Seeking First to Understand

Deconversion NOM Testimony

After years of talking with current and former mormons, I am well aware that the reasons for people leaving and becoming disaffected are as different as snowflakes.  Everyone has a different story and takes a unique path. I didn’t get a chance to listen to John Dehlin’s mormon stories podcasts while they were still available. This is a link to the new staylds site – and an essay on staying mormon after a “crisis of faith”.

Lisa, from the Liberal Mormon that Could blogged about the “bitter fruits of apostasy” lesson here. Personally, I’m disappointed by some of the points in this lesson about apostasy.  I resent the implication that all or most former mormons leave because they aren’t strong enough, or they want to sin.

What strikes me as the most interesting is the impression that no one (in the current LDS leadership) made a concerted effort to find out WHY former mormons left.  From the lesson, it seems that there are quite a few assumptions that have been made – assumptions which may or may not be grounded in reality.  It may be true that there are smokers who become inactive because they fear the judgment from other ward members. But many of the examples are the same that I remember hearing  in the late 80s, that a person is offended or wants a particular calling.

The other impression given is that former members are never really happy – eventually they will realize their mistake in leaving the fold and distancing themselves from the spirit.

Some readers might ask why this is important to me.  This is a valid question.

To some extent, I want to allow a difference in opinion and perspective.  But many of my family members remain active LDS members.  Because of lessons and attitudes such as this one, sometimes our relationship is strained.  I can’t explain why the leadership doesn’t want to ask former members – or even try to better understand “cafeteria” or new order mormons.  The leadership seems caught in the binary dilemma (see the stay lds article) – the church is either true or it’s not (there is no middle ground).

I don’t know if they feel like their own testimonies might be shaken by trying to better understand former members.  Or that the leadership feels threatened by any acceptance that former members might genuinely have valid reasons for no longer believing.  Through lessons like this, leaders ignore that there may be some members who stay and have valid reasons for picking and choosing what they believe.  Such members might believe there is truth to the LDS church but don’t agree with everything.

Over the years, I’ve appreciated the philosophy, seek first to understand, then to be understood.  I find I can’t understand why the LDS leadership doesn’t want to find out the real reason(s) that people leave the mormon faith (or choose to be cafeteria mormons).  At some point, assumptions based on inaccurate information will become obvious even to the faithful.

27 thoughts on “Seeking First to Understand

  1. At some point, assumptions based on inaccurate information will become obvious even to the faithful.

    This is a good point. If they’re going to write a lesson in the manual for people to learn from, it seems like they ought to make some effort to find accurate information. A lesson like this one makes it look like the church education committee (or whoever writes the manuals) isn’t that interested in accuracy (when it comes to certain subjects…) which can hurt their credibility, even with the faithful.

    And then they wonder why there exist Mormons (even believers) who are nonetheless skeptical about some of the things the church tells them to believe.

  2. For what I was expecting of the lesson, I was greatly and pleasantly surprised. Yes, some of the women said some stupid, stupid things, but on the whole they were much more rational and compassionate than I ever anticipated.

    “The other impression given is that former members are never really happy – eventually they will realize their mistake in leaving the fold and distancing themselves from the spirit.”

    This comment bothered me as well, but it hardly surprised me. After all, what is a person to tell themselves, especially when the teacher says she herself felt this way as an inactive apostate?

    It’s an easy answer to a very scary question.

    The anecdote about the smoker surprised me in the way that nobody faulted the smoker nor really slammed him for allowing himself to become offended. There was a comment made that one should worry about their own “salvation” rather than so much about other people’s.

    Honestly, the leadership MUST know the real reason why many leave. Otherwise we wouldn’t have answers like we do to difficult questions. To use many LDS’ own logic (you know, “they’re antagonistic toward the church because they feel guilty/wrong”), perhaps leaders and members themselves see the logic in why many leave and are too afraid to acknowledge it head on?

    They may feel the reasons are valid but rationalize their way to believing those reasons are still wrong. Faith and fear of unhappiness (or at least later regret) are fabulous motivators. The indoctrination is strong, the fear of repercussions of one’s actions (even beyond loss of that social network) is even stronger.

    I cannot even begin to imagine what would happen if a GA today apostatized much like what happened in the early church.

    You’d think the leadership would get over the very easy (and misguided) Thomas Marsh story, though. What a load. That’s a great example of BSing the members.

