The Emotional Apostate: The Case for Leaving to Sin and Offense.
Within the ex-Mormon community…or at least, the ex-Mormon community as it thrives online, on websites, blogs throughout Outer Blogness, forums, etc., there seems to be this common exit narrative. (Daymon Smith has a post deconstructing the synthesis of this new identity, but I couldn’t decipher his blog post well enough to summarize the findings for you.) Here’s my attempt at a summary:We were (collectively or generally speaking) righteous, serious folk, who lived our religion to the best we could. Mormonism, at least for many of us, was a sweater made especially for us, handed down in many cases from generation to generation, across miles that our pioneer ancestors trekked. And even if we were converts, we dived into it fully.
We were proud of the snugness of Mormonism, and many times proud as well of this homemade sweater that was so distinct from what most others in the world were wearing. Maybe others were draped in inferior materials. Maybe others had good material but poor handiwork. Maybe they lacked the guidance, the ultimate revealed truth that we had to weaving it all together.
But no matter. We, as those who bore the truth, would share it with others, so they could bear it too. And so we did.
But then, one day, under some circumstance or another, we stumbled upon a loose strand. It was something out of order in perfection, and so we sought to pull out that loose strand to restore our previous perfection. But following that loose strand, we could not find solace. For instead of finding the end to the strand, we perpetuated the end to our sweater. In the end, with our once-snug sweater unraveled all around us, we found ourselves cold, naked, and vulnerable.
What was the sweater? And what was its doom? …Well, that’s the content of the typical ex-Mormon narrative. The sweater was a religious truth that we felt we had: the truth that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the one true church on the face of the earth, the only one with all the authority and priesthood keys to truly act in God’s name, and the only one with modern-day prophets, seers, and revelators to guide us through a depraved world.
What unraveled the sweater is nearly always described as being doubts to Mormon truth claims, skepticism of Mormon historicity, loss of faith in the hard underpinnings of the religion. As John Larsen summarized why Mormons leave the church (a briefer video than John Dehlin’s own attempt at the same subject, to be sure):
Why Mormons Leave (wmv — but short)
And naturally, that’s what Open Stories Foundation’s survey of Why Mormons Leave the church found as well. From that survey, here were the top selected factors for why people lose faith
- I lost faith in Joseph Smith
- I studied church history and lost my belief
- I ceased to believe in the church’s doctrine/theology
- I lost faith in the Book of Mormon
These stated reasons have been challenged from all sides. As mentioned before, Daymon Smith deconstructs the selection of “factors” for the survey. The heavy intellectual or rational slant of many of these reasons leads some liberal, nuanced believing members in the church to chide that disaffected members believed too much and that led to their faith crisis.
But it’s not just intellectual, about believing in a more orthodox manner than everyone else and then having that fall apart. As I mentioned before, ex-Mormons often also are ones who care about being righteous. As chanson linked to a couple of articles in the Sunday in Outer Blogness before last, part of the reason why some of the “I’m a Mormon” videos are so frustrating is because our experience is of seeing the emphasis on being perfect.
On that subject, I recently got a comment on my blog from John G-W, who later expounded his thoughts on his blog, Young Stranger:
…if you listen to stories like those of the McLays, I think the evidence also clearly supports that the problem lies not in some sort of conspiracy of the Church leadership, but in Mormon popular culture. If you listen carefully to some of these stories, one of the things you realize is that a major part of the problem lies in how the disaffected believer him or herself projected certain perfectionistic ideals both on him/herself and on the Church They struggle mightily to make everything (including themselves) fit with these perfectionistic ideals, and when they cant (of course they cant!!!!) everything comes crashing down like a house of cards.
My first thought would be to say that this perfectionism or cult of false expectations or whatever is more than just in Mormon “popular culture.” But more substantially, regardless of whether it’s institutionally or (merely) cultural, my more substantial point would be that it’s not just the disaffected believer “projecting” these ideals, and as a result, unrealistic expectations are EVERY Mormon’s problem.
