A Desire to Help

I have heard hundreds of members of the LDS Church, when they encounter someone who has left the church who is now critical of the church, say, “You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone” or, more confrontationally, “Why can’t you leave the Church and just leave it alone?” Throughout this post, I’m going to refer to this as the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism.

I can’t say whether this accusatory aphorism was popular prior to Glenn L. Pace’s 1989 General Conference talk, Follow the Prophet, but I believe Pace’s talk may be the source of at least the couplet associated with the aphorism.  Here is Pace’s original quote, “It seems that history continues to teach us: You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone. The basic reason for this is simple. Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground. One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one, and Satan’s goal is not complete when a person leaves the Church, but when he comes out in open rebellion against it.”

Regardless of its origins, what members of the religion are doing when they repeat this aphorism us accusing those who have left the religion of having a preternatural fixation on criticizing the religion.  There are many, many flaws related to this accusation. In this post I will address just a few.

The most obvious problem with the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism is that it is often asserted to be true about everyone who leaves the LDS Church, which is implicitly the case in the original statement by Glenn L. Pace.  That assertion is, of course, patently false. As of 2015, the LDS Church claims 15 million members. Yet, scholars have attempted to verify that number and have found plenty of evidence to suggest that the claimed number is substantially inflated.  For instance, the LDS Church claims close to 1.2 million members in Brazil.  Yet, the Brazilian census, which includes self-reported religious affiliation, only lists about two hundred thousand members of the LDS Church.  This disparity means there are roughly one million people in Brazil who at some point joined the LDS Church but now no longer consider themselves Mormons.  Why bring this up?  If the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism is true, there should be about one million vocal critics of the LDS Church in Brazil.  Admittedly, I don’t speak Portuguese and don’t follow the former-Mormon community in Brazil (if in fact such a community exists). But I would be astonished if there were more than a few hundred fairly vocal former Mormons who publicly criticize the religion in Brazil. I don’t know of any and there were no critical websites in the top 20 search results on Google Brazil when I checked (in July 2015). Even so there are not, most assuredly, a million vocal critics of Mormonism in Brazil.

Collectively, most scholars who have examined the total number of Mormons think there may be around six million people who consider themselves Mormon worldwide.  Even if the number is as high as eight or nine million, that still leaves six+ million people who have left the religion. If there were six+ million people who couldn’t leave Mormonism alone, I would imagine that those people would eventually put together some formal organizations that existed just to criticize Mormonism.  Yet, how many such organizations exist?  A handful, and all of them are run by less than a dozen people, most of whom are now Protestants and want to convert Mormons to their particular strand of Christianity (see here and here).

Are there vocal critics of Mormonism?  Yes. Perhaps a few thousand (see here for a list of blogs by former Mormons). But is the assertion that the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism applies to all those who leave the religion true?  Of course not!  Almost all of the millions of people who have left are not vocal critics of Mormonism. They left the religion and got on with their lives.  Some may, of course, say that this first problem with the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism is a strawman argument because aphorisms rarely apply to everyone in a population.  I agree with them, but that doesn’t mean devout Mormons haven’t made this assertion.  They have (see the original quote, which implicitly asserts this about all who have left).  I have heard them assert this about everyone who leaves.  And they continue to do so.  If you think this is a strawman argument, feel free to tell that to those making the argument that it cannot possibly be true that everyone who leaves the LDS Church becomes a vocal critic.

A second problem with the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism is that it sets up an unequal playing field for any subsequent discussion of Mormonism.  By asserting that those who leave Mormonism can’t leave it alone, devout Mormons are basically saying, “Devout Mormons are the only people who should be allowed to talk about the religion. No one else should.”  A not-entirely-hypothetical example might be a scenario like the following: if a former Mormon is asked about Mormonism, regardless of how knowledgeable they may be about the religion, many devout Mormons will insist that they shouldn’t say anything about the religion because they are biased.  (The thought that devout Mormons have their own biases never seems to occur to them.)  Even admitting that you were once a Mormon is implicitly assumed to be criticism of Mormonism, because it suggests that there may be reasons why someone would want to leave the religion.  Thus, if a former Mormon living in Delaware is at work and a co-worker brings up Mitt Romney’s failed campaigns for President with the former Mormon and several other employees and that turns into a conversation about Mormonism, most Mormons would prefer that the former Mormon: (a) not mention that he/she is a former Mormon and (b) not say anything about Mormonism.  If the former Mormon does either (a) or (b), many devout Mormons will immediately see this as confirmation of the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism.

This is an absurd conclusion, of course.  It’s like demanding that someone who used to be a Democrat but later in life changed her political views and became a Republican should never say anything about politics ever again.  Should Democrats insist that all former Democrats avoid any discussion of politics for the rest of their lives because, if politics come up, former Democrats may be critical of Democrats? Of course not.  But that is exactly what some Mormons insist should happen with former Mormons: they should never, ever speak of Mormonism again.

