Laziness and Desire to Sin

One of the big stereotypes about people who leave the church is that anyone who would do such a terrible thing must have done so because they were too lazy to follow God’s commandments or because they just wanted to sin.

We’ve probably been accused (either explicitly or implicitly) of these (or a variation thereof) charges, and so I bet we all have taken the time to try to explain that that’s not really the case, and that those rationalizations actually ignore, gloss over, and marginalize the real rough spots in church doctrine, practice, and history.

…but what if the stereotypes are true?

Bear with me.

The church claims some nearly 14 million members across the world. But what we know as well is that these statistics hide less palatable details for the church. In many parts of the world, new converts have an abysmal retention rate. Many converts quickly (dis)appear into the void.

I don’t know what the precise number is, but isn’t it true that some wide margin of the worldwide church is inactive (oh, wait, I mean “less active”)? If you want to fill me in on percentages you’ve heard, please do. I remember feeling a bit shocked when I heard a percentage that was regarded as somewhat reliable.

I think that we can understand a difference between people who are inactive and people who leave the church. But from an administrative or official perspective, things blur. After all, leaving the church administratively requires formal resignation. But how many of us have sent in the letter? How many of us, for whatever reason, are (dis)inclined from sending in a letter?

I’m not saying that one should or should not send in a resignation letter, but without one, how does the church tell between an “inactive” member and an ex-member?

So, we have this wide group of people who don’t attend church and perhaps have not for a substantial length of time, but have not formally resigned. (And we also have people who attend church to keep a family together, but do not believe anything that’s said in the meetings…) I’m willing to venture that the vast majority of this pool of people are not the kind like us to write on MSP (or any other blog), to write on FLAK or some other message board, or to have (dis)tinct grievances with particular aspects of church history, doctrine, or practice.

As much as it pains me to say (and it is from just anecdotes and personal experience), but I can’t say I know too many people who are ex-mormons. I do know many people who are inactive, and who stopped going because they didn’t want to invest the time and because they were engaged in some sin they couldn’t reconcile with the prying eyes peering from the pews.

Perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that of a peculiar minority, we are ourselves a peculiar minority?

But then, what next? What does this mean, what should we care about it?

Andrew S

Andrew S grew up in a military family, but apparently, that didn't make much of an impression upon him because he has since forgotten all of his French and all of his Hangungmal (but he does mispronounce the past tense of "win" like the Korean currency and thinks that English needs to get it together!) Andrew is currently a student at Texas A&M who loves tax accounting, the social sciences, fencing (epee), typography, presentation design, and public speaking, smartphones, linux, and nonparallel structured lists.

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29 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    Here’s my guess: If a convert has no Mormon family and stops participating in Mormonism after less than a year of activity, then it’s usually just a case where the person didn’t know what s/he was getting into. In that case, I wouldn’t call it laziness, and I wouldn’t expect the person to be interested in a site like MSP. It’s just a case where the person’s number in the church database is more important to the church than to the convert. 😉

    Also, I would guess that probably a huge portion of those who leave just lose interest even among those who have a long history with the church. As you say, it’s not necessarily a question of specific issues with the church so much as just a question of church not being edifying enough to warrant the time it consumes. Maybe the person (or family) moves and doesn’t fit into the new ward, or they just progressively attend less and less until they’re not attending at all. Some of those people might be interested in reading a site like MSP, others not so much.

    Does it matter? To me, not really. To the CoJCoL-dS, perhaps.

  2. Andrew S says:

    I would guess that probably a huge portion of those who leave just lose interest…

    Sounds like what we really need to counter with is, “People don’t leave because of laziness — they leave because of boredom.”

  3. Leah says:

    I’ve wondered that too, every April Conference when they announce the membership statistics, how many are TBM and how many are people who have left emotionally and intellectually but just haven’t resigned.

    I did formally resign two years ago. It was a way of feeling a sense of closure for me, but it was three years after I’d stopped believing in it before I felt ready to take that step.

