I was a fully believing and devoted Mormon until 2015. There is of course goodness in Mormonism. There is a lot there to applaud and a lot there that I wish the rest of the world would try harder to emulate. There is a lot that I’m grateful for, and a lot that I’ve tried to take with me as I left it. Unfortunately it needs to be known that there is also a massive amount of serious pain, harm, trauma, damage, and division occurring. The goodness in Mormonism is what I would call “high cost goodness” in that it also comes paired with high negative costs to a lot of people. I couldn’t see most of it when I was a believer, but while I enjoyed my cruise on the “good ship zion,” an awful lot of harm and damage was also occurring in the ship’s massive wake. We need to talk about it. Not out of anger or ill-will, but in hopes of moving toward a better place.
For any with no connections to Mormonism who might be reading I want to clarify a couple things before I continue. First, the pain and harm I speak of doesn’t come about because anybody is trying to be anything but kind and well-intended. A lot of that pain is simply a result of people falling on different sides of fairly intense (and therefore divisive) truth claims. In addition, I want to be clear that Mormonism is far from the only faith tradition that experiences these problems. It’s just the one I grew up in. Although I do know people who do faith and religion in healthy ways, I also know that many others could stand to have these very same conversations. I also know that many faith traditions have a very rich history of these same types of issues even if they’ve begun to alleviate them a bit sooner than Mormonism has.
Many would suggest that the best thing is for me to just “go quietly” and not talk about any of this in order to be sensitive to the feelings of believers. I assure you that I am concerned with feelings and experiences of believers. I know this post may hurt the feelings of friends and family and I hope they know that I really do hate that. But I need them to understand something very important: The feelings of believers aren’t the only feelings that we have to be concerned about!
I think it may help to look at this by the numbers:
A study from 2016 suggests that 43% of Millennials and Gen Xers who identify as being raised Mormon have left the faith. A 2014 Pew Poll suggested 38% of Millennials and 36% overall. I suspect these numbers are far higher in 2020, and they don’t seem to include the many more who ended up on the church’s records through blessing or baptism but were never part of it long enough to identify as being raised Mormon because a leaked 2008 video from the church said 70% of young single adults were not active.
So here is the question: When do the feelings and experiences of this 40ish percent who leave get to matter? When can we talk about what is happening to them? What is taught about them? What happens to them in terms of personal trauma and social and familial and marital consequences? When can we realize that believers are not the only ones whose lives are deeply affected by the church on an *ongoing* basis? I would suggest to you that it is both myopic and highly egocentric when believers expect their friends and family members who leave to just “go quietly,” and try to shame them for speaking up about issues facing LDS truth claims, or harmful policies and practices of the church. It is akin to saying “only my feelings matter,” or “only our feelings matter.” In addition, shaming people who leave the church for speaking up about these issues while simultaneously teaching the extremely divisive and harmful things that are taught about them is kind of like punching someone in the face and then acting shocked and appalled when they begin to defend themselves.
I do like the idea of leaving people to do what is working for them, and not rocking the boat. Unfortunately it isn’t that simple when the status quo is harming people. Sadly, we have a situation where no matter what path is taken, people will be hurt. All we can do is choose the path that will reduce the largest amount of pain for the greatest number of people over the long term. That’s what I’m trying to do, and asking others to do. I’m convinced that over the long run far more damage is being done by not challenging the status quo, and by people like me continuing to be silent.
It’s overwhelming to try to convey all of the harm that is occurring. It of course occurs in varying ways and degrees, but I’m overwhelmed as I see so much of it on a regular basis. As an introduction, here is a story I encountered just a few days ago that is all too common (I changed a few minor details to preserve anonymity):
“I am a 39 year old mother of 3, born and raised in the church, married in the temple and a full believer until about 6 months ago. I finally told my family, friends, and bishop that I no longer believe in the church this past Sunday. This has been the absolute hardest thing I have ever been through. I am not sure if my husband is going to stay with me, and my teen children are not speaking to me. My parents are even trying to come out to try and stage an intervention. Every single member of my family is totally believing and I have no nonmember friends. Please tell me this will get better. I am feeling like I should have just stayed quiet and pretended. I am hurting so many people. Never hurt so bad in my life.”
I want to highlight just a few of the major forms of harm I see on a regular basis:
ACTIVELY TEACHING PREJUDICE TOWARD THOSE WHO LEAVE
The church still actively teaches believers to view those who leave the church as being tragedies, as being deceived by Satan, as not having valid reasons for leaving, as being the only members of their family or community who will no longer be with everyone else in the highest degree of God’s kingdom, as being to blame for destroying their “eternal families,” as people who cannot maintain the same level of morality, contentment, or well-being, etc. It should go without saying that this is an extreme level of divisiveness with very high consequences for people’s lives and relationships. Many would literally rather see a family member die than leave the faith.