    I wasn’t sure yesterday what I would say or if I would say anything. I wasn’t sure I’d even go. Church days like these often give me migraines, so I drugged up (anxiety meds), made sure I had paper and pencil, and just listened. It was surprising.

  3. Lisa — I read your post on this the other day, and I agree that it was surprisingly positive. That’s impressive that so many were willing to conclude that you can’t really judge the apostate’s motives, despite the fact that the lesson seemed to be encouraging people to do just that.

  4. Through lessons like this, leaders ignore that there may be some members who stay and have valid reasons for picking and choosing what they believe. Such members might believe there is truth to the LDS church but don’t agree with everything.

    What I’m seeing here is the crux of the argument — can the church *officially* ever realize that people have valid reasons for picking and choosing what they believe in?

    I mean, it sounds nice to say, but how liberal can you be in religion without coming into a brick wall?

    It seems to me that the church has a prerogative to continue to uphold the idea sthat 1) all of its laws are for the least of saints (so one can’t justify picking and choosing and 2) morality is black and white with the good and the right on the side of the church (or close to it).

  5. I found it interesting that the lesson manual itself doesn’t spend much time on general sin as a reason for apostasy–sin comes after apostasy, not before; and sin/apostasy was only lightly discussed in my Elder’s Quorum class. According to the Joseph Smith quotes in the manual the road to apostasy begins with: losing confidence in leaders, criticizing leaders, and neglecting church duties (such as attending meetings or home teaching–as far back as I can remember, I have avoided church meetings–so I pretty much was born on the road to apostasy).

    Our class focused mostly on criticism and how to protect ourselves from apostasy by wearing large, body-sized prophylactics, I mean, reading lots of scripture and doing what you are told. Like Lisa’s experience, it went much better than I thought. We even discussed how to properly criticise leaders.

    The protectionist rhetoric is understandable considering the many members of the early church who left because of the shenanigans of church leaders (banking scandals, polygamy, and so forth). It’s all an affirmation and motivator to do what you are told and the poor lot waiting for those who don’t.

    Where I think it really was off, as discussed here and at Lisa’s post, is the delusion that apostates “often” persecute members of the church. Because all of us spend so much of our day doing that. I do not put my head on the pillow at night until I have persecuted at least three true-believing Mormons; for the apostate, it’s like flossing or brushing one’s teeth.

  6. Chanson: Oh absolutely. The lesson was atrocious but hardly surprising given previous lessons I’ve had in Sunday School, Institute, etc. I truly expected much echoing and fear mongering.

    Andrew: “…but how liberal can you be in religion without coming into a brick wall?”

    Many have convinced themselves they can – just go read some of my comments. Much as I would like to believe one can, I’m not entirely certain it is possible either.

  7. er, many believe they can be rather liberal in a decidedly conservative church like the LDS and still thrive.

    I wonder how many doubts and inner dissenting voices many liberal members (like the StayLDS or even some NOMs) unwittingly ignore in this pursuit of the middle road.

  8. I’ve spent some time recently in a course that studied the “Economics of Religion” – it’s a bit of a stretch, but does offer some very interesting insights into various important questions.

    One thing we discussed is that the motivations of the group leaders aren’t necessarily important in explaining the phenomena of interest. I’ve begun to think of things in a darwinian way – christianity randomly generates sects and groups and they are selected for success or failure based on their variations in doctrine and administration.

    On this particular topic, I think that if the church had taken a softer stance on outsiders in general and apostates more specifically, it might not have made it this far. Many, many people refuse to question the church/gospel because they’re actually afraid of losing their testimonies.

    To paraphrase Sam Harris, however, mormonism is objectively less likely than generic christianity because, effectively, it’s just christianity plus a bunch of other stuff. I think that if mormons weren’t so afraid to stop being mormons, they would have realized this and the church probably wouldn’t have made it into the modern era.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to impugn the modern leadership – they may be acting in good faith. I think, however, that this particular component of mormonism is a key to explaining its persistence.

  9. chanson – thanks!

    #2 – Lisa – thanks for your comments. I felt like your post deserved a whole additional post – not simply a long comment on your blog.

    As far as the early LDS church goes, believe it or not, I think it was an entirely different place that what is around today. I think it was a place much more like the people’s temple (Jim Jones) that anyone wants to admit. Or anyone wants to admit in public.

