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.
It is not enough to suggest History as a classification. I have spent a lot of time investigating the history of the church and what the critics have to say. When history causes people to doubt the foundations of the church, i.e. Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, they feel compelled to leave. I still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. I will not say that about all the presidents of the church since Joseph Smith. Although I am not currently a member of the church, I would have been glad to stay. But the leaders seemed too focused on the fact that I was willing to see the hand of God operating outside of church leadership. There continues to be an apostasy in the LDS church as foretold in scriptures. There will be a crisis in the next few years that will split the LDS church. I believe that the leadership of the church try their best to do what they think God wants. They even receive inspiration from the Holy Ghost at times. But they are not prophets like Joseph Smith was a prophet. And they definitely are not Seers or Revelators, nor do they really claim to be Seers — except in name only.
Interesting thought experiment.
My take is that if we look at secular Judaism, the answers largely would be found there.
Most all the Jews I know are secular. They know that Abraham and Moses are literary characters. They know that Yahweh was a first Canaanite god that was later adopted by the Israelites that morphed into a monotheistic God. They know that the stories of Job and Jonah are metaphors. They honor Jewish traditions as part of their heritage, without fundamentalist literalism.
In a similar vein, I believe that if Mormons grew up knowing transparent Church History, they would likely also have grown up knowing Biblical scholarship as well.
Similar to secular Jews, Mormons would know that Abraham and Moses are literary characters, that Adam wasn’t a name but rather a term that meant human, that Noah was a literary character, and that the implications for Mormonism for the Abrahamic Covenant, Temples, Priesthood, Polygamy, Keys, Ordinances, and Restoration scriptures are that they were 19th Century inventions based upon fundamentalist literalist beliefs in things that were actually literary creations.
Most Mormons would likely be secular Mormons, just like most Jews today are secular Jews. Maybe there would be Orthodox Mormons in a similar vein that there are Orthodox Jews, and certainly, there would be faith crisis among them, just like there is among Orthodox Jews.
However, overall I would think that there wouldn’t be as much existential faith and identity crisis wrapped up in a crumbling of fundamentalist literalist beliefs enmeshed with personal and community identity crumbled, because the constructs wouldn’t be so brittle.
Great post, Andrew. I think admitting the primary role of subjectivity goes beyond just explaining feeling “offended.” It also helps to explain the power of feeling “called” to remain in this church or a different denomination in spite of intellectual disagreements.
Expanding subjectivity beyond being offended is definitely one of the pushbacks I’m getting in other locations, and I’m totally OK to do that.
My main point here is: there seem to be elements on both sides that want to reduce subjectivity. That is, “if x happened, then regardless of what you feel about it, you need to fall in line and do y.” As long as there is that emphasis on objectivity from any direction, then it’s valuable to push for any recognition of the value of subjectivity.
Totally agreed. I think there are LOTS of examples in other religious traditions (or even within the restorationist LDS tradition), and the ones you elucidate in your comment really help bring it to life. That’s why I know it is theoretically possible. I completely will agree with anyone who says it may not be likely given the current climate/administration of the LDS church, but it is *possible*.
With your definition of offended, I wholeheartedly would agree that offense is why people leave.
I think people’s push back to that comes from endlessly being taught the “being offended” is when someone in the church does or says something to offend you and that you are so petty you quit – see the (fictitious) story of the milk strippings in every lesson on personal apostasy.
But, yeah, I take major offense at having been taught untruths about historical events. And mortification that I passed those untruths on to my children and so many others. I understand why the church thought that faithful narratives would make its history more palatable. But so what – does it justify the little and gigantic lies? That they continue this obfuscation with the gospel topics essays and conference talks and endless digital publications means to me, subjectively, that I can’t trust them.
The moment when I was tying my tie for church and realized that I just couldn’t go any more was definitely subjective. It was a gut punch. It was terrifying at some level. And it set off a massive research project. Not trying to validate that subjective decision, but rather trying to test it to see if it were wrong. Was my eternity at stake?
It was. Just not the Mormon view of eternity.
I would still point out that the history itself need not cause people to doubt the foundations of the church — it’s more often the incongruency between the history and what people are socialized or taught to believe the foundations of the church should or must be. If you’re raised to believe prophets are larger than life, better than ordinary folks, etc., and then are not taught about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, then that polygamy can become a real issue.
But it’s also possible to contextualize prophets in a different way and to teach people about the flaws and imperfections upfront. Does that mean people will all be in support of that? Not necessarily, but we don’t have to consider “betrayal” and “mistrust” along with other issues.
I am actually really glad you brought up the milk strippings story. Like, even in their quintessential example of a “petty” offense, if you actually peel it back, there’s more.
I think of the Starbucks hot coffee case. So many people think of that lawsuit as an example of people ignoring the obvious, of an overly litigious culture, etc., but when you actually look at the details, there actually was a much worse story there.
