When I was 16, my mother died in her sleep. Eight years of prayers, fasting and bargaining with God had not been enough to send her illness into remission.
I was raised in the Mormon Church — Sunday fasting, sacrament meetings, casseroles, priesthood blessings. My mother was a Mexican immigrant, raised Catholic. Her life in the U.S. had not been easy. An abusive husband had shattered her confidence in the American dream. She was a single parent, having escaped from the relationship with a set of clothes and a few dollars in cash. We lived, the seven of us, in a two-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood. Sometimes we had no food.
Mormon missionaries were a common presence in our neighborhood. In their crisp white shirts and black dress pants, we could spot them from blocks away, wilting in the Gulf Coast humidity. They were always tall, white, smiling. To me, they were like superheroes. When I was 8, missionaries knocked on our front door. My mother gathered us all for bible lessons. A month later I was baptized a Mormon.
My family learned quickly that Mormonism requires a certain level of homogeny. Our mixed-race family stood out in a sea of white, and while no one mentioned it, we felt self-conscious. My brothers did not own suits. I had one dress, a hand-me-down, too tight in the sleeves. I remember these small differences vividly. I remember feeling strange and alien, uncomfortable in my church costume.
For years we sang hymns, memorized scripture, participated in the Christmas pageant. We learned to politely eat Jell-O salad and say “dang” instead of “damn.” Like all Mormon converts, we adapted to a world where being different simply wasn’t an option.
Our home life remained tumultuous. When we arrived in Sunday school with fresh bruises, our teachers averted their eyes. When my little brother, while praying, asked God to “make Daddy not hit Mommy tonight,” our teacher never mentioned it. One day, I learned that my family would not be reunited in the celestial kingdom, Mormon heaven. (Only families sealed in the temple could live together in heaven. And only married couples could be sealed to their children in the temple.)
“You will be able to visit your family in the celestial kingdom,” my teacher tried to reassure me, “you just won’t be able to live together.” I thought of the way my father hit my mother, the fear I would feel when he entered a room. But we couldn’t live together in heaven because my mother had not stayed married to the man who beat her.
There’s a peacefulness that comes with accepting uncertainty.
After that, my questions only multiplied. Brigham Young, our prophet, was sealed to his 300 wives and his dozens of children. If he could live with his family in heaven, why couldn’t we? Why couldn’t Heavenly Father make some sort of exception for battered wives? Did he have to punish my entire family for the actions of one man?
Once I went into the wrong Sunday school class by mistake. Instead of Young Women’s, I walked into a meeting for the Aaronic Priesthood. Mormon boys as young as 13 can become priesthood holders. They can give blessings to the sick, consecrate oil and handle the sacrament. Young women do not have the same responsibilities. Our job was to be modest and chaste, to learn to sew, cook and be supportive wives.
Standing in the wrong classroom, I asked the teacher if I could sit in on his class. His response was a firm “no.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because you have a different role,” he replied, shutting the door in my face.
I tried fitting my mother into this “different role.” She was strong, brave, outspoken. She couldn’t sew very well, and she wasn’t comfortable in dresses or long skirts. I couldn’t picture her sitting in heaven without her children. Surely, she would circulate some sort of celestial petition against this.
The church felt so narrow — a path to heaven, but only if you were born in the mold. God wasn’t very keen on special circumstances. He expected very little from me, in the long run, so what reason did I have to try for anything greater in my life than a husband and children? My talents, my inquisitive nature would only get me in trouble with God.
Mormon scripture states that dark skin is a curse from god, a punishment cast down for sins. My little sister learned this in Sunday school and cried in our bedroom after church. What had she done wrong, she wondered, to deserve her dark skin?
Mormonism was founded by white men at a time when racism and ignorance prevailed. Renouncing racism and sexism becomes much more difficult when the oppression is wrapped in the guise of family values and eternal salvation. Raise little girls to equate passivity with holiness, and who will fight for women’s rights in the political sphere? Tell people with dark skin that God has deemed them flawed, and you can feel justified when you deny them their rights.
World out of control
After my mother died, I became very afraid of the unknown. I felt I needed to believe in a god, a master plan, some sort of guiding hand in my life. The world felt like a car out of control. Nothing was certain. Everything wasn’t necessarily “going to be all right.” These concepts were almost too overwhelming to process, especially in a time of grief and strain. Religion comforts us when circumstances are beyond our control. That’s why they say there are no atheists in foxholes.
So much suffering exists in the world, most of it created by people claiming to be carrying out God’s will. When you hide behind religion, you can commit almost any evil. You just say you are only following orders. There’s no fact-checking department for prophecy. No one can phone Christ and ask if he really did authorize a holy war. Religion is an oppressor’s rubber stamp, sanctioning everything from manifest destiny to genocide.
There’s a peacefulness that comes with accepting uncertainty, even when the uncertainty is enormous, like what happens when we die. We should be humble in the face of these questions. We should admit to not knowing, because then, all that is left is the present. And the present could use a bit of work.
I live without religion, but I do not hate religion. I do not feel empty or lost. There is no void within me that can only be filled with scripture. I have questions that cannot be answered until the day I die and see for myself what really happens. There may be nothing on the other side, no one running the show. Perhaps dying really is like having the lights turned out. The thought is disheartening, but not devastating if we can only learn to sit with it for a moment.
With so much work to be done in this life, how can we even begin to plan for another? How can we worry about skin pigmentation and dietary restrictions when so many people are suffering? What good is it to sit in a building and sing songs, when others have no food to eat?
Our responsibility is not to a supreme being in the sky, but to one another, to the world we all share. Our incentive for doing good should not be to earn a place in heaven, but to make the world safer and more equitable for each other.
Religion draws lines of separation. It declares some people more deserving than others. It is the illness rather than the cure.
Admitting we do not know the answers is much more powerful than pretending we do.
Carly Pedersen, 21, is a third-year student at Antioch University in Seattle. She’s pursuing a bachelor’s in social justice studies.