In these surveys (and in most discussions with disaffected Mormons), the narrative usually sticks closely to these objective, fact-based reasons. When people try to suggest reasons more…emotional…everyone is quick to decry those claims. We didn’t leave because we were offended. We didn’t leave to sin. Just (about) the facts, ma’am.
But what’s so wrong with these emotional reasons?
Leaving to Sin
The problem with the trope of ex-Mormons “leaving to sin” is ultimately in the viewpoint that this idea takes…it assumes that the Mormon viewpoint (of morality and of sins) is the correct viewpoint to take. But why couldn’t we say that a big part of many people’s disaffections is coming to re-evaluate and redetermine their moralities? Instead of letting the question be begged and denying that sin had anything to do with it, shouldn’t we eventually be trying to argue that we find certain points on LDS morality illegitimate?
I’ll just throw it out there: I find the LDS moral stance on homosexuality to be incorrect. I would suspect that many people who disaffect from the church eventually come to this position (at least, the secular, agnostic/atheist disaffected Mormons probably aren’t all socially conservative anymore…)
Proposition 8 was a big event for me, as I’ve seen it mentioned as a big event for many people who ultimately disaffected from or completely left the church. And this is the case even though I don’t live in California, and neither do many of the people who mention it as a critical factor. For me personally, Proposition 8 awakened me to a particular realization: even if I admired some of the church’s secular traits (e.g., its capacity to prepare people for leadership, management, professionalism, public speaking, etc.,) ultimately, if I don’t agree with its spiritual claims, then all of that organizational acumen would be counterproductive — used for causes with which I disagree.
But in any case, whenever any gay member disaffects from the church and re-evaluates the acceptability of pursuing love and commitment…I don’t think we should be content to play with the “left to sin” rhetoric…we need to find a way to reclaim morality and say that that idea of sin is bankrupt.
Leaving to Offense
This naturally spills over into the next item that people often want to run away from…the idea of being offended. I know it’s trendy for people with privilege to claim that marginalized people are “oversensitive”, but we need to challenge the underlying premise as well: why are we trying to be completely unemotional? What’s wrong with being offended at things that are truly and personally offensive?
I think the reason that people don’t want to own up to being offended is because there are so many tropes of being offended over just the smallest thing…Oh, he was offended because his name was misspelled? Because he didn’t get the milk fat? Or whatever.
But here’s the thing: we don’t need to tolerate our problems being minimized and discounted like to these non sequitur type issues.
Another look at the sweater analogy
Earlier, I described that the sweater seemed to be a snug, comfortable fit for most of us…the problem was that it just came unraveled, leaving us with no foundation, no comfort. But Kiley provided a different look at the Mormonism sweater approach (HT to chanson from the latest Sunday in Outer Blogness for bringing this to my attention):
Having time to dwell on it a bit over the last few days I feel like I have recaptured it. My conclusion… The world inside of Mormonism was shallow and small… Ill-fitting like a sweater that had shrunk too much and chokes you at the neck every time you twist or turn in a funny way… Yep Mormonism was a choky sweater… Scratchy too.In my church days I was a very binary thinker. I was completely consumed by and fixated on ideas of right, worthy and perfect. The church slogan choose the right was really all that I needed Salvation, happiness, and immortality all came from choosing the right. It was so simple. The right way was to do what the church taught me to do. The wrong way was to stray from what the church taught.This sort of world view meant that there was no room for error, patience, growth, or mistakes. Mistakes and errors induced so much guilt that growing from them and learning lessons from them was nearly impossible. The guilt was debilitating. Not to mention that my idea of mistakes or errors was very flawed too.
…Ultimately, I recognize that the two reasons don’t have to be at odds. Rather, they may have a sequential nature or a compounding nature. What probably allowed many of us to reconsider morality, start walking away from and working past guilt wasour discoveries about history, about doctrine, etc., In fact, I’ve heard exactly that narrative from so many people as well: that even though they felt terribly in the church, they stuck with it for so long because, well, that was the truth for them. It was only when they came to believe otherwise that they could free themselves up in other ways.