A few years ago I was asked to go visit with a family in the ward who had suddenly decided to leave the church. It was presented to me like this: well you seem to be really liberal and read all sorts of anti-church stuff and yet you keep coming so go see if you can find out whats going on with them because they don’t want to come back to church. I didn’t really have any interest in doing that job, but eventually decided to reach out to them because it seemed that in usual fashion the ward members were simultaneously claiming to be worried about them and cutting them out of their lives. When I visited with the couple, they told me that yes they had come across some uncomfortable church history and were leaving the church. What they had come across was the ensign article with the seer stones. They had heard that version of the story for the first time and they were out. Otherwise, they were actually pretty uninformed about the more scandalous church history stories. I later learned that their son had endured years of cruelty by another young man in the ward whose parents had tremendous social power. I think they needed an out and wanted to protect their son from being the center of that story line. It’s totally understandable to me to realize that this community is not safe for their family and they don’t owe this community an explanation. So seer stones it is! Just as there is often offense behind leaving, like being offended by racism or homophobia (all things we should all be offended by), there is also usually some type of social capital or privilege that eases the way for some people to stay. It’s usually not a greater understanding of the gospel or a nuanced inoculated response to church history. It’s social privilege.
Good post. Thanks.
Perhaps “trust” is key. But the next question is trust whom or what or for what purposes. Trust doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing. It has many gradations and different possible aspects. E.g., I can trust someone to do his best to do good, without trusting everything he says in the process to be the unvarnished truth — and sometimes without trusting that he accurately recognized what would be good.
Of course, it helps some to recognize that “prophet, seer and revelator” has been a title attached to certain positions in the Church organization and is not necessarily an English language description of the office holder’s functions. Even if it were, it would not resolve English ambiguities in at least some of those three words. To the extent of my limited observation, the feeling of “betrayal” is indeed critical to some. It tends to destroy “trust” wholesale rather than allowing it to be selective.
Like MaryAnn I would expand subjectivity beyond “offense” but I totally agree that our feelings have way, way more to do with our response to Church history than we want to admit. But I love the way you’ve reframed “offense” and I totally agree that there are things that maybe SHOULD offend us potentially to the point of leaving. Discounting that offense is gaslighting and prevents meaningful reflection and change.
I have come across troubling historical information many times in my lifetime and reacted very differently to that same information depending on how I felt about the Church at the moment and whether it was valuable to me.
Someone who doesn’t like Church but thinks it’s the One True Church may feel liberated when they find history that allows them to let go of that belief / fear and leave. Someone who loves Church may feel threatened and will rationalize that history (or straight up just disbelieve it no matter what the evidence points to). Employment, family relationships, identity, community, reputation and so many other factors play into that.
Those are just two examples in a huge range where the way people respond to the same pieces of information is determined not be the strength of the evidence or nature of information but by the person’s feelings about the institution to which the information pertains. And I think we are seeing more and more experts in other areas confirm the way our feelings inform what facts we are willing to accept. We are hopelessly subjective beings.
I wonder how much “oomph” would be lost if missionaries taught investigators that prophets are more like the nice guy next door than fundamentalist views of Moses and Paul. If the true degree of their fallibility, the nature of failed or vague prophesy is understood, are many of the core truth claims threatened?
I see lots of investigators and members of the church get lots of value out of the perception that church leaders basically speak God’s will unfiltered and unchanging. Does the church hold the same value to those people if they come to view it as a relatively human institution? After all, there are plenty of competing religions that serve as social clubs, mutual improvement societies, bible study groups, etc. If you remove the exclusivist element, how many people will still be interested?
Is disillusion in that exclusivist view enough of a blow to trigger the decision to leave? I think for people whose interest in the church heavily depended on the exclusivism, it’s a different case than for people who grew up in the homes with Dialogue on the shelves.
Here’s one way to look at it: there are “utility” Mormons and “validity” Mormons.
For utility Mormons, the Church works for them. It’s their tribe, their social circle. It’s the structure that provides them moral guidance and guardrails. They may have some doubts about truth claims but as long as the Church is working for them, truth is not necessarily the primary motivating factor for Church activity.
For validity Mormons, the Church’s truth claims are key to their membership and activity. They might not even like their ward, tribe, or LDS culture. The Church might not work for them in a practical sense the way it does for utility Mormons. But because they believe the truth claims (restoration, priesthood, authority), they stay active.
I would think that validity Mormons can’t really be offended into inactivity, unless they are offended by audacious truth claims themselves.
Validity or fraud, to paraphrase GBH…a brittle construct indeed…
When Bednar and the orthodox types roll out the quotes of taking offense, I think yes, I am offended. My inner self/Holy Ghost/conscious is offended and should be listened to and not ignored. When we care and have feelings and are caused harm, the next step is offense. Is not even God offended? I many times think that the Bednar types are past feeling empathy and being human. They love the institution and its rules more than people.
I understand that there can be various levels of offense and interpretations by different personality types, along with our interpretations based on our life experience.
However, if we suppress the offense and not work to resolve the matter, our inner self/Holy Ghost/conscious is harmed. If we cause offense and ignore the harm and not ask for forgiveness, only for the sole purpose to follow the institutions rules, we go against God. Worse, when the offense is caused by persons in power who suppress others and use words of offense to keep their power, that is the greatest sin.