    As far as being too lazy to keep the commandments, I suppose that is actually partially true of me. The Church demands so much of its members and when I started to have doubts, part of what motivated me to get to the bottom of things was the feeling that If this isn’t true, then it isn’t worth it. Church was almost entirely pure sacrifice for me. I didn’t enjoy the community or get anything else out of it personally. I followed as long as I thought it was the right thing to do and what God wanted. Once I concluded that if God existed, he probably didn’t care, there was no personal motivation for me to participate in the Church anymore.

  4. Andrew S says:

    Maybe I’m just great at rationalizing, but what I’ve noticed is that in the cases when I have not kept commandments, it hasn’t been from laziness, but from ideological (dis)agreement. I think plenty of the commandments are still worth it (then again, maybe I should just admit that’s only because the church has “f@#*ed up my sex life!” as well), but for me, paying tithes to an organization with which I do not agree seems wrong.

    I think that this reasoning applies to a lot of us (viz, if we happen to shed LDS values or commandments, it’s not because we just “wanted to do so” but more accidental from everything else that has happened to our worldview), but someone who wants to see laziness and/or desire to sin will see that instead.

  5. Chandelle says:

    Interesting thoughts. I agree with your last comment, Andrew, that many people leave, or just drift away, from sheer boredom. I’m finishing the book Sundays in America, about a writer who visits just about every variant of the Protestant faith across the country, including a Mormon wardhouse. Toward the end of her comments she reflects on the friends who worried about her attending an LDS service; they have nothing to fear, she says, except being bored to death.

    The Jack Mormons I met in my almost entirely LDS high school probably would have said, if hard-pressed, that they still believed in the basic doctrines of the Church; they just couldn’t be bothered to participate. Some of them eventually did return to the Church in adulthood, after they’d sowed their teenage oats.

    So I suppose even among the “less active” there is a dichotomy: those who just don’t care, and those who care very much but do not believe or cannot support it.

  6. Lisa says:

    (forgive me if this comment comes up weird–having a hard time with the text box)

    That’s just it. For me, the so-called laziness came after the disillusionment. Like Leah said, if it isn’t true, why bother? But that isn’t entirely right either, at least for me. I asked “if it isn’t true, then these other doctrines aren’t necessarily true either.” (WoW, earrings, sabbath, etc). Over time I gained a courage to actively attempt to not do certain things. Like tithing. And I learned that life went on much like it always did, just cheaper and without so much guilt. I saw my family more.

    If that’s laziness and just not being able to hack it, well I’m guilty. But like Leah, I also concluded that if there is a god, why would he care about such menial things? But that argument doesn’t fly with members because they don’t consider these things menial but a matter of faith. So I guess I’ve no faith, which I don’t. Not like that, at least.

    My SIL about a month ago (i’m unsure if she knows we no longer attend) related to us the whole “it’s a hard religion and that’s why inactives go inactive” bit–but I don’t think it’s a matter of difficulty. I “hacked it” for ten years. I gave up a *lot* of stuff. I’ve a natural inclination to curse–I gave it up entirely for that decade. I’m a stickler with money but I was more than happy to pay tithing AND i believed in it–easier to do something when you believe in it. Going to church was hard for a number of reasons, but I went.

    It became not worth it later–you know, cost vs. benefit. That’s ultimately what it was for me.

  7. Chandelle says:

    Another thought: one of the most common questions I’ve received from TBMs is whether I follow the Word of Wisdom now that I’ve lost faith and resigned. I’m always surprised by this question because, seriously, coffee and alcohol are not very serious addictions for most people, and if you didn’t have a religious icon telling you not to do it, I doubt that many people would go so far out of their way to abstain.

    So I’ll say, yes, I drink coffee, and I live in wine country so it’s basically mandatory to my citizenship that I occasionally imbibe, and of course the conclusion to be drawn from this is that I left so that I COULD drink coffee and wine. At that point I usually get pissed off and ask how likely it is that I would put my immortal soul in jeopardy for a cup o’ joe. Apparently, the answer could be “quite likely,” because if I really think about it, I have known quite a few Mormons who otherwise were believers but just didn’t understand or care about such piddly rules.

    Andrew, you say in your post that you have heard a somewhat reliable statistic for actual membership stats. Care to share?

