The Many Meandering Paths Away from Faith

When people leave Mormonism, where do they go? What paths do they take? Purely on the basis of anecdotal evidence, this is what some of them do:

  1. They reject all organized attempts at religion or even spirituality, because Mormonism has poisoned the well. At first they’re very, very careful to avoid doing much to change their lifestyles, because they want to make it absolutely clear that leaving Mormonism was not about weakness, an attachment to some vice, or about having been offended by some individual. Leaving Mormonism was a matter of personal integrity. Once they pass through that phase, they do start to wonder: what next? Because wow, I can believe (or do) anything now! What are my new reasons for embracing any particular viewpoint or ethical system? Do I even have an ethical system? They build a new ethical system, in bits and pieces, in fits and starts, out of the remnants of the old one, based heavily on a modified form of the Golden Rule. So many things, once forbidden, now seem possible. In this spirit, they experiment with all kinds of life experiences that were once forbidden–especially mind-altering substances and sex. Eventually (and sometimes only after long, long periods of experimentation), they grow tired of this experimentation, and look around to see what’s next. They end up going down a path very similar to the one they might have taken had they stayed in the Mormon path: having careers and families and pretty ordinary lives involving lawnmowing and barbecues, reading books and discussing said books with their well-behaved friends at occasional get-togethers, trying to raise up their children to be responsible, peace-loving citizens.
  2. They discover a new system to function as a central passion: let’s say anarchism or feminism or philosophy, or even another form of religious worship. They develop new forms of zeal, and embrace new forms of discourse that go along with the new system. They find new friends, adherents to the new system. Eventually, though, the new system has been explored to its limits, and all that can be gleaned from it has been gleaned, and it becomes time to move on again. The world is full of systems, so there’s no end of possibilities: paganism, magick, Universal Unitarianism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna. They all have something to offer, at least temporarily. (They usually avoid the more heavily authority-oriented forms of such systems, the strong authoritarian element of Mormonism having left a bad taste in the mouth.) They become universalists, seeking to embrace good in all its many forms. They become, in effect, serial believers (a much more utilitarian sort of believer).
  3. They go on with their lives pretty much as before, except that one semester, things start to fall apart. The old patterns and meanings have crumbled from within, leaving only cloudy and confusing dust where there once existed reasons. Their lives, at least temporarily, fall apart while they try to take stock. Perhaps they’re finally able to come to grips with the fact that they’re attracted to people of their own gender, or perhaps they’re finally able to realize that they really have no interest in become attorneys or financiers or visual artists. All of that begins to feel like some kind of dream another person was having. While they long for some new, grand purpose to take hold of them (because they’re used to feeling like they’re part of some grander scheme), instead, they find their lives drifting in another direction. They realize that life is frequently a series of accidents. They embrace a Taoist philosophy of life that lets them think of such accidents as a beautiful form of providence, though not Providence from without (capital P), but providence from within.
  4. They find that life has already begun drawing them away from their religious upbringing, long before the ideology itself begins to crumble, as if their natural state of equilibrium simply existed outside the religion. First they go on a study abroad program, and then they end up marrying someone from that country, and then when they get home they move to a different state to go to grad school, and a new life seems to just develop, without the religious trappings. There’s no particular anxiety or even sense of leaving, because there’s never any need to squirm or wriggle one’s way out–it has simply happened as the natural course of things, like water flowing downhill.
  5. They’re surprised to find that almost nothing whatsoever has changed, because, when they examine themselves and their lives to that point, they realize that they never much believed in the first place, so the only real difference is that they get their Sundays back, which feels nice.
  6. They struggle with their issues for a long, long time, trying to re-formulate their beliefs in creative ways that let them continue, frequently because they have a very sizable investment in continuity: spouses and children and relatives and in-laws who are believers. They weigh the costs of leaving and the benefits of staying and they find a way to make some mental rapprochement (though they have to first look up the word “rapprochement” to make sure they’re using it right). They go through stages of analysis of themselves and their culture (they slowly move away from thinking of their religion as a spiritual system and towards thinking of it as a culture, as if they had become anthropologists), putting more and more layers of abstraction and metaphor between themselves and the less savory aspects of the belief system, though keeping these layers of abstraction and metaphors mostly to themselves and a very select group of friends. Eventually they find a way to incorporate Buddha-mind into their system, which gives them the ultimate power of abstraction: the elimination of always troubling reason in favor of a kinder, gentler spirit of community.
  7. They leave behind the particulars of the religion but manage to hang on to one of its core tenets: guilt as the primary motivating factor, the internalization of external social pressure. Hanging on to this one thing helps them feel at home.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between this superficial oversimplification and real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Loves to read books. Frequently does so. Currently lives and works in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

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13 Responses

  1. The Sacred Sister says:

    Excellent post! I love this!
    As far as the disclaimer… I can’t relate to any of this. Really. 😉

  2. Aspie says:

    Loved the post. As somebody who is seriously doubting all that I once held to be true it is importnat to ask the “Where do I go from here?” question. You give the most common alternatives – thanks!

