart, she really believes that doing so is Jehovah’s will. To her, shunning her son is her only hope of restoring her son to the faith, and of rescuing him from destruction.

For a person like me, having never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is easy to see the torment caused by shunning and other forms of judgement.  The experiences of former members are heartbreaking.  It can be very tempting to read about the damage done to leave takers and harshly judge the honest believers. It may feel like they use this practice as a cruel means of control, or that they enjoy exercising power over their family and friends.  Maybe this is true for some, but I think for many, they just really, truly believe in their religion, and they want their loved ones to be with them for eternity. Think of the poor, desperate mother in this story. Have compassion on her.  She is not evil. Even though her actions are causing terrible, unnecessary harm to her family, I do believe she is trying to do good. She is doing her very best, from her perspective, to serve and love her son. And she may be suffering just as much.

This will not, of course, be much comfort to her son, or any others who have been shunned.  I don’t have a solution to offer those whose families have been divided in this way.  I feel sadness for those on both sides.  To me, neither the believers or former believers are villains.  We are all just human beings, and we are all trying to do what we believe to be right and best.  The sad truth is that the same sincere beliefs that brings light and hope to many can, in other instances, also cause so much pain and sorrow.   When loved ones disagree on something as deeply felt as religion, they can be caught in a terrible situation.  If your family is divided by differences of belief, I’m sorry. I know your pain is very real.

Readers- While respecting each person’s right to believe what they feel is true, what advice can you give to people on either side of this painful divide?

Further Reading:

Letter from a Jehovah’s Witness mother to her son who has left the faith
-from DaveTrash blog post, “The Letter”
(Or, see this text only version)


[1] JW.org- Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Shun Former Members of their Religion?
“We do not automatically disfellowship someone who commits a serious sin. If, however, a baptized Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code and does not repent, he or she will be shunned or disfellowshipped. The Bible clearly states: ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.’”

JW.org- Watchtower Online Library- Association
Those who desire God’s approval… stop ‘associating [literally, mixing themselves up]’ socially with members of the congregation whose way of life has led to official censure of their disorderly conduct.”

JW.org- How to Treat a Disfellowshipped Person
“We do not have spiritual or social fellowship with disfellowshipped ones. The Watchtower of September 15, 1981, page 25, stated: ‘A simple ‘Hello’ to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshipped person?’
Is strict avoidance really necessary? Yes, for several reasons…”

This article also discusses exceptions.  For example, disfellowshipped immediate family members living with active members may continue family relations, with some religious limitations.  Minors must still be taught and cared for. For disfellowshipped persons living away from believing members, however, contact should be kept to a minimum.

Quora.com- Are those who leave Jehovah’s Witnesses and join or promote another religion considered apostates? What is the official teaching? Are there instances when this is not the case?
A discussion between believers and non believers about what constitutes apostasy.  In general, those who deliberately leave the faith are considered apostates and are shunned.

JW Reddit- Ask Jehovah’s Witnesses
Active, believing Jehovah’s Witnesses explain the practice of shunning, and give personal experiences.


[2] From official Jehovah’s Witness publications:

JW.org- “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe That They Have the One True Religion?”
“Jesus Christ didn’t agree with the view that there are many religions, many roads, all leading to salvation. Rather, he said: ‘Narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they’ve found that road.”

JW.org- “Seven Dukes, Eight Shepherds- What They Mean for Us Today”
“…[T]he direction that you receive from Jehovah’s organization may seem strange or unusual. But all of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether we agree with them or not, because obeying these instructions will save our lives. If any are putting their trust in the education of this world, material things, or human organizations, they must change their way of thinking now.”

JW.org- “Who is Leading God’s People Today?”
“All of us show respect for our Leader, Jesus, by being obedient and submissive to the men he is using to direct us… As we follow their direction, therefore, we follow our Leader, Jesus. Soon, he will lead us to everlasting life.”


[3] Wikipedia- Jehovah’s Witnesses
“Adherents commonly refer to their body of beliefs as ‘The Truth’ and consider themselves to be ‘in the Truth’.”


