Johnny Harris Left Mormonism, and It Feels Like Deja Vu All Over Again
I’m a big fan of internet documentarian Johnny Harris. I think he’s doing fantastic work explaining complex topics in compelling ways within reasonable time constraints. In fact, he’s the best at it I’ve ever seen. From our semiconductor cold war with China to an explainer on CIA-led coups around the world to a recap of the government UFO disclosure process to an investigation into why McDonald’s ice cream machines are always broken and everything in between, he covers diverse and fascinating topics in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat, wanting to learn more.
Yesterday, YouTube’s algorithm coughed up a video he made a year ago about why he left the Mormon Church. That video is below, but allow me to offer some commentary first.
So much of what he said resonated with me and my experiences. I’ve tried writing a kind of post-mortem on my own loss of faith several times. I always wind up spending hours on it, only to stick it in my drafts folder and never letting it see the light of day. Some part is always too personal, too confessional, too critical of my parents, too much for me to feel comfortable publishing.
It was nice to hear someone else tell a very similar story, even if it was from a pretty different faith.
I identified so much with his path. Growing up being “very Mormon,” doing the missionary work, going to a Mormon university, always trying to go deeper and understand it better, all to have it slip through his fingers when he really started to examine it.
“I'd never really been in a situation,” Harris says, “where I could truly ask this question and not feel like there was some price to pay if I decided I didn't believe.”
I had a responsibility at church that I was putting a lot of work into, and praying every morning and every night for some sort of conviction. I said, I am more earnest and sincere than I've ever been about this. I'm willing to listen to any answer. I just need an answer. I spent a year doing this. A year. That's a long time. And then I remember this day, I was biking into Washington, DC, on a sunny, like, spring day, and it just hit me in some really strong way that no, this isn't working. I've put in the years of asking and the effort towards (sighs) making this work, and it wasn't working. This isn't true for me. And like a switch, it just so much came out of me, and I quickly decided that I was done.
The first crack in my armor came in 2017 when my wife asked me why I kept running 1P5 when it was, in her opinion, making me miserable. I spent days thinking about it, and I came back to her with the idea that I wasn’t just fighting corruption in the Church, or to preserve something I cared about and believed in. It was more than that, I said.
It was my whole identity. I was fighting to retain who I was at my very core.
Ever since I’d been a kid, the most important thing to everyone in my extended family was being Catholic. My grandmother was so proud of me being able to say my prayers before I was even three years old that she sent a recording of me reciting them to a cloistered nun she knew, who sent back a rosary made of red plastic beads that looked like rubies. I thought it was such a cool rosary!
As I grew, the significance of sacramental milestones paved the way to evenings spent at my uncle’s dinner table as a teen, hashing out religion and politics with the men of the family, where I was respected for having informed opinions at a young age.
In high school, as the strain in my relationship with my own father grew, I was desperate for father figures. At 16, I spent every day of my summer job walking over to have lunch with my elderly pastor, who was very kind to me and sent me to World Youth Day on the parish’s dime, and tried gently to convince me to be a priest.
At 17, I went off to live with the Legionaries of Christ and attend their high school in Texas, where I was groomed to be a “leader” in their organization, made the first young men’s Regnum Christi team captain in North America, sent out to do missionary work, and eventually, in my gap year before college (and before I left their company altogether), sent to teach religion in one of their schools, lead their youth group, and direct a two week mission in Miami.
In college, I pursued a theology degree and spent countless hours debating Church topics with friends. I spoke up at a parish meeting when I was home for the summer, and the visiting bishop was so taken with me that he took me aside and said he wanted me to consider going to the seminary. I wasn’t interested, but it was still a powerful compliment.
As a writer, my knowledge and interest in the subject of Catholicism got me my first professional writing gig, which later turned into my career when I founded 1P5. I wound up internet famous, with hundreds of thousands of readers a month, and became a voice to be reckoned with on a global stage.
At every step of my journey, being Catholic was my ticket to approval, affirmation, respect, and a place at the table. The things I’ve mentioned here are highlights, but it really was at the core of everything I was. I could never just be Steve Skojec. I had to be Steve Skojec, the Catholic guy who loved to talk about his faith.
Harris says, when it came to his loss of belief, that he didn’t think it happened all at once: “I think I had been slowly moving in this direction for a long time, but in a moment of clarity, it clicked for me in a very satisfying and, like, very true way.”
This was true for me as well.
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In 2018, at the height of 1P5’s popularity and success, I began to be assailed with doubt. The more I covered the Church, the more disenchanted I became with its ugliness. As scandals mounted and things got worse for those Catholics trying their hardest, I saw no indication that God was really in the details, that he was faithful to those who were faithful to him, or that he would do anything to stop a deepening crisis.
I started praying intensely, like Harris. I asked for wisdom, guidance, and the shoring up of my faith. I asked God to help me to love him, because I didn’t feel like I did, or even could. I had so much to lose if my faith gave out, and I knew it. I didn’t want to become a cautionary tale, or to lead anyone “astray” - especially my own kids.