Ironically, many former Mormons tend not to walk around spewing venom against their former religion.  To the contrary, that is often just the opposite of what happens.  My maternal grandfather was technically Mormon, but never attended religious services, smoked a pipe, drank alcohol and coffee, and didn’t believe most of what the religion taught.  He was also critical of the religion around his Mormon relatives, particularly when they tried to push it on him (which, not surprisingly, was often).  But when non-Mormons asserted claims that were not accurate about the religion or were critical of Mormons, he was the first to defend the religion and the members.  This is often the case for former Mormons, as well.  As a former Mormon myself, I have spent far more time correcting people’s inaccurate beliefs about Mormonism than I have criticizing the religion, and I’m a well-known critic of the religion.  In the hundreds of interviews I’ve done with reporters, I would guess 75% of my time is spent explaining Mormon teachings and correcting misconceptions.  The remaining 25% is spent offering commentary on whatever issue it is the journalist called to discuss with me.  In short, while former Mormons may be critical of aspects of the religion they dislike (e.g., gender inequality, sexual discrimination, emphasis on obedience, denial of historical events, etc.), they are also often pretty good ambassadors for Mormonism and are quick to defend Mormon people, usually because they still have family members who are Mormon.

Changing the context slightly from the above situation of a former Mormon talking with people who have never been Mormon to conversations between former Mormons and devout Mormons extends this problem with the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism.  Many devout Mormons hold a double standard when it comes to talking about their religion.  If a former Mormon visits with devout Mormon family members and the family members, as they are wont to do, begin discussing Mormonism, many devout Mormons assume that the former Mormon family member should not say anything about Mormonism.  If the former Mormon does, it is assumed that it will be critical.  Thus, many devout Mormons see nothing wrong with discussing their religious activities and beliefs in front of former Mormons.  But if former Mormons comment on those activities or beliefs or have the audacity to talk about their new beliefs or activities, many devout Mormons will take offense.  Another example here is illustrative of this issue.  When I go to visit my devout Mormon family members, I don’t attend church services with them (and I’m guessing they would find it offensive if I said I wanted to as they would likely question my motives).  This inevitably leads to the awkward situation of them simply not asking me or my wife and son what we plan to do on Sundays when we are visiting.  They know that we know they are going to church.  And they know that we’re NOT going to church.  But they don’t actually want to know what we are going to do, because, unless it involves spending three hours in a Mormon chapel, it is not in line with what they believe is the right thing to do on Sundays.  On a recent trip to visit family, my wife, son, and I went on a tram ride to the top of a mountain and had Sunday brunch at the resort while my family went to church.  We didn’t tell them we were going to go and didn’t tell them where we went (though one family member did ask discreetly what we did and we told her).  The fact that we spent money on Sunday, a violation of keeping the Sabbath holy in Mormonism, is an affront to their beliefs.  The point being, it isn’t even necessary to mention that you aren’t Mormon anymore or mention that you did something Mormons wouldn’t do for many Mormons to take offense and consider it an affront to their religion.  Some Mormons could benefit from accepting the outlandish idea that most of the people on the planet are not Mormon, don’t want to be, and that is okay.  Just because someone is not Mormon doesn’t mean their existence should be offensive to you. In fact, if you find anyone’s existence offensive, you have some serious issues involving foundational human rights.  Most non-Mormons don’t consider your Mormonism offensive to them.  Live and let live, or as your own 11th Article of Faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”  In other words, it’s okay to not be Mormon.  Joseph Smith even said so!

I could raise numerous other issues with the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism, but I’m going to wrap this post up with my biggest issue with the aphorism: the stunning level of naive hypocrisy that the aphorism involves.  Many devout Mormons believe that it is morally imperative that they try to convert everyone to Mormonism.  And, of course, included in that imperative is the desire to re-convert former Mormons.  I’m fairly confident that what drives many Mormons to want to convert others to Mormonism is a belief that they have The Truth (note the capital “T” here) and that that Truth will be beneficial for everyone else.  In other words, they are driven by a desire to help.  That is respectable and admirable.  I won’t deny that for a second.

But that motivation and fixation on their Truth also leads to many Mormons’ inability to recognize that other people may be motivated by the exact same desire, a desire to help.  The problem comes from the fact that many Mormons only recognize the existence of their Truth and therefore deny the existence of or even the possible existence of any other “truths” (little “t” here).  Thus, they cannot fathom why someone might be motivated to criticize Mormonism out of a desire to help.

Another anecdote here may help illustrate my point.  I have a six year-old son. Occasionally I observe him doing things or about to do things that I believe could harm him.  For instance, my son loves to climb stuff. On a recent hike in the mountains of Utah, my son saw a small cliff, about twelve feet high, and told his mother and I that he wanted to climb it. We have ropes and harnesses for climbing and rappelling, and if we had those with us, I would have let him climb that cliff. But we didn’t have our safety equipment that day. Do I, recognizing the risks associated with climbing that cliff, have an obligation to warn my son about the harm he might face?  Or should I simply let him climb the cliff and risk falling, potentially leading to permanent injury or even death?

