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Disturbing things.

A discussion in an online forum asked participants the question:  “How do you explain that you no longer believe without offending people who do believe?”  It’s an important question, and one that many people really struggle with.  As church members, we aren’t just believers or non-believers, but members of a community that socializes together, whose kids are friends, who share (to some extent) similar values, and we are also literal family in many cases.  So when someone chooses to leave that community, to move on, the narrative can rankle.

Two versions of the exit narrative that I can think of that impugn the believers are:

  • The Graduate.  This narrative implies that those who haven’t left are uneducated or less developed.
  • The Abused.  This narrative implies that those who haven’t left are either masochists or that they tolerate the abuse of others.  Or possibly that some of them are abusive.
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How could you?

As a former expat, I sometimes think of disaffiliation in terms of citizenship.  How would you explain to an American citizen why you’ve renounced your citizenship? [1] This is the same question, basically. It really depends how strongly they feel about being an American.  Sam the Eagle will take offense no matter what you say.  It also matters on how much your reasons for renouncing citizenship reflect poorly on them (e.g. Americans are fat, lazy, uneducated, gun-toting embarrassments to humanity) vs. allowing them space for disagreement (e.g. renouncing due to a political difference about war or nuclear arms).

And yet, it’s an impossible standard.  Nobody renounces their citizenship over something silly like “American cheese is processed and tastes like garbage.” [2]  Changing one’s citizenship is a big deal.  Leaving one’s religion is also a big deal, but to a lesser extent.  No government agencies or fees are involved.  The barriers to entry and the barriers to exit are much lower.  You don’t even have to officially leave.  You can just quit attending and stop paying tithing.  If you quit paying taxes, the government will probably take a stronger stance than your bishop will.

Why do these exit narratives emerge?  It’s probably for a few reasons.  First, there’s some defensiveness as a result of the narratives that are told about people who leave:

  • They were offended.
  • They want to sin.
  • They have a character flaw.
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I’m telling my story here. Out of my face!

Because these are all attacks on the person who left, some defensiveness is natural. Another reason these narratives occur is that people need to frame the events of their lives to make sense of their life choices, to try to explain to themselves (primarily) and others (secondarily) why they have done what they have done.  This is human nature.

Jonathan Haidt talks about this phenomenon as being like an elephant and a rider.  The elephant goes where it wants to go, and the rider acts as a PR person, explaining where the elephant went. [3] The rider isn’t really telling the elephant where to go and doesn’t in fact know why the elephant went where it did.  Likewise, our emotions go where they go, and we are left to explain to ourselves, and occasionally to others, why they went there.  To some extent, we can hear this in Fast & Testimony meeting as people explain why they believe.  Likewise, in online discussion forums, we hear people’s exit narratives.  The story matches the elephant’s movements.  Let’s say the elephant flattened a village on its way.  Well, the rider’s got a story for that.  Or the elephant ends up at a water source.  Or the other elephants are pushing the elephant in a direction.  All of these are stories about why the elephant did what it did, but we really don’t know.  We don’t control the elephant.  We sometimes imagine we do, or that we understand it.  Haidt would say that’s an illusion.

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What is even happening here?

So how do we explain an exit narrative without offending those who choose to stay?  Perhaps the best thing to do is to realize that our story may not be the whole story, and that our elephants don’t always go the same places as other people’s elephants.

[1]  I didn’t renounce my citizenship, but I was called on many times to defend the actions of private citizens or our government.  I was basically making crap up.

[2] If so, there’d be a mass exodus.  Here we come, Canada!

[3] Suddenly I feel some empathy for Bro. Otterson.  He’s not even explaining his own elephant’s movements.