the Big Exit Letter (BEL)
Thanks to chanson’s weekly round up, I read this post about Carson N. leaving. It reminded me of my own experience. My wife and I didn’t send emails, we sent letters in the mail. But the anticipation of the response from family was pretty intense. And one family member’s response was exactly what we feared – my mother called after receiving our letter and yelled at me for about 30 minutes, saying all sorts of horrible things, then hung up on me. We’ve never really talked about that phone call, but we’re on better terms now. And, in the years following that incident, my mother did say at one point that she would have rather that we had simply stopped attending and not told anyone, including her, than send out a missive telling everyone our intentions.
In hindsight, I question whether our approach was the best approach. In one sense, it probably was – for us. We were able to make a clean break from the religion. We were out; everyone knew we were out; and we had no commitments we had to break (for the most part).
But as far as impact on family goes, I wonder if this was the best approach. I don’t think it would have been as much of a shocker to my family if we just slowly drifted out and didn’t make a big deal out of it. Our reasoning at the time was that we had to be honest with everyone involved, particularly ourselves. But honesty “isn’t always the best policy” (I see that now). I’m sure our parents would have eventually figured out that we were not going to church and were not interested in Mormonism during our visits home, and I’m sure it would have led to some awkward conversations when we indicated that we didn’t want to say prayers or attend services with them. But our very loud rejection of their religion was probably a lot for them to handle all at once. If we had eased them into it, would things be different? Or, better reflecting my actual thoughts, “If we had eased them into our disaffection, would our exit have gone SMOOTHER?”
The other reason I think about how we left and whether it was the best approach is because the “big exiting letter” approach is so Mormon and so “cult-ish”. When a Catholic or Episcopalian drifts away from their religion, they simply drift away. I’ve spent the last year interviewing people who are “Nones” (no religious identification). A couple were Mormons (recruited through my friendship networks), but most were not. For some, when they finally told their parents that they didn’t want to attend services anymore, the parents were disappointed, and some were even a bit hateful (former Southern Baptists have had the hardest time with this), but most had a frank conversation and then it was basically not much of an issue after that.
That Mormons feel obligated to write a letter (1) saying that they are leaving and, (2) defending that they are leaving, says some interesting things about the Mormon mindset and the Mormon religion. First, it suggest to me that Mormons give a lot more power and authority to their religion than do lots of other religious people. To Mormons, the Church is a big fracking deal! You can’t just ignore it. You can’t just walk away when you realize how offensive it is. You can’t just disappear from the Church’s radar.
You have to freak out! You flip it the bird, tell it off, and warn it to never come back! That suggests to me that the Mormon Church functions more like a bully than just some annoying friend. You don’t ignore bullies. You beat the crap out of them in order to get them to leave you alone, a la Casey Heynes:
But it also suggests something about those trying to leave. They are locked into a mindset in which the religion has power over them. They have to reject that power, and that requires an actual act of rejection, like writing the “big exit letter.”
Now, not all Mormons leave that way. There is a great deal of speculation as to how many people are leaving the religion every year, and my guess is that, of the many who do, most do just drift away. But many of those are recent converts who never did give the religion the kind of power that it has in the lives of those raised in it. Yes, the Church tries to “bully” these people back by tracking them down and periodically sending someone to get them to come back, which reflects the authoritarian attitude of the religion – “we are in control here,” “you leave under our terms,” “it is our church, not yours.” But most of those who drift out don’t buy into it and simply continue ignoring a pesky religion they dabbled with for a short while. But for those of us who really bought it, who really believed it, and who gave our power to the Church, what do we do?
So here’s my big question: Is the “Big Exit Letter” (BEL) necessary for victims of LDS, Inc.? Or should we just drift away?