I didn’t leave to sin.
Something one hears quite frequently in the LDS Church is that inactive Mormons “just left to sin,” “were offended,” “intellectualized themselves out of a testimony,” and “just need to regain their faith”. On behalf of less- and inactive Mormons everywhere, I would like explain just why these assumptions are so painful, and why they do more harm than good to efforts at “reactivation”. Please note that this post really only applies to those Latter-day Saints who had a firm belief in the Restored Gospel before leaving the Church, to those who were fully immersed and involved, held callings and/or served missions.
For I and many other less- and inactive Mormons, leaving the fold came at great cost, pain, and deliberation. Its much more a “journey” and less an isolated decision. The Mormon religion is a culture and way of life as much as it is a faith, and it influences every relationship and decision a Latter-day Saint makes. Discovering something is myth rather than literal is not unlike losing a loved one – you go experience denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, and depression – sometimes many cycles – before reaching acceptance. Furthermore, the decision to “go inactive” has serious repercussions associated with it – Wives have left husbands who have lost their testimonies. Families have disowned children. Some even lose their jobs and livelihood, especially if they work for the Church. Those who choose to leave the Church are often painfully aware that these consequences are looming. That they choose to leave regardless should indicate something.
In my blog and forum readings, I have found that there are two major reasons that strong, converted Mormons leave the Church – social/values-driven issues and historical concerns. I fall mainly in the first group, while Monsieur Curie falls into the second. Let me give you a little bit of a glimpse into what disaffection means for these people.
Social/values-driven folks include people like me who leave the Church over things like Prop. 8, racism, or feminist concerns. These are people for whom the Church climate was toxic, or where Church teachings on social issues directly conflicted with their inner moral compass and affected them personally and negatively. These people will often put up with alot before leaving, and there is often a “trigger” that does them in. This trigger should not be construed as being offended, however. The journey is almost always a long, painful one and the trigger is more the “straw that broke the camel’s back” than a rash decision. These people could often (and do often) reconcile their intellectual concerns, and could accept a non-literal Mormon Church, were it not for strong dissonance between their conscience and Church teachings. For these individuals, their conscience battles with their faith, and their personal relationship with God wins out.
A very good example are those who left the early Church over polygamy. They felt strongly inside that God would never, ever, ever command Joseph Smith to secretly marry their wives, 30+ at a time. For instance, men were sent on missions and then come home to find their wives married to Joseph Smith or living with Brigham Young and pregnant, bearing his children. Although prophets can make mistakes, mistakes are monumental when they negatively affect your life.
Truth-driven folks like my husband leave after discovering Church history. Oftentimes, it isn’t the facts themselves that damn, but the gulf between what is taught in correlated meetings and what is historically recorded fact. These individuals are often troubled by this disconnect. These individuals often feel they have been deceived by the men they held as prophets and feel dishonest attending or teaching classes that offer white-washed or flat-out mythical church history. A good example of this is the discovery that Joseph Smith had 33 wives, one of whom was only 14 years old and many of whom were already married. The Church teaches that polygamy was for the “widows and spinsters” and began with Brigham Young, but the evidence strongly indicates otherwise. When presented with this evidence, the brethren’s response has been to hide it, deny it, and discredit those who would bring the information to light (i.e., D. Michael Quinn, the September Six, etc.). The argument is that it would “try the weakest of the Saints,” and they claim the need for “milk before meat”. This can literally drive truth-driven individuals insane. For these individuals, Elder Holland’s Safety for the Soul talk was a slap in the face, because it indicated a thorough lack of understanding by the brethren for their concerns.
“They just left to sin.”
The idea that someone leaves to go sin, while it may be true for some, really cannot be made as a blanket statement. Most Mormons I know who have left the fold did not do so to break the Word of Wisdom, rob banks, or commit adultery. They are still the same individuals they were before their testimony was shattered. If they “break” the WoW, it is because the WoW no longer has meaning to them. If the Church doesn’t hold the keys to heaven, then whether or not one drinks non-herbal tea really has no bearing on their eternal salvation. The Word of Wisdom is largely a Mormon rule; drinking coffee, tea, and alcohol (in moderation) are not generally considered “sinful behavior” by the vast majority of the world. Smoking cigarettes, while stupid, is generally not seen as sinful.
I think of it similar to how Hawkgrrl once described it – its like the Pres. Monson asking Mormons to wear pink socks on Tuesdays. Although Mormons may try to think of reasons for why the WoW can be a good principle, at the end of the day, believing Mormons keep the WoW “because the prophet said so.” If you no longer believe the Mormon prophet to be the sole revelator for God to the world, keeping Church rules is kinda pointless.