So from my experience the greatest reason of why I no longer participate in LDS church, is not history, is not policy alone, is not objective. It is completely subjective: the way I was treated as a missionary and suppressed when trying to have a voice in Baseball baptisms, they way my kids were bullied at church, my observations how others are treated at church, how I do not belong in the ward clique (although I follow all the rules and programs), how my spirit feels the way many past leaders treated other members on a personal and an institutional level, how we talk about other churches, how we gossip….and on and on…….
I agree, when we stop attending church, it is because we were offended. Our eyes are open and we now allow the spirit to manage our life choices and not a handbook.
Thank you for this discussion. I quit attending church just over a year ago, and am barely coming to accept that a lot of my reasons would be classified as “choosing to get offended”. I thought I couldn’t ever admit how personally hurt I was about what happened without getting blamed and shamed for leaving. At the point where I am now, I’m accepting that quitting attendance was a good decision to make. I’ve reclaimed the “right to get offended,” meaning I can tell someone that their behavior was wrong and they owe me an apology. I can stand up for myself now without feeling like a sinner.
When Elder Bednar first gave that talk about Choosing Not to Get Offended, it was a couple years before I accepted that he wasn’t going to give the companion talk “Choose Not to Be Offensive.” It’s all one way. The offensive person does not need to apologize or own their actions. I guess that’s because Church leaders don’t apologize, so they can’t tell anyone else to apologize.
Anyway, I knew all the problematic Church history and it caused me pain and confusion, but I stayed anyway for as long as I could. I was trying to give church the benefit of the doubt, and assume it had changed for the better, and that certain things really could be put on the back burner. But then personal events happened, and I concluded that some of the attitudes that caused historical problems were still present in the Church.
So I didn’t leave solely for history reasons, but finding out about the history helped prepare me to leave eventually. History made it clear that the leaders aren’t the bright shiny beacons of righteousness that I was raised to believe they were. Then when other things went wrong, I decided not to trust them anymore. I didn’t get offended so much as I had my trust shattered. It hurt. I wasn’t huffy offended; I was devastated.
@Andrew: “I would still point out that the history itself need not cause people to doubt the foundations of the church — it’s more often the incongruency between the history and what people are socialized or taught to believe the foundations of the church should or must be. If you’re raised to believe prophets are larger than life, better than ordinary folks, etc., and then are not taught about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, then that polygamy can become a real issue.”
I would have to disagree emphatically with you here, Andrew. It is absolutely “the history itself” that can cause doubt, and it is not accurate to say ‘the history…need not cause…doubt…” . When a con man starts a religion, with fake histories, fake angel encounters, and uses his power to exercise his libidinous desires which then have to be recast as a policy from God called polygamy, as though it were not the abuse of power it began as, then no, it is NOT the “incongruency” between the official story and the actual story, it is the story itself that can cause people to leave their childhood religion.
I appreciate your efforts here to reach some common ground, but in the end, “the history itself” may very well cause doubt, and if it does, those objective issues shouldn’t be discounted as subjective simply to make your point. Ideally, those who objectively express that doubt should have their objective issues taken at face value, without telling them they are really subjective. i understand your wordplay, but because some in the lds church call it subjective is not sufficient reason to even acknowledge the phrase, let alone try to find middle ground when there is none.
I have no problem with acknowledging subjective issues, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still acknowledge the objective issues, and acknowledge that others see them as objective. It seems a more respectful approach to their concerns.
The methodological naturalism of history cannot decide on theological claims. History cannot say that a con man couldn’t have an angelic encounter. That’s an interpretation that has to be made by someone theologically. (If you aren’t convinced that there is anything divine in the LDS narrative and teachings, then your conclusion will be that it’s “just” a con man. But if you already have spiritual experiences, then you have other interpretations available — that flawed people can be prophets, that someone could have been a “sincere visionary” that saw things that did not have physical counterparts, or that a pious fraud can be the vehicle to achieve a theological message, etc.,)
History cannot conclude between prophet, sincere visionary, pious fraud, conman (to use the four options that have been proposed before: https://sunstonemagazine.com/four-views-of-joseph-smith-historians-debate-the-prophet-puzzle/ )
~Obviously~, if your conclusion and interpretation of the historical facts is that it’s just a con, then you won’t be interested in staying/joining.
But this gets back to my earlier point — there’s no amount of facts that someone can learn about the history alone that will automatically require any person to inevitably conclude “just a con man.” Other people can take the exact same historical puzzle pieces and say, “this is just how prophets can be” or “this is how sincere visionaries can be” or “this is how a pious fraud can be”
This reframing of why people leave is interesting and important. I think the tricky question is what it means to love you neighbor as yourself. I think there are plenty of people who leave after being offended because of the way church doctrine or policy affects them, where they aren’t treated like a child of God: LGBT people, people of color, and women can fall into this category a lot of times. I understand that some people stay and want to make change from within or for other legitimate reasons. I can’t judge whether someone’s reason is legitimate or not. But it’s hard not to judge when people excuse doctrine or policies that visibly harm others and are counter to Christ’s gospel.
