(My first attempt at a book chapter for a proposed book: “The Gift of the Mormon Faith Crisis: A Positive, Practical, and Personal Approach.” Feedback is welcome!)
One of the most common (and more hurtful) criticisms you may hear during your Mormon faith crisis is that, “…you can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.”
Why does this assertion seem to cut so deeply? Some quick ideas:
- It seems to reinforce the common misconception that you lost your belief in Mormonism because you were offended in some petty way, and can’t just “get over it.” It implies that you are stuck in small-minded negativity, obsessing about something relatively unimportant — like a child who can’t recover from their lollipop falling into the dirt.
- If feels patronizing – like the faith crisis equivalent of a “pat on the head” – and it does nothing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the decision to leave. Specifically, it does not acknowledge the deception and harm that the Mormon church has wrought upon you, and upon the people you care about.
- In fact, it seems to function as an attempt to silence people with sincere, legitimate concerns, as if to preemptively protect the church from any criticism.
- It shows little insight into the fact that your entire identity has been built within the walls of Mormonism, and that it may take time and a great deal of processing to rebuild your identity, your inner world, and your life.
- It illuminates how quickly “othered” persons are shamed and ousted from their own communities.
- It displays a somewhat calloused insensitivity and lack of empathy for the excruciating situation you are now experiencing. It dramatically minimizes the difficulty of navigating a Mormon faith crisis, and of the heart-wrenching decision it usually is to step away from LDS belief and participation.
As someone who has supported tens of thousands of Mormons in faith crisis, I am here to tell you that you are likely doing EXACTLY what you “should” be doing in response to your faith crisis, namely:
- It is entirely NORMAL to obsessively read books and web articles on Mormonism, and to constantly listen to Mormon-themed podcasts during a faith crisis. After all – there is a mountain of information that has been kept from you, by the church, for a very long time.
- It is entirely NORMAL to feel anger, along with the urge to lash out at the church, its leaders, its apologists, and its defensive members. After all, anger is an essential emotion. It is a critical stage in the grieving process. Anger helps to focus our attention. Anger helps motivate us to action. Finally, anger is known as a “secondary emotion.” As you spend time exploring your angry feelings, you will discover more primary emotions of loss, sadness, and betrayal. Such exploration will ultimately teach you how to avoid being deceived again, and will motivate you to make necessary changes.
- It is entirely NORMAL to feel like you want to speak to your closest loved ones about these troubling discoveries, and about the high stakes of your subsequent decisions. Given the professed importance of families within Mormonism, along with the very high stakes of this decision, why WOULDN’T you want to speak extensively to everyone you love about your faith crisis? This urge to reach out to loved ones is not only normal, it is psychologically protective for all parties involved – if the parties are able/willing to engage.
- Finally, it is entirely NORMAL to scour websites like https://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon/ on a daily basis to seek validation and virtual support – especially when support from close family and friends is lacking. If family and friends are not able to support you through this crisis, it is essential that you find people who can/will support you. You will need validation, encouragement, feedback, and wisdom to avoid getting too discouraged, and to avoid making big mistakes.
In short, you will likely experience a great deal of “weeping, wailing, and gnashing your teeth” during your Mormon faith crisis….at least until you have fully processed and healed from the fallout of this transition.
Now, for the main focus of this chapter: a quick summary of why so many Mormons “leave the church, but can’t leave it alone”:
1) Separating from a Fundamentalist Religion is Brutal. And it just. Takes. Time.
It is absolutely normal, and usually unavoidable to spend months, if not years, processing one’s separation from a fundamentalist religion such as Mormonism. This is equally true for ex-members of other fundamentalist religious groups such as Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, etc. And it makes perfect sense.