“They were offended.”
As I mentioned above, oftentimes when someone leaves because they have been “offended,” the offense is merely the last straw in a haystack of concerns. Removing the offense or offender will not help, because the haystack remains. For example, my “last straw” was the Ensign article “Staying Home… Again.” Prior to reading the article, I had already endured personal agony, depression, anxiety, and cultural rejection for my decision to be a working mother – not of necessity, but of choice. Even if the Ensign recanted the story, it wouldn’t bring me back to the Church; the haystack of feminist concerns remains.
“They intellectualized themselves out of a testimony.”
From an rationalist’s perspective, being told to ignore evidence, carefully choose only LDS-sanctioned historical texts, and not to question is tantamount to despair. As an artist must create, so must an intellectual think, read, and question. The “purging of the intellectuals” in the early 90s and the elimination of upper-level Church History research classes at BYU violates the concept of “academic freedom” that is so cherished by thinkers. These people would likely ask you what a testimony is worth, if it really is so fragile that a little reading will decimate it. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, oftentimes it isn’t the actual history that does people in, but the fact that they feel lied to and betrayed. The fact that the Church (through Elder Packer) has declared an all-out war on intellectuals doesn’t help.
“They just need to regain their testimony.”
The only response I can think of to this statement is: It isn’t that simple.
For the values-motivated heretics, they didn’t so much leave the church because of a lack of testimony, they left to avoid personal annihilation. For example, I earnestly tried to “fit the mold” of the good Mormon wife and mother in Zion – Bearing children eagerly and being willing to leave a carefully cultivated career. I did these things in direct contradiction with my conscience and answers to my prayers, because it was what priesthood leaders and the Mormon social norms were telling me God wanted from me. As a result, I was miserable, isolated, and a horrible mother. I was led to understand that my unhappiness with my divine role meant I was intrinsically broken. Accepting that the Family Proclamation was not universally applicable, and leaving the Church, brought me incredible peace and self-assurance. I left the Church because my mortal happiness required it.
Considering those for whom intellectual concerns abound, simply reading correlated history is not going to make you forget what you now know, and isn’t going to eliminate the gulf between fact and mythos. For these individuals, prayer and fasting will not make “lying for the Lord” and intellectual irresponsibility okay. If you are an academic, then being told that “some things that are true aren’t very useful” violates your moral code of academic honesty and integrity. If you are a thinker, being told to stop thinking is never going to work.
These sorts of misconceptions demonize those who have fallen away, and frustrate any subsequent attempts at “reactivation.” Unless active Mormons put away these broad (and often untrue) misconceptions of apostacy, there can never be reconciliation between the two groups. Everyone wants to feel heard, understood, and validated. No one likes being the victim of stereotyping.
Very insightful post. I would fall into both categories. I had problem with the church’s social issues since I was a teen, but still forced myself to try to have a testimony and believe, but then when I found out about the deceit going on with the history… well, that was the straw (or should I say brick?) that broke the camel’s back.
I would like to also quickly add that my husband was similar to me in that he also falls into both categories. But for him, it was the church history that he knew about for a long time and still attended, and it was the social issues that finally did him in later on.
I think I left the church in a mixture of the two different styles you propose.
In the years leading up to my leaving the church, I had gone from being a social conservative to a strict libertarian.
The biggest issue this presented to me in the church was that I could not understand why the church would be against gay marriage. I certainly, despite hours of meditating on the issue, couldnt figure out a libertarian justification for opposing gay marriage. This was before Prop 8. I don’t know how I would have reacted to that.
I was able to keep on believing at that point.
The trigger for me was losing faith in God, which happened half a year or so after I read a really good book on evolution, and understood the theory completely for the first time in my life.
After I lost faith in God, I then looked back into church history with a critical eye, and found that nothing that I thought was miraculous actually held up under scrutiny.
I had to leave the church, and became almost immediately a vocal critic of the church, at least online, as I must curb my enthusiasm about the exmo movement in my own home, to protect my marriage.
I wrote down an exit story here:
Wow, excellent post.
I had been disturbed about social issues and the church for years, and would write out rants about it and save them on my computer. One night I went through and read them all and realized neither the church or my problems with it were changing. I had also taken an institute class on church history around the same time, and it was friendly to the church but far less whitewashed than Sunday School. Around that time I decided that my issues ran deep enough that it definitely wouldn’t be worth sticking with the church if it wasn’t true. I spent a summer doing research in Puerto Rico away from people who might influence me in either direction, and took advantage of the situation to seriously study the scriptures/conference addresses and pray to know whether it was true. It was the first time I’d prayed with a willingness to accept either possible answer (previously I mostly just prayed until I got the answer I was “supposed” to get). I never got an answer and figured God either didn’t exist or He wanted me to make my own decision. Over the next few months I quit going to church or thinking of myself as Mormon, and couldn’t be happier about that decision. It’s been 3 years now.
exceptionally well said. thank you.