While there will be many different interpretations of whether a policy or doctrine aligns with the gospel, can there not at least be an acknowledgement of the harm that has been done and is done? I suppose this is really difficult because not only are members not supposed to be offended, they are also not supposed to be victims. They are supposed to act and not be acted upon. So it’s hard to have common ground between a feminist ex-mormon and a believing mormon woman because believing members have a vested interest in downplaying negative experiences with the church and suppressing any negative feelings surrounding doctrine or policies. Members are trained to always always question any negative feelings about the church and always attribute them to a lack of understanding on their part. It’s a completely insane and frustrating paradox when believing members claim church leaders aren’t perfect, but they can also do no wrong.
But I see this lack of compassion for those who are offended as an absolute failure to love your neighbor as yourself. I have talked to different men, including my own father, about women’s issues and the church. So many of them write off my questions and concerns as mysteries of the kingdom that aren’t pertinent to their existence in this life or the next. As if the nature of one’s identity and eternal destiny is a fun theological thought exercise and isn’t fundamental to the gospel. As if the experiences, doctrines, and policies about half of God’s children has no bearing on creating a Zion society. As if they are exempt from mourning with their sisters because they don’t share these burdens. It makes no sense that this is the attitude of so many believing members when “a man is nothing if he has not charity.” But it seems that all the laws and prophets hang on all the laws and the prophets in the church and not on the greatest commandment. This is certainly not true of all believing members. Some are very compassionate. I just wish this compassion were a primary focus of the church.
@Josh H I generally agree that those are useful categories / concepts but I think most people don’t fit neatly into one box or another. For example, for a utility Mormon, the Church may no longer be useful if it is discovered not to be valid. For a validity Mormon, the lack of utility may have been the thing that triggered a deeper examination into validity. Etc.
I just want to go to heaven, be happy with my family, continue to learn truths, talk to God occasionally, etc., after I die. Do I stay in the church or leave?
depends on what you think will help you with that goal. obviously, every religious denomination will think you can achieve those things in *their* denomination.
All in favor of Andrew making more posts may manifest it by raising your right hand. I love these types of conversations and all you people so much.
@Andrew: “But this gets back to my earlier point — there’s no amount of facts that someone can learn about the history alone that will automatically require any person to inevitably conclude “just a con man.” Other people can take the exact same historical puzzle pieces and say, “this is just how prophets can be” or “this is how sincere visionaries can be” or “this is how a pious fraud can be”
i disagree on a practical level. Your logic implies that anything that can be imagined cannot be disproved, and therefore such beliefs should hold equal weight with nonbelief in discussions. While an interesting theoretical argument, in practicality, very few will be willing to entertain the level of acceptance this would require. Do you accept that leprechauns and fairies can’t be disproven and therefore belief of such must be objectively entertained? How about sasquatch? big foot? The loch ness monster? little green men? Aliens with big grey eyes hidden in area 51? Pennywise in the Maine sewers? Yoda? Jar-jar? The entire cast from Galaxy Quest?
Or maybe just the invisible dragon in Carl Sagan’s garage? Unless you are willing to entertain the existence of every single one of these, your theoretical argument that historicity can’t objectively take on angelic visits and come to a practical conclusion fails.
This is great stuff, thanks Andrew. I think it partially explains some of the bitter feelings some people have had towards Fairmormon, which provides apologetics but does little to nothing pastorally. If we are offended or hurting as a result of some history, and we find an intelligent resolution, the emotional issue may still need to be addressed. I remember reading D. Bokovoys excellent book on Old Testament authorship and finding it intellectually exciting and enlightening while at the same time emotionally discomforting.
I’m not arguing that because anything that can be imagined cannot be disproved, they should have equal weight. Let’s get real. Religion even as a *social construct* is one of the most powerful and real things that exist, whether you like it or not. The divine has “cash value” from a pragmatic sense. From a pragmatic sense, if you’re not accounting for God, you’re not accounting for most of humanity.
I’m going to find it very hard to believe that you’re engaging in anything resembling good faith if you can’t see the difference between God as a concept (that has in its numerous manifestations illuminated and driven and motivated most of humanity) and sasquatch (which has not.)
Invisible pink unicorns and flying teapots and other such atheist arguments are some of the most frustratingly ignorant ones because they completely miss that people are willing to change their entire lives (for better and for worse) because of experiences with what they would call the divine. On a *practical* level, if you can’t acknowledge the vast divide between the *social* force of God and the social impotence of big foot, then you simply aren’t engaging in the same reality.
I’m not saying you have to agree with believers. But I’m saying that even if you want to disagree, whether you want to call that mass or individual delusion or a misattribution, the ongoing and thoroughgoing collective human experience with what believers call the divine is *entirely* different than a gotcha thought experiment entity that has motivated literally 0 people to do anything. And I think there is something deficient with us non-believers if we cannot absorb that on a deep enough level to realize that these are silly, inappropriate, inadequate, embarrassing comparisons before we even type them on a page.