By 2020, I was barely holding on. My personal life was crumbling. My anger was growing. I tried to just keep my head down and keep going, but I was falling apart, like a man made from sand trying to sprint for an imaginary finish line.
In 2021, I hit the wall. I couldn’t do it anymore, and I knew it. I had been working and acting in accordance with the mission I’d set out to accomplish, despite my doubts, but I had nothing left in the tank. To continue would have meant living a lie. I knew with certainty that I had to stop.
Much has been made about the fact that I wasn’t going to church during COVID. I had legitimate reasons to take the dispensation - aside from my own comorbidities, we were the only caretakers for my wife’s father-in-law, who was in his late 80s.
But I needed to get away from the Church. I felt as though I was in this suffocating relationship with an overly demanding woman, but in this case, saying I needed to take a brake and get some perspective was a mortal sin that would send me to hell. The COVID dispensation was not conditional, and I needed it desperately. Before COVID hit, I spent my Masses fuming, pacing outside, trying to get away from the condescending, and at times theologically-illiterate homilies of our pastor, while my kids knelt inside in front of a damned television screen with dozens of other kids and families because our parish was far too small despite our pastor’s fervent ass-kissing of the bishop.
I believed in the superiority of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), but after 18 years of making the sacrifice to go exclusively to that liturgy, I was exhausted by the mistreatment traditional Catholics not only got from Rome, but from each other. I could not fathom why I was part of a Church where I had to drive an hour to a place that didn’t have room for us every Sunday when I had a parish 3 miles from my house. Why was it optional, I wondered, for that parish and every other parish in between where I lived and where I went for Mass, to offer reverent liturgies and orthodox preaching? If God cared so much about his Church, if he really preferred the TLM as I had so-long believed, why did he do nothing to secure its availability for those who just wanted to worship him without being harassed by people who wanted to touch them every five seconds and the assault of glad tambourines?
Nothing made sense.
So, even though we started to leave the church, we were still going to church every Sunday, which I don't really understand in retrospect. All I can say is that, like, we were just, that's what we did every Sunday. We went to church, and there was some guilt if we didn't go to church, and so we went to church. But we slowly started to feel an emptiness towards it, and over the course of six months, we finally decided to stop going to church. My behavior didn't change all of a sudden. Like, I didn't leave the church so I could start drinking alcohol or coffee or smoking.
That wasn't it at all. I didn't have some sinful life that I wanted to live. I left because of a conviction that I felt. But the guilt that had been built into me from my religious upbringing would occasionally kick in, and so we still went to church for a while. And then we stopped. And even after we stopped, we would occasionally go back. Again, more guilt. But each time we went back, it was more and more clear to me that this wasn't right for me. And finally, I had this sort of last moment at church.
I was in the back of the chapel. We were singing a hymn, and I looked around, and I realized I just didn't belong there. I realized that I didn't believe any of this, and I didn't want my son to grow up in this, and I didn't want him to be taught these things, and I didn't want him to believe these things. And I walked out.
Like, that was not a part of the agenda for me. I kind of just carried on exactly how I'd always been, except for now I looked around in the world and I didn't have a doctrinal theological framework to understand it, which was at once exhilarating and horrifying at the same time. My existential view had been so neatly packaged by the plan of salvation, which is at the key doctrinal framework within the Mormon Church, and that was now gone. I had no plan. I had no framework to make sense of the world. Exhilarating, but horrifying.
Like Harris, I, too, had never been in a position where I could really question, because the cost was too high. But the minute I allowed myself to do so, the floodgates opened.
I had been suppressing so much, and I didn’t even know it.
But also like Harris, I didn’t quit because I wanted to live some life of sin. If I’d have been younger, I probably would have gone wild for a bit. But I was a man with a wife and 8 kids in his forties. Not much actually changed. And in some respects, I really think my virtue improved.
More from Harris:
What I didn't realize is that I had internalized a lot of assumptions of shame and guilt and fear and judgment that I didn't even realize I had. And for the years following leaving the church, it was a process of slowly purging and peeling back and processing those things. I went through the Mister Nice Guy phase, which is a very common thing for people who leave the LDS church, which is like, I'm just leaving the church nice and peaceful. I'm gonna not be mean. I'm not gonna be spiteful towards the church because in the church, when you're in it, there's sort of this, like, archetype of the spiteful, angry anti-Mormon who goes out and spreads lies about the church, and they're just offended and angry. And I didn't want to be that person.
This. All of this. I thought I could just ask some open questions. I thought I could ever-so-gently touch a few third rails.
I found out very quickly that it was a bridge too far. And then that anger that had been building in me after many years of imposed religious guilt and manipulation and spiritual abuse and being treated like garbage by clergy the minute I was no longer useful to them or they felt they had something to prove all came pouring out. In my 7 years at 1P5, I’d built an audience full of very decent and kind people who enthusiastically supported the work, but they tended to be quiet, while the comment box and social media filled with the clanging gongs. Online trad culture is the most toxic social sphere I’ve ever been a part of. I was attacked and lied about and maligned all the time by people who should have been able to see we were mostly on the same side. And I was sick to damn death of it.