    #4 – Andrew – I believe there can be liberal religions and members of each religion. Some people probably claim that members of the Utah LDS church are “liberals”, not practicing polygamy or blood atonement. So IMO liberalism is in the eye of the beholder. I hadn’t heard anything about the strict rules (no coffee, for ex.) being for the “least of the saints” until recently – that might be a relatively new concept.

    #8 – Chris – I don’t know if I agree that the LDS church wouldn’t be around if they took a softer stance on former members. I’m not sure that fear is the best motivator. If the fear (fear of apostasy) is the only motivator, at some point someone looks up and looks around, realizes there are millions of good people in this world who are not mormon, many who are no longer mormon or never made it to the temple, realizes that there’s no one behind the curtain.

    If they (the leadership) embraced a more balanced perspective, allowing people the freedom to research for themselves and make their own choices, there might be more people who stuck around after toto pulled the curtain, revealing the wizard. (Excommunicating members for studying and writing about history, like the sept. six doesn’t help much either).

    For many people, appealing to their good sense and their ability to reason goes much farther than scaring them into submission.

  10. Aerin: Thank you, I’m flattered that you felt it deserved a response post of its own 🙂

    “I hadn’t heard anything about the strict rules (no coffee, for ex.) being for the “least of the saints” until recently – that might be a relatively new concept. ”

    I think it might be a new rationale the members are using (I’m hearing it more often these days), but it’s there in the WoW: “For the least of the saints who are or can be called saints” (or something like that. i’m lazy). The thinking is that we don’t know if we’re weak, so better safe than sorry.

    The September Six deal really bothered/s me as well. It’s symptomatic of so much.

    “If they (the leadership) embraced a more balanced perspective, allowing people the freedom to research for themselves and make their own choices,”

    *GASP* but they do allow us to make our own choices, they do they do!

    Amusing what some consider a choice whereas others would call it compellation (word?) at the very least.

  11. Strange how the Congregationalists and the Quakers are still around after four hundred years of an open minded approach to religion, isn’t it?

    More seriously, I do think that there is something Chris’s claim. However, it would need not have been the Church that would have perished.

    What would have suffered for sure would have been the superhuman claims of the fifteen. Their power would have been constrained.

    Apparently, that was actually the case between the early and mid 20th century. At least, Armand Mauss appears to argue something to that effect.

  12. I don’t think it’s necessary to impugn the modern leadership – they may be acting in good faith.

    I agree with you, Chris. The problem with Mormonism is not the motivation of the leaders but a malfunctioning institution.

    Mormonism lacks any self-correcting institutional features, such as the founding fathers incorporated into the United States Constitution.

    On the other hand, Mormon leaders benefit from these malfunctions. Institutional dysfunction shields them from accountability and enhances their status, their power and, to some degree, even their income.

    In the army, we used to say: the fish begins to stink at the head.

    If Mormon leaders have to be faulted for anything it is for their refusal to take responsibility and to account for the consequences of their actions.

    Finally, good intentions are worth something but not very much. The road to hell is paved with the proverbial good intentions.

    It is no accident that the mass murders of the 20th century were motivated with good intentions. Mormonism, of course, does not quite rise to that level but that may well be due to the fact that Mormon leaders are subject to American law rather than wielding sovereign power.

  13. Re 9:

    Of course liberal religions can and do exist, and religions “moderate” over time, but the research suggests that “stricter” religions thrive precisely because of that strictness. It weeds out free riders to religion and draws the most committed adherents…and these adherents, after they have invested so much time and effort into their religion, find it difficult to leave.

    So I mean, even though I personally would like to believe in a world where everyone naturally comes to appreciate liberal religion (or maybe no religion at all), instead I see that the Evangelicals are thriving. The Pentecostals are thriving. Mormons aren’t doing as well, but it’s not doing anywhere near as poorly as Episcopalians, etc.,

  14. Aerin(#9) – Allow me to clarify. I’m not claiming that fear is a great motivator, just that rejection of alternative lifestyles is necessary to support the mormon church’s stringent expectations of its members. Suppose that mormonism were a truly universalist movement. Is there any way the members would pay a full tithe, give 2 years in missionary service, early morning seminary, countless hours of Home and Visiting Teaching, and so much more? No way.

