(Note: I wrote this shortly after leaving and submitted it to Sunstone. They rejected it as it wasn’t supportive of their new mission – to keep people in, even if they don’t want to be in – arghh! Anyway, it’s still pretty good.)
Leaving Mormonism has been the most informative decision I have ever made. Prior to my exodus to the â€˜dark side,â€™ I had been sheltered from progressive society to such a degree that I didnâ€™t even know what an agnostic was. Donâ€™t believe me? Well, let me explainâ€¦
I was born and raised in rural Northern utah until just after my 19th birthday. I served an LDS mission to Central America in the late 1990s. Upon returning, I enrolled at the University of Utah from which I graduated with Bachelor’s degree I married another U of U graduate, whom I met dancing. Both my wife and I spent a year working at a behavioral treatment center before pursuing graduate studies in the Midwest. We left Mormonism in August of 2002.
Before I get to the â€˜catching upâ€™ notion of my essay let me first buttress my comment about being sheltered. I was raised ina rural community that is about 90% LDS.1 I had one friend who was an inactive Presbyterian and one friend who was an inactive Mormon. I knew a few other people in my high school who were not Mormons or were inactive. I also have relatives (through marriage) who are Jewish. Other than these few exceptions, my entire social circle was made up of Mormons; I was surrounded by Mormonism on all sides.
I was also a pretty obedient young man. I was never interested in alcohol, drugs, partying, or, well, pretty much anything that went against the rules and regulations adhered to by good Mormons. The only area where I did dabble was with interpersonal intimacy, but even there my confessions to my bishop prior to my mission were minor enough to be dismissed as insubstantial (e.g., having a girl lay next to me, kissing with my tongue, and one time touching a girl’s breasts â€“ over the bra, mind you!).
Perhaps indicative of my future apostasy (but perhaps not), I had a number of unique interests in high school that seemed to set me apart from the rest of my classmates. I enjoyed playing the piano and reading. I was a ballet dancer. I liked Simon and Garfunkel more than Depeche Mode or Bon Jovi (I still prefer folk music over all other kinds of music, with New Age coming in at a close second). I was more interested in academics than sports. And, finally, I was very, very interested in religion. I took seriously Ezra Taft Bensonâ€™s counsel to read the Book of Mormon,2 which led me to read it seven or eight times before serving my mission. I also read the Doctrine and Covenants a couple of times and the Old and New Testaments while a teenager. I read a number of other books on religion, primarily LDS Church sanctioned, and was a very consistent and regular attender of church services, church doctrine classes, and seminary.
When I returned from my mission, I was convinced that studying religion was what I wanted to do because, as I stated back then, â€œIf religion is the most important thing in life, what can be better than a life dedicated to its study?â€ The only problem with this attitude, as far as Mormonism goes, is that you canâ€™t enter a seminary or theological school to prepare yourself for the ministry. You just kind of have to hope that one day youâ€™ll be chosen for service. If I had been raised a Catholic, I would probably be sitting in a monastery right now. If I had been raised a Protestant, Iâ€™d probably be in a seminary. But as a Mormon, I was too impatient to wait for God to speak to my religious superiors so I could begin the climb to the upper echelons of the Mormon hierarchy. If I was going to dedicate my life to religion, I was going to have to find another way. My interest in religion eventually led me to academia,3 and the rest, as they say, is â€˜apostasyâ€™â€¦
So, how has leaving Mormonism been so informative? First, and perhaps this is the most mundane and obvious way, it has freed up a great deal of my time. The sheer level of time involved in actively practicing Mormonism is enormous. A recent article in Dialogue vaguely addressed this issue,4 but to better illustrate how engaging Mormonism is, I added up the time an active Mormon might spend in church related activities.