I think ex-Mos stick with “just the facts” because TBMs are so quick to apply their own labels and assumptions to anything else, if only as a method of self-preservation. It might be that Prop. 8 offended me badly, but if I mention this to a TBM relative they would likely zero in on it to the exclusion of what might be much greater reasons for leaving. They would crawl all over me with their judgments and justifications and I’d be smothered and sucked in to an ultimately irrelevant argument. They’d assume that it was all about this one thing, *especially* if that one thing is not an issue for them. So for a recent ex-member who feels like a walking open wound, it’s easier to focus on these ultra-intellectual, non-emotional, broad statements of non-belief, because TBMs don’t usually argue from that position.
When I left the church it was months before I’d discuss any of my reasoning with anyone. I was hypersensitive and panicky, and I didn’t want anyone to try to talk me out of it. I didn’t want to argue, I didn’t want to have to defend myself, I didn’t want to come across as angry and bitter. Years later I can say, yeah, the church’s anti-gay stance pissed the hell out of me, I was offended that I could not be a whole person as a woman, and it made no sense to me that I could drink corn syrup-laden soda but not antioxidant-rich coffee. There you go. None of these caused me to leave the church, though. Ultimately I left because I didn’t believe in it. I think this is true for many of us.
One thing that you mention highlights another thing though:
This isn’t OK. We shouldn’t tolerate people treating us this way (although we so often do because the people doing it to us are family and friends and we have to maintain relationships).
If I had to think about it, I would say that, interestingly enough, what probably has driven me to write this post has not been interactions with TBMS, but with uncorrelated/NOM/liberal Mormons. Because when you talk with this crowd, you’ll find people who don’t believe that much anyway, but then point out the “goodness” of the church.
So, isn’t it strange that not believing in the church is more and more not a sufficient reason for many people to leave? People are now going by “goodness” rather than “truth,” so my response is to say, “Well, the church seems pretty bad to me, actually.”
I’m definitely one of the ones who hated it and felt rotten inside, but stayed because I thought it was true … until I realized what it was doing to others, through things like Prop 8. I left because of that. But I wish that I’d left because of myself, and how they were treating me. I wish that I’d left because of their cruel, heartless evil, that told me I had to stop being myself and deny basic needs and never complain about their abuse. I would have been much better off.
Maybe there is a flip-side of your thinking here in terms of “big tent Mormonism.” To me it seems like an avoidance of the much more difficult process of extricating from the church and forging one’s own path. Or maybe it’s just laziness, or fear of change. For some, though, there might very well be the hope that the church can be reformed from the outside, which is at least as uncomfortable to say aloud as “I was offended by the patriarchy.”
If it’s a question of “facts” versus “emotions/ethics,” the Church loses for me on both accounts. Whether we’re talking about gender dynamics, treatment of gay/trans issues, the overwriting of indigenous knowledges, etc. To me, the Book of Mormon isn’t just untrue, but also unethical to some extent.
The “truth” vs “goodness” aspect is interesting when thinking about the Church in an international context. When I’ve watched, for example, a “World Report” put out by the Church’s public affairs office, I admit to being astounded by an intended “feel-goodness” of the presence of the Church everywhere — the Philippines, Mexico, Mongolia — doing various good works. And then there’s a white GA in every scene, assuring the viewer that things are still “under control” of the Lord.
It’s interesting to hear what aspects of the faith local leaders take up. Sometimes it’s the “We’re in the latter days!” component, or the “Jesus Christ is our Savior!” component, “Eternal family!” perhaps, but never “Joseph Smith” or the “Book of Mormon.” Cultural inroads are made with the flow of church funds on the back of Christianity already in a place. The Book of Mormon is a 1820s American artifact that goes along for the ride. Can the Church continue along this path without eventually imploding?