[4] Jehovah’s Witness literature include many stories from people who prayed to be lead by God to the truth, and felt their prayers were answered through Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here are some examples:

JW.org- “Searching in the Cocoa Fields”
Two Witnesses are lead to a couple who had been praying to find the truth.

JW.org- “His Prayer Was Heard”
A young man who was raised as a Witness, after being apart from the organization for some time, prays to know if the his religion is true. He feels God answered his prayer.

JW.org- “Please, Jehovah, Have Your Witnesses Find Me”
A woman prays that Jehovah’s Witnesses will find her and teach her. They find her the same day.

Witnesses also tell of their experiences in public forums.

-Quora.com, answer by Michael DeLuc
“For the first time the Bible started making sense to me. I found that the Bible was in full agreement with itself, and that there was no “mystery” about our Creator. It also taught me WHY there are so many different kinds of religions in the world, and what God thinks about that as well as what He will do about it. As I started to ask more and more questions, I saw that there were answers for them, and the answers were coming from the Bible.”

-Quora.com, answer by Arthur Gomez
“To feel close to our creator Jehovah, to know there is a future beyond what man can offer, to know that we will see loved ones again…..there are too many positive to not be one.”

-Quora.com, answer by Rufus Panjaitan
“It gives me a strong sense that I am part of a worldwide brotherhood… I always have the same feeling when I meet JWs in foreign countries or when they come to my country. I feel the genuine love. …Overall, being a JW gives me a purpose in life and hope for the future.”


[5] JW.org- Watchtower Online Library- Apostasy
“Among the varied causes of apostasy set forth in apostolic warnings were: lack of faith (Heb 3:12), lack of endurance in the face of persecution (Heb 10:32-39), abandonment of right moral standards (2Pe 2:15-22), the heeding of the ‘counterfeit words’ of false teachers and ‘misleading inspired utterances’ (2Pe 2:1-3; 1Ti 4:1-3; 2Ti 2:16-19; compare Pr 11:9), and trying ‘to be declared righteous by means of law’ (Ga 5:2-4). While still making profession of faith in God’s Word, apostates may forsake his service by treating lightly the preaching and teaching work that he assigned to followers of Jesus Christ. (Lu 6:46; Mt 24:14; 28:19, 20) They may also claim to serve God but reject his representatives, his visible organization. (Jude 8,11; Nu 16:19-21) Apostates often seek to make others their followers. (Ac 20:30; 2Pe 2:1, 3) Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the ‘antichrist.’ (1Jo 2:18, 19) As with the apostate Israelites, destruction is likewise foretold for apostates from the Christian congregation.​—2Pe 2:1; Heb 6:4-8


[6] JW.org- Why Disfellowshipping is a Loving Provision
“Disfellowshipping protects the clean, Christian congregation. The apostle Paul warned the Corinthians of the danger of allowing willful sinners to remain in their midst… He then counseled them: ‘Remove the wicked person from among yourselves.’—1 Cor. 5:6, 11-13.
…Overlooking willful sins encourages a lax attitude toward divine standards. (Eccl. 8:11) Furthermore, unrepentant sinners could become ‘rocks hidden below water’ and shipwreck the faith of others in the congregation.”

“Disfellowshipping may bring the wrongdoer to his senses… [D]isfellowshipped ones who are no longer members of the Christian congregation—their spiritual family—may come to realize what they have lost. The bitter fruits of their sinful course, together with the memories of happier days when they enjoyed a good relationship with Jehovah and his people, could bring them to their senses.
…To illustrate: Imagine a hiker who succumbs to exhaustion on a cold winter day. He begins to suffer from hypothermia, and he feels drowsy. If he falls asleep in the snow, he will die. While waiting for a rescue party, his companion occasionally slaps him in the face to keep him awake. The slap may sting, but it could well save his life.
…In many cases, disfellowshipping provides the discipline the erring one needs. After some ten years, Julian’s son, mentioned at the outset, cleaned up his life, returned to the congregation, and now serves as an elder. ‘Being disfellowshipped brought me face-to-face with the consequences of my lifestyle,’ he admits. ‘I needed that sort of discipline.’”