When so many fundamental aspects of your life, including…
— your identity
— your core values and sense of morality
— your relationships with parents/siblings/spouse/children/extended family
— your friendships
— your community
— your sense of spirituality and meaning/purpose in the world
— the way you spend your time
— at times, your source of income
— all the way down to the food you eat, the ways in which you do and don’t have sex, and the very underwear that you wear…
…when all of these aspects of your life are either conditioned upon, or inextricably woven into your religious beliefs and practices, it is perfectly reasonable and healthy for you to take months, if not years, to:
- Gather and process all of the new information that was systematically withheld from you by church leadership,
- Grieve all of the losses that this faith crisis brings,
- Fully consider the implications of the new information on your life,
- Simultaneously manage a complicated life while doing all of this learning and processing,
- Figure out what your next steps should be, and
- Rebuild a new life out of the rubble that is now surrounding you.
In fact, it would be incredibly ODD and UNHEALTHY to simply walk away from a religion like Mormonism without significant efforts to learn, discuss, and emotionally process this change with the people that you love most. From a mental health perspective, I would be infinitely more worried about someone who walked away quietly from such overwhelming changes without a peep, than I would about someone who spent a significant amount of time grieving and processing their faith crisis. For the quiet “leaver,” I would worry that they have not adequately processed their experiences, and instead are stuffing/suppressing their feelings in unhealthy ways, and/or self-medicating to numb their feelings. This type of avoidance/suppression helps no one, and often has toxic or even fatal consequences for the individual.
Don’t do this. Silence and/or delays in speaking up are so often the “killers.”
When in pain…when in doubt…when you are struggling — speak up about your thoughts, feelings, and concerns to people who are “safe.” And don’t let anyone shame, intimidate, or gaslight you into silence.
2) Organizations that Intentionally Mislead or Deceive their Members Should be Held Accountable.
As difficult as the reality is for believing/faithful Mormons, it is undeniable that the Mormon church has deceived/misled many of its members for well over a century. As faithful Mormon historian Richard Bushman recently acknowledged at a private gathering of questioning Mormons, “I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained.” This is an direct acknowledgement by the Mormon church’s leading historian that the church has been teaching a false narrative to its members for generations. A full account of the history behind this deception is carefully documented in Greg Prince’s book “Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History.” To summarize, the Mormon church has known for decades about several deeply troubling aspects of its official historical narrative, including the following church-confirmed facts:
- Joseph Smith’s re-telling of his “First Vision” story changed significantly over time, calling into question the credibility of his claims.
- Joseph Smith and his family/close friends spent years engaging in the superstitious, deceptive, fraudulent, and illegal activity of “digging for buried treasure” for money by use of a magic peep stone, calling into question his/their basic credibility.
- Joseph Smith did not produce the Book of Mormon through the process of translating the golden plates using the Urim and Thumim, as Mormons were taught for over a century. Instead, Joseph Smith produced the text of the Book of Mormon through the use of the same magic peep stone that he used to deceive others in his treasure digging expeditions (see above).
- The Book of Mormon is not a historical record of the Native Americans (as archeological, anthropological, linguistic, and genetic science now demonstrates conclusively) – as Mormons were taught for over a century.
- Native Americans are not descendants of Jared and Lehi from the Book of Mormon (as DNA evidence now demonstrates), as Mormons AND Native Americans were taught for over a century.
- The Book of Abraham is not a translation of an Egyptian papyrus, as Joseph Smith claimed.
- Joseph Smith was not a monogamist, as faithful Mormons were led to believe for close to a century. Instead, Joseph Smith married and likely had sex with over 30 women in his lifetime, many of them teenagers, some as young as 14, and several of them married to other men at the time he married them (see polyandry).
- As if Joseph’s participation in polygamy and polyandry aren’t disturbing enough, we have learned over the past few decades that Joseph repeatedly lied to those around him, including to his own wife, Emma, to hide these polygamous practices. We have also learned that Joseph used incredibly abusive techniques to both coerce young girls and their parents into acceding to his polygamous advances, and to silence/punish those who dared speak openly about these secret practices. Joseph also sent faithful Mormon men on foreign missions, only to then proposition their wives while they were away.