The situation may be different for people who leave the church as teens rather than as adults, established with a family and career, etc.
Explanations like “you just want to sin” or “you’re just an ungrateful, disobedient kid” may “work” coming from authority figures. (By “work” I mean succeed in keeping them trying to believe and convincing them that it’s them, not the church — despite very good reasons to disbelieve.)
p.s. I just read that “Staying Home… Again” article you linked above. Have you posted your response to it? (If you have, I’m sorry I somehow missed it, but please give us the link — I’d be curious to read your post.)
That’s awful that the woman was in a difficult situation and the church can do nothing but pile a mountain of additional guilt on her. So she enjoys her job (the horror!) and her kids are apparently old enough that they can take care of themselves when they get home from school — but she can’t possibly envisage finding some sort of balance between home and work?
Thanks, everyone, for your comments.
I should clarify that I didn’t intend for the two “groups” of disaffected to be mutually exclusive. I think its probably very common for someone who has “values” concerns to have the discovery that the church isn’t literally True be the all the impetus that is needed for their disaffection. Why put up with social conventions you disagree with, when the church isn’t speaking for God anyway?
Likewise, many people for whom the historical concerns are paramount probably need something social or cultural to “trigger” disaffection; you can put up with an un-literally True religion as long as it doesn’t negatively affect you.
chanson– You are probably right that putting the pressure on probably works better for teens.
And I hadn’t actually written a response post for the “Staying Home… Again” article, but I had intended to, and now that you bring it up I will 😉 There was a specific reason why I didn’t write one at the time, but that reason is no longer valid.
Very good points.
“As an artist must create, so must an intellectual think, read, and question.”
I never thought of it like that (not that I would ever consider myself an ‘intellectual’ by any means anyway). But this is something like what or who I am, i.e., I read; I think; and I question. THIS IS NOT REPREHENSIBLE!
I like to believe that Packer (through the church) has declared the war on intellectuals. Maybe it’s wishful thinking.
I think I am currently going through “the straw that broke the camels back”.
I have been arguing with Glenn Beck supporters for weeks now over how it’s fair and non-judgemental for mormons to hate on health care which would help the poor and needy (a church mission, by the way) and things like god-given rights (but only when they are in favor of mormons, not others). The list goes on and on. I’m disturbed. I feel judged. I’ve been put down. I find great discrepancies. I cannot stand the cultural side of things. It’s down to what I eat, dress, think, do wear. There are big sexism issues for me. No one can REALLY answer my questions. They just say pray about it.
Ugh. It’s so frustrating. While I believe in God and I believe his commandments and basic gospel principles (as you mention here, I’m not going to “go out and sin”) I cannot believe God would tell prophets that polygamy was correct – which John Taylor even died proving, right? He would not give in. Well then why would it change with Woodruff who writes the manifesto? If we should have endured till the end as Taylor did then we were led astray. And if it wasn’t a god given commandment in the first place, then Joseph Smith lied. Woodruff’s manifesto was written by him, not God, he clearly states this in his journals.
While the church started as a force of good, I believe somewhere along the way it’s been led astray based on the polygamy (and other) issues which no one can really clear up. I think it’s because they don’t really know. It’s become almost governmental in its culture. You do it this way or your not part of the team. The judgmentalness is insane. Free thinking is not allowed. While I haven’t officially left the church, I’m nearing that straw that broke the camels back. I’m not sure what else I CAN do but leave if I still want to have a good relationship with God.
That was my problem as well, Gabrielle. Very well put.
It sounds like you’re at the crossroads of a major decision. If you need someone to chat with about this, any of the regulars on here would surely be willing to chat. And I think it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t pressure you one way or another. We basically just want people to do what is best for them, whatever that is.
I left because it was no longer emotionally, nor spiritually safe for me to be in a building with bullies. And it really bothered me that the bullying occurred in front of the same leadership that I would have to raise my hand and support them. I could no longer reconcile that fact.
I could no longer be friends who stood by and watch this happen and claim to love and support me, yet, again, did nothing, these are people for whom I have done much in the way of preparing meals etc. And some of these people are the same ones that you know
I forgot to say that this was excellently written