I had anger and resentment towards a lot of the authority structures that made me feel unclean or dirty. I had anger towards the systems that made me feel like obedience was the most important thing, that submission to a law from God was much more important than self-expression and self-actualization.
I felt deep frustration at the church's claim to have a monopoly over the fullness of truth, that the few million members are the only keepers of the real truth of what God wants today for us, and that everyone else has truth, too, but through prophets and apostles and modern-day revelation, the Mormons are actually the ones who have the full picture. They know what's going on. I believed that they had the truth that was going to deliver me and my family to eternal bliss in celestial glory. I believed that, and I modeled my life around it deep into my adulthood. And I feel resentment that I did that, and that the stakes were so high for leaving, for expressing myself and my qualms for this doctrine. Because after all, if you question it, you're questioning prophets, people who are talking to God. You can't do that.
It was harmful towards me, and it was harmful towards others. And the consequences were severe if you spoke up and you challenged the status quo. The culture is not one of discourse and debate. It's one of obedience, obedience, obedience. Obedience is a hallmark belief and tenet of the LDS experience, and as a member, you feel it. Leaving the church is painful socially, mentally. You experience a cost for doing so.
Again, so resonant. Just sub out “Mormon” for “Catholic” and “prophets” for “saints” and it’s a perfect fit.
Harris talks about how even now, years later, he still worries about what people from his group of family and old friends will think seeing him saying these things. About how “exhilerating and horrifying” it is to live your life without “a doctrinal framework to understand it.”
“And yet,” he continues…
…day by day, those voices and those old models, they dissolve more and more, and they become less loud and they become less part of my identity. I, for many years, did identify as someone who used to be Mormon and now I'm not, but yet, with time, I'm slowly developing my own new identity that isn't pinned to my reactionary experience with the church, but is just pinned to who I am, what I love.”
I'm a father who loves my children. I love to learn about the world and explore and explain things. I love film, I love animation. I love moss, I love cooking. I love reading stories to my boys and teaching them about the world. I love traveling. I love trains. I love science. I love the beauty of our world and the mystery that it is and the mystery of life and cultures. That appreciation is enough for me.
I’m telling you, it’s crazy. So much of what he says is so similar to what I say and feel.
And because of that similarity, he helped me realize how much it isn’t just me. How it isn’t even just Catholicism, that monolithic thing in the core of my being that won’t let me go because it spent so long terrifying me into believing I’d be subjected to eternal conscious torment by a “loving” God if I ever turned my back on it.
Harris was lucky, in a way. His family, though they were hurt by his departure, supported him. Mine never even bothered to ask how I was doing, or to see if I was OK. Hundreds of perfect strangers did, but I didn’t hear from a single person among my kin except a sister who’d left before me, and a cousin who knew what I was going through because he practically lived at my house during that time.
My longtime friends have tried to be gracious, but they don’t get it. Not really. I think they hope it’s just a phase and that I’ll return. I can’t blame them for that. I would have been the same before I walked away. But I don’t know how to pretend that all is well hanging out with people for whom it’s still the most important thing, when to me it feels like a prison I barely escaped — and there’s a warrant out for my arrest.
Like Harris, I got good things from my experiences too. Hell, I even see Christianity as a civilizing force that brought light out of the darkness of a pagan world. But I’m a long way from deciding for myself, on my own volition, that it’s true.
I never made that choice for myself before. It was made for me, and I was imprinted with an existential fear that kept me from ever really looking at it and asking, “Is this what I really want? Is it what I really believe?”
It isn’t, and I’m not sure it ever was. As time has gone by, and I’ve lashed out in my woundedness and resentment over things I can’t believe I made myself believe and live by when they seem so preposterous to me now, I’ve seen the goodness of some who bring honor to the Christian name. I’m tempted to think they’re still in the minority, based on anecdotal evidence, but I could be wrong. A part of me hopes I am.
I still talk to the God I’m not sure is even there. It usually takes the shape of something like this: “Hey God. If you’re actually there, and you give a damn about me, I’d really like to know what’s true about you, and what I’m supposed to do about it. I don’t expect you to answer, because you never do, but I’m open to hearing from you if you change your mind.”
It’s been two years since I darkened the doorstep of a church on any given Sunday. I am just beginning to make some peace with where I am, but a great many questions remain open, and agonizing. I wish it would have happened after my children were grown, or maybe not at all, but I’m increasingly convinced that it needed to happen one way or the other. That I was not in a healthy place, or on a healthy path. That I needed to learn how to really love and give my time to people — especially my wife and kids — and not just stump for God and his supposed Church.
Some of you will say that I needed to be torn down to be built back up again, because it was a house on sand. Maybe that’s true. Some will say I didn’t lose my faith, I regained the use of my reason and critical thinking. I’m pretty sure that’s also true.
Whatever happens, I’m thankful for those of you who care, and who’ve stuck with me, despite the mess.
And now I’m going to hit publish on this before I try to re-read it and kill it with second thoughts. That means no editing pass, so my apologies about any typos, but the last few attempts have all wound up in the bin, so here goes nothing.