Something I’ve noticed in disaffected Mormon discourse is a trend to emphasize that one’s disaffection and disaffiliation with the LDS church is because of objective reasons (e.g., people leave because they learned the “truth” about the history or they “followed the facts to their conclusions”.) I think that this trend is understandable — it is a way for exmormons to push back against tropes from many believing members that claim that people only leave the LDS church to sin, or only leave because they were offended.
But instead of running away from these “subjective” reasons for leaving (especially the last one), I’d like to propose two claims:
- Most, if not all disaffections (as well as affections…this goes both ways) come down to subjective responses
- It’s totally OK for the decision to leave or to stay to be based on subjective factors
Certainly, I think that there are lots of reasons for disaffections that don’t claim to be about history. I have a bias and I will lay it out: I am a black exmo who doesn’t care a whole lot about history when there is so much that is happening today and that has happened within my own life. I was told in my youth (by someone who intended this to be a compliment) that “I was so righteous that I would be made white and delightsome in the afterlife.” I am a black exmo whose mother was called the n-word in a Relief Society meeting and no one called that out. I am a gay black exmo who is disgusted that the church reduces my marriage as simply “wanting to sin,” and whose first moment of true awareness of the political/religious connection was living through my church mobilize all of its talents to a campaign to ban same-sex marriage.
So, my bias is that I think it should be entirely valid for people to be offended by the church’s heterosexism, racism, sexism, abuse, etc., in the present and in the past, or to be offended by the idea that wanting to be free of the day-to-day grinding down that many of the church’s doctrines and commandments subject us to can be reduced solely to “wanting to sin.” My bias is that we should protest a discourse where “being offended” is not taken seriously as a legitimate stimulus to act.
But in this post, I want to talk about those who would describe their disaffections as being about history. Who would claim that they left for objective reasons and who might be aghast at the idea that subjectivity had anything to do with it. I want to argue that even when disaffection is putatively about learning history, what is actually decisive is one’s subjective response to that learning.
Because from there, we can acknowledge that since different people have different reactions to the history, that’s why not everyone leaves just because they know the history.
I am inspired to create this post by a few tweets I’ve seen recently. First is an exchange with historian Ben Park:
There is an implication from @KBarneys that with everything Ben knows, he should have become an ex-mormon. Ben responded, and then John Dehlin quoted the tweet to ask a follow-up question to exmormons:
If I’m right about the history and context of the typical exmormon narrative, then many exmormons may answer “yes” to John’s question, but they may see history as a deciding factor in their disaffection because admitting subjectivity unacceptably plays into believing member stereotypes that exmormons want to reject.
But Ben points out a few things that I think are worth discussing.
Firstly, that “there is not a defined point of knowledge one acquires that inevitably results in disbelief.”
I think this makes sense: we can find two people who are aware of literally every problematic fact about Mormon church, and one can believe, and one can disbelieve. The facts themselves aren’t decisive.
There have been different attempts to try to reconcile this phenomenon — the informed faithful believer. Some exmormons have asserted that smart people stay in the LDS church even after knowing all “the facts” because of family, employment, a personal distance from the issues, or other subjective reasons. (This has gone over about as well with thoughtful believers as the believers’ “left to sin” narrative has gone over with exmos.)
But there was another tweet from Ben Park that intrigued me particularly:
“I can see, and have seen, history leading toward disaffiliation. And it often plays an important role. But I think it often points to bigger factors: lack of trust, cultural discontinuity, social values, etc.”@BenjaminEPark ( https://twitter.com/BenjaminEPark/status/1360615999733719047 )
I think the bigger factors are major.
What will be more decisive in determining disaffection or not is not merely the historical facts but whether one feels, for example, betrayed because those facts do not align with what one learned in the past, or betrayed because one expected the institution to be forthright about these things, etc., As my coblogger Mary Ann pointed out, Jana Riess’s own study of The Next Mormons bears this out: distrust of Church leaders ranks higher than specific historical concerns as a primary reason for leaving the church.
We can then start to explain that nuanced believing members who remain in the church may not have these same reactions.
For example, there has been an idea written about throughout the years of spiritual “inoculation” — that if members learn the messiness earlier on, then there is no or reduced betrayal later on.
Or, for a separate example, we can speak of those who have grown up in a home where it was taught and socialized that the church institution is messy, flawed, imperfect. For these members, it’s not a shocker to discover that the church may not always be forthright about any particular issue may not be a deal breaker later on.
Testing the hypotheses
So, we have the two camps. For even clickbait-ier purposes, I’ll oversimplify Ben Park in the left camp as representing the “subjective” camp and John Dehlin in the right corner as representing the “objective” camp.
But how might we decide between the hypothesis that objective knowledge or subjective response causes disaffection?
Here’s a thought experiment:
If everyone in the church was raised with an accurate understanding of the basic facts of church history (however we want to define that), would anyone still stay? Would anyone join if missionaries told the relevant introductory lessons in alignment with that history?
If objective knowledge is decisive for disaffection, we might answer “No one would join or stay in the church if they were taught the actual history from the beginning.”
And maybe this is what the “objective” camp believes…but this seems doubtful. Incomplete.
At least, we can imagine that some folks would not find a problem with the history if it was the only history they were taught from the beginning. Firstly, we know that there are Mormons who grew up in homes with Dialogue, Sunstone, etc., learning the messy history from childhood (and to learn early on that what is said in Sunday School may not be infallible.)
And furthermore, most if not all religions have lots of outlandish claims and skeletons in their past and present, and people still believe. We don’t see a mass exodus of Catholics disaffecting when they learn about the Inquisition or the Borgia popes.
Rather, let’s consider instead that the subjective response is decisive. In this case, we might say that if people were taught the “actual history” first and consistently, then there would be some population of people who would not have disaffected (because they would no longer have the incongruency or betrayal as a factor.)
However — and this is important — this does not mean that we are committed to saying that no one would disaffect or fail to join. There still could be some (many? most?) who would disaffect or fail to join, but instead of putting that on the bare knowledge of history — we would pay attention to their subjective assessment about whether that history is a deal breaker.
In this way, learning about people’s faith crises and disaffections becomes an exercise of empathetically sitting with their experiences, their thoughts, their feelings. Of mourning with those who mourn and comforting those in need of comfort. Rather than thinking about Joseph Smith’s polygamy in a binary of “did he” or “didn’t he” and assuming that if he did, then everyone must leave, and if he did not, then everyone must stay, we can recognize that Joseph Smith’s polygamy requires everyone to reckon personally with what they can personally accept as a meaningful concept of “prophet”, and what polygamy means to that personal acceptance of “prophecy”.
It may be that some people are too offended, hurt, or disgusted by polygamy and therefore they cannot accept it as something consistent with the concept of “prophecy” or the prophetic mantle.
In other words, it may be that people will still leave because they are offended.
But not everyone will always be offended by the same things, and we should actually acknowledge that it’s entirely valid for people to take offense from things and make life decisions based on that. Rather than trying to remove the subjective element from disaffection and disaffection narratives, we should acknowledge that subjectivity is valid, valuable, and vital.