I was reading the other day about Yeah Samake, a guy who’s running for the president of Mali, and had attended BYU. Apparently he was refused baptism here several times because Mali is a 90% Muslim country and church leaders worried about his safety. He had to convince church leaders that just because Mali is mostly Muslim doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. I read the real concern to be that Samake’s family would be the only Mormon family in Mali, potentially the presidential family there (the election is next month). Does his family attend services via satellite every Sunday indefinitely, or will/have they blended Mormonism with something local? I don’t know the answer…but the idea of Mormonism blended with something outside the corporation? No, it can’t be!!!!
It’s interesting that for a religion that seems to place so much emphasis on personal revelation, on personal testimony and testing of its principles…that the same religion can lead a person to reject truths about themselves…
I guess, relating to your point about some people wanting to avoid the difficult process of extrication, that people see leaving the church as a step back — yet they don’t necessarily see that it may be possible to then move two steps forward after.
I think enough people have hope that the church can be changed from *within* that that’s why they remain.
Great comment on the church’s path to international expansion and the problems there. I did not know that Yeah Samake was refused baptism at first.
My situation was like Taryn @3. I recently found a letter that I’d written (but not sent, I think to my mother) about life and how we have The Truth. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that I felt it was horrible that this truth was The Truth, but I was simply resigned to it. So later, when I had my deconversion epiphany, it was liberating.
I agree with you Andrew @2 that many people stay because they think the CoJCoL-dS teaches good values, even if it’s not true. That was one of my biggest shocks when I first encountered the online exmo community years ago!! I saw people worried about how they could teach their kids good values without the church, and I thought: WTF?? You have got to be nuts if you think it’s not true but you still want your kids learning the conformity, sexism, and blind obedience they learn at LDS church!
Even if I still thought it was true, I’d hesitate to raise my kids in the church, especially if I had girls.
One more point w.r.t. JGW’s remark:
I think it’s a bit of a cop-out to blame it on the disaffected believer’s “projection” — as though that person simply invented these “perfectionistic ideals”. However, my experience was slightly off from that:
I always got that sure, complete perfection is impossible. But the thing that made the church so ill-fitting for me was the one-size-fits-all aspect. People who are good at some things (eg. scrapbooking, convincing themselves that they’re “uplifted” by Sacrament Meeting) are simply more “righteous” than people whose skills lay elsewhere.
It’s like the beginning part of the Cain & Abel story. God likes hunters better than farmers. Why? No reason.
I reject these sorts of values. (Perhaps for emotional reasons, being a square peg…) But I think there isn’t necessarily a right/best way to be — our differences are what makes life interesting.
I don’t have much to add but thanks for this post. In some disaffected/exmormon circles, to suggest that one leaves for any other reason than studying history is verboten. And I agree with chanson that everyone is different, with different interests and skills. What works for one set of people doesn’t work for everyone.
In terms of good works, there are some (many?) mormons who are doing good things around the world outside of the LDS church. The LDS church does some things, but it could do much more.
But if we’re just looking at faith traditions or religions who help other people, there are many who do a lot more than the Utah LDS church. And of course there are many organizations not related to religion at all that help humanity, the earth, etc.
That’s definitely been something that I’ve seen recently (especially with Ralph Hancock’s piece about Joanna Brooks…people say that she is just projecting her own childhood misunderstanding of Mormonism onto Mormonism.)
I think yours is a great point…It would be great if people could say: OK, so maybe Mormonism works better if you like these activities and fit this personality type. But 1) if you don’t, it doesn’t really work ok, and 2) (this is critical), if you’re not the right fit, that doesn’t mean you’re a broken or evil person.
I think thoughtful members try to at least bring up the idea of differing gifts or as being different body parts in a body, but my feeling is that there are all the gifts really just aren’t valued the same, and neither are all the body parts.
I guess, with respect to comparing and contrasting different faith traditions, religions, and even secular organizations, this is the point where someone would say, “But I’m already *familiar* with Mormonism…” or “And all of those other organizations have similar kinds of imperfections too…” or something similar to that.