    In order to maintain that level of individual sacrifice, the individual church members must classify people as “good” or “bad” and have fear of becoming “bad.” If they thought “if I stop paying tithing, I’ll be just as good in the eyes of God plus I’ll be able to make my mortgage payment,” well, you can see where that goes.

  15. Is there any way the members would pay a full tithe, give 2 years in missionary service, early morning seminary, countless hours of Home and Visiting Teaching, and so much more? No way.

    Chris, of course, there are universalist movements that illicit even greater sacrifice from their members.

    Quakers, for example, are much more open minded than Mormon orthodoxy and have sacrificed at least as much as our people.

    Another example would be freedom riders where white Jewish people had literally their brains knocked out to assert the rights of other people.

  16. I disagree. My husband’s uncle went and built sewers in Mexico. Tons of Christians from less strict religions go on mission type trips and pay a 10% tithe. Not only do they pay the 10% tithe, they also demand accountability about where their money goes.

    These faiths have plenty of people who are willing to fulfill callings, a friend of mine’s mother was ordained as a deacon for her church a few weeks ago. Now, early morning seminary might drift away, but having gone through three years of that myself, I find it hard to find any convincing argument to keep it around.

    Not only did seminary make it more difficult to focus on my schoolwork – I remember few things of substance that I learned. Except, perhaps, how to color in my scriptures. Can’t even remember which colors meant what.

  17. Hellmut (#12) – I agree that church leaders are responsible for their actions. I often see discussion of church policies get bogged down in subtexts about leaders’ intentions – some are happy to assume the worst and some refuse to allow for any character flaw.

    I think it’s important to realize that the morality of individual church decisions is not necessarily related to the intentions of the administrators making and/or implementing those decisions. For example, I think the church’s “for us or against us” mindset causes significant pain and is a “bad” thing. I recognize, however, that from their perspective, they are simply quoting the revealed word of god. If it’s what god wants, then it must be good. Nevertheless, I feel free to critique their actions without any discussion of their motivations or intentions, focusing instead on realized or potential outcomes.

  18. Aerin (#16) and Hellmut (#15) – I think you’re making my point for me. The difference in the missions that your christian friends (and mine) fulfill and those of modern mormon youth is the actual social and personal value.

    I think that most people, regardless of religiosity, believe/feel that helping those in need is an inherently valuable thing. As such, they are willing to sacrifice their own resources to that end. They are willing to give money to their church because they know that the church is doing good things with it (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, funding programs that are useful to members, etc.).

    Mormonism, on the other hand, requires costly sacrifices that are not necessarily beneficial to anyone. They require you to give up coffee. They require to tithe without question. They require a proselyting mission. They require attendance at many meetings. Most of these sacrifices are either beneficial to no one (coffee) or are beneficial only to the organization itself (proselyting missions, tithing). How can they sustain this behavior without making it a question of morality and community membership? If the church said: “hey, look, you can have all the social and eternal benefits of a proselyting mission if you, instead, go build houses in Mexico for a year,” what would people do?

  19. Adam Smith famously quipped: “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of the conscience.”

    It seems to me that the revealed word of God is bringing out the worst in our leaders. We ought to consider ourselves lucky that they do not get to do what they want but are constrained by secular government.

    Believing into the revealed word of God is ultimately no different than believing into dialectical materialism. Mormons and Marxists claim to know an ultimate trueTruth and are therefore willing to impose on others.

    At some point, we need to take responsibility for the observable consequences of our actions.

    Jesus, by the way, made the same point. He said that we shall know the false prophets by their fruits.

    I am not so much interested in true of false prophets but in Christ’s admonition to evaluate the quality of religious truth and power claims empirically.

    That is remarkably similar, by the way, to Karl Popper’s, Michael Oakeshott’s and Edmund Burke’s political theories.

  20. Hellmut (#15) – I’m not claiming that people only make sacrifice in order to satisfy social or institutional expectations. Let me try to distill my argument:

    1. Mormonism requires its individual members to make a lot of sacrifices.

    2. Many of the members will not feel inclined to make all the sacrifices required. If given the opportunity, they would choose to participate only in those things they find personally fulfilling (perhaps because they value the social good).

    3. The individual mormon is likely to believe that his/her complete fulfillment of all the sacrifices is necessary for either social status or compliance with God’s will, so will make sacrifices that are not in that individual’s self interest, broadly defined to include personal valuation of others’ well-being.

