12 episodes

I grew up astonished at how blessed I was to be born into an active Mormon family; now I wonder what the chances really are of being born Mormon, and I think how wild it is that it happened to me. I grew up feeling very privileged to supposedly have a truth that few others had, but now I feel deprived of much of my adolescence. I grew up wanting to share Mormonism with everyone that hadn't experienced it, now I dislike mentioning that I'm originally from Utah. I grew up an orthodox, devout Mormon, and now I'm a skeptical, free-thinking atheist. These stories are an intimate view into my life. But I feel strongly that sharing them is the right thing to do. I share them without shame and own them completely. As Brene Brown says, "tell your story with your whole heart", and that is exactly what I plan to do.

My Mormon Experience Ethan Gregory Dodge

    • Religion & Spirituality

I grew up astonished at how blessed I was to be born into an active Mormon family; now I wonder what the chances really are of being born Mormon, and I think how wild it is that it happened to me. I grew up feeling very privileged to supposedly have a truth that few others had, but now I feel deprived of much of my adolescence. I grew up wanting to share Mormonism with everyone that hadn't experienced it, now I dislike mentioning that I'm originally from Utah. I grew up an orthodox, devout Mormon, and now I'm a skeptical, free-thinking atheist. These stories are an intimate view into my life. But I feel strongly that sharing them is the right thing to do. I share them without shame and own them completely. As Brene Brown says, "tell your story with your whole heart", and that is exactly what I plan to do.

    Chapter 11: Scripture Study

    Chapter 11: Scripture Study

    I once had a bishop who told me that if I read a chapter of the Book of Mormon everyday I would never leave the Church. I agreed with it at the time, which isn't the case now. But I can't necessarily argue against it, because I sure as hell didn't read the Book of Mormon every day, so I'm simply a validation of the sentiment. I'm sure TBMs reading agree and also feel validated. However, I did not say that I proved him right. I'm sure there is someone, if not many, out there who did read the Book of Mormon every day and still left the Church. After all, in my opinion it is one of the smokiest guns for the Church. I actually plan to read it again soon. It will be the first time I will read it from a non believer's perspective. I imagine I will feel many of the same feelings I did when I read as a believer. After all, its stories teach universal concepts of good and peace. It also promotes racist and bigoted concepts similar to the Bible. But, the fact of the matter is it changed my life and this chapter will detail my previous love for the book and how it passionately developed.


    Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the "keystone" of Mormonism, "the most correct of any book on earth", and that "a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book".1 Those are all phrases that I heard regularly in Church settings. I used them often myself, especially on my mission. What's more, I fully believed them. Even so, I did not personally read the Book of Mormon regularly, despite my best efforts to do so. In high school, I even carried a small pocket edition in my back pocket in effort to read when I had down time. That didn't work. Although I did get a lot of attention because of it. Most my friends thought it was pretty cool, but I'm sure some did some pretty serious eye rolls too. My personal scripture study habits would be better described as sporadic. I would go a few weeks or even months of daily reading and then go at least twice as long without reading.


    Family scripture study was a different story. My family read from the Book of Mormon together nearly every day. The only reason it wouldn't happened was if there was an irregularity that popped up in our schedule. I mostly assumed the responsibility of ensuring it happened, at least through the week. We would read first thing in the morning before anyone left for the day besides myy Dad. He would leave for work at an ungodly hour and would skip out. Other than him, I was the first one to leave every morning so I was the one that woke everyone else up to read. We'd usually be half awake and have trouble concentrating. As such, it wasn't so much family scripture study as it was take turns reading a few verses each to say that we did it. There was the rare occasion in which one of us would ask a question or my Mom would expand on a verse. But we were almost always able to leave the house with the satisfaction of doing what we were supposed to.


    At a young age, a Church leader told me when reading the scriptures, if I caught myself thinking about something other than what I was reading, that was personal revelation from Heavenly Father. In hindsight, I now realize that this is terrible advice, especially for a 13 year old with a very short attention span while reading mundane, religious text. But the sentiment and teaching was common among all Mormons and only reinforced by the common mantra of "If you want to talk to God, pray. If you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures." I can only imagine the crazy things I thought of and interpreted as revelation from God. It was extremely hard to concentrate on what I was reading. On my mission this experience was much different. In fact, scripture study almost became a form of meditation for me and I loved learning of the stories in both the Bible and Book of Mormon. It was always done early in the mo

    • 16 min
    Chapter 10: Mutual and Seminary

    Chapter 10: Mutual and Seminary

    In chapter 7 I addressed the schedule for church every Sunday. On top of those three hours, Mormons typically have activities throughout the week, especially for the teenagers. Every week, typically on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, all the youth will go to the church for what is called Mutual. I'm not exactly sure why they call it that, and I actually think they may have discontinued that name, but that's what I grew up calling it and that's is how I'll refer to it in this chapter.


