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Coming or Going? Perspectives on Divorce, Faith Transition, and Graduation

June 9, 2013

Yesterday, I was listening to the recent episode of Mormon Expression podcast where John and Zilpha discuss their divorce. Between some comments that John and Zilpha made on that podcast and some other topics that were made about leaving the Mormon church, I wanted to hash out a few thoughts on the perspectivism inherent in how we discuss different life events.

The thing that John had pointed out in the podcast that really got me thinking was this: people typically evaluate relationships in a binary way. If one stays in the relationship until their death, then the relationship is a success. But if one leaves the relationship (such as, through divorce), then the relationship failed. Even if two people have been married for 17 years and are amicably divorced, the divorce weighs above all else as the main determinant of how the relationship will be viewed.

John pointed out that we don’t think this way in other venues. So, for example, if a person has worked 17 years at a company, and then decides to move on, people don’t respond with, “Oh, I’m sorry that your job failed.” They are ecstatic at the level of experience the person has accrued and they are eager to hear about the future opportunities for that person.

Similarly, when one graduates from school, certainly no one would say that their education has failed. It’s an expectation that one will have schooling (and often extended schooling, if you count elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate options together), but that one will transition as a matter of course. It’s an expectation that one will live with one’s parents, but when kids move away, no one will say that the family of origination has “failed.” Empty nest homes aren’t failures, because we expect that people will leave and become independent sooner or later.

That being said, there is an area of life where transition is overwhelmingly seen in negative terms (as divorce is), and that is in faith transitions.

If I begin this sentence talking about “disaffected Mormons,” or even “post,” “former,” or “ex” Mormons, then in some way, I am already playing into this negativity. Nevertheless, I’ll begin: what disaffected Mormons (but I suspect, religious deconverts [that's another problematic term, as I'll get to] of all stripes) discover is that their transition is predicated in generally negative terms.

They lost their faith.

They fell away from the church.

They had a faith crisis.

They deconverted.

These sentences all imply a loss, but not  just any loss — it is a loss of something positive. (I haven’t thought about it too deeply, but at the moment, I wouldn’t think that we would make these sorts of statements about someone who has transitioned away from something negative.)

Of course, these sentences just point out that discourse and language are situated in contexts. They are in perspectives. Just as every photograph has a lens (even if you can’t see it from the picture), every sentence has a speaker. In a Mormon context, the narratives of members and former members both are so often tied to the church. Read that again: the narratives of members and former members both are tied to the church.

I mean, that phrase that’s up in my banner. “Leave the church, but can’t leave it alone“? That phrase also comes from a church-centric perspective.

The interesting thing about this perspective is that we can see that language like this isn’t total. It describes one half of the puzzle, so to speak, but the other half — religious converts — is described in very different terms.

When someone converts into Mormonism, we don’t speak of their losing their faith in their old religion. We don’t speak of their having fallen away from their old church. We don’t speak of their having a faith crisis. Their conversion to Mormonism is not seen as a deconversion from whatever other religion they had.

…but if we recognize that Mormons are going to speak from a Mormon perspective, then that would make sense.  It would also make sense why, if Mormons are going to speak from a Mormon perspective, why the language about those who transition away from Mormonism is what it is.

The question really is why the disaffected maintain that language as well. This gets back to that quote: “Leave the church, but can’t leave it alone.” Why is that a major idea?

An extremely faith promoting narrative might say that the reason is that the former member still “knows” the church is true, so in trying to leave it, he has to “kick against the pricks.” Or, to use more recent Mormon language from Jeffrey R. Holland:

 If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: “a stone of stumbling, … a rock of offence,” 11 a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work.

Emphasis added.

Of course, since there are different narratives and different perspectives, I would look for a different explanation.

Maybe the reason is that Mormonism is deeper than a religion — it is a culture with language, values, and so on.

Maybe the reason is that Mormonism is a more complete socializing institution than many other religions. (Why do people call it a cult? Well, apart from evangelical Christians like Robert Jeffress who call it that for supposedly theological reasons, many people I see who are debating the question look at the social and sociological features of cults. But even if it’s not a cult, certainly, most people can recognize that Mormonism reaches into more aspects of one’s life than many other religions)

In any case, I think one thing that also makes a difference is where many disaffected Mormons go. At least based on anecdotal internet evidence (although some Pew Forum data seems to corroborate this as well), many former Mormons end up leaving religion altogether. Perhaps the newly agnostic or the newly atheist Mormon is more likely to use terms like “deconversion”?

But I still think this can change.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you should know that I’ve for minimalist definitions of atheism. I’m for atheism as being an umbrella for everyone who does not believe in deities (regardless of what they actually believe in).