- The LDS temple ceremony was directly plagiarized from the Masonic temple ceremony.
- Etc. Etc. Etc.
It is difficult enough for a lifelong believing Mormon to discover that these facts are the origins of their faith. It is infinitely more disturbing and outrageous to learn that top church leaders have:
- Known about these troubling issues for decades (if not a century),
- Systematically hid this information from its membership, and
- Silenced and/or punished anyone who dared speak openly about these concerns (e.g., Juanita Brooks, Fawn Brodie, the September Six, Brent Metcalfe, Jeremy Runnells, me, etc.).
As lifelong, committed Mormons become increasingly aware that we have been systematically deceived by the church that we fully trusted – it is the duty of those who are in a position to safely speak up to hold the Mormon church accountable for its deception of generations of faithful members, and to protect ourselves and our loved ones from further deception.
3) Many faithful Mormons and post-Mormons either have been hurt, or continue to be hurt, by the church’s damaging doctrines and policies. If we don’t speak out against this harm, we become complicit in the harm.
While the Mormon church has done much good for many individuals and families, it is irrefutable that it has also caused a significant amount of damage. A small sampling of damaging LDS doctrines and policies includes:
- Withholding meaningful authority and leadership opportunities from women and girls in the church, and providing girls/women with a stunted vision as to their potential (e.g., “a woman’s place is in the home”).
- Teaching children, youth. and adults extremely damaging messages regarding sexuality, masturbation, and personal worthiness.
- Teaching gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Mormons that their core identity is evil, and encouraging incredibly damaging “remedies” such as reparative therapy, mixed-orientation marriage, and celibacy. These teachings and policies have led to an epidemic of depression, broken marriages, and suicidality for our LGBTQ youth and adults.
- Striving to impose its religious beliefs and practices on the non-Mormon public through legal initiatives such as:
- Defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.
- Supporting Proposition 8 in California, which attempted to deny California LGBTQ citizens the right to marry.
- Attempting to defeat Proposition 2 in Utah — an initiative that seeks to provide Utahns with serious illnesses a viable, natural treatment for debilitating pain and nausea, and help to decrease the opioid epidemic.
- Protecting sexual predators at the expense of sexual abuse victims.
- Teaching members for over a century that dark skin is a curse from God, and that people of color were “less valiant” in the pre-existance.
- Providing Native American church members with a wholly fictitious (i.e. Lamanite) identity.
- Sponsoring programs like the “Indian Placement Program,” which basically amounted to cultural genocide.
- Systematically shaming and ostracizing members who lose faith in the church. This practice stresses marriages, too often leading to the fracturing of otherwise healthy/happy families.
- Etc. Etc. Etc.
We are all familiar with the phrase, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men/women to do nothing.” If doubting and disaffected Mormons remain silent in response to the harm that they witness within Orthodox Mormonism, they risk being complicit in said harm.
Consequently, it is absolutely essential that doubting Mormons/post-Mormons openly question, and if they feel safe and “called” to do so, publicly hold the Mormon church accountable for the damage that it is causing its members, and the general public.
Remember. Silence is so often the killer.
Am I saying that every doubting Mormon or Post-Mormon is in a safe place to speak out, or that it would be healthy for them to do so? Absolutely not. For many post-Mormons, it would be unsafe or unhealthy to speak out publicly about their faith crises. Others are simply not interested in the pain/difficulty that would accompany speaking out, and simply want to move on with their lives – which is also a normal/reasonable option.
I should add that there are definitely healthier/more effective ways to speak out, vs. less healthy/less effective ways to speak out. We will discuss this in future chapters.
4) We Come by the Desire to “Proclaim the Truth” Honestly
As orthodox Mormons, we were taught:
- That truth matters.
- That we have an obligation to share/spread the truth, as we know it.
