disclaimer: I will be recounting my own experiences in a direct and straight-forward manner. None of this is intended as disrespectful to those who believe differently, it is merely a statement of my personal conclusions and how I reached them.
Continued from here and here.
I was seventeen years old, a senior in high school. My beloved older brother was off on his freshman year at BYU, having a similar epiphany of his own.
In the back of my mind I was aware that in terms of physical evidence, the case for Mormonism looked pretty grim. But it didn't matter because the physical evidence was trumped by the spiritual evidence, namely the spiritual confirmation that the church is right and true.
I knew plenty of very intelligent people who knew more than I did about Mormon history, doctrine, evidence, and "issues," and their testimonies were none the worse for it.
On the other hand, I'd never known any believing Mormon to look at the evidence and be swayed by it to the point of leaving the church. I didn't even know any of those bitter, angry "anti-Mormons" who are so easily dismissed by the faithful. Like I said, it was a different time...
The only ex-Mormon I remember having met before I became one myself was one of my debate coaches. (I was in debate for about a year, around ninth and tenth grade, and wasn't terribly good at it...)
My exmo debate coach Tim didn't try to deconvert me. On one debate trip, when he heard I was Mormon, he kind of tried to use it as a point of common interest, to make a connection with me. (Remember this was in Minnesota where Mormonism is rare.) He told me he was raised Mormon, and said "I think I know who the current prophet is -- it's Ezra Taft Benson, right?" I said "Yeah," and was thinking What do you care who's the prophet if you don't believe in the church? He never mentioned religion again after that.
Tim was a nice guy, but I had never known him as a Mormon so I didn't know what his story was. I really never knew him that well, so I felt like he didn't influence me all that much. Yet I remember that tiny exchange to this day, so maybe he did...
But when it comes right down to it, every religion has to explain why different times and places all have completely different religions. The usual explanation is "We're right, they're wrong. But we'll save them by teaching them the truth." That's definitely the approach Mormonsim takes.
Although I found it pretty odd when learning about ancient mythology that God would have given the truth to the Hebrews and to the Americas and no one else, I couldn't bring myself to believe the other popular explanation: that all religions are different ways of communing with the same God. If God tells one set of people that he has the head of an elephant and they'll be reincarnated in better forms for not eating meat and then tells another group that the unique way to avoid being cast into a fiery pit of hell is to believe that Jesus died for their sins, then, well, God is a pretty schizophrenic guy...
Naturally I believed that since Mormonism was the only true church, non-Mormons all know -- deep down -- that they're still seeking and haven't found the truth yet. Why would a loving God tell them anything else? The fact that all of the various flavors of mainstream Christianity accept each other as part of the same "body of Christ" confirmed this view -- if the Presbyterians believed that one could be saved as a Baptist, and vice-versa, then they seemed to be acknowledging that they knew neither one had any ultimate truth that was vital to salvation.
So when I heard Mormons admitting that people in religions other than Mormonism had spiritual experiences like Mormons, it seemed very wrong. There was no reason that Heavenly Father would be in the business of confirming anything other than the truth instead of prompting people to get out and seek the truth.
That's the place where I was at when I started up a theological correspondence with my best friend in high school, a devout Lutheran named Kim. The whole thing was in the form of notes exchanged in a spiral notebook, consisting of a rather rudimentary "We believe this," followed by "Oh, really? We believe this other thing..."
The thing that struck me was that these random absurdities about the trinity and whatnot -- it was clear that she believed them as fervently as any Mormon believes in Mormon doctrine. She wasn't seeking and wasn't unsure as those who don't have the truth ought to be. She believed the stories her parents taught her with all her heart.
And her parents' stories and my parents' stories couldn't both be right.
That was what made me ask myself "Why do I believe what I believe?"
I remember my moment of epiphany. It hit me that I'd been taught from the cradle by loving parents that the sky is blue, one plus one is two, and Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. It was for that reason that I believed in my religion, not because of any evidence.
And that was it. That moment was the end of my belief in Mormonism.
And though I hung on to a vague non-denominational theism for a few years after that, I dismissed Jesus' miraculous claims within seconds of rejecting Joseph Smith's.
My fictional version of this scene (in my novel Exmormon) captures pretty well the thoughts that went through my head on that day. The main difference was that in the fictionalization, the primary catalyst was meeting a desirable exmo/apostate guy whom the main character later gets to have passionate sex with. In real life that did not happen. That's just what I wished would have happened. That would have been cool. In real life, the catalyst was just that discussion with a fellow nerdy girl.
However, in real life I did have a few non-member boyfriends at the time that I was in the process of trying to hustle into the bedroom as quickly as I could, with varying degrees of success. So if you'd like to tell yourself that my epiphany was motivated by my ferocious teenage hormones that wanted an open field to "sin," go ahead.
In reality, if anything my horniness slowed my epiphany because I believed -- as I was taught -- that Satan was using my "weakness" to keep me from righteousness and a real testimony. That Heavenly Father's failure to to give any sort of evidence of His existence was my fault, not His.