My Letter to a Doubter (Myself)

This post is written to myself in the past, around ten years ago, in the earlier part of my decade long crisis of faith. At the time, I had poured myself into more fully devoted church service hoping that God would resolve my doubts somewhere along the way, but they still always lingered in my mind. I wish I could give my past self some advice and kind words of encouragement that no one I knew then was able to give me. I also hope that perhaps someone in a similar situation might read it and gain some comfort and guidance that will be of value to them. If you are content with your faith, this post is not written to you. I wish you the best, and I hope your faith brings you everything you hope for.


Dear Brian in the past,

I hope that by talking to you from the future, I can spare you years of anguish. I know what you have been thinking about in relation to God, religion, and the Church, and I know you have felt unable to talk to anyone about it. I know you have been quietly suffering. That is a painful, painful thing. I don’t want to scare you, but in my version of your future, it gets a lot worse before it gets any better. But it doesn’t have to.

I want you to slow down for a moment, and take a deep breath. Pay attention to what you are feeling. Your insides have been in turmoil for years. You’ve lost many days worth of sleep. Your neck hurts, your back hurts, your head hurts. You feel uncomfortable all the time, and even when everyone thinks you are fine, you still have a nagging feeling that something is just not right.

I know you’ve been praying harder than you ever have, reading and deeply pondering scripture, and attending the temple often. You’ve gone to church leaders for help, advice, and blessings. You want those things to fix your doubts. The stakes seem so high.

You want to feel safe. You want to know that you are right with God, as is your family. You want to know that you can have the promise of being together with them for eternity. You want forgiveness from your failures and mistakes. You want salvation.

You want so badly to be right- right with God, and right with your own conscience, but you are so unsure of what is true, and you’re buried in fear. You have serious doubts about the religion you were raised in, but the consequences of really questioning it terrify you. You fear causing pain to your mom and dad. You fear your loved ones’ reactions. You fear standing apart from your people. You also fear being deceived. You fear Satan. You fear Hell. You fear God.

Take another deep breath. You are going to be OK. You are a good person- there is nothing wrong with you, and you are not being punished. You may find that hard to believe, but it’s true.  You are a good person. What you are feeling is normal, and you have not done anything to deserve your suffering. Brian, you have been committed to your faith since childhood. You have done your best to do what is right. Now, you don’t know what to believe, and it terrifies you. I want to put your uncertainty into a different context.

Right now, there are people in every faith who have doubts- and many of them feel just like you. They, too, are scared and wonder what to do. How can they know whether they are on the right path? For them and for you, this uncertainty can and should be the beginning of a very important journey- a journey of seeking truth. In our lives, each of us must learn for ourselves what we really believe, independent of our families, culture, or other outside influences. Now it is your time to learn. It is time for you to take responsibility for your own beliefs.

Brian, I’m not going to tell you what to believe, but I am going to ask you a question. What would you do if you were brave? What would you do if you had all the integrity you wished you had? Think about this hard. Ask yourself this: If there were no social consequences- no loved ones to disappoint, no public stands to take, no congregations to stand with or leave, what would you do? If you were not scared, what questions would you ask, and what ideas would you explore? What would you do if you felt free? What is in your heart of hearts?

I want you to think about your conscience. Is there any part of your life that feels wrong because you are doing what someone else believes you should do, instead of listening to what your own inner voice is saying is right? Can you hear that inner voice, or has it been drowned out by outside pressures?

Right now, you don’t know what the truth is about God or religion. Your mind goes back and forth- you have some reasons to believe, and some reasons to doubt. You have had many wonderful experiences within your faith, and some that have been seriously destructive. This uncertainty is putting you into a terrible turmoil.

Think about those feelings, but now, instead of feeling trapped, think of what you can do about your situation. Be honest with yourself. Allow yourself to acknowledge your thoughts, questions, and feelings. Then, instead of endless worrying, think: How can I move forward? What can I do to find the truth? What resources exist to help me find answers to my questions? Have other people asked the same questions already? What answers are available? Have I considered all points of view?