I am saying at the very least, on a person to person basis, we have to acknowledge that a single person can be driven at the core of their being by something that they would consider a divine encounter. Even if we disagree with their explanation and interpretation, we have to acknowledge this is what motivates them and how they conceptualize that for themselves.
“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.)”
That was a nice point buried in all the others.
1. I’m sorry the way you and your mother were treated. That’s really ugly.
2. I agree it should be a completely acceptable reason to leave a church because one was offended, either by an individual or by the church in general in terms of policies or doctrines or leaders’ statements.
3. I love Ben, but I think there’s something he’s side stepping a little bit here. Which is that the Church set it up that it defines itself as absolutely true and then when it says it’s true, that means something very specific. And when many Exmo refer to church history, they are specifically talking about that very high threshold of truth in history. And when someone like Ben or me says it’s true, we might mean it’s “true enough”.
When we talk of people leaving the church, we’re mostly focusing on those born in the church in the Mormon belt. Arguably among all who’ve been baptized, most leave because of a lack of social infrastructure to help make them regulars. I.e., someone gets baptized in Mexico, but a couple months down the road fails to see a place in the social fabric of Mormonism and a purpose in attending.
As to why Mormon belt folks leave, there is no doubt that historical and doctrinal issues are a factor, but often not in the way that many ex-Mormons think. I think what happened is that the internet has made it easier to hear stories of people who’ve left. As people hear stories of others who seem like them, they begin entertaining doing the same thing. When many believers are confronted with troubling information about the church’s history, they often look to others to see how they should react to it. If they look to intellectuals saying that this is nothing to worry about, then often they’ll dismiss it. If they find people sharing stories about how they up and decided to leave over seeing this troubling information, often they’ll contemplate and end up doing the same. The mountain of troubling issues, if anything makes it harder for believers to attract the disaffected to come back into the fold.
On why intellectuals stay, this is a very good question. Let’s bear in mind that on a worldwide scale, there is a strong negative correlation between education levels and religiosity. The same goes for wealth and religiosity. The more educated and wealthy people are, the less religious they tend to be. The US is no exception. I see many apologist folks claiming that Mormonism has somehow bucked that trend. I think they celebrating too early. They also tend to ignore the unique social dynamics of Mormonism that allow it to retain intellectuals at perhaps a higher rate than other religions. For one it has BYU and the thick Mormon culture of Utah. Mormons tend to be heavily bound to and often reliant on Mormon social networks, making it so that any intellectual who achieves a name for him or herself to highly likely face great social cost of they leave the church.
Bottom line, yes, the dissemination of historical issues is having a negative impact on retention. Yes, social factors are a significant driving force behind intellectuals remaining in the church. Let’s not get carried away with some seeming anomaly and allow that to undermine a pretty clear picture.
ChurchisTrue, I’m not sure what you mean by this: “the Church set it up that it defines itself as absolutely true and then when it says it’s true, that means something very specific.” What specifically does the “Church” claim it means when it says it’s true? What do you make of Bruce McConkie’s teaching: ““I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality. ” Does “false doctrine” include mistaken or purposeful errors in history?
Andrew S said: “depends on what you think will help you with that goal. obviously, every religious denomination will think you can achieve those things in *their* denomination.”
So it’s a crapshoot? I do my best to discover what I think will get me to heaven and hope it’s correct? I die then find out I should have stayed in the church or I should have left the church?
Well, bwbarnett, when questioned repeatedly about his comments on testimony and “feeling the spirit”, Truman Madsen once said “in the end you makes yer choice and takes yer chances.”! If you’re willing to trust God to judge by the heart and you do your best, maybe making your choice and taking your chances is not so bad. Who do you have to trust besides yourself and God anyway?
Starting in the mid-1960s and stretching into the ’80s, church historical research was central to much of the turmoil in the then-RLDS Church. For example, church historian Richard Howard early on had authored a scholarly paper on the numerous accounts of the First Vision, and there was a growing consensus privately among church leaders that Book of Mormon historicity could no longer be defended. Of course, there was no internet or social media to spread information like wildfire as today. But in a sort of “analog” way, a secretary at church headquarters secretly copied a report intended as a study paper that came to be known as the Position Papers. Conservative and traditional church members spread that as proof that the leadership was leading the church down a liberal pathway that would destroy what many still believed to be the One True Church with exclusive priesthood authority.
Anyway, my point here is to show that those “true believers” had what eventually became alternate exit strategies. By the mid-1980s (after the revelation opening the priesthood to women), breakaway groups formed their own so-called Independent Branches, which remain today generally as a confederation in exile, so to speak. Some others joined the LDS church. Perhaps a few joined with other, smaller Restoration groups. And, of course, some folks just left for parts and organizations unknown. Top church leaders I’ve known were basically happy that those in Restorationist “independent branches,” in particular, as well as other communities had a place to call home. That would appear to be far removed from believing that people who leave the church will go to hell or the telestial kingdom or wherever.
What’s not usually talked about are the folks (liberals, progresies, moderates, conservatives) who were just so tired of all the fighting that they drifted away. It’s not that historical or doctrinal issues were necessarily the cause. They were just worn out by all the “church games.”