  8. Suz says:

    You know, you could be right. Maybe I did leave the church out of sheer laziness. I sure as shit can’t be arsed to “administratively” withdraw from the church. Why, then I’d actually have to mail something in, right? 😉

  9. Andrew S says:


    I was hoping someone else would post something, so that I could compare/contrast, but here’s a good link with numbers I’ve seen.

    I suppose the worst that can be said about these statistics is that the oldest are pretty long in the tooth (e.g., the encyclopedia of mormonism is nearly 20 years old, and the updated extrapolations are around ten years old)

    Nevertheless, these are from faithful, known scholars.

    Another intriguing data point (from a Dialogue article around 15 years ago by Lowell C. Bennion) is the percentage of men in the church who have received the Melchizedek priesthood. See a summary of some of that data here:

  10. Andrew S says:

    re 8:

    suz, I’m so in the same boat. They should have a page on the website where you can click a button and instantly be dropped.

  11. aerin says:

    It seems to me that many active members do plenty of things that are could be seen as “sinning” to some. Some of the things are technically against the rules. This really bothered me when I first left (I think I blogged about this before) but I accept that everyone is just their own person, trying to find their own way.
    I sent in a resignation letter over ten years ago.
    I think there is a focus in mormonism more on what your neighbor is doing, how other people are living – rather than helping others (whatever their membership status is), being kind, etc. There are some mormons who do this and get it, but there are some who don’t.

  12. philomytha says:

    There seems to be this assumption that of course deep down you really know its true so if you go off and have a cup of coffee you’re willfully rebelling and rejecting God and eternal life so you can be more like the world.

    What I don’t understand is why Mormons can’t grasp the concept that a lot of people who leave church or go inactive just plain don’t or can’t believe in what the church teaches (and honestly, it’s crazy stuff! Why would believing in it be the default? It’s HARD to believe it!) and so that cup of coffee is nothing but a beverage.

    I’m not looking for an excuse to sin. I just don’t think a latte is a sin.

  13. chanson says:

    The Jack Mormons I met in my almost entirely LDS high school probably would have said, if hard-pressed, that they still believed in the basic doctrines of the Church; they just couldnt be bothered to participate. Some of them eventually did return to the Church in adulthood, after theyd sowed their teenage oats.

    I have a personal real-life friend who was like that. At one point she was sowing some pretty wild oats (and not attending church) — but if pressed on the subject, she was still Mormon and still believed. Now she’s back in the church and totally faithful.

  14. chanson says:

    Actually, though, from the church’s standpoint, it’s in their interest to claim that almost all people who leave are lazy or just want to sin (even if that’s not true). It may be true for a small portion of those who leave, and that portion may be the segment that’s most likely to “re-activate”…

  15. Suz says:

    All this talk of coffee, I really can’t resist putting in my 2 cents worth. Caffeine is bad for my head, so that’s one good healthy rule Mormons have. Coffee gives me such a headache! Well, if I don’t get enough of it on a daily basis, that is. Did you know? There’s a Mormon soccer team that plays against a league here in Worcestershire, England. They always win the football games, because the players are just so damned healthy. They don’t nip down to the pub after a match for a pint! (Of beer) 😉

  16. Lisa says:

    Re: Chandelle’s post–yeah, that too. I had had enough of being micromanaged because I couldn’t possibly govern myself responsibly. One cup of coffee — addict! (is it really that bad?) a drink of alcohol–alcoholic! Down to the length of the clothes I wear and how many earrings I put in.

    I mean, shit.

    If they knew of the (for real) panic attack I had the first time I pulled into a Starbucks drive through–yeah. I know what they’d say, but in the end I realized it was easier to just toe the line and not fear for my eternal whatever. In fact, I would say that. When you’re active and have been for a number of years and are struck as if with a brick with the reality of what happens when you DO leave, it is far easier to stay and obey than to leave.

    In that vein, to insist it’s easier to leave than to stay is the stupidest thing ever.

  17. Andrew S says:

    re 12:

    yeah, philomytha, one of the biggest challenges for me has been to try to explain what (dis)belief is like to people who think it is unthinkable, or who think that disbelief is only possible when you are under the influence of Satan.

