Author Brian McLaren recently published a book, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned, that’s been under discussion in Mormon online spaces, and mentioned recently by Happy Hubby in his Wheat & Tares review of Christian Kimball’s new book, Living on the Inside of the Edge. Latter-day Struggles podcast also did an excellent series on the points in the book (here, here, here, here, and here), so I figured we might as well take a stab at it too. In the book, McLaren does a chapter on each of ten reasons to leave Christianity, and ten reasons to stay Christian. This post is not going to be a deep dive, although we could drill down into some of these sub-topics later on.

I’ll list the chapter header, but then explain a little more about how it might apply to the Mormon Church, not just the broader question of Christianity.

Ten Reasons to Leave

  1. Because Christianity Has Been Vicious to Its Mother (Anti-Semitism). This is one area where Mormonism’s failures differ from Christianity on the whole. Mormons are more involved in cultural appropriation than in any actual animus toward Jewish people. It’s one of the unique facets of Mormonism vs. other Christian sects, but it’s often been carried to weird extremes, like a Jewish convert who was told that he was now “adopted” into the house of Israel. Really? I have a Jewish friend who mentioned that he met a Mormon who greeted him as if Mormons are also Jews, but of course, to him, we are gentiles. It’s all a little benighted and even off-putting to actual Jewish people, even if it’s well-intentioned, but Mormon attitudes are generally not anti-semitic.
  2. Because of Christianity’s Suppression of Dissent (Christian vs. Christian Violence). Within Mormonism this is the oft-expressed concern that if you say anything someone doesn’t like, you’ll get hauled in to the bishop’s office by the thought police. You might be threatened with having your temple recommend yanked, losing a high profile calling, or even (depending on leader roulette primarily) being excommunicated for disagreeing with the party line. Many on this site have mentioned being released from a calling due to incidents like this, particularly teaching callings.
  3. Because of Christianity’s High Global Death Toll—and Life Toll (Crusader Colonialism). On the upside, the Church is a new enough sect to have escaped most of Christianity’s unsavory past, a happy accident of our fairly recent founding. Incidents like Mountain Meadows Massacre demonstrate that we’ve been just as willing to murder innocents in the name of God, or as McLaren puts it, Christians seem to be as willing to kill for their faith as to die for it.
  4. Because of Christianity’s Loyal Company Men (Institutionalism). This is a huge problem within the Church right now, one we’ve discussed ad nauseum (and witnessed ad nausemier) as discussed in my recent post, Mormon Simps. Apparently that’s not something you can easily escape by changing churches, but I suspect that Mormons are among the worst offenders on this one due to the structure of our hierarchy (vs. council-based churches that have democratic components that check some of these human impulses).
  5. Because of Christianity’s Real Master (Money). Oof, this one hits close to home. Applying the regressive tax of tithing across the board, implying the broadest definition possible (gross earnings!), and avoiding transparency, only to find that the Church has (through its wise investments/hoarding) amassed an unfathomable fortune, only a mere fraction of which goes towards charitable endeavors.) In addition, several of us spent 1.5 to 2 years telling people that the Church was true because unlike other sects, we had no paid clergy, only to find out that it was not true. Earing $120K per year until you die may not be Vatican-level opulence, but it’s unheard of for your average church member, those bankrolling these pensions through their contributions. Seeing the Church use contributions for aims that contradict our values like fighting aginst gay rights or protecting the Church from lawsuits by abuse victims whose abusers were protected is another problem on this front.