If you, in your heart of hearts, feel the need to question and evaluate your faith, that is OK. You need to obey your conscience. If you don’t obey your conscience (here’s where the years of anguish come in), you will live to deeply regret it. I promise you that. To you, and to those who have serious questions about any religion, here is my advice:

Ask the Hard Questions

Ask the hard questions, and look for honest answers. Truth will stand up to inquiry. It is OK to want answers, and to seek truth. God will not punish you. If a Muslim man has questions about his faith, he should seek answers. If a Jehovah’s Witness has come to doubt whether his faith is actually the one true religion, he should try to find out whether it is or not. The same is true for Catholics, Hindus, Mormons, and anyone else. It is by asking hard questions that we come closer to truth.

I remember my first real doubt.  I bet you do, too.  I felt like my thoughts were evil and dangerous, and I did my best to simply put them out of my mind.  I didn’t have an answer, and I was afraid of looking for one.  It can be scary to confront those hard questions.  I was terrified.  I felt that my salvation was on the line, as well as the salvation of my loved ones.  I needed to know if my religion was true or not, and I feared that if I got the answer wrong, I would be damned.

I felt a lot like this man, who eventually left the Worldwide Church of God.  The WCG claimed to be the only true Christian church.  Through a friend, he stumbled upon information that caused him to question some of his deeply held beliefs:

“I was afraid to probe deeper–truly afraid of losing my salvation if I found out too much. My mind would shut down from fear. …it was best to kill any bad thoughts or doubts before they took root. …I struggled with fear–fear that I had allowed Satan to turn my heart and mind against God’s true church. I was warned this would happen and I suffered from feeling that I had allowed myself to gain forbidden knowledge. …I was sure I had fallen into the trap that I had been warned about for years. It tortured me for some time, going back and forth between loyalty and doubt.”
-from article “Why is it Difficult for Exiters to Question Herbert Armstrong?”, posted on Exit and Support Network

Does this sound familiar? Have you felt this way? I do not believe that God will punish a person for honestly, sincerely seeking truth. You are RIGHT to seek truth! You are right to try to find answers to your deepest questions. No person, no church, no teacher, or other authority can determine the truth for you. Deep inside, you need to find the truth for yourself. You need to be at peace with yourself and know you have honestly done your best to do what you believe to be right. If you never try to find that truth, if you simply accept what others around you believe, you may never find that peace.

Whatever your questions are- whatever made you doubt- you can seek out the truth. You can carefully, even prayerfully look at evidences from many sources. You can evaluate them. You can see how people with varying perspectives interpret those evidences. Do their ideas fit the evidence, and do they make sense? You can hear what defenders, critics, and scholars have to say. You can look at all sides of any issue! You can see if what you learn lines up with what you have been taught. You can examine all of this information and see how it sits in your mind and heart. Anytime something is so important, you must do this.

Don’t Bury Your Doubts

Don’t try to bury your questions and doubts. My years of anguish came to me because I was burying my thoughts, my fears, my mind, and my conscience, trying to do what others expected of me. That is not a good way to live. I buried my doubts for years, but still they resurfaced. I eventually needed answers. The longer I waited, the higher the stakes became, and the harder it became to change. Please, don’t wait.

Brian, I don’t care what you end up believing. I just want you to be free to seek truth as you truly, honestly see fit, and to live according to what you find. So much of my suffering came from sitting in fear, unable to move forward. That’s what I want to help you avoid. Who knows- if you start now on your search for truth, you may come to different conclusions than I have. You may learn things that I don’t even know.

It may even be that your search for truth will lead you back to the same faith you are questioning. Others before you have asked similar questions, and some have found answers that have satisfied their doubts. Talk to them. Perhaps you, too, will find satisfying answers to your questions. I have seen that happen, and that’s OK! Or, perhaps your search will lead you in a new direction. That can be much scarier, but that’s OK, too! The most important thing is that you will be honest with yourself. If you are honest with yourself, you will not be filled with agony and regret many years from now because you allowed others to determine what you believe.

Don’t Do It Alone

I have one more very important thing to tell you. One of my biggest regrets is going through my crisis alone. I felt like I couldn’t really talk to anyone, and the sense of isolation I felt ate me alive. I didn’t even feel like I could talk with my immediate family about my doubts for years- if only I had known how loving and kind they would be, even though they did not share my doubts! There are people who care about you. They may be inside or outside your faith. Please find someone to talk to. Don’t be afraid to discuss your feelings with others. Talk to your family. Talk to people who share your beliefs. Talk to people who have different beliefs and different experiences. Find someone with whom you can share your questions, fears, and doubts openly. I felt so alone. I felt like I was the only one who had gone through this. Please, don’t do this to yourself! It is far too heavy of a burden!