    I really enjoyed going to Mutual and typically looked forward to it. Mormons start going to Mutual at the age of 12 and continue until age 18. They participate in various activities in their respective classes. Up until recently, the Mormon Church always put a big emphasis on scouting. I am an Eagle Scout and a large chunk of my merit badges were earned at Mutual. I remember we once went to a city council meeting for the Citizenship in the Community badge. I earned my Cycling merit badge going on 10 - 25 mile bike rides with the rest of the boys for Mutual. While I currently do not support the Boy Scouts of America, I do have very fond memories of working on these achievements with other boys my age at Mutual.


    Once a month, there was a "combined activity" which consisted of all the classes of boys and girls participating in an activity together. For me, and many others, these were always highly anticipated. I remember one particularly memorable one. Someone had made a typical scavenger hunt all around the city. We went to all sorts of places such as the park and Wal-mart in search for clues. Little did we know, at every stop there was a stranger planted that was supposedly in need, or at least acting like it. The real test was not to see who finished the hunt the fastest, but to see who took time to help those strangers. My group, with some help, had figured out the secret and we were intentionally looking for people in need, but other groups remained completely oblivious to the fact. Apparently one group found the clue they needed in Wal-mart and began to run back out to the car when a woman had "spilled" a bag of apples in their path. They were so determined to win that rather than help the woman, they all jumped right over the apples and hurried to their next destination. We still laugh about that to this day.


    Service projects were also very common for Mutual. Every Sunday, the Mutual activity for that week would be announced in class. Whenever it was a service project, the leader would try their best to avoid the using the words "service project" because if he did, over half the boys wouldn't show up. These projects typically meant work like weeding a garden or helping someone move. Mutual was often viewed as a place to have fun with your friends and not work, so to actually exert yourself was quite the deterrent. That said, there were some very meaningful opportunities for service that impacted me as a kid. Once the entire ward, not just the youth, got together and helped fix up the yard of a man who was paralyzed from the waist down. We mowed the lawn, weeded the garden and flower beds, fixed the sprinkler system, washed the windows, and a variety of other things. The yard looked completely different by the end of it. I remember being touched by the amount of people that showed up and how we were able to help this family. Another meaningful experience was going to the Utah State Developmental Center, a facility that houses mentally and physically disabled adults in Utah county. One Sunday a year our ward was assigned to take the residents to church and also take them to a dance at their facility the following Wednesday. The dance consisted of us pushing them in their wheelchairs while they danced to the music. It was always so fun to see them having a good time, smiling, laughing, and dancing. Later in my life, I was employed at the Uta

    • 13 min
    Chapter 9: Dating and Chastity

    Chapter 9: Dating and Chastity

    This chapter is one that I have looked forward to writing. It is a topic that affected so much of my life and brought so much shame and guilt. Not to mention, I personally think it is one of the most dominating and invasive parts of Mormon culture, especially in Utah, and more specifically Utah County where I was raised. Because of the dominating population of Mormons, there is a social peer pressure to keep all the standards perfectly and everyone knew if someone didn't. A large chunk of high school gossip had to do with who was and wasn't keeping these standards.


    To begin, I want to lay out a few of these standards and expectations. All of these can be found in a pamphlet published by the Church entitled For the Strength of Youth. It covers 19 different topics that the Church leaders want youth to be conscious of. I remember being encouraged to keep a copy of this pamphlet on my nightstand and read a section every night before going to bed. I don't know that I ever did that, but I definitely took everything in this book very seriously. I will quote excerpts from the pamphlet and then expand. These are all taken directly from the sections entitled Dating and Sexual Purity. There are other topics in the pamphlet that will not be explored in this chapter.



    You should not date until you are at least 16 years old. When you begin dating, go with one or more additional couples. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person. Developing serious relationships too early in life can limit the number of other people you meet and can perhaps lead to immorality.1



    The whole "don't date before your 16" idea was taken very seriously. I remember there was one girl in my high school who had skipped a grade. She was in one of my classes and the teacher always teased her that she couldn't go to homecoming until her Senior year because she would turn 16 just after her Junior year Homecoming. That's how expected it was. Even the teachers promoted and talked about it. Typically everyone assumed that everyone else wasn't going to date until they were 16 and the standard was just expected whether you wanted to follow it or not. If someone made the decision to go to a school dance before their 16th birthday, everyone knew about it. I remember a friend who regularly challenged that thinking. Their argument was that there wasn't something that magically happened at midnight on your 16th birthday that suddenly made you mature enough to date. I remember thinking something like "But the prophet says so!" but in hindsight I am actually very impressed that they would challenge the group think around them at such a young age.