  3. Hueffenhardt says:

    I am a mixture of options 1 and 2.

  4. chanson says:

    None of these quite match my experience, although I think #4 is the closest: “their natural state of equilibrium simply existed outside the religion.” The difference, though is that I didn’t stop practicing the religion until after I concluded that it is false.

    I think the situation I was in as a member is most accurately summed up in a post by a believing Mormon here:

    I don’t much like the institution or the culture or the lifestyle, although I can begrudingly admit the benefits of most aspects of Mormonism. I’m just living this religion because I believe in the restoration story and in the eternal doctrine, not because I like the lifestyle or culture. For me, it’s either all true or it isn’t, and if it’s all true then by definition you gotta stick with it.

    Then one day it hit me that, in fact, it isn’t true.

    And I was basically like “Woo-hoo!!! I’m outta here!!!” 😉

  5. chanson says:

    Actually, if you’re only talking about what happens after realizing it isn’t true — not the realization phase — then #4 is me to a T.

    (Except that it was my husband who decided to study abroad, and hence met me and I went back to his country with him, instead of the other way around…)

  6. JulieAnn says:

    What you describe, in my opinion, is the normal spiritual developmental stages of the inquiring adult’s life. Non-Mormons go through these phases as well (I found your post to be very insightful, btw).

    For me personally, I was totally liberated and jumped into the ‘forbidden’ phase right away! Whoohoo! But yeah, that got old. Now I just try to practice detachment…(he he he)

    Great post, very interesting.

  7. Robert says:

    It’s been interesting to watch over the years what has happened to my many friends who have left the church. Naturally, in this short post, I barely scratched the surface of all their stories. One of the interesting aspects has been to see how many of them have felt the need to reincorporate some form of spirituality into their lives, in various forms (frequently pretty vague forms). I myself never reconnected with the notion of spirituality, unless you simply think of spirituality as another name for some other experiences, like caring about others, the appreciation of nature, self examination, or the love of creative expression. Those are some experiences that still have deep meaning for me, but I don’t find that the language of spirituality is my preferred way of thinking about or describing these experiences.

  8. Hellmut says:

    Excellent post, qzed. Personally, I have a little bit of everything in my experience, mostly one and two though.

    It seems to me that you have the nucleus for a Sunstone paper.

  9. Phoebe says:

    Whenever I come back up to breathe from whatever I’ve immersed myself in, I am a little more self-confident, but a lot more tired.

    Provocative analysis of us human beans, qzed.

  10. chanson says:

    Robert — I’ve also noticed that many non-religious people — even atheists — feel the need to reincorporate some form of spirituality into their lives. From discussing with them, I get the strong impression that “spirituality” really is something separate from the list of other experiences you mention. (And like you, I don’t feel the need or desire for spirituality in my life.)

    On the other hand, there are quite a lot of religious people who aren’t particularly spiritual. The more I talk to people about religion on the Internet, the more I get the impression that spirituality is a particular character trait that some people have and others don’t, and that it isn’t strongly correlated with belief or other aspects of religiosity.

  11. Robert says:

    I agree with you about the desire for spirituality, chanson. It seems to be sprinkled kind of randomly across the population, though I’d have to say that it seems that there are far more people who experience that need than people who don’t. Again, purely based on anecdotal evidence, I’d say that about 80% of my ex-Mormon friends still embrace some form of spirituality, even if it’s something as vague as believing in karmic forces. So I’m definitely in the minority, even among people who have left Mormonism.

    Sometimes I want to go with William James style pragmatism, because it seems that believing that the universe is benevolent would be comforting, and almost certainly beneficial, just from a mental health standpoint. I just can’t seem to make it take, though. Instead, I’m stuck believing that the universe is a chaotic place that has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. I do strongly believe that I can inject my own meaning and purpose into my life, and usually I’m satisfied with that.

  12. Hueffenhardt says:

    I am atheist and a naturalist, meaning I do not believe in anything supernatural. I believe that the universe has no intrinsic meaning or purpose; however, I am spiritual. But, I define spirituality in two parts: 1) it is feeling the emotions of awe, transcendence, gratitude, elevation, peace, joy, hope, warmth in the chest; and 2) it is focusing on the development of the following attributes: altruism, forbearance, forgiving, patience, wisdom, empathy, compassion, etc.

    I don’t impose any supernatural stuff on the natural world, but I enjoyed as a Mormon and continue to enjoy as an atheist the feelings I used to call “the Spirit”. I give my life meaning and purpose.

    Really, I think a lot of this comes down to how one uses the term “spirituality”.

  13. Can anyone think of a better word for “spirituality” that doesn’t have any of that spirit ickiness attached to it?

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