In the end, though, only you can be responsible for your beliefs. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks that you should believe, even though many of those people love you. That has no bearing on what is actually true. Each person must seek out truth for themselves, and it is your job to decide how to do that. You need to find out what you really believe, and live according to it. By doing that, you can find peace.

Brian, the truth will stand up to inquiry. You don’t have to be afraid of asking questions. I don’t believe God will punish a person who is honestly seeking truth and trying to do what is right. Do what you need to in order to find peace and answers. Don’t be afraid, and don’t remain paralyzed. Move forward honestly, and you will be all right.

I wish you peace,

Review- The First Muslim, by Lesley Hazleton


After I ran across Lesley Hazleton’s fascinating TEDx talk, “Seeing Muhammad – and Each Other – Whole”, I knew I needed to read her book, The First Muslim, a biography of Muhammad.  Hazleton, an agnostic Jew, writes from an agnostic yet thoroughly respectful and open-minded point of view.  From this unique perspective, she allows readers to experience Muhammad’s life story without assuming whether or not they are believers.  As she tells of miracles, visions, revelations, tough decisions, and tragedies, she explains both conservative Muslim points of view, as well as alternate interpretations.  She is committed to not passing judgement, and she always allows her readers to come to their own conclusions.

As a religious questioner, I felt I would benefit from learning about the history of another faith, and it was refreshing to dive into such a fascinating story without the pressure of having to determine its veracity.  Having never studied the life of Muhammad, I had no idea how exciting and dramatic his story would be!  Twice orphaned and raised by Bedouins in the desert, he rises from extreme disadvantage to a position of respect, normalcy, and material success.  But a normal life is not in Muhammad’s destiny.  Hazleton paints a picture of a man with whose life is completely and unexpectedly altered by the “blinding weight of of revelation”, and who then proceeds to change all of history.

Hazelton’s writing is engaging, accessible, and highly enjoyable to read.  She gives us a vibrant sense of the time and place that Muhammad inhabited, and she renders the prophet and his contemporaries as real human beings whom we can visualize and sympathize with.  I was filled with a sense of awe at the sacrifices and successes of believers, as well as compassion and empathy for the outsiders in the story.

What I did not expect was the number of striking parallels between Muhammad’s life and the history of my own religious heritage.  Many of the themes and events in early Muslim history resembled themes in early Mormon history.  I was impressed that early Muslims shared many sincere desires, questions, and motivations with early Latter-Day Saints.  Surprisingly, I felt I could relate somewhat to both groups.  As Hazleton sets the stage for the beginning of Muhammad’s prophetic mission, those with a Mormon background will recognize familiar themes of apostasy and restoration.

The time before Muhammad’s revelations are referred to as jahiliyya, or the time of pre-Islamic ignorance.  In those days, according to Islam, men had turned from the truths God had previously revealed through Abraham, Moses, and other prophets.  They had begun to practice all forms of hypocrisy, idolatry, and false religion.  In the holy city, Mecca, those in power used their religious positions to gain wealth and influence.  Their worship had become false, and they had begun to follow the “traditions of the fathers”, an idea that is repeated throughout the book (Hazleton, p. 109, 120, 125, 128, 145).  Even the holiest place, the Kaaba, God’s home on earth, had been defiled with idolatry.  Similarly, Mormonism claims that after the death of Christ, a general apostasy from truth occurred.  In both faiths, the truth could only be restored by direct revelation from God.

Muhammad’s first revelation comes to him as he meditates quietly in the desert. At a time of such hypocrisy and confusion, perhaps he intended his meditation to bring him closer to God.  But, what he got was entirely unexpected.  No quiet voice speaks to his soul- instead, in what must have been a terrifying blaze of glory, the angel Gabriel appears to him “with feet astride the horizon” to inform him that he, Muhammad, is the messenger of God.  The vision is so overwhelming that for a short time he doubts his own sanity.

