I had a missionary email me after he listened to a podcast in which I was interviewed. Â He was deciding whether he wanted to be Mormon and was wondering what the best way to leave the religion was. Â I’ve written about this before, but after having spoken with lots of people about this over the years, I think my views have changed a bit. Â Here’s what I wrote to him.
There are a lot of ways to leave Mormonism and every situation is different. In my experience talking with people who have left, there are basically three approaches, each of which has its merits/benefits and drawbacks/costs. Let me see if I can describe them sufficiently so they make sense to you.
The first approach is basically the one I took: Decide when you want to leave and then announce it to everyone who you think should know. In my case, my wife and I (I was already married) announced it through letters to our parents and our bishop (we had callings and didn’t want to leave the ward without someone to fill the callings). The benefit of this approach is that your position is very clear – you are leaving and you aren’t hiding that fact at all. This approach also makes it easy to make a clean break from the religion. But there is a major drawback to this approach: confrontation. Despite the fact that this approach is typically motivated by sincerity and honesty – traits you are taught to value in Mormonism (sort of) – it also involves confronting people who strongly believe in their religion and basically telling them that you reject it. Unfortunately, for most Mormons who are very devout, rejecting their religion is the equivalent of rejecting them, personally. Once I was on better terms with my mother, she said that to me. Literally. She told me that my rejection of Mormonism was the same as me rejecting her, which is why she took it as hard as she did. And, yes, she took it very hard and very personally. This approach basically has the biggest risk of ruining family relationships. Despite what Mormons claim, family doesn’t come first; religion does. If your family feels threatened enough by your apostasy, they can (and sometimes do) cut you off. By basically shoving your rejection of their religion in their face – through announcing it publicly – you will make them feel threatened, and people aren’t very nice when they are threatened. So, in summary, the benefit with this approach is that your new position is clear; the cost is the possible loss of congenial family relations.
The second approach is basically as opposite to the first as you can get: Don’t tell anyone, just slowly ease your way out of the religion until you are no longer attending, participating, wearing garments, etc. The best way to make this successful is to move away from home, so your family is not constantly around you and can see your efforts to work your way out of the church. Once you move, you can look up the local ward, in case someone in your family, like your mother, asks which ward you’re in, but you don’t have to make any efforts to attend. Make new friends who aren’t Mormon and slowly start to rebuild your life without Mormonism. When religion comes up over the phone or in other communication, downplay your involvement. Tell family that you haven’t been given a calling. Then, slowly, over time, talk less and less about it. When you go to visit family, you can still go to church with them. It will be hard, but you’re the more mature individual and you can suffer through it in the interest of maintaining family harmony. If and/or when they realize that you’re no longer participating in the religion and they ask why, don’t make a big deal out of it. Tell them that you’re busy. Tell them that you go occasionally, but feel like you have more spiritual experiences in nature, so you go camping or hiking or biking on Sundays instead. Don’t be confrontational, just show general disinterest. Tell them that you love them but that Mormonism just isn’t that important to you. The major benefit to this approach is that you have the best odds of maintaining family harmony. Things may get a little uncomfortable at times, but because you are avoiding confrontation, you should largely avoid any major issues. You’re not telling them that their religion is not true, only that you have different priorities. That is a bit easier for them to swallow then the full frontal assault on their beliefs and values. The major cost to this approach is that your family and friends won’t know your true feelings AND they are likely to keep pestering you to get you back in the religion. That leads to option #3.
The third approach is somewhere in between the first two. For the most part, you can follow option #2 – slowly disengage over time. Don’t make a big deal out of it and just let things develop, all the while maintaining as close of relationships with your family as you can. But, when your family finally figures out that you are no longer participating in Mormonism, you don’t have to make excuses. Don’t try to be overly confrontational, but slowly let them know your true feelings. Tell them that you found some problems with the religion and they made you question the teachings, history, etc. After careful study, you decided it wasn’t right for you. If it works for them, that’s fine, but you’re just not interested. If they press you and try to address your concerns, warn them that the conversation may not go where they want it to, but then push back. Again, you know more than they do; this is, in my experience, almost always the case. It is very rare that those who leave the religion because they have studied it know less than their still Mormon family members. So, be forceful and defend your position. The benefit of this approach is that it emphasizes your prioritizing of family over religion and minimizes confrontation, but still can eventually make it clear to your family where you stand. The drawback is that there is likely to be confrontation at some point. But because you eased into it, it probably won’t be as severe as option #1.
It really is up to you and your specific situation which approach you take. I took option #1 because I didn’t know any better. I thought I was being honest and sincere. But the backlash from my family was tough. I have several good friends who took option #2 and it went much better for them. In fact, my mother told me that she would have preferred that I had simply never told her and just stopped attending. Some people have a lot of success with option #2. In fact, my brother-in-law took option #2 about 5 years after my wife and I left. He still gets occasional re-activation efforts from my mother-in-law, but he largely just ignores them and lives his life. It’s uncomfortable for him, but he can take it because he knows why his mother is doing it. The third approach would probably alleviate the re-activation efforts, but will make the relationship a bit more strained.
Option 4 – Don’t Leave; Be a Jack-Mormon
There is another option, but it’s a tough path, and one that I’m not inclined to believe is morally honest. I’ve found that more and more people in the Mormon Church are Mormons when it is convenient for them. Basically, they use the church rather than letting the church use them. I had a girlfriend in high school whose parents were this way. They never went to church; they drank coffee and alcohol on occasion; they swore; they didn’t wear garments; etc. But when one of their still active kids was going to get married, they started going back to church, started paying tithing, and lied to get a temple recommend. As soon as they got it, they quit with the Mormon act and went back to living their jack-Mormon lives. In other words, they pretended to be Mormons when it suited them but certainly didn’t follow the strict behavioral guidelines the religion demands. Morally, I could never do this. But some people make it work.