There is a lot of goodness in Mormonism that should be applauded and emulated, and I hope those who leave and those who stay in the church will vigorously cling to that goodness. But there are also far more people hurting in and around the church than I once realized. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that any members or leaders are trying to be anything but kind, and it isn’t something that we haven’t seen other religions struggle with as well. It’s just that rigid exclusive truth claims and strong “in-group/out-group” messaging can be a double-edged sword. These things have always been key elements that help religions to grow, maintain, and motivate members. However, they also create very high costs when people inevitably struggle with or lose belief.
It’s no joke to have your whole core community (often including spouse, children, parents, in-laws, etc) suddenly view you as lost, deceived, a tragedy, “in Satan’s power,” a cautionary tale, as having “given up,” as having made poor choices or failed to be faithful enough, as being at fault for ruining your eternal family, and as being on a path where one cannot maintain the same degree of happiness, well being, or morality. The intense effects on personal mental health, and the damage to relationships and sociality, are not adequately appreciated. There is more at stake than many realize. And the fact that only 1/3rd of the church is active (only 1/4th of young single adults according to a recent leaked video) should suggest that these challenges deeply affect more people than most realize. One of the craziest things about going public about my loss of belief was to have my inbox flooded and realize how many people along the way were deeply hurting right before my eyes, and I had no idea. Many whom I thought were still believing. I’m tempted to start listing stories, but this would get too long.
So what am I proposing? Am I out to set the whole thing on fire and burn it to the ground? What are my hopes for the church? Why do I make available some of my studies of Mormon topics, and share some of the core issues that caused me to begin to see things differently? Why not just leave quietly? I fully understand how hard and painful it is to watch believing friends criticize or deconstruct the faith you love. I feel for you. And it would make perfect sense to ask people like me to “go quietly” if there weren’t so much at stake for so many people’s lives, or if the minority of church members who are active were the only ones deeply affected by the church. Anyway, what do I want to happen in Mormonism? What is the one solution I HOPE both sides can come to agree on?
What Mormonism desperately needs is OPEN DIALOGUE. A safe place for that open dialogue. Encouragement of that open dialogue from church leaders. It needs people to say to friends and family members “hey, lets go to lunch periodically so I can understand what led you to your conclusions” rather than only saying “if you just pray more you’ll get the right answer” (or worse, explicitly suggesting they cut off conversation LINK). Despite all this open discussion I hope to see, we very well may not ever come to the same conclusions, and that is totally fine! There will at least be mutual understanding that will do wonders in terms of reducing the pain and harm and trauma that many are experiencing around the church. Though we may not ultimately agree in our conclusions, I hope we can come to agree that this open approach is something to be encouraged. I think we should agree that truth should not fear investigation and open discussion, but should relish it. I think we should agree that if we truly respect the “agency” of individuals in the church, then that means fostering an environment where everything is out in the open and all perspectives are at least considered. I think we should agree that if we truly believe in the process described in Alma 32, or D&C 9, then we should believe that it can safely be applied in both directions and be trusted to lead to truth.
I realize this is incredibly scary and dangerous for believers. Even if one can overcome the fears that they might lose eternal reward if their current beliefs change, there is the very real threat of having spouses, children, parents, friends, in-laws, etc suddenly view you as deceived, lost, etc. That is why ideally this change should come from the top down. From the highest leaders of the church. And that is why I do understand if some of my friends and family members feel that they can’t allow themselves to hear or explore what led to my conclusions. I get it. Know that I don’t blame you if you feel you are not one of those who is in a position to be at the forefront of this change I’m hoping to see (though maybe you shouldn’t call people deceived if you aren’t willing to first hear them out?). In any case, I feel this is a change that must be called for. Those who feel they are in a position to do so can lead the charge.
Again, I believe far less pain would be caused if the change began from the top down. While this may seem impossible it has actually happened in observable recent history in other faith traditions!
Consider that several decades ago when difficult information was coming to light regarding the Book of Mormon and other issues, the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) chose to hold each other tight and deal with the difficult issues together as a community. Did they suffer some losses in membership and some initial pain. Yes. But they also did the right thing, and prevented untold amounts of future pain and division and harm to relationships as people will always be trickling out anyway. They ultimately made the church a safe space for people who hold diverse opinions on these matters. I think it is a beautiful thing. I HIGHLY recommend listening to this podcast with the prophet/president of this community (LINK). It is incredibly inspiring, and provides a model of what I believe the LDS church must do, and should have done years ago. Unfortunately, the LDS church actually went the opposite direction in the early 80’s. New challenges caused them to retrench into fundamentalism. They booted an incredible church historian (Leonard Arrington) who was ushering an era of openness (LINK), and they restricted the historical archives, and Elder Packer went to BYU to put on notice any professors who would “tell the full story” (LINK), and they sent the historians many miles away to BYU for a few decades before finally making some steps in the right direction with the Joseph Smith Papers project around 2005.
How about another example? The Catholic church. At one time Catholicism wasn’t all that different than Mormonism in the sense that it claimed to be the exclusive source of truth and authority and salvation. Leaving the church (even for another Christian church) was more often mourned as something extremely tragic. In the early 60’s the Catholic church convened a rare ecumenical council that was called “Vatican II” or the “Second Vatican Council.” It was an extremely pivotal time for Catholicism. It was essentially an effort to bring “the church up to date.” As Peter Huff of Xavier University put it: “Prior to this time, the church had been almost seen as a fortress, very much concerned about its own internal stability and integrity…” But “Pope John… wanted to create an environment of dialogue, where the church would engage in all the forces of the modern world.” Among other things, the result was a church that relaxed its exclusive claims to authority, and truth, and salvation. A church that made its members more able to embrace modern scholarship and knowledge without fear of consequence. A church that people could leave without experiencing severe trauma in terms of marital issues, familial issues, social issues, and personal mental trauma. In my view, this was a very positive and needed step. Again, one that caused initial pain and losses in terms of membership, but also the right thing to do, and something that prevented far greater amounts of pain that would have continued occurring with each passing year in the information age.
So there you have it. Do I want to burn it all to the ground? No, but I do want the LDS church to have its Vatican II. To learn from and be inspired by the Community of Christ. As I once heard Bart Ehrman more or less say, the goal of his work isn’t to destroy belief, it is to challenge fundamentalism. My hope is that the powerful barriers to mutual understanding and perspective taking that currently exist can begin to dissolve. Do I require that you agree with my conclusions? No, but I believe an incredible amount of pain and heartache will be lessened when the LDS community can create a culture where people can safely listen to the perspectives of others. Regardless of how our conclusions may differ, there will ultimately be more compassion and understanding of the alternate choices made by friends and family members when this mutual understanding and acknowledgement of complexity occurs. I suggest that there will be less pain on all sides when this happens.