To me, this first vision is remarkably similar to Joseph Smith’s first vision, with some notable differences.  Both men experienced an incredible vision with a similar purpose.  Hazleton makes a convincing argument that, similar to Smith, Muhammad truly believed that his revelation was real, and that it was from God.  She shows that, regardless of whether the angel Gabriel actually appeared to him, Muhammad sincerely believed it to be true.  His actions throughout his life demonstrate this.

Muhammad eventually learns that he has been called by God to restore his people to true worship and righteousness, but the importance of his first vision does not become clear immediately.  Although he discusses his revelation with family and loved ones, he does not publicly teach until the revelations begin to come again three years later.  Joseph Smith’s experience was similar.  After his first vision, years passed before he assumed his role as prophet.

When Muhammad finally begins to preach his revelations to the people of Mecca, he is not well received.  He denies many of their cherished religious tenets, and many Meccans take deep offense to this. They call Muhammad a madman, a deceiver, a demagogue, and worse.  At one point, a disbeliever pelts him with bloody sheep offal. Numerous attempts are made on his life, though he is spared each time through divine intervention.

Muhammad’s message does, however, resonate deeply with some Meccans.  The small group of believers sacrifices greatly for their faith and they face terrible persecution.  All of Mecca joins in a boycott of the believers, bringing them hunger and poverty.  Eventually, physical violence ensues between believers and unbelievers.

This, too is a familiar theme.  Both Muhammad and Smith faced persecution for claiming to have had a vision.  And, just like early members of the Mormon faith, the new religious converts are misunderstood and even hated.  The believers are finally driven from Mecca, their home, and out into the wilderness.  Against all odds, they join with the people of the small desert community of Medina.  There, they eventually form a prosperous society that grows in power and influence despite the most fierce opposition.  Persecution and exile increased the believers’ sense of identity, unity, and belief in their cause.  I am reminded of Smith’s early persecution experiences, and of the early Mormon pioneers striking out into the wilderness to form Zion in the American west.  A history of persecution and exile also forms a strong part of Mormon identity.

In style and substance, Muhammad’s revelations remind me of Smith’s revelatory experiences.  Many times, Muhammad or his followers had a dilemma, and after prayer and meditation, revelation would come to him in the form of the “Quranic voice”, as Hazleton puts it.  The revelations gave instruction, rebuke, forgiveness, and comfort.  They dispelled doubts and promised justice.  They also taught doctrine and administrative procedures.

For example, at a time in which Muhammad feared that God had stopped speaking to him, the Quranic voice breaks the silence with the “Sura of the Morning”:

“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
By the day, full of light,
and the night when it falls peacefully,
your Lord has not forsaken you (O Prophet), nor is He displeased.
And surely the later period is better for you than the earlier period,
and soon your Lord shall give you so much that you shall be well pleased.
Did He not find you an orphan and then he sheltered you?
And He found you unaware of the Way, then He guided you,
and He found you poor, then He enriched you.
Therefore, do not be harsh to the orphan,
and do not scold the beggar,
and do proclaim the bounty of your lord.”
-Sura 93

I can almost imagine this Sura being part of the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants.  God’s revelation speaks directly to Muhammad, comforts him, declares his pleasure with his faithfulness, encourages him not to complain or fear for his present circumstances, makes promises of a better future, and reminds him to remain righteous.  This instantly reminded me of numerous LDS scriptures, such as D&C 121:7-11.   It seems that in times of trial, both Smith and Muhammad needed revelations of encouragement.

Hazelton describes the revelation process as exhausting and overwhelming (p. 88, 102).  When Sidney Rigdon experienced a revelation similar to Joseph Smith’s, he ended up “limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag”.  Smith tells his believers that “Sidney is not as used to it as I am” (see lds.org for source).  Perhaps Muhammad’s experience was similar.

Many other major similarities fill both histories.  Muhammad’s mission to restore previous truths also featured the cleansing and restoration of the Kaaba, a strong desire to convert the Jews, and a commission from God to “arise and warn” (p. 111).  Muhammad revealed rules about polygamy and marriage, with special exceptions for himself (p. 251-256).  The early Muslim histories include miraculous conversions, escapes, and victories in battle, cautionary tales against disobedience, and fulfilled prophesy.  The Quran, to Muslims, completes and corrects the Bible, which has been corrupted (p. 59-60), and the revelations are given “in a clear Arabic tongue” (p. 114), to address God’s people in their own language.  Each of these points has a direct parallel in Mormonism.