    Now, I want to effectively illustrate what was considered dating. Growing up, there were many kids my same age in my ward. It was a fairly even mix of girls and boys. We would hang out together all the time. It usually consisted of us walking around the neighborhood in the middle of the street talking, joking, and laughing. During the summer we'd play night games every night. I'm not sure if it's common to call it "night games" outside the Mormon community, but it consisted of us playing games like capture the flag, kick the can, and sardines after sunset. Almost all of our parents had a strict rule that if there was the same number of boy as there were girls, then it was a group date. Apparently they felt that there was too much risk of us pairing off. So before we were 16, this was forbidden. And even if someone's parents didn't care, it didn't matter because it was enforced by, not only everyone else's parents, but by the community. Often there would be comments from other adults who weren't related to any of us telling us to be careful or pointing out that there were three boys and three girls. One of us would feel guilty enough and go home. I'm completely serious when I say this was a regular occurrence.


    Once you ac

    • 12 min
    Chapter 8: Aaronic Priesthood Leadership

    Chapter 8: Aaronic Priesthood Leadership

    In chapter 2 I mentioned some differences between the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. To recap and give some additional context: the Aaronic Priesthood is given to young men at the age of 12 and the Melchizedek Priesthood is given to men at the age of 18. When you receive the priesthood you are assigned to your respective office. As previously stated, Deacon, Teacher, and Priest are the most common offices in the Aaronic Priesthood and are dictated by your age. The offices of Elder and High Priest are the most common offices in the Melchizedek Priesthood. When you enter the Melchizedek Priesthood, you are assigned to the office of Elder and remain so until you are called to be a High Priest. Each person holding these offices is to attend their respective class every Sunday. These groups of men in their respective priesthood offices are most commonly referred to as a quorum (yes, fellow fans, the creator of Battlestar Galactica was Mormon).


    Now, each quorum has what is referred to as a presidency. This presidency consists of a president, two assistants — more commonly referred to as counselors —, and a secretary. Their duties are to oversee that lessons and activities get planned and executed as well as keep an eye out for their fellow quorum members. As small teenagers, we were encouraged to respect, honor, and look up to the members of the presidency. I remember wanting to be called as president. I have always been ambitious and, as a little 12 year old, I felt this was a great way to fulfill those ambitions. I was disappointed the first time a new presidency was called when I was a Deacon and I was not chosen. The president is chosen by the bishop and then assigned to go a pray about who the two counselors and secretary should be. I even approached the other kid who had been called as president and expressed my desire to serve to no avail. But eventually my time came and I was called to be president of the Deacon's quorum.


    I remember the member of the bishopric on the other side of the phone telling me that, as president, I was entitled to the "ministering of angels" and would be inspired as to who to pick to be my two counselors.1 I am fairly positive that there were only four boys, including myself, in the quorum at the time. Thus, it was quite obvious who the rest of the presidency was going to be, but the question was who was going to serve in what position. Of course, I channeled my inner holier than thou and examined who was the most worthy of the other three to be my first counselor. Naturally, I picked my best friend. I later told him that I got a particularly strong feeling when praying to know if he should be my first counselor. I now have little doubt that it was just my confirmation bias that was particularly strong. For future reference in the storyline, I will refer to this friend as Darrell. I called the next oldest kid to be the second counselor and the youngest of us four to be the secretary. I honestly can't remember much that I did as Deacon's quorum president other than stress out when one of the other Deacons didn't show up to church, and making sure we had enough boys to pass the sacrament.


    When I became a Teacher, I was called into the presidency fairly early on. I was called to be first counselor to another very close friend. I often referred to this friend as my best friend as well. I'll call him Shawn. To this day, if you ask me who my best friends were in junior high, I'll say Shawn and Darrell. Although, when high school came around, Shawn slowly disappeared from my social life while Darrell did not. I was a groomsman at Darrell's wedding and still refer to him as one of my best friends. But that is getting off topic. Some time after Shawn became a Priest, I was called as Teacher's quorum president. I am not positive if it was immediately after Shawn left the quorum o

    • 6 min
    Chapter 7: Testimony Meetings

    Chapter 7: Testimony Meetings

    Mormons attend three hours of Church every Sunday. It generally consists of three, hour-long meetings that typically occur in the following order:



    Sacrament meeting


    Here they take the sacrament as talked about in previous chapters. After the sacrament, talks and sermons are given from leaders and various members of the ward. It is often a dreaded assignment to speak in sacrament meeting.

    Sunday school


    Here everyone goes to their assigned class to learn about the gospel and church doctrine on various subjects. The children go to Primary, the youth are split up by age into different classes, and the adults are normally all together.

    Priesthood, Relief Society, and Young Women's classes


    Here all the men attend classes with their respective Priesthood offices, i.e. Deacon, Teacher, Priest as I talked about in previous chapters. The young women attend classes dictated by their age, and the women attend Relief Soceity, essentially an all women sunday school class.