  6. Because of the White Christian Old Boys’ Network (White Patriarchy). Patriarchy feels like it’s being double-dipped on a few times here because of its tendency to go hand-in-hand with capitalism and institutionalism, but putting men in charge of everything and making women & children one (dependent) category significantly lowers the value prop of the organization. Mormonism also fares a little worse on this one due to the racist ideas in the Book of Mormon (about dark skin being a curse that accompanies laziness, idolatry, and bloodthirsty / criminal behavior). It’s almost like the Lamanites are being called welfare queens.
  7. Because Christianity Is Stuck (Toxic Theology). The inability and unwillingness to ditch bad ideas, including sexism, racism, and so forth, because throwing a previous leader under the bus is a dicey proposition is again compounded in the Mormon Church because our worst idea (polygamy) is an idea so repugnant that it is still following us around despite not practicing it for over a century (wink). I mean, blood atonement was not great either, but it didn’t have the staying power of polygamy once Brigham Young was dead. But nobody will disavow polygamy because of their not-so-distant ancestors and the hope that they too can have a harem in the eternities.
  8. Because Christianity Is a Failed Religion (Lack of Transformation). This theory is that Christianity has basically run its course, going through the stages of degeneration that all religions are prone to go through. I do sometimes see Mormonism doing things that the early Christian church went through (that didn’t go well), and wonder, do we just seem new and fresh because Catholicism is so much older? Is the Proclamation on the Family so different from the Nicene creed? (Locking us into an idea that may have bad downstream impacts, when it’s a document not grounded in the actual gospel). Given our doctrine about ongoing revelation, we should be able to avoid this problem, but we don’t seem to be getting transformative ideas that aren’t just policy changes (which every church has), or conservatism and hobby horses repackaged as revelation.
  9. Because of Christianity’s Great Wall of Bias (Constricted Intellectualism). We know this is a problem because asking questions at Church is not viewed with favor. It gets you the stink eye, and sometimes worse. We are so incapable of handling questions and doubts well that we are told to stick to yes or no answers in the temple recommend! This indicates a lack of trust that bishops and their counselors can handle more complex conversations appropriately. Contrast this with a much older religion, Judaism, which has a long history of embracing discussion and disagreement. While this varies depending on the flavor of Judaism (some are quite repressive and problematic), the fact that they embrace intellectualism is evident in the creation of the midrash. FAIR is no midrash.
  10. Because Christianity Is a Sinking, Shrinking Ship of Wrinkling People (Demographics). Well, that title just sounds insulting (I prefer wheezing fossils), but they have a point. While the Mormon Church has this problem, too, it’s actually not as bad as it is in other Christian sects. We still have enough families to run a Primary in most wards. Many sects literally don’t have anyone attending under the age of 55. Also, funny that they mention a ship…