When the things in the previous section are actively taught and believed by the friends and loved ones of those who leave the church, there will be damage to relationships even in the best of circumstances. I regularly encounter new people whose own children have been conditioned to think these things about their own parents simply because at no fault of their own they ceased to believe in the church. People whose spouses suddenly believe these things about them after they’ve already built a life together. People who have known for most of their lives that their parents see them as a tragedy and a let down. People who watched all their closest friendships forever change overnight. People who have dealt with the extreme difficulties of pretending to believe for many years for fear of all these severe consequences. Again, when we consider the numbers of people involved (with 40ish percent losing faith), the number of harmed relationships is heartbreaking to consider. In addition, the personal trauma people experience when all of their closest community suddenly believes these things about them cannot be overstated.
AUTONOMY STOLEN BY STIFLING OR WITHHOLDING DIFFICULT INFORMATION
Informed consent needs to matter in religion just as it does in other arenas. People are making countless life choices (some major and some more minor) based on the information available to them about the church, its claims, and its history. These choices include: Giving countless hours of their time and massive amounts of energy to the church rather to themselves, their families, or other worthy causes; Giving ten percent of their money to the church throughout their lives (expected even of the poor); Giving two years of their young adult lives to full time service to the church; Decisions about who and when to marry; Decisions about when, or if, or how many kids to have; What clothes and underwear they wear; What drinks they can have; What their relationships can look like; What jobs or education to pursue or not pursue; LGBTQ people are literally giving up intimacy for life, etc. If even just some church members would make different choices given more complete and accurate information about the church, then if the church truly respects “agency,” they would want to ensure that people have that information. And it’s extremely important to note that people deserve that information when they are young and *before* they’ve made countless major life choices that can’t be undone or taken back. As it stands, many are tragically being robbed of autonomy and agency, and having to live with regrets or consequences from choices they’d have made differently if they’d have known various bits of information sooner. The fact that the stifling of important information comes from a well meaning paternalism/protectionism does not make it any less unethical or less harmful. In addition, every believer who willfully chooses to shield themselves from information that might challenge their beliefs is choosing to pass on this problem to others rather than break the cycle.
AUTONOMY STOLEN THROUGH CONSEQUENCES IMPOSED BY THE CHURCH
People deserve the freedom to grow and change and follow their own path and their own conscience and their own calling. And sure, technically we all have that freedom. A person with a gun to their head is technically still free to make their choices, but they are still held hostage by potential consequences. Mormonism–intentionally or not–imposes severe consequences on those who break from the prescribed mold, thus in effect holding people hostage and making it extremely difficult for them to make choices they would otherwise want to make. This happens on levels from small to large. As a believing Mormon I was technically “free” to follow my own conscience (let’s say regarding LGBTQ rights, or joining Joseph Smith in drinking beer or wine with friends), but only if willing to be considered unfaithful and unworthy–and thus a second class citizen in the community. As a believing Mormon I was “free” to change or open myself up to different beliefs or practices, but only if willing to be viewed as a tragedy and disappointment to parents, children, spouses, friends, and my entire core community. I have a friend who has pretended to believe for a decade, because the consequences of living (his one precious life) authentically are too great. It’s a no win situation for him. Live inauthentically, or potentially lose your marriage, kids, community, etc. Soon after announcing my loss of belief I had a friend ask “why would I risk *blowing up my life* by listening to you?” What an absolute tragedy that the act of hearing new information from a friend puts people at risk of “blowing up their lives” and losing so much. In this way Mormonism holds people hostage.
AUTONOMY STOLEN THROUGH CONDITIONED BELIEFS AND TEACHINGS
Mormonism prescribes one path to happiness for everyone, and that’s a much bigger problem than people realize! Growing up I didn’t know any better. I was so thoroughly conditioned by my beliefs that I thought everyone needed to live the prescribed Mormon lifestyle in order to be happiest now and in eternity, and to be fully in line with God’s will. I now see this as insanity, and the cause of a lot of discontentment, a lot of unfulfilled potential, and a lot of wasted gifts. We are all so different in terms of what makes us tick, what is healthiest for us, and what choices allow us to most fully give our gifts to the world. A lot of my own anxiety and discontentment actually came from constantly trying to fit the church’s ideal mold for me, rather than my own. A lot of my life regrets come from the same. I look at someone like Jacinda Ardern–the incredible Prime Minister of New Zealand, and I have to ask: “would she be doing what she’s doing now if she was still a believing Mormon?” I think the answer is clearly “no,” and it makes me sad to think of so many other people (perhaps especially women) who might have blessed themselves or others by choosing different paths, different degrees, and making some different life choices. But when childhood conditioning is so powerful, and when the teachings of church leaders are viewed as almost beyond question, it’s hard to break from them.
SETTING PEOPLE UP FOR MAJOR CRISES AND TRAUMA
Mormonism causes countless people every year to suddenly have their entire world fall apart. Suddenly having your worldview fall apart part way through your life is a huge deal. It is personally traumatizing. It is socially traumatizing. It requires a lot of processing and work and rebuilding that many struggle to find the time or resources for. As noted above it involves grief over choices that would have made differently. So while we consider the good Mormonism does for people’s lives, we must also consider how many people it is causing major crises for.
CAUSING HUGE AMOUNTS OF UNNECESSARY GUILT AND SHAME AND FEAR
Many deal with intense and traumatic feelings of guilt and shame for completely normal and healthy behaviors. Many children grow up constantly questioning their “worthiness” in the eyes of God and church leaders for things as benign as masturbation. They spend years with deep feelings of unworthiness, and with fears that they will be separated from their families for eternity as a result.
IF WE LOOK AT THE CHURCH ORGANIZATION AS AN INDIVIDUAL, IT WOULD VERY CLEARLY BE A NARCISSIST
Please hear me out. The church is hyper focused on its image. It is extremely egocentric. It literally has taken a position that it will not apologize (see words from Oaks). Even where very clear and very harmful mistakes were made, it still refuses to openly admit mistakes because maintaining a perfect image is so incredibly important (example: the priesthood ban on people of color). It does not accept criticism–even explicitly teaching that criticism of church leaders is wrong even if it is true (again, see words from Oaks). If people point out the church’s flaws they are met with massive amounts of shaming and accusations of negativity and hate. Often, they’re told that they’re imagining the very real problems (gaslighting). The church is always unassailable, and the fault always placed on individuals instead. If anyone leaves it, it attempts to demean them by labeling them as tragedies who are lost and deceived and it tells them that they will never be able to live happily without them. It even threatens them with severe consequences (temporal and eternal) if they leave. If the church organization were a person, it would very clearly be very high on the narcissistic spectrum, and this causes it to be abusive to many people.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
A lot could be discussed here and I can only speak broadly to the issue. Let me again acknowledge that no matter what path is chosen, there will unfortunately be pain and difficulty experienced by people on one side or the other. That’s just the nature of the hole we are in. But what we must do is take the course of action that causes the least amount of pain, harm, division, and trauma for the greatest amount of people over the long run. Like cancer treatments, sometimes the best thing over the long run means choosing something painful and harmful in the short run. In my opinion, failing to make big changes to the status quo will cause far more pain than the challenges of making the changes.
The kinds of changes I’m asking for have been modeled in some ways by some other faiths. The Catholic church is one example. 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. Mormonism is long overdue for it’s own “Vatican II.”
Another powerful example comes from the RLDS (now Community of Christ) church. Consider that several decades ago when difficult information was coming to light regarding the Book of Mormon and other issues, the RLDS church 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 as they dealt with these issues out in the sunlight? 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 would love for my LDS friends to listen to the interview that was done with the prophet/president of this community on Mormon Stories. 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, and they restricted the historical archives, and Elder Packer went to BYU to put on notice any professors who would “tell the full story,” 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. A small amount of progress has been made at reversing those actions, but it has not been nearly enough.
In sum, I am asking the LDS community to be willing to have the difficult conversations out in the sunlight. Ideally this would be led by the leadership of the church, because if they lead the way then there will be vastly less damage that will occur as the community faces these issues. What a beautiful thing it would be if the friends and family of those who leave would actually say “hey, if and when you’re up for it, would you be willing to go to lunch once a week for a while and tell me about all the things that made you view the church differently so that I can understand where you’re coming from.” Unfortunately, in the current church climate, this is an extremely scary thing for people to do, as it will send more people into many of the difficulties discussed above (many of those difficulties being caused by the teachings and attitudes of the church toward those who leave it). Over time as more and more people have these discussions and face these difficulties it will become much easier and much less traumatic for people to just change and become less orthodox or to leave their faith altogether. But that would happen much more quickly if the leadership does the right thing and leads the charge. Sadly, given the current balance of power among the top leadership and the methods the church embraces for replacing them, I don’t think this will happen. I think it will ultimately have to be a bottom up movement that will be far more difficult and take far more time. The longer it takes, the more damage will be done.
Mormonism has apologizing to do. It has positions to reverse. It has records to publicly correct and key information to be sure everyone knows. It has culture to change. It has a lot of work to do to move from a system of “high cost goodness” to a system of “low cost goodness.” It has work to do in order to respect people’s autonomy and agency and need for informed consent. Mormonism’s challenge is to change in ways that allow it to keep as much goodness as it can while eliminating harm being done to so many.
The challenge of course is that many feel that if Mormonism is true, then it can’t change, and the harm and division is just unavoidable collateral damage that accompanies “the truth.” Matthew 10:34-37 and all of that jazz. That’s fine. But even if you say that, there is one thing that I shouldn’t ever hear from your lips, and that is this false notion that it does not matter if it is “true” or not. That is not something you get to say unless the beliefs don’t cause division or harm to others. That is not something that can be said of the LDS church as it currently exists and with the intense claims it currently makes (though I hope that will change). If our beliefs create high stakes and negative consequences for others lives, then I believe we have a duty to properly vet and challenge them. Where so much is claimed, and so much at stake for people’s lives, much must be required. Wherever we fall in terms of our belief in core LDS truth claims, I hope all of us can agree to the following statement from LDS apostle J. Reuben Clark:
“If we have truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not truth, it ought to be harmed.”