- To alleviate the suffering of others.
- To be courageous, and to “Do what is right, let the consequence follow.”
- That the health/safety of family members is more important than anything else.
These values do not simply disappear once we lose our faith in Mormonism.
The Mormon church sends out tens of thousands of missionaries each year to bear testimony of the truth as they see it, even though Mormon beliefs are considered offensive by many other religious and non-religious people. As I write this chapter, the Mormon church has 67,049 full time missionaries across the world. Orthodox Mormons are also taught “Every Member a Missionary!”
Why is it OK for believing Mormons to share their truth/testimonies with the world (even as those truths/testimonies condemn other religious traditions as either false, or inadequate), but somehow not OK for those who leave the Mormon church to share their testimonies/truth as well?
Recent reports from LDS church headquarters suggest that, as of 2018, over half of returned missionaries end up becoming inactive from the church. For these missionaries who end up leaving the church, many will likely carry their missionary zeal into their post-Mormon lives. It is only natural (for many) to do so.
As Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds recently said in the HBO Documentary “Believer” — “A determined Mormon is a scary thing, I can tell you that, because they don’t stop.” This is often true of Mormons — whether they remain in or out of orthodox belief and/or church activity.
5) It is Hard to “Leave the Church Alone” When the Church Won’t Leave us Alone
It is common for people who leave Mormonism to feel disrespected by their believing family, friends and community. Examples include:
- Being talked about, and treated like a “project” by believing family, friends, ward leadership, and ward members.
- Being “love bombed” by ward members, in hopes that you might return to belief/activity.
- Church members sending missionaries or home teachers/ministers to your home to “re-activate” you.
- After moving away from your ward to get a “fresh start” as a non-believer, having your address be passed on to the new ward leadership, such that you feel as though you cannot escape the reach/judgment of the church.
- Family and friends may judge and gossip about you.
- It is common for ex-Mormons to hear untrue rumors spread by believing members about the causes of their disaffection, including that they left the church because of having a pornography addiction, or because of an extramarital affair.
- It is not uncommon for friends or even family to no longer feel “safe” having you around them, or their children, because of your “apostasy.”
- It is also common for church leadership to monitor the behavior and/or social media activity of an ex-Mormon, and potentially threaten them with church discipline (or even excommunicate them) if they speak up in ways that are perceived as threatening to the church.
- If religious differences end up permanently fracturing family relationships or friendships, the ex-Mormon is left (possibly for the rest of their life) feeling as though the church robbed them of closeness to the people they love most. This breeds anger and resentment that can last an entire lifetime.
Thomas McConkie once referenced the Mormon church to me in this way: “A cult is any organization that won’t let you leave with your dignity intact.”
In this vein, it is perhaps understandable how sometimes the anger and sadness that follows the relational damage of a faith crisis can cause an ex-Mormon to direct anger at the church and its remaining members. If the church has destroyed some of your most cherished relationships, why wouldn’t you be angry, and try to take your anger out on the church?
To summarize, the process you are going through as a questioning/post-Mormon is an essential and healthy one for your personal development. It can’t and shouldn’t be hurried, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be shamed or gaslighted into avoidance. While the process of navigating will most certainly be uncomfortable and inconvenient for the orthodox believers around you, they can take solace in the fact that you will eventually and naturally “leave the church alone” just as soon as you have fully processed and healed from the completely understandable and justified shock and disruption that a Mormon faith crisis brings.
Ultimately, this is what the “Gift of the Mormon Faith Crisis” book/podcast/project is about. We hope to provide Mormons in faith crisis with a positive, practical, and personal guide through this complicated and painful journey of navigating a Mormon faith crisis. Our ultimate goal is to help you transform this incredible challenge you are facing into the greatest gift of your life. We have helped tens of thousands of others successfully navigate this process, and we’re excited to provide you support as well.
Next essay: What orthodox Mormons really mean when they say, “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.”