What’s my point with this story?  I think most people would recognize that there is a moral imperative to help those who need help, particularly if it will prevent harm befalling them.  This is certainly true for those we love.  But I think it is also true that we should help strangers.

As an avid hiker, I’m keen to help those I encounter on my hikes.  If, for instance, I was hiking and had just encountered a venomous snake on a trail, then rounded a corner and met some hikers coming the other way, what should I do? Do I have a moral obligation to warn them about the snake? Or should I let them discover the danger on their own? Perhaps not everyone will agree with me that the moral course of action is to help others avoid injury or harm, whether you know those people or not.  But that is often a motivation of mine, a desire to help.

And that returns us back to the “can’t leave it alone” aphorism.  Many people leave the LDS Church because they found it harmful.  Mormons reading this may have a hard time accepting that assertion, as in, “How could the LDS Church, which you find so beneficial, be harmful?”  I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but here are just a few ways:

Now, Mormons reading this may not want to admit that any of those things have happened.  I provided links just to make it clear that they have.  But they have happened and continue to happen.  And that leads to this question:

If you were a member of an institution and found out that some of the policies or practices of that institution were causing people to commit suicide or were leading to the physical or sexual abuse of members of that institution, what would you do?

And if you left that institution as a result of your discoveries, would you keep quiet about it?  Or would you want to help those inside the institution who might be suffering?  Would that lead you to criticize the practices, policies, and teachings of the institution?

If you would criticize a harmful institution for its harmful practices, congratulations!  You now know what motivates a small minority of those who leave Mormonism to criticize their former religion: a desire to help.


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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7 Responses

  1. Holly says:

    I can’t say whether this accusatory aphorism was popular prior to Glenn L. Pace’s 1989 General Conference talk, Follow the Prophet, but I believe Pace’s talk may be the source of at least the couplet associated with aphorism.

    Unlikely. The first time I heard someone say “some people can leave the church but they can’t leave it alone” was around 1978, and the source was a friend’s father. He was shocked that I had never heard it before–OK, I wasn’t old enough to drive, but he said it had been around forever, and of course, it was so obviously true.

  2. chanson says:

    This ties in with my recent remarks about the following quote from Richard Bushman:

    I don’t like it when anti-Mormonism becomes their religion. That is not a good way to live.

    People within the church clearly believe the aphorism even though, as you explain, it’s false.

    You mentioned outer blogness, but in reality only a small fraction of those blogs are still active. It’s more a log of people who changed their minds about the CoJCoL-dS, felt a desire to warn others about their findings, and then essentially moved on. My impression is that that’s the second-most typical former-Mormon trajectory (the most common one being to leave Mormonism without going through a “warning others” stage).

  3. TGD says:

    I left the church but haven’t left it alone for the most part. Even during my most vocal period I wasn’t really trying to warn anyone about the harms it causes, I just needed to vent about the harm it caused me. But even though I’m not as vocal about it now, I still follow Mormon things. Mainly because I want to see where this all goes. And on occasion I’ll have something small to say. After all, for more than 35 years, I was heavily affected by the nasty, manipulative, cult-like culture much more than I was affected by any of the doctrine or deception of its history. And with that level of emotional wreckage, I’m sure I’ll have more to say.

    I look on all this now as more of an anthropological study into what I’ve been calling, “What in the hell did I just go through?!” And the more I examine all this from the outside the more I realize how crazy and deep the rabbit hole went and that I did indeed rescue myself from a religious cult.

  4. Parker says:

    And then there is that breed of Mormons who see themselves as the keepers of the true faith (such as what you find at M*) who can’t seem to leave alone anyone or anything they perceive as speaking in opposition to their brand of Mormonism.

  5. Bob says:

    Well stated. Bookmarked for later sharing in order to help my lovely but devout Mormon extended family the next time they badger then take offense to me expressing my own convictions in response.

  6. Joel says:

    “Can’t leave it alone” also allows Mormons to dismiss criticisms from people who leave. Because their criticisms all come from a place of bias, negativity, and Satanic inspiration, they can and should be dismissed. No need to engage with the ideas, opinions, or experiences of ex Mormons.

  7. Circus watcher says:

    What else can a devout member do/ say other than “..ex members can’t leave it alone” or “..that’s from the antis”. It’s a method of denial that works effectively, especially when nevermos are around.
    The example of a workplace where TBMs, exmormon sand nevermos mix. The TBM is fighting from their back foot. They must concede public space. It sucks and they know it. So the best defence is a personal attack – make it about the exmo! The exmo is angry, unhappy and bitter.
    By the time the TBM goes home for dinner, they feel better.
    Sometimes exmos and TBMs can share a common trait – the need to feel justified in their opinions and experiences. If one needs to feel justified, then we will see the “..can’t leave it alone” behaviour by a pro or anti member.
    Devout members have always had a support network, exmos have only recently created support networks. The breaking of the exmo isolation has changed everything. People are learning to walk away and resolve the issues created by spiritual abuse.
    Soon we will see the Church cannot leave us alone on our internet sites. Our very existence and openness undermines them.

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