Table 1. Time spent being a â€˜Good Mormon.â€™
|hours per occurrence
|occurrences per year
|avg. time per week (hours)
|cumulative time per week (hours)
|total per year (hours)
|Sunday service attendance
|personal prayers and scripture reading
|travel time to meeting house (if you live outside of Utah)
|preparing talks, lessons, etc. for church callings
|temple attendance (conservative estimate if you live outside of Utah and attend once a month)
|if you have children in mutual/scouting
Since I donâ€™t have any children and wasnâ€™t doing much scripture reading by the time I left the Church, Iâ€™d say the amount of time I spent in church related activities was about 7 to 8 hours per week. That is literally hundreds of hours per year I have saved by not being an active Mormon. In the year and half since I left Mormonism, I believe I have learned more about Mormonism than in all my time spent being a Mormon, minus the two years I spent on my mission (roughly 23 years). I spend much of those 7 to 8 hours every week, hours that would have been spent on church-related activities, reading or writing about the sociology of Mormonism and religion. Sunstone, Dialogue, and I have become good friends through regular, Sunday afternoon visits. In short, apostasy has meant more time to study the things I want to study.
The second way in which leaving Mormonism has been informative is in freeing up my conscience to the idea of reading materials that have not been sanctioned by the Church â€“ Sunstone and Dialogue, of course, but also other â€˜scholarlyâ€™ work in the fields of sociology and history. Believe it or not, my subscriptions to Sunstone and Dialogue actually began after I left Mormonism. With or without them, I guess I was destined to be an apostate; Sunstone and Dialogue just make it more fun.5
Cognitively, my active participation in Mormonism discouraged me from reading material about Mormonism that was not published by the Church. It just seemed â€˜wrongâ€™ to read stuff that was not supportive of the religion to which I was committed psychologically, emotionally, historically, intellectually, monetarily, and pretty much every other way there is. This isnâ€™t to say I only read Church sanctioned publications. On the contrary, my academic interests lead me to a number of books that are not Church sanctioned, including works by Gary and Gordon Shepherd, D. Michael Quinn, Thomas Oâ€™Dea, and numerous others. Most of the works are scholarly and try to be non-polemical, objective treatments of Mormonism. Nevertheless, even these objective treatments had sufficient information to feed my doubts.
But once I left Mormonism, the barrier to reading polemical, anti-Mormon material completely disappeared. This doesnâ€™t mean I have passionately embraced anti-Mormon writings. On the contrary, I have not. I find these writings to be even less appealing now than I did when I was a Mormon. My distaste for them is rooted in the fact that the primary reasons I left Mormonism are intellectual disagreements: Mormonism isnâ€™t honest with its history and it is oppressively authoritarian. The books that treat these issues most candidly are still the objective, non-polemical scholarly works of sociologists and historians. Of course, as a graduate student in sociology whose primary interest is Mormonism, I should be reading these books anyway, but removing the psychological barrier that was preventing me from openly embracing them has opened a floodgate of information. There is an entire world outside of Mormonism just waiting to be embraced. I needed to remove the blinders from my eyes â€œthat [my] eyesâ€¦ might be opened to see and know of the goodness and glory ofâ€¦â€ science (Mosiah 27: 22)! Strict religions really are more than something you do on Sunday; they are a complete â€˜worldview.â€™ So, the second way leaving Mormonism has been beneficial is that it has allowed me to explore literature not sanctioned by the Church hierarchy; literature that has improved my understanding of Mormonism far beyond what would ever have been possible had I not embraced this literature.
The third major benefit, and to me the most interesting, I refer to as â€˜catching up.â€™ Having been out of Mormonism for going on two years now, I am constantly amazed at how long ago people were exploring the very thoughts that I am now finding so new and novel. Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, just twelve years after the pioneers reached Salt Lake. One hundred and forty-four years after the leading minds of the world accepted evolution as a basic premise of life, I am finally able to accept it without admitting it runs contrary to certain elements of my belief structure.