    And since free will is such a big part of the church, people think that, if you try hard enough, you can easily “choose” to believe something different.

    re 13:

    chanson, that’s kinda what I realized. Nearly all the people with whom I grew up that I know went inactive did some pretty extreme stuff when they were gone. Many came back after cleaning up (to whatever extent that they hadn’t done anything permanent.)

    re 15:

    suz, the reason why I think the Word of Wisdom is godly and divine is because of the very existence of unsweetened ice tea. People seem to love this stuff, but tea is (DIS)GUSTING! It is water with a bad aftertaste!

    green tea is pretty good though.

  18. Suz says:

    You obviously haven’t had proper English tea. Pop round for a visit sometime and I’ll make you a cuppa 🙂

  19. Parker says:

    You have people who are thoughtful about Church governance and theology and find that the dots don’t connect very well, and leave. Then you have people who never give it much consideration at all, but who adopt a life style that is our of harmony with Church teachings. At some point they may decide that their life is unfulfilling and they return to the Church (like the Prodigal). So, the “sinner” repents and returns to the fold. But the “thinker” likely will not return because what didn’t make sense initially probably won’t later either.

  20. Goldarn says:

    Living in Utah and being in the ward council, I noticed that a *lot* of people never attended and never were home taught. The bishopric, around once a year or so, tried to get them visited. Sometimes they were successful in visiting them (meaning they at least got the door open, even if they had to stand on the front porch).

    I don’t think any of them came back to church on a regular basis.

    Most of the people who were bothered by the visits don’t bother to resign, if they even know they can. They just complain about those blankety-blank Mormons dropping by, and let it go. Some of them probably complained to non-Mormon friends and co-workers, which increases the populace’s negative general opinion of the church, without helping the church at all.

  21. profxm says:

    Numbers as requested:

    -Per Henri Gooren’s research in Latin America, 1/2 of converts leave within the first year.
    -Per Rick Phillips’s research (and David Knowlton and Ronald Lawson), in countries that include religion as a census question, those who self-identify as Mormons make up anywhere from 20% to 70% of the numbers reported by the Mormon Church. In other words, Mormon membership numbers are overstated by anywhere from 30% to 80%.

    Publications available upon request.

  22. Leah says:

    Holy smokes! That is a LARGE margin of error!

  23. like a lot of people in the comments, i got bored. it was only after i had some emotional distance between myself and the church that i started reading into stuff like alternate versions of the first vision, adam-god theory, official church positions on black and the priesthood, etc. and then prop 8 got me to become really hostile in my attitude towards the church.

  24. Carson N says:

    Andrew, I’m totally with you on the tea. I tried out some herbal tea and it really is water with an awful aftertaste. It boggles my mind that people willingly drink that stuff when they could just drink hot water instead.

  25. Chandelle says:

    It totally depends on the tea. Seems like the most popular herbal tea is chamomile, which tastes awful to me. You get a good lemon balm with some lemon juice and honey, though, and it’s wonderful. Mints are good, too, and hibiscus is something special with lime juice and lots of ice.

  26. Todd says:

    Well, for me it was more boredom I guess as much as the fact that I was gay. The church was more just a culture I grew up in rather than any belief I had. I always harbored disagreement and just plain bafflement at the doctrines sometimes, and remember wondering as I sat through another long and sometimes comical F&T meeting if I was the only one who wanted to just start laughing out loud. After a lifetime of saying the correct things and doing what was expected, I just left. It was seriously the most liberating thing I have ever done and I have never been happier. The strange thing is my family has told me I would never find happiness outside the church. On my worst days since I left I have been happier making my own choices and being myself. 🙂

  27. leisurelyviking says:

    Herbal tea doesn’t count as tea in my book, since it has no leaves from the tea plant in it 😛 Plus, it’s not even sinful (at least I know plenty of Mormons who drink it). Give me some good quality black or oolong tea any day, though… yum.

  1. November 21, 2010

    […] idea before. What if the stereotypes about people who leave the church are true? What if they are just being lazy or just desiring to sin? What if the fact is that when people talk about those who “leave the church,” they […]

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    […] And isn’t that the strange thing? Of exmormons being qualitatively different from inactives? I’ve written about it indirectly before. […]

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