Ten Reasons to Stay

  1. Because Leaving Hurts Allies (and Helps Their Opponents). This is the age old problem that if you throw a party and you invite everyone including white supremacists, the racists are going to eventually be the only ones at that party. When all the good people leave, the bad people suddenly think they are normal and start insulting the ones who left. Personally, all the best people I have known in my wards in the last decade or so have left. The ones who are left don’t really mind racism, sexism and homophobia; they might not be in favor of it, but they aren’t that uncomfortable with it, so long as the brethren are telling them it’s not a big deal.
  2. Because Leaving Defiantly or Staying Compliantly Are Not My Only Options. This is a shout out by the author to stay on your own terms, to take what works and discard the rest. Feels like we’ve had this discussion plenty. You might get sidelined, but as Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman, “I say who. I say when.”
  3. Because . . . Where Else Would I Go? There was a GC talk with this premise a few years ago, and it’s a line from the New Testament (John 6 is pretty trippy). Jesus has been preaching about his disciples needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood, which is “an hard saying” and turns off a bunch of people who quit following him. Jesus asks the twelve if they will also leave him, and Peter says “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” Applying this idea to a church rather than to Jesus is giving me E. Hamilton vibes, but if you consider the idea of leaving a community of disciples to be a loss, a community you know as well as you know your own family due to its familiarity to you, then yes, that’s hard to replace. As much as Mormons are weirdos, they are our weirdos, not like those Evangelical or Catholic or Methodist weirdos.
  4. Because It Would Be a Shame to Leave a Religion in Its Infancy. The author is saying Christianity is in its infancy, and Mormonism is 1/10th as old, so basically it’s an embryo. I suppose there is some interest in seeing where this thing ends up.
  5. Because of Our Legendary Founder. LOL, obviously I thought of Joseph Smith first, and then I realized oh, right, Jesus. I’m no stan of Joseph Smith (he’s a mixed bag for sure), but Jesus is pretty awesome. He’s like a more comprehensible Buddha. If those two did a collab, I’d buy that. The sayings ascribed to Jesus are full of interesting and contradictory thoughts, well worth a lifetime of ponderizing.
  6. Because Innocence Is an Addiction, and Solidarity Is the Cure. Essentially, the “innocence” referred to here is like the sin of certainty. It’s the innocence of keeping our blinders on, of seeing things in black & white, and of not really addressing problems by talking about them and seeing them for what they are; this “innocence” is to create “purity” which leads to a feeling of “superiority” and “Christian supremacy,” while avoiding dealing with the messiness of life. When we actually see the human problems in the world, the only way to tackle them is together. We only try to tackle them when we develop empathy, which we only do when we get out of our bubble and quit feeling superior.
  7. Because I’m Human. And Churches are human institutions full of humans. Basically, you need social groups to thrive in life. Belonging to groups of people for whom you care and who care for you is essential, even better if they are your neighbors, even better if you all have different perspectives and still love and care for each other anyway.
  8. Because Christianity Is Changing (for the Worse and for the Better). This is certainly true. Sometimes it feels like the improvements are too small and infrequent, but the pace of improvement is probably faster than ever. The reason it feels otherwise is that the bad ideas are also coming fast and furious, and their introduction and adoption is felt more strongly than overdue improvements that feel obvious to those of us who’ve been waiting for them.
  9. To Free God. If we leave religion (whoever we are), then Mormonism decreases its diversity, and God will continue to be defined in smaller and smaller terms, locking him into a petty vision that becomes increasingly dystopian to those who’ve left. There are amazing ideas, wonders to behold, and an expansiveness that is going to be a loss to humanity if we abandon God altogether. We can’t let God be whittled down to an idol for white supremacist patriarchy. Mormon case in point: Heavenly Mother. The last time I saw a wife imprisoned and silenced like this was during a production of A Lion in Winter.
  10. Because of Fermi’s Paradox and the Great Filter. Fermi’s Paradox is the idea that while the potential of extraterrestrial life is infinity possible with many worlds and galaxies out there, if they exist, where are they? The great filter is one explanation, that in order for a civilization to advance to interstellar travel, no cataclysmic event can occur that would “filter” them out from achieving it, and there are many such possible filters. Humanity is hurtling towards its demise, and religion is presiding over its funeral. Christianity could be helping humanity to lift itself out of its self-inflicted harms, it could bring people together to avoid these harms; it doesn’t have to be an innocent bystander to the end of the world.

Like a lot of these types of books, the author tries hard not to put a hand on the scale, agreeing with the books assumed readership that both leaving and staying are appropriate choices for people to make and don’t indicate moral failure. But the book does conclude with the reasons to stay and then gives methods to make it work. That could be the author’s actual preference, or it could be that people who are done with Church aren’t going to buy this book. I was impressed that most of the haters doing reviews were doing so because they saw him as anti-religion and anti-Trump. This isn’t a book for them, but it is about how they are ruining Christianity for the rest of us, so it looks like they got the message.

An unexamined, status-quo Christianity is not worth perpetuating. I cannot and will not stay Christian if it means perpetuating Christianity’s past history and current trajectory.

Brian McLaren

This discussion reminds me of the discussion about police reform. Is Christianity, as it exists today, redeemable, or are the changes that are needed so fundamental that it has to be burned down and started over from scratch? There’s ample evidence that adding more diversity to the existing police department structure doesn’t make a difference; it just changes the race & sex of the cops who commit murder (see Tyre Nichols’ murder in Memphis). Is that the situation in the Church? Given the percent of leaders who have been cultivated for decades based on their willingness to do as they are told and their conservative bona fides, I suspect it’s too late to reform it, and even if we did, who’s left to do that work?

  • Do you find any of Brian McLaren’s reasons to stay or leave compelling? Which ones and why?
  • Do you see other ways (than those I brainstormed) that these arguments apply differently to Mormonism than to Christianity at large?
  • Do you think Christianity is redeemable or needs to be burned down and started over? What about Mormonism?
  • Which of these reasons (pro or con) would you like me to do a deeper dive on in an upcoming post? (Pick as many as you want, and I’ll consider it)