Quite regularly I find myself astonished at my utter lack of knowledge about the larger social world. I was so content within my microcosm of Mormonism that for years I used my understanding of Mormon history as a reference point for world history. For instance, does anyone else remember the starting date of the Civil War by thinking that it began 14 years after the Saints arrived in Salt Lake? Or how about Utahâ€™s statehood? You probably know the date, but what important event in Mormon history precluded it by 6 years? Think about it, Mormonism is a referent for almost everything Mormons say and do.
If I had been raised in a secular home that celebrated learning and was even remotely modernized in its understanding of science, I donâ€™t believe I would be so far behind the times. Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim all advocated religious privatization and differentiation (commonly referred to as secularization) before my grandfather was born in 1907. Why am I just learning about it in 2003?
Scientific understanding and progressive social equality seem to have ground to a halt in Mormonism 100+ years ago. Fifteen years after the apex of the civil rights movement, the conservative Church leadership finally got on the bandwagon. How many years after the formalization of the feminist movement in the U.S. will it be before the LDS Church caves to pressure to ordain women to the priesthood?
The point I want to make with my notion of â€˜catching upâ€™ is that I actually fault Mormonism for why I am so far behind my classmates and other well-read and informed individuals. Of course, as any good sociologist should do, I canâ€™t lay the whole blame on Mormonism as there are obviously other factors.6 But I do believe the biggest factor in what I consider my lack of knowledge about the world outside of Mormonism (science, world history, sociology, international relations, etc.) is the limited worldview of Mormons.
I have seen various treatments arguing that Mormonism is a total institution.7 Inside total institutions, the flow of information is limited. Any information inmates/members receive is tinted by the lenses used to filter the information. Interestingly, I believe the limited flow of information inside the total institution of Mormonism is breaking down. One of the most influential factors in providing the information necessary for me to finally make the plunge and commit myself to a life of blissful apostasy was the internet. Informational resources were now at my fingertips. Forums and support groups where like-minded individuals who understood my dilemma and wanted and could dialog with me from a knowing and caring perspective abounded. No more carrier pigeon relays of information for me; I was in the fast lane on the information superhighway, in a Ferrari, with the accelerator pressed to the floor. Quickly falling behind were my testimony of Joseph Smith, the seducer of other menâ€™s wives, and the Book of Mormon, a nineteenth century work of fiction referred to by one of the greatest authors of that century as â€˜chloroform in print.â€™8 It was as if I had somehow found a library of information within my austere institutional holding cell on Mormon cellblock E; I was becoming educated and, in so doing, was â€˜catching up.â€™
Now that I have left, I find it interesting to explain why leaving Mormonism is such a big deal to people who know very little or nothing about the religion. They donâ€™t seem to see why choosing not to believe in angels and golden books that no one but Josephâ€™s closest confidants ever â€˜sawâ€™ is a big deal. They donâ€™t seem to understand that I have been endowed and witnessed the inner workings of Mormonismâ€™s most sacred rites and have turned my back on those rites; an act that fifteen years ago would have meant (and probably technically still does) I would suffer severe penalties, including disembowelment. They donâ€™t seem to understand that my family fears for my soul and fully expects that I will be banished to eternal torment with Satan and his demons in outer darkness. Try as I might, they just donâ€™t seem to get why ceasing to be a Mormon is such a big deal. Ironically, now that Iâ€™m out, Iâ€™m beginning to wonder why I ever thought that way myself. But then I remember how anxious I was to leave missionary life, which is perhaps the equivalent of a maximum security prison in the total institution of Mormonism. Leaving Mormonism is leaving a total institution â€“ everything changesâ€¦ everything.