Fast forward a few decades in the now Community of Christ and issues of church history simply don’t matter as much. Probably because Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon et al aren’t central to the mission and purpose of the church: Christ’s mission is our mission. Joseph is honored as founder but, yes, he had his faults.
I’m simply not familiar enough with the current LDS situation to offer any counsel, just questions. Are there multiple places for disaffected LDS members to go and remain connected in some way to the faith community/movement? Is there space for acceptance of peoples’ choices or simply condemnation? Is the faith community the same as the institutional church? Who gets to define what a “faithful Mormon” is these days?
Great post and comments, I actually distilled my thinking a bit more from reading here. I can see that people‘s motives for both staying and leaving fall into the same categories, the actual reasons are very subjective, AND very personal — and vitally important to each person. The reasons may be informed by historical information, or a slew of micro aggressions, or a thousand other things, but the actual choice of how to handle it is always subjective and personal. My instinct, to respect those who stay close as much as I want my choice to seek distance respected, is correct and I simply shouldn’t judge their personal reasons.
In this context, to label someone as offended in order to build a hedge that isolates one’s own ideological purity is a poor, pharisaical approach.
I loved Mary W’s comment about members being trained to question any negative feelings about the church, and attribute them to their own misunderstanding. I’ve learned that’s a poor way for me to treat my own feelings. Such a practice, in my experience, makes a real mess that will demand attention sooner or later.
Bwbarnett, life has a way of forcing one to face dilemmas and hard questions, and real heartache, no matter how one may contort to avoid it.
And Nik, I think, is having a completely different conversation than the rest of us. Kudos to you Andrew, for engaging with us all.
I really appreciated your writing this post. It has a significantly nuanced approach to this topic, which appealed to me. I’m still a participating member, but the tenuousness of that membership wavers and oscillates: sometimes pulling me in, sometimes pulling me out, and sometimes both at once. And it’s clear that the entirety of my experiences and where I currently sit comes down to subjectivity.
You’ve given me quite a lot to think about.
I guess I’m just wondering that if I can make it to heaven either way (in the church or out of the church), do I really need to figure out whether I should stay or go? I think most who stay believe that staying is the only way to make it to heaven, or perhaps not the only way but the preferred way. And those who leave believe that one can make it to heaven by either staying or leaving, as long as you are doing what you consider your best with the information you’ve been given. What am I missing?
I realize this is an over-simplification of this highly intellectual debate here, but if at judgment time it doesn’t matter whether we were members of the church or ex-members of the church, what is the point of the debate?
I don’t agree with everything in the Tokens & Signs pingback posted above, but these paragraphs (excerpted below) were spot-on for my experience:
“What does a person do when after having rationalized their faith in the church, they learn that the history of the church is not what they were taught all along … How does a person react to learning that the foundational premise that they were defending when rationalizing the toxic cultural forces around them, is not what they were led to believe? …
… It’s not the history per se that caused them to leave. Rather, it is how learning the history re-contextualized the rationalizations they had previously found in maintaining their faith and loyalty to the church, and how that shift in perspective caused them to reinterpret the ways they found to cope with the other problems they observed with the church.”
For me, rationalizations of things like polygamy, gay marriage opposition, and priesthood denial to women & blacks completely fell apart when I learned the history behind each of those particular problems & more generally. In many ways, that was a relief because I could stop the mental contortions. In others, it put me into freefall where Church just didn’t seem particularly relevant anymore because the gulf between what I believed and what every person who ever said anything at Church seemed to believe was so wide. (And that’s why I don’t think we can disaggregate validity from utility. The Church came much less useful when so many of its claims lost their validity to me. It’s just not all that helpful to sit through Church when people spend all their time leader-worshipping Nelson and repeating very dubious Church history claims and railing against democrats and gays and trying to convince my kids to serve missions I don’t want them to go on etc. But I digress.)
I have long felt that saying people left because they were offended gives the Church cover (as an enterprise and the membership) for offensive behavior, as if nothing they do could ever have caused someone to leave.
Let’s be clear – it could be that picking the right church matters. It could be that it doesn’t matter. It could be that there is no heaven. You won’t be able to find that out in this life. I get that people have varied views on this and will be strongly motivated by their view, and that’s entirely consistent with what I’m talking about in the post.
For me, I got to a point where I said, “heaven isn’t worth it if it will mean a constant denial of myself at a fundamental level, or if it will mean the obliteration of things I consider integral to my personality and identity.”
For me, a Church that promises a happy heaven in exchange for a hellish life (which I would define as a life alienated from oneself and / or one’s family and neighbors) is selling a bill of goods. Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” – and he didn’t mean “the second coming / some separate heaven is coming soon”, he meant RIGHT HERE. I believe any true commandment should aim to help us live a better life *now*.
In addition, I’m not interested in a heaven where my husband has multiple wives and I am a silent eternal procreator meanwhile my single brothers and sisters are ministering angels? Hierarchical heaven sucks.
So I just don’t think the question “will this Church get me into heaven” is relevant for a lot of people.