    The content and style of the second and third meetings will be addressed in later chapters. For now I am going to concentrate on sacrament meeting, more specifically fast and testimony meeting. Fast and testimony meeting is a special sacrament meeting that occurs on the first Sunday of every month. Members of the ward are supposed to fast for 24 hours this day, though the only time I went the entire 24 was during my mission. It was normal for me to completely forget until the night before and just skip breakfast and lunch the next day. I'm positive I was not the only one that did this. Regardless, members are supposed to be fasting and typically should fast for something. For example, when I was ten my grandfather had a heartattack and the next fast Sunday we all fasted and prayed for a healthy recovery. This is a spiritual practice not unique to Mormonism.


    In fast and testimony meeting, after everyone takes the sacrament, anyone in the congregation is invited to approach the pulpit and bear their testimony. This legal-sounding phrase, "bear testimony", is extremely common in Mormonism. In fact, if you search Google for those two words, the first link is an article from the Church's website entitled What does it mean to bear testimony?. Here's the first paragraph from the article:



    A testimony is a spiritual witness, given by the Holy Ghost, of the truthfulness of the gospel. When we bear testimony, we declare to others what we know to be true by the power of the Spirit. The foundation of a testimony is the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves us, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that His gospel has been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior’s true Church.



    In summary, the basic idea is that the Holy Ghost has supposedly told you that these things are true and you are able to claim that you know them to be true. The extreme majority of testimonies typically start out with "I'd like to bear my testimony that I know this Church is true." Other common statements and sentiments expressed include "I know Joseph Smith was a prophet", "I know Christ lives", "I know Heavenly Father answers prayers", and "I know he loves me". The word "know" is very important in this situation. If you had prayed to God and felt that what you were praying about was true, according to Mormons, you know that it's true. Yes, this leaves plenty of room for confirmation bias and self-deception to take place, but I was taught that this was a legitimate and valid way to determine truth.


    Testimony meetings tended to be powerfully spiritual in the sense that as someone was bearing their testimony with conviction, many others in the room were inspired and touched by that conviction and understood that to be the Spirit confirming the truth of what this person was saying. The Church teaches that the be

    • 8 min
    Chapter 6: Preparing and Blessing the Sacrament

    Chapter 6: Preparing and Blessing the Sacrament

    As I explained in chapter 5, the young men's duties concerning the sacrament change as they get older. Once you turn 14 you are no longer a Deacon and become a Teacher. The Teachers are responsible for preparing the sacrament. This entails several of them arriving about 30 minutes or so before church, placing dozens of little plastic or paper cups into trays, filling them each with water, dividing a loaf of bread between several other trays, placing both the water and the bread trays on the sacrament table, and covering them all with a white clothe. In my ward, one boy was assigned to bring the loaf of bread each week. Being the absent minded 14 year olds that we were, it wasn't rare that the assigned boy forgot and the bread wasn't in place until minutes before, or even after, the meeting started. For a while, we just started keeping several loaves of bread in the freezer in the church and move one loaf to the refridgerator on Friday or Saturday. One week, that somehow resulted in one of the loaves getting moldy, but the Teachers didn't notice before it was too late. We got a serious talking to from the bishop that same day.


    At 16 you become a Priest and get to bless the sacrament. For many, this was a nerve-racking experience. Imagine sitting in front a group of 300 people, all of them listening to you, knowing what you were going to say, and the bishop reading along with the prayer to make sure you get it right. But to make it even worse, it has to be exactly right. Not even one word can be wrong or else it has to be done again. There are several words and phrases in the prayers that are similar and easily confused. As an example, here's the prayer for the bread:



    O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.1



    It was very common to accidentally say "that they may eat it" rather than simply "that they may eat". Or "and always have his Spirit" rather than "that they may always have his Spirit". In both cases the Priest would have start over and say it again. Once, a kid in my ward had to start over at least five or six times and got more frustrated each time until eventually he asked someone else to do it. I think that was his first time trying to do it too. Talk about scaring.


    To add to the pressure, many times we would be lectured on the importance of our tone when reciting the prayers. It wasn't appropriate to simply read it off quickly like a routine, but we were told to speak slowly, reverently, and thoughtfully. I have memories of members publicly expressing how important it is to them that the Priests said the prayers with conviction and sincerity. I personally prided myself in my ability to do so and was often personally complimented by others for the way in which I performed. Yeah, I was pretty self righteous.


    This only added to the culture of comparison and shaming that I mentioned in the previous chapter. It was frustrating to mess up and have to start over not only because everyone was listening, but because it felt like the other Priests were judging you. Granted, not all of them were, but I couldn't help but wonder.







    Doctrine and Covenants 20:77 ↩

    • 3 min

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