…but…even if atheist is defined that minimally, it does not then follow that atheists don’t have beliefs. It does not follow that because an agnostic does not attend any church that her transition is a “deconversion” rather than a “conversion.”

I think people should reflect on the fact that what led them out of the church was a gain in something — a gain in knowledge, a gain in facts, a gain in experience. Maybe that knowledge, those facts, those experiences were painful, and maybe they harmed the previously positive context of earlier experiences, facts, and knowledge, but they are still there, nevertheless.

Ultimately, though, I would like people to realize something else. They don’t have to consider having lost *anything*. Their independence from the church is just that — independence. That independence gives them a freedom to think what they want and do what they want. If they don’t want to “lose” something, then why not keep it?

Here’s the thing I guess I don’t get. Suppose that one has had positive experiences in the church. Suppose that one has had spiritual experiences in the church. Why should a different context or different understanding of those things preclude their reality? (I see many people reduce what they used to call “spiritual experiences” as being “just emotion.” But why does anything *just* have to be something else?)

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8 Comments
  1. I can’t compare a divorce with a graduation or leaving your career to venture out. Divorce is a loss whether you wanted it or not. There is normally one who doesn’t want and many with a third party involved which makes them even more devastated. No one commits to 17 years, they commit to life and one normally was under the illusion the other party meant it. This is a cultural issue not just a Mormon one. I quess I’m weird because I like the general conference. I love the way they discuss how if we knew how precious one soul is in the eyes of the Lord, we would never treat anyone unkind. Yet, when people walk out the door they still treat others differently and judgemental. My beef more than anything else is fast and testimony sacrament. When you bring children up and tell them to say a testimony, that is brainwashing at the highest level in front of non-members visiting. What are they thinking? Not only that if you want to share how you feel about the church; you are never going to say I believe. You fell you must say you Know. So, you can’t participate if you don’t want to lie if you don’t know. I wrote a letter to all my Mormon email buddies to tell them what some leave the church that just joined. I never received a message back. Not one of them. Not one!! When you tell them the elephant in the room. They don’t discuss it. How do you feel when you are all excited about something. You share it. You want everyone to know. They all think your nuts and shock you with their opposing views. Who are these people normally? Your family tells you why they would never like the church. So, the balloon has burst. Every Sunday, you hear about celestial families and sealings. It’s always suggested if you didn’t accept the message on earth……… So, you strive to live something that’s not natural. I quess that’s why they call it conversion. At the same time, no one you truly love will be where you strive to go. It’s the elephant in the room. You stop going and it’s never ever been addressed or discussed. Not even through my email did they admit they didn’t know. It’s all because they were too weak.

  2. Great post! I love the idea of comparing changes in religious commitment to divorce, where divorce doesn’t necessarily have to represent the failure of a marriage, but can be just a way of moving on to a new stage of one’s life.

  3. Thanks for the comments everyone,

    WhyWorryNow,

    Your first few lines definitely have a lot to them…It’s certainly true that when one goes to school or something like that, graduation typically is the goal..but when one goes into a relationship, regardless of how it ends, the goal usually is to stay together. Sorry that you’ve experienced what you have experienced with your Mormon friends…that too is an experience so many people unfortunately have…

    Therese,

    Thanks! I guess I have to balance the idea of moving on to a new stage of one’s life against the idea that in some cases, one never exactly planned to transition in the first place, whereas in other cases (e.g., graduation), the transition is built into the understanding.

    What would happen if people were raised with the expectation that they would have some sort of faith transition? (And it wouldn’t necessarily be the expectation that they would leave or convert…but at the very least, they would gain a more mature faith?)

  4. Great post Andrew. I agree with your comments. I had a ten year marriage that ended in divorce, I feel, and always have, that the relationship was a great success. I’m currently in a second relationship (17 years and running) that I also consider a great success.

    I also find myself resenting the idea that friends and family, still in the Mormon Church, see my transition out of the church as a loss and a failure. I see it as a positive gain and opportunity to soar beyond my prior restrictions. I also work hard to view their decision to remain in the church as a positive in their own life. (Though sometimes I get on my high horse and think they are blinded by the constraints and beliefs of the Mormon Church.)

  5. Jill,

    Whoa, almost missed your comment there. Glad to hear your perspective. I guess it’s tough on both sides to see another’s choice positively — especially when those choices come with so many implications.

  6. I think deconverting is very similar to divorce in my experience. Especially in the Mormon context where marriage is wrapped up in religion. Being a divorce lawyer for six years broke me of the Mormon conception that divorce is always a symptom of spiritual failure or a bad thing. But its generally painful, even when its needed. It takes a healthy shift in thinking to get through it well.

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