“when people spend all their time leader-worshipping Nelson and repeating very dubious Church history claims and railing against democrats and gays”
In my ward (and stake, so far as I know) they don’t. Instead, most of what there is of that as to Nelson comes from General Conference. There are still a lot of dubious Church history claims made, but at least during the pandemic, I’m spared most of that. At local church I hear no railing against democrats or gays, though there is some railing against democrats in some of my private social circles. It would seem the church experience varies widely not only from person to person, but from place to place.
“Hierarchical heaven sucks.” Yep. It’s built into at least BY’s version of exaltation in the celestial kingdom, but it may not be so in all the Mormon heavens (including exaltation).
I am offended by the shifting borders i.e. new definitions of (1) Satanic victories (2) strong drinks.
I also like making brief passive/aggressive comments on blog posts.
Andrew, I concur with your emphasis on the subjective when it comes to explaining why people leave the church. And, at the risk of oversimplification, I think your argument can be reduced to the following:
No one is ever completely satisfied with any organization with which they are affiliated. For example, no Democrat or Republican I have ever known has fully embraced every single policy advocated by their party. So, too, with one’s religion. You simply resign to take the good with the bad because there is more good than bad. But when the bad starts to outweigh the good, however one balances the two, the individual begins to experience considerable discomfort, e.g., they feel as if they don’t fit in or their perspective is no longer welcome. And that, I believe, is the key. No one, if they have a choice, will remain in an environment where they are uncomfortable. And nothing is more subjective than an individual’s comfort level.
Regarding the “hierarchical heaven” doctrine, while it does include the idea of different levels or locations, it also includes the idea that everyone will be comfortable as well, with the exception of the “outer darkness” folks. From the comments above, it seemed like some were inferring that the doctrine teaches that the only place someone will be comfortable or happy is in the highest level of the hierarchical heaven. I recently came across a YouTube video of Elder Bednar entitled “‘You Don’t Have to Die to Find Out’ Where You’ll Go on the Day of Judgment”. He essentially says that after we die, we will be with like-minded people. If we don’t want to be in constant denial of who we are at a fundamental level, as Andrew says, then we will be in a place where that doesn’t happen and with others who feel the same way. If we don’t want to obliterate things that we consider integral to our personality and identity, then we will be in a place where that doesn’t happen with others who feel the same way. If we’re not interested in a heaven where our husband has multiple wives, then we won’t be there. We will be in a place with other like-minded people. *And* we will feel comfortable there. That’s my understanding of this hierarchical heaven doctrine. It includes being comfortable at all levels. I could be way off base though…
But the doctrine is also that if you had the fulness of the Gospel and don’t live up to that, then you’re at risk of becoming a son of perdition, which = Outer Darkness. Now, I agree there’s a lot of ambiguity about what counts as fulness of perfect knowledge of the Gospel, but the hierarchy definitely has a component of being more about what level of knowledge/information people had in this life.
@bwbarnett I agree that my comment about hierarchical heaven was an oversimplification (but my comment about eternal polygamy sure wasn’t!). My point is just that if I don’t even love Mormon Heaven (and I don’t) then I don’t feel compelled to accept the things Mormonism asks me to do that make life on earth Hell. We know so little (well, nothing) about the afterlife and I don’t necessarily trust that our Church leaders have any better idea than anyone else (given how much else they are wrong about) so I think it’s a terrible thing to sacrifice relationships and happiness here for some version of heaven that may or may not be remotely accurate. Of course, I’m not saying “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” – because that’s not a way to lasting happiness here – but commandments like the prohibition against gay marriage that consign someone to a lonely life here in the hopes that their lot in the afterlife will be better are not true to me and actually constitute spiritual abuse.
@Wondering my characterization of my Church meetings was not very charitable. I still participate because most weeks someone says something that helps me be a better human. But a very, very large portion of my meetings is heavy on “follow the Prophet” and light on Jesus. If I were a leader who was concerned about keeping nuanced people in the Church, I would do everything I could to make meetings Christ-centered rather than Church-leadership-centered. (BTW I would also make sure not to have any sacrament meetings where we don’t hear a single word from a woman … happens too often.).
Really interesting post, Andrew. I don’t have anything to add, but I do want to say how much I love this point Mary W made:
“I see this lack of compassion for those who are offended as an absolute failure to love your neighbor as yourself. I have talked to different men, including my own father, about women’s issues and the church. So many of them write off my questions and concerns as mysteries of the kingdom that aren’t pertinent to their existence in this life or the next. As if the nature of one’s identity and eternal destiny is a fun theological thought exercise and isn’t fundamental to the gospel. As if the experiences, doctrines, and policies about half of God’s children has no bearing on creating a Zion society. As if they are exempt from mourning with their sisters because they don’t share these burdens.”
I think this relates to some recent discussions at the Exponent and on Lindsay Hansen Park’s Facebook wall about misogyny among fringe and ex-Mormons. It’s really sad that so many of us men even who move to the fringes or out of the Church still retain this view of the eternal status of women as just an interesting though exercise, and not anything of real importance, as you note so well.