Of course, there are as many points of divergence as there are parallels.  While Smith witnessed God in person during his first vision, Muhammad never saw God himself.  In Islam, Muhammad was the sole receiver of revelation, while in Mormonism, revelation is widespread and continuous.  Islam and Mormonism (and all of Christianity, for that matter) have enormous theological differences.  Still, to me, the parallels are quite notable.

What can we make of all of these parallels?  There are numerous possibilities for interpretation.  It may be that similar conditions led both men and both groups of believers to have similar experiences.  Perhaps one prophet is true and the other is false.  Or, perhaps God spoke to both Smith and Muhammad, but we simply don’t understand the nature of revelation as well as we think we do.  Could it be that revelation is imperfectly communicated through human minds?  Maybe both men communicated some truth, mixed with their own interpretations.  Maybe these parallels aren’t actually significant, and in listing them, I have succumbed to my own biases.  There are limitless ways to view this information.  I leave that judgement to you, the reader.

I do have a few issues with Hazleton’s otherwise excellent volume.  She does not provide any footnotes in the text, and this sometimes made it very difficult to tell what her sources were.  Being unfamiliar with Muslim history, and because she uses direct quotes from primary sources only sparingly, I occasionally found myself wondering if some of what I read was speculative.  This is especially noticeable in the first two chapters, when she explains certain characters’ feelings, mental states, or clothing.  Only when I finished the book did I find the brief “Notes” section, hidden away in the back.  The format she uses made it difficult to refer to the notes as I read.

While Hazleton’s agnostic point of view is useful and accessible, it would also be very interesting to read a conservative Muslim biography of the prophet.  Such a work would surely argue forcefully for the veracity of Muhammad’s divine mission.  What miraculous stories did Hazleton leave out?  Because of her mild skepticism, she surely omitted some stories that believers consider to be strong evidence of the truth.  It also seems likely that some of her interpretations of events would rankle conservative believers, but I can’t always be sure which events are considered controversial.  Reading a conservative, believing biography as well would give a fuller understanding of how Muslims today view their prophet and their history.  However, such a biography may leave out difficult or challenging information, so it’s wise to read both.

Also, I can’t fail to mention Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews in Medina.  I had never previously learned of these events, and I was shocked and appalled.  Although Muhammad is consistently portrayed sympathetically, Hazleton does not pull punches when describing what took place there.  She explains historical information as well as apologetic explanations, and true to form, lets readers pass their own judgement.

I came away from reading The First Muslim feeling that Muhammad, while flawed, was a largely sincere man, and in most cases must have truly believed he was doing God’s will.  He accomplished incredible feats, and his life story was amazing.  I feel that learning some history of another faith through an agnostic lens has greatly broadened my understanding, increased my empathy for those of any religion, and given me a new perspective on my own religious heritage.  Overall, The First Muslim was a pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.

As a parting thought, I have to ask myself- how many times has this happened?  How many times has a human being seen what appears to be hypocrisy and corruption in their world, and through visionary experiences, transformed that world?  Certainly, it has happened more than once.  The message that Muhammad shared, like the message Smith shared, resonates with millions, and it is worth our time to try to understand it.

More Information

Hazleton’s TedX Talk
Seeing Muhammad – And Each Other – Whole: Lesley Hazleton at TEDxRainier

Muhammad’s First Revelation
Wikipedia- Muhammad’s First Revelation
IslamReligion.com- The First Revelations

Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Lds.org- The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Lds.org- The First Vision: A Narrative from Joseph Smith’s Accounts

Commentary on the Sura of the Morning
Wikipedia- Ad-Dhuha
Al-Islam.org- Surah Duha, Chapter 93

Wikipedia- Jahiliyyah
IslamQA.info- Use of the Word “Jahiliyyah” (Period of Ignorance)

Apostasy and Restoration
Lds.org- The Apostasy and the Restoration of the Gospel
Lds.org- Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration”

