Campus

"God wasn't there"

William dedicated 22 years of his life to Mormonism. But after struggling to get past the guilt of committing a serious sin, he not only abandoned his faith, he tried to completely erase it from his past. But religion was sown so deep into the fabric of who he was, he couldn’t escape it.
(Aiken Lao )
Listen to the full episode27:30

[WARNING: CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT]

William requested not to use his last name for this story.

Many of us have moments in our past that we'd like to forget, and pretend like they never happened. But whether it's a traumatic event, or a regretful decision, these things always have a way of reappearing in our lives, no matter how much we think we've moved on.

I had been abandoned because God wasn't there. Like, it's really easy once you start doubting your faith, to go down the rabbit hole all the way down to… there is no God.

For William, it was two things. The first, was a moment of sin. After dedicating his entire life to becoming a Mormon priest, he thought he could repent, and still be faithful. But it was always there, weighing on him, until he eventually lost his way. William not only abandoned Mormonism, he tried to completely erase it from his past. That was the second decision that would come back to haunt him.

At that point, religion was sown so deep into the fabric of who he was, he couldn't escape it. Hear how William learned to fundamentally redefine who he was after losing religion.


GROWING UP MORMON

William was born into a Mormon family in southern Alberta. It's a foundation that was built at just eight years old, inside the walls of the Mormon chapel, when he was baptized. "That's symbolic of kind of like a washing away of sins, that you've been taught and equipped with the tools you need to choose right from wrong. And so you're starting fresh now," William said of giving himself to God.

It was the first of many small, personal moments for William that helped connect him with his family's beliefs. As he grew older, these moments would strengthen his own connection with God, until one day, when William was in high school, he had a brush with death that sealed his faith.

I felt that God had protected me. God had somehow intervened to make sure that I was okay. And that was based on my faithfulness.

While rushing to his little brother's school play, William got into a life-threatening car accident. "The highway intersection is right in front of me and a minivan comes up the highway, and I smoke the minivan. The van goes out of control. I go out of control. Airbags pop. Everything finally settles, and immediately I know I might have just killed somebody," William remembers.

Fortunately, no one involved was seriously injured. "I felt that God had protected me. God had somehow intervened to make sure that I was okay. And that was based on my faithfulness," William recalls.

It was a defining moment for William. In the days that followed, he became more determined in his path to priesthood. He began studying scripture every morning before school, and often found himself going to his local temple to reflect on his faith. "It was when I would go and listen to my own thoughts, and the holy spirit talk to me through what I should do," William said.

(Mark A. Philbrick)

BREAKING THE LAW OF CHASTITY

William became a priest at just 16 years old, which isn't unusual for a devout, young Mormon man. And after high school, there's really only one destination for a budding Mormon academic to pursue higher education - Brigham Young University. It's just outside of Salt Lake City, in Utah - the epicentre of the Mormon faith. But when William arrived on campus, it didn't take long to realize that things were done a little differently in Utah.

He found himself stifled by strict, cultural rules that had nothing to do with the Mormon religion. For example, he wasn't allowed to have a beard, or was restricted to being able to privately interact with women for just two hours per week in his dorm room. "It became about seeing everybody through this lens of extremism that detached itself from the teachings of the church," William realized. 

I was like, well, that wasn't worth it. If I am going to sin it better be awesome. And this was not awesome. I was feeling like I had betrayed myself.

After returning home to Alberta that summer, William needed a break from the Mormon community. He made an effort to hang out with people that weren't Mormon, including a neighbour that he started dating. She eventually asked him to her prom, where the sexual tension mounted. And during the after-party, he gave in, and they had sex. "I was like, well, that wasn't worth it. If I am going to sin, it better be awesome. And this was not awesome. I was feeling like I had betrayed myself," he remembers.

William had broken the law of chastity. It was a massive sin, and now he had to figure out how to carry it with him, and continue his path as a Mormon priest. In addition, he was just a few weeks away from a two-year mission away from home -- two years of dedicating every waking moment to spreading the word of God.

"I firmly believed that despite having sinned, and despite not going through with the repentance process that would have been expected of me, I could still do it. I could put it behind me, and I could be a good missionary," William confidently thought.

(REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

UNWORTHY MISSIONARY

Although William was excited to embark on this new chapter in his life, things quickly went awry. Once again, he felt stifled by the Mormon culture during his mission. "During all waking hours, all of your attention is dedicated to teaching other people about Mormonism. You can't go to movies. You can't go on the Internet. You don't have a cell phone. You can't watch TV, you don't even have a TV. You can't listen to music. You cannot contact your family by telephone except on Mother's Day and Christmas, is the only time you're allowed to call your family," William said about the rules.

I know in my heart that, not only did I do this thing before, but I'm breaking rules now on the regular. I felt like I was a liar… and the worst part about it, at that point, was that I didn't care anymore.

But underneath all of that, William struggled to get past breaking the law of chastity. He realized, when he taught people about the word of God, he was essentially lying to them. "I know in my heart, that not only did I do this thing before, but I'm breaking rules now on the regular. I felt like I was a liar… and the worst part about it, at that point, was that I didn't care anymore," William recalls. 

He began losing his motivation to teach, and regularly broke the rules. But more importantly, he began questioning his relationship with God. "So if God wasn't going to help me be a better missionary, and he wasn't going to help me stop being a missionary, well then maybe I have been abandoned. And maybe I had been abandoned because God wasn't there. Like, it's really easy, once you start doubting your faith, to go down the rabbit hole all the way down to... there is no God."

(REUTERS/Edgard Garrido)

ESCAPING RELIGION

William eventually finished his mission, and came home a changed man. After 22 years of committing himself to Mormonism, William was done. He had completely lost his faith, and wanted nothing to do with God. So he started fresh, left Brigham Young University, and enrolled at the University of Victoria - a place where no one knew him, a place where he could forget his religious past, and redefine himself.

"I had friends at school… everything was going great, and no one knew I was an ex-Mormon. I had put it all behind me and it felt fantastic. And in order for me to keep that illusion, I had to play up to it," William said about his first year on campus.

During one party, he hit it off with a girl. They ended up back at his place, where they started getting intimate. And just as they were about to have sex, William realized that he couldn't get it up. And after multiple failed attempts, William inevitably gave up. He was embarrassed.

The Mormon ingrained inside of me is not going to let it happen. I can think that I've put my Mormon aside. I've ignored it. I pretend it's not there. I don't tell anybody about it, but it's there. And I can't just wish it away. It's part of who I am.

But in that moment, he knew exactly what was causing his sexual anxiety. "The Mormon ingrained inside of me is not going to let it happen. I can think that I've put my Mormon aside. I've ignored it. I pretend it's not there. I don't tell anybody about it, but it's there. And I can't just wish it away," William said.

No matter how much William believed that he had left Mormonism behind, he couldn't escape it. His religious values were embedded into his psyche for so long, that even when he tried to pretend they didn't exist, they continued to reappear in his life.

After some time, William learned that he couldn't simply erase his past. And in order for him to move forward, he had to acknowledge it, and figure out how it could shape his future. "When I look at who I am as a person, it's not who I am right now. It's a cumulative effect of everybody I was, and who I am right now. I used to be a priest. I used to teach people things I no longer believe. I could resent it. I could say it took away my humanity, but it didn't. I accepted it. I went into it. I made the best of it, and I learn from it."