Now that Iâ€™m on the outside, I canâ€™t imagine going back in. Mormonism looks more and more like a prison every day. Sure, it can be comforting to know there are people you can depend on when you need them, just like prison inmates donâ€™t need to worry about their food or clothes or shelter. But at what cost? Is oneâ€™s mental health worth the price of security, both in friends now and in exaltation in the hereafter?9 Can I in good faith support an institution that actively works to prevent the realization of gender equality? And what about all of the non-Mormons who are excluded from the beneficence of the religion? I would much rather contribute at a societal level than at a religious/institutional level and hope that my contributions help â€˜every manâ€™ and not just â€˜holy men.â€™
My last bishop, who really was a great guy, said something very profound to my wife and me when we met with him after deciding to leave. He said, â€œWhat you donâ€™t realize is that the Church needs people like you to help it change. If you leave, you wonâ€™t be able to help the Church change.â€ Iâ€™ve thought a lot about that comment since I left. When you are on the edge between going and staying, it can seem like a compelling argument. But the conclusion I have finally reached is that changing the Church from the inside isnâ€™t very likely, in large part because the Church is no longer a democracy on any level but a dictatorship where the only votes that matter belong to the 15 apostles at the head of the religion.
The only possible way of bringing about change would be to work your way up through the ranks of the hierarchy by conforming to the desires of your leadership (at the ward, stake, regional, and church-wide levels). Then, when you finally make it to the upper echelons of the hierarchy, you could reveal your true desires slowly and over time (doing it too fast would likely get you excommunicated a lÃ¡ George P. Lee). But who, in their right mind, would care to make such an investment? I certainly donâ€™t.
I much prefer the alternate method â€“ apostasy. By leaving the religion, not only do I receive the benefits outlined above, but I also show my discontent with the religion. I do not support the repressive dictatorial hierarchy nor its distrust of science. I do not support the bigotry inherent in an elitist theology that denigrates blacks and women. I do not support the proselytization and exploitation of people living in third-world conditions who barely have enough to eat but who are called upon to give 10% of their meager income to a very wealthy religion. I have taken a stand against an ideology and philosophy I find morally reprehensible and that stand has branded me an apostate. But what Mormonism doesnâ€™t realize is that I proudly bear the banner of apostasy and wear the title â€˜apostateâ€™ as a badge of honor. Iâ€™m no longer a Mormon; Iâ€™m proud to admit it; and Iâ€™m finally â€˜catching up.â€™
2 Ezra Taft Benson, â€œThe Book of Mormonâ€”Keystone of Our Religion,â€ Ensign, Nov. 1986, 4.
3 Some will probably suggest that the Church Educational System (CES) is similar to a theological school. I donâ€™t think I would consider it equivalent considering the focus is more on adherence to regulations and strict teaching guidelines rather than novel theology and research. Frankly, teaching out of a book would never have cut it for me. I needed the freedom to explore â€˜strange new worlds;â€™ CES doesnâ€™t provide that opportunity.
4 Rector, John M. and Kirsten N. Rector. 2003. “What Is the Challenge for LDS Scholars and Artists?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36(2):33-46.
5 For the methodologically inclinedâ€¦ If you assume a causal model for my apostasy, because my involvement with these two periodicals occurred after my disaffiliation, this would actually indicate that Sunstone and Dialogue played no causal role. So clear your consciences, folks.
6 Probably the second biggest reason next to Mormonism is the fact that my father owned his own businesses (note the plural) and hired his children on as employees as soon as we could walk and talk. This kept us busy enough that we didnâ€™t have time for summer educational programs, etc. Of course, from listening to others who grew up at about the same time I did, I canâ€™t help but think that I probably would have just spent the time watching TV or playing video games, but you never knowâ€¦
7 Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums. New York: Anchor Books.
8 Mark Twain, Roughing It, 2 vols. (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing, 1899), 1:132.
9 Of course I would be remiss if I claimed that Mormonism had only deleterious effects on peopleâ€™s mental health. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary (Ellison, C. G. 1991. “Religious Involvement and Subjective Well-Being.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 32(1):80-99.). However, despite findings like those of Ellison, I believe Mormonism and other strict religions can have a deleterious effect on mental health when it comes to individuals who either do not follow all of the precepts of the religion (sinners) or do not believe all of the doctrine (closet dissenters).