Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
Losing Shelf Control

Losing Shelf Control

I don’t know if there is a God, but I used to. I was born and raised a Mormon, and from a young age, I was taught that if I did all the right things—searching my scriptures, pondering what I learned, praying for a spiritual confirmation of truth, and keeping myself worthy all along the way—I would be able to know the “truthfulness of the gospel” just like so many Mormons before me. This knowledge would come to me via the Holy Ghost as an undeniable spiritual answer—which could mean good feelings, sudden positive thoughts, even a burning sensation.

And it did come. When I was fourteen years old, I started my own quest for truth. I read the Book of Mormon, I pondered it, and I prayed sincerely every day for over a year. I yearned to know. And one day, as I quietly listened to a church song, I felt a welling of positive emotions about Christ and the Book of Mormon and my church. I knew it was true. I had a testimony of my own.

Until college, when I started to analyze and question everything. I guess you could say that my “shelf” of questions became very heavy over the years—full of questions about things like polygamy, human suffering, blacks and the priesthood, LGBT issues, the origins and historicity of the scriptures, and the difference between the spirit vs. emotions. The more questions I asked, the more questions I found. I had often heard the strategy of figuratively “shelving” difficult religious questions, with the idea that at some future date (or future life) all would be revealed. But at some point, the weight become unbearable, and my shelf collapsed.

And so here I am. I’m still a Mormon, but I don’t know if there is a God. I don’t know if my testimony-inducing good feelings were my own or from the Holy Ghost. I don’t know the answers to life’s big questions of why I’m here, where I came from, or where I’m going. I miss the certainty that used to guide me through life. But I don’t think there’s any going back. How could there be?

I hope that there is a powerful, loving God out there. Someone who is fair and good and glorious beyond my wildest dreams.

But I don’t know anymore.


Readers, what are your experiences with “shelving” your religious questions?


  1. Sarah Collett

    It’s so fun that I want to comment on our own blog…Thanks for the honesty Mandy. I had a shelf years ago, but it too got too heavy. It didn’t crash but I definitely did some serious rearranging. I began to systematically look at each questions. It really took some time. 10 years and I’m still going. I know that there were so many times that I thought I would never go back, could never go back. And I haven’t, but I am evolving spiritually. I have learned that faith is a choice that you make but that I never choose to believe anything that gives me pain or troubles my conscience. I choose to have faith in what brings me great hope. And this relationship between faith and hope is really forcing some growth. I too deeply understand doubt and have looked atheism in the face but through the years I have learned that I will never really let go of that inner something that says there is more. I first decided to keep faith in that something because it gave me hope and that hope grows all the time, which then drives my choices to have and live by faith. As I go through this process I gain charity for others and for this thing called mormonism. I love that it started me down a path that led to this place where I can look back and know that doubt gave me a deeper understanding of the fundamentals, like faith, hope, and charity.

  2. Mungagungadin

    I’m in your position as well.

    One exception– I know there is a God.

    My observation: knowing there is a God makes all those shelf problems worse, not better. A wild part of me hopes the this last dispensation is here to welcome all mankind equally into the Plan of Happiness at last.

    (yet, to date, we have seen little to support that)

    My heart goes out to you.

  3. Mandy

    I think the whole concept of shelving problems is an interesting strategy. It seems to work for a lot of people, and sometimes I wonder why it didn’t work for me. Did I simply encounter too many issues? Or is it my curious personality that just couldn’t sit with all of that uncertainty.

    Sarah, I think that rearranging your shelf is a great metaphor for reconstruction. It seems like a better idea than waiting with all these unanswered questions until they all fall down.

    Mangagungadin, I love this: “A wild part of me hopes the this last dispensation is here to welcome all mankind equally into the Plan of Happiness at last.” Also, why do you say knowing there is a God makes the shelf problems worse? Is it because it seems like God is less involved than you thought before?

    1. Mungagungadin

      Oh, I can’t really know it, of course, because I’m only able to imagine what is inside of other people, so I am using “know” as Mormons do, I guess.