    4. If the church’s teachings did not lead to this belief by a significant portion of its members, there would be a substantial decrease in the sacrifices made by the members, many of which (tithing, proselying) are necessary for the organization’s own welfare. Therefore without these teachings, the institutional church would be worse off, and I think substantially so.

  21. Mormonism, on the other hand, requires costly sacrifices that are not necessarily beneficial to anyone. They require you to give up coffee. They require to tithe without question. They require a proselyting mission. They require attendance at many meetings. Most of these sacrifices are either beneficial to no one (coffee) or are beneficial only to the organization itself (proselyting missions, tithing).

    You are describing an organization that behaves like a parasite.

    I agree with you that an organism that relies on the exploitation of sentient beings might well have to rely on enemy images, scapegoating, and similarly strong forms of othering.

    It is important to realize that organizations and organisms need not be parasites to sustain themselves. There are alternatives.

  22. So I mean, even though I personally would like to believe in a world where everyone naturally comes to appreciate liberal religion (or maybe no religion at all), instead I see that the Evangelicals are thriving.…

    Perhaps this is because you live in the United States? 🙂

  23. First of all, let me say how much I enjoy this exchange, Chris. Thanks a lot.

    Therefore without these teachings, the institutional church would be worse off, and I think substantially so.

    Armand Mauss, I believe, makes a similar argument.

    Whether the LDS Church is well off, is an empirical question. Here is what we know:

    1. We have had to close four-hundred wards and branches just in Chile. Similar initiatives occurred in the Philippines, in at least one more Latin American country, and may well be necessary in every Ibero American nation.

    2. In Europe, the Church suffers under severe atrophy. In the British Isles several ward houses have already been sold. The Church is probably shrinking in every European country.

    3. The Pew survey on religion revealed that for every four converts to Mormonism, five members cease to identify as Mormons in the United States. These people may not resign but the LDS Church has seen the last farthing from them.

    If the Pew data is correct, then the number of committed members is shrinking in the United States. Some five years earlier, the CUNY Religious Identification Survey published that Mormon conversions merely meet the replacement rate, which gives further credence to the recent discovery of negative trends.

    By definition, shrinking trends of membership are not sustainable. To arrest the trend, the brethren have to find a new equilibrium.

    By contrast, when the brethren governed the LDS Church much more liberally during the fifties until the late sixties, there was real growth in terms of committed members.

    During that period, of course, the brethren were benefiting from the expansion of the middle class after the new deal and American global power after World War II.

    Nonetheless, this time period demonstrates that it is possible to maintain a more vibrant and healthy organization and culture than today.

  24. Hellmut –

    I agree that the church needs to make some fundamental changes in structure if it wants to grow or even keep pace with birth rates. I suspect that the internet has revealed enough of mormonism’s dark underbelly that most people won’t be willing to make the time investment necessary to investigate whether they like the faith community.

    Mormonism’s best chance at “persistence” or “vibrancy” is to retain those people in the intermountain west region of the United States who are “Mormon” at a fundamental level – not just by faith but by heritage and for community reasons. Those people aren’t likely to be turned off by the shady history if they feel like the mormon church is a place where they can go, commune, worship, and serve without any restrictions on belief and few restrictions on behavior.

    My main point above is simply that, taking Mormonism’s demanding nature as granted, I think that it needed to enforce the black/white, in/out, with/against dichotomies to keep people going and giving (praying, paying, and obeying). Now, I don’t think that it’s the best strategy going forward. I don’t think it was ever “good” or “right,” especially to the degree that it has led to slander and libel (as in the Marsh case) or divided families (really, just looking at the “Introductions” or “My Story” section of any site in the DAMU will give many examples of both of these things).

  25. Sorry – the last paragraph above should begin:

    “My main point above is simply that, taking Mormonism’s demanding nature as given”

    (or “for granted” – one or the other)

  26. Chris, I agree with your points in #24, and with Andrew’s comment that Mormonism has been strengthened by its strictness. And I think it’s true that (despite what has worked for Mormonism in the past), the organization needs to reinvent itself again moving forward to survive. In the Internet age, the brethren need to stop assuming they can control information flow like they used to, and stop the focus on conversion (since claiming massive growth that obviously isn’t there makes many people question the leadership’s credibility). Instead, as you say, the focus should be on cultivating the people who are Mormon by heritage and community.

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