I Wish I Could Go Back

I don’t think I realized that they were real people.  Mrs. Smith, the sweet old Pentecostal lady who spoke in tongues and was on fire for Jesus.  Megan, who blessed her child with the laying on of hands.  Kidane, who had moved to America to escape civil war in Eritrea.  Mike, a kind man, full of biblical and historical wisdom, who after a life of searching had joined Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Ryan, a teen who had left that same organization, and who had been kicked out of his home for doing so.  Ellen, the Baptist woman who prayed with us and for us on the side of the road.  Wanda, who had visions from God.  Suleman, home and wheelchair bound, who tried to convert me to Islam, and his old doctor friend Mamin, who gave him company and medical care without asking for payment.

It seems so distant in my mind now, like it was another life.

These people, and so many more, welcomed me into their homes and allowed me to talk with them about the deepest parts of human experience.  We discussed God, the meaning and purpose of life, the source of and reason for religious belief, revelation, sin, regret, and forgiveness.

And we butted heads.  Their beliefs challenged mine.  I prayed that God would soften their hearts and lead them to change.  I cared deeply about the people I met- I was trying to save them.  Each time I faced a rejection, I was devastated, and I feared for their souls.  I wondered if I had done something wrong to prevent them from feeling the Spirit and being converted.  I felt that I was on a mission from God.  I had the one true path, and it was my duty to share it.  Because I so urgently needed to share my own beliefs, I don’t think I really, deeply listened to the people I met.  I only saw the surface of their lives, experiences, and perspectives.

I wish I could go back.  It seems to me now that I missed an incredible opportunity.  As a 19 year old Mormon missionary, I was surrounded by people who were so different than me, most of whom had much more life experience than I did.  They had reasons for their beliefs that, to them, were absolutely as compelling as mine were to me.  Their beliefs were formed in crucibles that were far different from my own.  It could have been a chance for me to listen and learn from an incredible diversity of minds and hearts.

I did learn from them, but I was not fully open.  I realize now, in a way I didn’t understand at the time, that these people have entire, real, rich, full lives.  They had lived, loved, prayed, struggled, converted, de-converted, triumphed, failed, joyed, despaired, and made many sacrifices in ways I, as a young man, could not have known.  That sounds obvious now- but at the time, I saw them only in the context of my own beliefs.  They were semi-lost souls, good people, who had only part of the truth, and who needed my message, if only they were ready to listen.  I feel now like my memories of them are simplified shadows of real people.  I got to know them only as their beliefs collided with mine.

If I could go back and do it over again, I would do it so differently.  I would have a more open ear, and I would not worry so much about converting others.  I would not assume that my way was the only correct and valid way.  I would listen to understand instead of to build my arguments, and I would listen without judgment.  If I could go door to door and talk with people of every religious background, I would ask them:

How did you come to believe what you believe?  Why is it important?  What about your beliefs means the most to you?

Are you happy?  Do you feel fulfilled?  What gives you hope and joy?

What do your beliefs make you feel?

What experiences have solidified your beliefs?  Have you seen miracles?  Will you tell me about your spiritual experiences?

What do you feel the most important things in life are?  Why are we here?

How do your beliefs motivate you?

What has challenged your beliefs?  Have you ever changed your beliefs?

What is it like to be immersed in your community of believers and way of life?  How is it different from mine?  How is it the same?  How do you view people like me?

Of course, this is a fantasy.  I’m not going to go door to door asking people to tell me about their religious beliefs.  My mission really was a unique opportunity.  I did my best, and I tried to do what I felt to be right at the time.  I don’t think there is anything I could do now that could replicate such an experience, and even if there was, my life has become so full of other things that I wouldn’t dedicate the time and effort.  Still, I wish I could have done it differently.

If I could ask the people of Missouri these questions, would I agree with everything they shared with me?  Not likely.  But I would honor their perspectives.  I would consider their experiences to be valuable, real, human experiences, just as valid as mine.  I would admit my own perspective is limited, and in hearing their experiences, my views would be enriched.  I would acknowledge that I could learn from them, even if I disagreed on many points.  I would want to know what they thought and felt, and why.  And I would more fully KNOW them.

Instead, I just remember them, and wonder about it all.