      I am picking my way through the scriptures and especially the temple and realizing that only Jesus recognized women as whole people, and saw us as more than the extension/property of men. It’s a real mind-blow to ask, “If there are prophets, why has God done nothing – absolutely nothing – through all the dispensations to make life better for His daughters?” It is rare to find any kind of confirmation of our worth, except as biological systems. We have no ownership of ourselves, and no one is interested in our development. Want a woman? Rape her and she is yours and no one will come to get her because her value is only between her legs. No one defended any women in the Bible, except Jesus. Even in the Book of Mormon, girls are ruined and no one goes after them or wants to see them able to become their best self. No one is interested. In the temple, I expected to leave side by side with my spouse and instead I left subjugated and sublimated. And betrayed by everyone who I thought loved me, for not making clear that the temple would thrust me down forever.

      Believing is painful.

  4. Monique Kamosi

    I think “agnostic Mormon” is definitely a thing. And I don’t think there is any going back. But I LOVED this: “I hope that there is a powerful, loving God out there. Someone who is fair and good and glorious beyond my wildest dreams.” Mandy, I hope so too. My shelf broke a couple of years ago, and it was the most horrible period of my life. Everything is a thousand times better now, and I also feel like I have multiple shelves instead of just one bearing all the weight(such as: I think I believe, I would like to believe, I need to learn more about this, I can’t even deal with THIS right now, I know I don’t believe that and it sucks, I know I don’t believe that and I accept it, cultural stuff I actually like, etc). That has helped a lot. But holding all of this up takes some bizarre mental gymnastics sometimes. Thank you so much for the post!

  5. J

    I think saying “I don’t know” is as honest an answer one can give. There is not much difference to me when a believer says “I know there is a god” and an atheist who says “I know there is no god”.

  6. Connor

    Mandy! Thank you for writing this! As I read, I felt that your post was something I had written but had forgot about. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this experience.

    Also, I totally agree with Mungagungadin. I have an objective experience that proves the existence of some supernatural power – if I were to write it out you guys’d probably think I was just another stock internet wacko. The thing is, that since this experience, and despite my strongest and longest effort to connect with that force again – it just hasn’t happened. And that makes it all the more devastating.

    In my own life, I’ve found that trying to separate myself from God or try to ignore the issue has been negative and unhealthy. For what it’s worth, I’ve been very happy as I continue to seek God and be open to the possible future communication that might occur, with patience and calmness. I also find that Mormon religious practices are a good enough context to continue seeking Him, although I look to other places as well. The social benefits are very nice. You just have to develop thick skin to zealous or self-righteous members or those who believe emotions can constitute objective facts. I hope we all can continue to approach our inherited religious legacy in a way that is healthiest for us.

    1. Mandy,

      Last night we had one of our friends over for a while. He is the CES Commisioner in the area and a very thoughtful, good man. I told him that the reason I loved being Mormon in my youth was because there was a certainty and comfort that came with “knowing”. I then told him that I don’t have that anymore, but it has been replaced with something else, even better. I just don’t know what to call it yet; and I still love being a fully engaged, devout Mormon.

      1. Mandy

        Michael, thanks for your comment. I am interested in why you say that what you have now is even better. Sometimes I think it is, but sometimes I mourn the certainty I’ve lost.

  7. Leonard R

    A bit late to the conversation, and a bit of a side-track perhaps (let me just add that I really enjoyed your post, Mandy).

    But I’ve had this thought for a while…. why, as a whole, do we Mormons find (a form of) comfort in the “Shelf” metaphor? As in, why do we think it is a good thing for us to do. But practically, as a missionary-oriented church, a bad things for others to do.

    When we meet a someone who who is not a members, who has doubts about their own faith and beliefs, what do share this metaphor with them and invite them to “put it on a shelf” and to focus on what does resonate with them?

    Or do we see it as an opening to share the restored gospel with them and invite them to see how we can replace their doubts with our beliefs.

    It’s just a bit of an interesting dynamic. Mormons have doubts and concerns, they should “put them on a shelf”. Non-Mormons have doubts and concerns, they should talk to the missionaries…

    I do like Monique’s multiple shelves idea… I think it recognizes that the shelf cannot be a permanent resting place; that while perhaps we can’t examine everything all the time, or everything now, that they should be examined, thought about, faced, rather than ignored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *