Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

4 myths about ex-Mormons

With more people leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than in past generations, it seems everyone has an explanation for why this is happening.

But many of these explanations don’t hold water statistically, based on findings from former Mormons in the Next Mormons Survey (see here for more about the study, and here to order the book, which will be available March 1).

 

  1. “They don’t believe in God.”

Within orthodox Mormon circles there’s a general impression that people who leave the Church abandon faith in God altogether, but this isn’t quite accurate, especially outside of Utah.

The NMS shows that very few former Mormons do not believe in God at all. Only 6% fall into this category, with another 8% choosing the agnostic option of “I don’t know whether there is a personal God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out.”

This means that 86% of former Mormons say they believe in God, though they may have doubts at times or feel God is more like a “higher power” than a personal deity.

It’s not accurate to characterize former Mormons as having rejected all religious belief. For most, the reality is far more nuanced and complicated.

Many actually hold on to not just a belief in God but to basic Christian teachings about Jesus and the afterlife. They do not, however, tend to still believe in specifically Mormon teachings about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or contemporary prophets and apostles.

 

  1. “They left because they got offended.”

Another standing narrative within Mormon circles is that people left the Church because they had an argument or misunderstanding with a member or local leader and chose to hold a grudge about it for years.

In a 2006 General Conference talk, Elder David A. Bednar gave several examples of this, including a member who was insulted by a comment made in Sunday School, and had not darkened the door of a church since; and another person who disagreed with some advice from the bishop and refused to attend until that bishop was released.

Out of a total of thirty possible reasons the NMS offered respondents to explain why they left, “I was hurt by a negative experience at church” only ranked eleventh overall. So it’s not irrelevant, but it’s not the most salient reason either. More popular reasons included a loss of belief that there is “one true church,” a lack of trust for church leaders about Mormon history, concerns about LGBT issues, and a general sense of feeling judged or misunderstood.

What’s more, in the write-in boxes where people were given the option to elaborate on their answers, some of the stories that could be said to fall into the category of “I got offended” were far more serious than Elder Bednar’s examples might indicate—for example, the church siding with an abusive husband/father in a divorce case.

What’s appealing about the “got offended” narrative is that it wholly and conveniently blames people who left without requiring those who remain to engage in any serious introspection about the ways they may have contributed to those departures. As such, I don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon, but it would be nice if we remember that this story has been constructed to exculpate the faithful, not to explain the actual choices of dissenters.

  1. “They found another religion.”

More people are leaving Mormonism—but not so they can join another church.

Only a third of former Mormons now identify with another organized religion, including mainline Protestant (7%), evangelical Protestant (10%), Catholic (6%), and all other religions (11% combined).

The other two-thirds say they identify as “nothing in particular” (27%), “just Christian” (21%), agnostic (12%), or atheist (6%). Broadly speaking, they would be characterized as “nones” in today’s religious landscape.

This is similar to what Pew found in 2014 about former Mormons: about six in ten former Mormons did not reaffiliate with something else.

And because the Pew study is comparative, we can look at people who left other religions and see patterns in whether they joined another religious tradition. For “mainstream” religions like Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and Orthodoxy, about half joined other faiths and half did not. For Islam, two-thirds did not, and for Judaism, nearly three-quarters did not.

What this seems to show is that Mormonism is (once again) somewhere in between a mainstream religion and a minority faith. Like Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and Orthodoxy, Mormonism is a Christian religion, which may facilitate religious switching in a predominantly Christian country like the United States. But like Judaism and Islam, Mormonism is also a tiny minority (less than 2% of the U.S. population in each case), and it is religiously distinctive. Both of those things make religious switching harder.

There’s also a Utah factor. In the NMS, former Mormons in Utah were less likely to reaffiliate with another religion. In fact, they tended to have significantly lower Christian beliefs overall than former Mormons who lived elsewhere in the U.S. It’s worth asking: what is it about former Mormons’ experience in Utah that seems to turn them off religion altogether?

 

4. “They’re lost and unhappy outside the Church.”

Finally, one of the most noteworthy findings of the NMS’s research into former Mormons was how happy they are with their path after leaving.

When asked to make a binary choice about which better described their feelings after leaving Mormonism—“freedom, possibility, and relief” or “loss, anger, or grief”—93% of former Mormons chose “freedom, possibility, and relief.”

The “loss, anger, and grief” aspect seemed most present for respondents who were still in the throes of a very recent faith transition, or who had struggled with their membership for years before leaving Mormonism, or whose family members were all still devoted to the church.

They are a small minority, however—fewer than one in ten. This finding is at odds with a standing narrative in the LDS Church that to exit the fold is to leave warmth and happiness behind. That may be true for a time, but it does not appear to be true for life.

But here’s one that is sort of true: “they wanted to sin.”

In the study, a quarter of former Mormons chose “I engaged in behaviors that the Church views as sinful” as one of their top reasons for leaving the Church. It ranked sixth overall.

Note, however, that the question is about behaviors they had already engaged in, not ones they aspired to do in the future, which means it’s more complex than a simple desire to drink or have nonmarital sex. It may be that respondents did these things and did not see a way back to full church activity afterward, either because they felt ashamed or because they felt judged by other members.

Dr. Benjamin Knoll contributed research and analysis that are discussed in this post.

 


Related posts:

How to create ex-Mormons

Do Mormons leave the Church because they “got offended”?


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

45 Comments

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  • There are lots of reasons young people are leaving religion in droves these days, and many articles have been written about their mass exodus in this very journal. Speaking only for myself, I think they’re leaving mostly because what was billed as Good News turns out to be really bad news which too often ends up being a contest to see who’s holier than thou. It turns out that “love one another” has morphed mostly into “hate one another.” When religion gets reduced to a checklist of holiness requirements then it has become as legalistic as Judaism had become when Jesus arrived on the scene 2000 years ago to reform it. When religion consistently puts the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble then maybe it really is time for a second coming. Seems to me we’re long overdue.

  • “When religion gets reduced to a checklist of holiness requirements…’ Religion doesn’t make one holy, Christ leads one to righteousness.
    As far as the second coming – someone (Billy Graham?) said, if Christ doesn’t return soon, He’s going to owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology

  • The biggest lie the LDS Church preaches is that happiness outside the religion is ‘fake happiness’. That only true happiness can be found within the Gospel.

    If this is fake happiness, I’ll take another heaping helping. Seems to me that it was backwards, and you don’t find true happiness until you leave the Church.

  • I fall into the Atheist/Agnostic category. I started having doubts about an existence of God long before I began my journey out. But what “broke my shelf” was reading a few things in the Book of Mormon that directly contradicted things the church now claims. That started my desire to learn more. It was like pulling a loose thread, once I started pulling, the entire thing stated unraveling. There is virtually no claim the church makes for itself that stands up to research or critical thinking (which is exactly why Oaks recently discouraged research). On top of that, once you stand outside the church and objectively look at the behavior of church leaders, from Joseph Smith all the way up to Nelson, it really smacks of being cult-like. When notorious cult leaders like David Koresh or Warren Jeffs state that God commands them to marry teenage girls, mainstream Mormons are rightfully disgusted by their behavior, but turn a blind eye to Joseph Smith claiming an angel with a lightsaber told him to do the same thing (and no, it was not normal for 14 year old girls to get married in 1840, nor was it normal for a man over 35 years old to get married in 1840. It was virtually unheard of for a man over 35 years old to be marrying a girl of 14, and for that girl to be one of 30+ wives) . Mainstream Mormons find it odd that Scientology requires people to pay in order to progress to higher levels of Scientology, but happily write out tithing checks in order to have access to the temple.

  • How about, it dawned on them that Mormonism is one of the biggest hoaxes ever passed off by the Devil on humanity.

  • “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

    This was a quote from Ruth Graham.

  • “They wanted to sin”. I wonder if they discovered that what the church considers a sin really isn’t?

  • But underlying all these answers is the final realization that Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult fronting as a religion.

  • While I don’t have a better, alternative method, I’m skeptical that asking people why they joined or left a religious organization gets at the real motives. Joining a religion despite disbelieving its truth or leaving a religion despite believing its truth creates cognitive dissonance. Someone who is offended by some personal slight or other experience might have difficulty leaving if they believe in the truth claims of the Church. If the personal offense is strong enough, however, that offense can lead someone into rationalizing away their beliefs in order to support a desire to leave. When asked about why they left, they are more likely to report disbelief than offense because disbelief is a more rational reason for leaving. Similarly, if you asked people why they joined the Church, I suspect more people would report true religious conversion than, for example, feeling a sense of community because religious belief is a “better” answer than that you simply like being around people at church.

    Again, I don’t know how you get around that, but I think its useful to consider what the data do and don’t show.

  • Here’s a common path toward exmormon illumination from my observations and conversations:

    1. “Sinned” or thought about it.

    2. Shamed by aggressive shepherding culture.

    3. Discovered or matured to better understand shameful realities of church founders and leaders, covered up or rationalized by subsequent leaders for generations.

    4. Shock, denial, anger, the usual process for handling the grief of loss.

    5. Eyes wide open, paying closer attention to actions and behaviors of group members and leaders toward the greater society. Outside looking in.

    6. Resolution: the stain of profound hypocrisy doesn’t diminish with time and retaining one’s integrity requires disassociation from a group that is so exclusive and anti-social.

    Or, the short version… I was born a Mormon. And then I learned I had been human all along.

  • I left primarily because Church activity prevented me from actually healing from the irregularities of my childhood. I have been able to embrace my personal heritage, forgive those who may have wronged me, and have a better quality of life by simply ending my participation in LDS Church activity. Mormonism facilitated every kind of abuse or unfair treatment that I endured in my life up and to the point of simply walking away. For all of the self-aggrandizement and self-praise of the Church for having all of the answers in life, the Church kept a lot of my personal wounds open and suffering until I just got up, walked out and never went back. Life without the Church has been a lot better, even if I miss some of the people still there.

  • Mormons engage in their own special brand of “blame, shame and shun.” If you are different, have been abused or have had any sort of personal difficulty that could use real intervention, it has been my experience that the Church is worse than useless to you. When I was 7 years old, my Mormon bishop cornered my siblings and I in the pasture of my parents’ hobby farm and shouted at us, “Stop driving your mom crazy.” He basically made us responsible for her emotional instability and for her physical and emotional abuse of us. Later in life, whenever I recounted any of her abuses of us, I was told to “just put that all behind you and forget about it.” Ever try to forget 50% or more of your interactions with a parent. As a teenager, the Church sought to blame my dad for my mother’s behavior because she went to church and he did not, never mind that he donated 100s of hours and a lot of time, money and personal labor to complete the Mormon chapel we went to. I personally endured a lot more criticism than praise for my efforts to “live the Gospel.” As a young branch president with my dad barely buried, some “well-meaning” stake leader chewed me out for changing the diaper of my son in Priesthood meeting instead of palming him off on his mother who was teaching primary or letting the diaper stink while ignoring the kid. I had my teenage sons assigned to other guys as home-teaching companions because the leadership thought I wasn’t doing it to their satisfaction. Pick a way in which the Church could insult or humiliate a person, I have been there and had that done to me. Ever have a GA give away your ticketed General Conference seats to someone else? I have, right in front of my son.

  • To me, it looks like something of a miracle that anyone remains a Mormon. I mean…golden plates? God suddenly changing his mind about things like racism and black skin? The church being nervous about members with presumably strong faiths studying church history? Bishops behaving in the ways outlined above?

    C’mon…what a bunch of nonsense. Worse than nonsense–downright evil.

  • I left the Mormon church about 6 years ago, not because I got offended, or because I wanted to sin. I quickly became an atheist. I am more happy now than when I was a Mormon. Less self-hatred.

  • I agree in principle with what you say.

    To me, however, the difference is that back then–when Judaism and Xianity were founded–very little was known about human behavior (very little in depth, anyway–with certain exceptions, such as the way human beings react to fear).

    But Mormonism was founded by a man who we know today was a con artist and probable sex addict. Those 2 ideas explain very well what we see of Mormonism today.

    (And BTW, vaguely a propos of this, I was reading just the other day about a British anthropologist who has discovered or discerned 7 principles that appear to guide all human cultures.)

  • True. But Mormons are not taught Smith was a con artists, just like most Christians are not taught that the gospels are basically Jesus fan-fiction written decades after he lived.

  • Yes to all you say.

    Lots of “observant” Christians, incl. especially evangelicals, say they want” the bible” “taught” in school–whatever, exactly, it means to “teach” the bible, . But if in fact schools taught **about** the bible, those folks would all go crazy with objections, if the truth were taught–e.g. about the books of the bible being written decades after Jesus died, about scribes making up stuff of their own, about the 325 AD Canon conference that decided on the books to include and to exclude, etc.

    (Of course, all of that is precisely why the Jews have the Talmud: because there’s lots of stuff in OT and NT that’s downright crazy, written by folks who were clearly madmen, that’s contradictory, etc; so, faced with those problems, Jews came up with the Talmud, to “interpret” the inconvenient parts of the OT.)

    And you really have to wonder about what Mormon leaders think about the depth and quality of the faith of their sheeple, if they think that knowing the full, accurate history of Mormonism might somehow damage their faith. Really, if the sheeple have the faith they claim to have, how or why would knowing the truth damage their faith? Hmm……

  • As an ex-mormon agnostic/atheist, I’m quite surprised to see how many people in this survey maintained a belief in a higher power. The number of atheists/agnostics feels really low to me, based on people I know.

    I am a non-believer because I couldn’t find a way to demonstrate that any religious beliefs were true. I saw anecdotes and such, but no method I could use that gave people consistent results and verified some supernatural belief. To boot, I found a ton of conflicts between scripture and archaeology, so it was basically an open and shut case.

  • If there is any reason to leave the Mormon Church, it would be because the foundations of the source documents are questionable. Same with some other religions, of course.

  • This. I no longer consider the “scriptures” (how come Paul’s version of Christianity is the right one?), the pronouncements of “general authorities”, or any other religious source to be authoritative. I do not grant this organization or any other “ism” the right to define my morality. Bill and Ted got it right. “Be excellent to each other!” And to yourself, I might add.

    The church also engages in institutional hypocrisy. According to Kimball, Packer, et al, if I touch myself, I’m on my way to insanity, homosexuality, group masturbation sessions, (no offense intended, Ben), and must confess to a bishop (some middle-age or elderly dude who have no specialized training most often) that I’ve committed a sin next to murder, not partake of the sacrament (as a way of public shaming), and generally have guilt and shame.

    But Joseph Smith can get Fanny Alger (age 16) pregnant while she’s nanny to his kids, marry 14-year old Helen Mar Kimbally as a 38-year old man, send men on missions and then approach their wives while the men are away, marry approximately 22 women without his wife’s knowledge, engage in sham marriages to fool his wife into thinking he hadn’t already been with these women, and what we get from the church is “For now, give Brother Joseph a break!” by so-called apostle Neil Andersen. And by the way, none of this information was readily available until the Internet broke the church’s stranglehold on information about its history.

    I didn’t get a break. Neither does “Brother Joseph” or this church.

  • I was offended. Once I saw the extent of the deception by a church that had no problem shaming, guilting, demanding obedience, etc., I was hugely pi$$ed off. The realization that 5 decades of effort and sacrifice were to support an organization not what it claimed to be, and it having taken a huge psycholotgical toll on me, yes, I was upset.

    My resignation brought relief and peace. My wife and I are SO much happier. Our marriage is better.

    I think I am mostly anti-theist ala Hitchens at this point. The founding propositions of any of the Abrahamic religions are preposterous and harmful.

  • “4. “They’re lost and unhappy outside the Church.”
    This is the standard fundelibangelist narrative about anyone who doesn’t need their “faith”.
    you hate god. you have a god-sized hole in your heart. you’re bitter and angry in your unbelief. You just want to be able to sin without stopping.
    But never: The faith has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

  • Cardinal Pell agrees with you. In 2012, he stated that Adam and Eve were a myth.:
    “It’s a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world,” he said.
    “It’s certainly not a scientific truth. And it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.”
    No Adam and Eve, no fal. No fall, no original sin. Nor original sin, no need for Jesus. No Jesus, no need for this church or any church.

  • The Cardinal should have been more clear. The Old Testament to Catholics is mystically interpreted in the Light of the Revelation of Christ. Allegories are not lies.

  • “But never: The faith has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

    No need – you’re there to provide THAT script.

  • I think he was quite clear. He doesn’t believe it is literally true, but mythology. How is that different than anyone else’s mythology, like Odin and Zeus? I can answer that— it’s the one you believe.

    Floydlee thinks it is literally true, as do many of his fellow believers. Which of you is right? And how many people have died over that question?

    An allegory may not be a lie, but neither is it capital T truth. It’s an interpretation. You can drive a very large cathedral through a loophole like that. Which parts of the Bible are capital T true, which parts are allegory, and how do you know the difference?

  • I think you’ve see Catholicism as trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P, that stands for Pope (Sorry Music Man). 🙂 The authority of the Church that selected, preserves and studies the Canon, helps us know the difference. Peter has the keys to drive that Cathedral!

  • If you are interested in actually knowing what I think, then You will read it. McCarrick is only marginally the subject of my comment.

  • It is Because they disagree with the LDS & Janas View of if they are BLACK, They can not in any way shape or Form be a member of the Quorum of 12 !!!……This Fake Religion brings tears to Minorities eyes, Why Jana ???? Why the Racism ???

  • I found this to be fairly accurate as a representation of what I’d expect ex-mormons to say why they left, but that doesn’t always accurately represent the real reason. Kind of like “why did you’re business fail”, a study that has been done a number of times, the answers given tend to be those that the person leaving are those that they want others to see as the main reason (eg. business conditions), rather than the actual reason (eg. I’m a lousy salesman). This is not because they are dishonest, but because they may not be fully aware, for a number of reasons. The last things many people will admit is that they were offended, because that paints them in a personally negative light in a number of ways, but in fact I’ve known such people to then go on and on about how horrible such-and-such person was to them and that they can’t imagine going to church with them, but in the same sentence … “no I didn’t leave because I was offended … I don’t care what they think” … well, at least the last part of that sentence is true.

  • What are you talking about Mormons are not supposed to study Church History? I have never seen that. In fact I was always taught … if something looks wrong … look deeper … if it still looks wrong … look deeper. Been kind of my mantra and in general I’ve found that when I dig deep enough nearly everything levied against the church in church history is full of half-truths, innuendo (of which you seem to be a big fan), and outright falsehoods. What I’ve come to observe from those who called the church quits when hearing faith-shaking stuff is that they didn’t dig deeper … they never did “doubt their doubts”, but instead they ran with what they found to justify leaving the church. So where are you getting this that we’re not supposed to study our history? Why do you think the Church released all this presumably faith-testing material if they don’t want us to read it? That makes no sense, but I tell you what does make sense: you claiming that we’re not supposed to study church history without any citations of such claims.

  • “When asked about why they left, they are more likely to report disbelief than offense because disbelief is a more rational reason for leaving. ” Exactly. In fact a better evaluation comes from just letting people talk from the cuff rather than asking pointed survey questions … they can’t help but eventually reveal their true motives. Case in point, if you read the comments here you’ll find most of the antagonists were really offended … either than Joseph Smith did something, or their Bishop, or Mormon family member did. That’s taking offense, but when asked by the author everyone told here “taking offense” wasn’t their motive. People remember things in a way that paints them in the best light possible, and “being offended” is not flattering one tiny bit. That’s why so frequently their official story is that the church harmed them in some way. I’m not saying they weren’t harmed, but as a story it is far more flattering, and when you get down to brass tacks and ask exactly what happened (which to me it seems to usually have to do with a bad personal experience that should be attributed to someone rather than the Church, and that kind of thing happens everywhere to anyone – there are clueless, faulted, and insensitive people everywhere). Give someone a bully pulpit though and eventually their true motives will surface, which is why on articles like this the comments section is always far more revealing than the article under which they’re posted.

  • How about this: “The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect” – Boyd Packer. see:

    https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Mormonism_and_history/Boyd_K._Packer%27s_talk:_%22The_Mantle_is_Far,_Far_Greater_Than_the_Intellect%22

    I’ve seen lots and lots of statements from ex-Mormons that the church is not enthusiastic about Mormons studying their own church history because of what it reveals, and that Mormons are not taught the full truth–things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Joseph Smith’s wives and the children he married, the racism of Brigham Young, the Jew Hatred of J. Reuben Clark, the nuttiness of Ezra Taft Benson, and so on.

  • Interesting that you’d use that link because it contradicts entirely and in every way the message you’re trying to support with Packer’s talk … and fairmormon does such a good job about it I don’t know what I could add to that apologetic discourse. Packer’s comments simply do not support your contention that the church tells us to avoid church history in our individual studies. He did however, in that talk, tell seminary teachers to focus on what is uplifting and you know why? Because the purpose of church (all churches) is to uplift. That’s the purpose. That’s why I go. That’s why everyone goes. It’s what it’s for. I go to university to learn about everything else, and that’s good too, but church is not a historical society … it’s a place to fill your cup. And … things are changing so that seminary teachers are no longer taught to steer away from thorny issues when they come up – it’s all part of the same movement to release controversial documents and come face to face with thorny issues. But that’s not going to stop you from taking about of content what was said by a now dead leader to a group of teachers for LDS teenagers … is it? Scraping. You’re really scraping the barrel there.

  • Sorry, we disagree on a good deal of what you said.

    For starters, I do not think the purpose of the LDS church is to “uplift”. I think it is to exert control over members, and to spy on them. But we will disagree on this, so there’s really no point discussing it further.

    I sent the material from Fairmormon because it talks about the need to not only teach history, but to teach it with an awareness of spirituality, or knowledge of Mormon religious ideas, or something like that.

    It is abundantly clear that the Mormon church does NOT want members to simply “know” things, but to “know” them in the religious context. That’s called PROPAGANDA.

    I do not know of any other religious organization that has that view. Do you?

    And OF COURSE the Mormon church wants its people to know this stuff in a propaganda context. Otherwise, theyre’s a risk they;’ll start asking questions, such as “what’s that Jew-hatred of J. Reuben Clark all about?” and “what’s that anti-Negroe stuff of Benson’s all about?” and “if Brigham Young was such a racist, why do we still revere him?” and “how many wives did Joseph Smith have, and what were their ages?” and “how come god changed his mind about black skin?” and “how many Mormon leaders persisted in polygamy after it was frowned upon [? outlawed?] in 1890?” and so on.

    Wasn;t it some politician who recently said “facts are dangerous things”?

  • 1. I sent you a link to a piece from FAIRMORMON so you wouldnot accuse me of cherry-picking and sending biased info.

    Here is an especially interesting quote from Packer from the article:

    There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work. [7]

    I have never heard of a serious historian in any other religious denomination that has ever made a similar statement. Have you?

    2. And as an example of the unease of Mormon church leaders with accurate, honest history, consider the Mormon Historical Society. The church started it and installed a respected Mormon historian, Arrington, as the head of the group. But Arrington was too honest and comprehensive for the church, so it disbanded the Society!

    Here is a link to an article about the society on Wiki:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_J._Arrington

    Read the whole thing. It’s interesting in many respects, in particular, what it tells us about the Mormon church and its respect for truth and history.

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