I also really relate to Elisa’s point:
“For me, rationalizations of things like polygamy, gay marriage opposition, and priesthood denial to women & blacks completely fell apart when I learned the history behind each of those particular problems & more generally. In many ways, that was a relief because I could stop the mental contortions.”
I so much feel this too. It’s such a relief not to have to rationalize things that are clearly just obviously wrong when you give up belief in the practical infallibility of GAs. It’s so hard to hold together all those contradictory beliefs about God being no respector of persons, but actually he favors straight, white cisgender men.
My mother died about a month ago. I have some recent, real-life experience considering the life to come. I used to think I knew all about what the doctrines teach about the next life we enter into when we die. But the closer I get to finding out for myself, the more I think we have no clue whatsoever. The pittance of actual doctrine we have doesn’t begin to address such a paradigm shift as death must be. And the brambly hedge of folk beliefs grown up around it makes it doubly obscure, not to mention confused and contradictory.
All we have is hope in what (we think) can be seen through a glass darkly, and I believe that’s part of the design of this life. At the very least it may keep us from over-focusing on what future perks we might receive in exchange for our hoard of righteous acts in this world.
@bwbarnett, who you calling ‘highly intellectual’? It ain’t me. And I rather dislike debate as entertainment. Don’t ask me for a prescription, that’s for sure. The most I would prescribe is to pick a path and set out on it. If it takes you into the weeds, you’ll know soon enough and then you can sort out the necessary remedy. The way you keep framing your query seems a fairy tale, or a rhetorical question intended to generate the debate that you want. At any rate, you’ve received a lot of feedback and name mentions.
“if missionaries taught investigators that prophets are more like the nice guy next door than fundamentalist views of Moses and Paul.”
Maybe Moses and Paul are more like the nice guy next door.
I haven’t had as much time a as I’d like to get through all the comments yet, but I’ll say now that I really like Been there’s content way up above.
Along those same lines, I think that the reason that many ex-mos don’t like the “they were offended” line is because it reduces their experience to a vague ambiguity. Yes, many exmos go through a phase where they think any reasonable, objective person would have made the same choice, but I think (or perhaps hope) that is a phase, something that doesn’t last through a thoughtful exploration.
If someone said I left because I was offended, they’d be right, to a degree, but they haven’t conveyed that they know anything at all about me.
I’ve made assumptions on this forum in the past that have led to poorly worded posts on my part. There will probably be more in the future, but I’ll do my best. So most of the time, I ask questions here just to make sure I don’t make assumptions about what other’s belief systems are like. Through some of my questions, I try to understand what others believe and why they believe that way on the various subjects discussed here. For example, it was beneficial for me to understand that some former members of the church believe that God doesn’t really care if they stayed in the church, but that He mainly cares if we are doing our best with the information we have. Awhile ago I asked Bishop Bill if he considered himself an active member of the church because if he did, I didn’t understand why he could make what I thought were disparaging remarks about the GAs.
I’ve been what I would consider a faithful member of the church my entire life, and I still am. Aside from a couple of brothers-in-law who have distanced themselves from or left the church, I don’t really have much association with former or fringe members. Not because I don’t want to associate with people who are not active members, but just because I don’t really have many opportunities to. I don’t really even hang out with active members outside of church-related stuff. I work from home and have kids and grandkids that I spend almost all of my time with.
Now you know more about me than you ever wanted to know 😉.
@Andrew: “ I’m going to find it very hard to believe that you’re engaging in anything resembling good faith if you can’t see the difference between God as a concept.. .and sasquatch “
And yet, I am, because that’s what I believe. I’m going to find it hard to believe that you’re engaging in good faith when you can’t see the difference between your opinion; and someone else’s.
@Andrew: “ Invisible pink unicorns and flying teapots and other such atheist arguments are some of the most frustratingly ignorant ones because they completely miss that people are willing to change their entire lives (for better and for worse) because of experiences with what they would call the divine.
I would very much agree that if you see angels and flaming swords, seer stones and gold plates as something people should be willing to change their entire lives for, that those are frustratingly ignorant beliefs.
@Andrew: “On a *practical* level, if you can’t acknowledge the vast divide between the *social* force of God and the social impotence of big foot, then you simply aren’t engaging in the same reality.“
I can not argue with that. We are definitely not engaging in the same reality when you afford one supernatural thing with great importance, but not others, as defined solely by YOUR definition of what constitutes great importance.
@Andrew: “I’m not saying you have to agree with believers.”
That’s exactly what you HAVE said.
Back to my point though. If you would like to address my arguments rather than lecture me on how I should believe what you believe, I would be interested.
You appear yet again to be missing Andrew’s point.
The point is not what you or he might choose to see as important individually. But what can be seen to be important to groups of people within a society or social group, such that those concepts move them to act in particular ways, or to change their lives should they decide to align themselves with a particular religion. It is a matter of fact that those things do move people to behave in particular ways, to align themselves with particular groups whether or not you, or Andrew or I or anyone else might choose to think they are ridiculous. Whether it is a matter of culture or history or whatever you care to call it, some ideas have accrued that power – angels for example, whereas others – invisible pink flying unicorns- have not. It’s ludicrous to imagine they are equivalent.