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Ex-Mormon Narratives: A lazy review

March 17, 2009

A little gmail birdie sent me news of Seth Payne’s report/study/paper on Ex-Mormon Narratives.

I thought about reviewing and critiquing point by point (instead of expecting all of you to read it all), but laziness won out, and I would rather you just read the paper. My main problem (and this seems to be my eternal problem) is that I don’t really feel represented by the same people who go to Recovery from Mormonism…At least, I hope I’m not that whiny.

Anyway, the idea was to try to classify the narratives of a sample of ex-Mormon not as an investigation into factual problems of the church (since the narratives could be understandably way off base in actually telling of problems…and I can accept this, seeing as it happens on all sides), but rather as insight of the narrative perspectives of ex-Mormons. Blah blah blah, it’s all explained in the paper.

But really, the reason I have to write an entry is because of the bomb Payne drops:

This study should focus our attention on the social and cultural estrangement aspects of Mormon apostasy first and foremost. As I have illustrated above, the narratives themselves seem to be driven by an estrangement process both doctrinal and social. I believe that we, as liberal and intellectual Mormons are partially to blame for perpetuating these feelings of estrangement.

For too long we have been marginal to Mormon culture and have conceived of ourselves as “the other.” In many cases, we have defined ourselves by what we are not and by what we do not believe, rather than as what we are and by what truths we have found. Rather than positively affirm our faith, we have often sought identity through the discovery and adoption of heterodox views. The irony of course, is that the whole notion of orthodoxy is anathema to Mormonism. There is no orthodoxy, but merely the perception thereof.

Regardless of any particular truth claim or its so-called validity, there is one observable and tangible, yet amazingly silent reality. In our midst there are those who struggle and suffer with their faith. There are those who feel alone and isolated and whose world-views are shattering regardless of how much they fast, pray, hold family home evening, or read the Book of Mormon. These saints often feel as if they are alone.

At first glance, Mormonism may give off the appearance of a homogeny of culture and belief, yet, there is a strong undercurrent of lively discussion, debate, belief, and conversation involving a wide-range of Latter-day Saints who may or may not accept all of modern Mormonism’s unique truth claims. I believe that we, who are engaged in this conversation are called to make our faith manifest to kindred spirits – to validate their struggle, to share our experiences, our doubts, and our love. Recently, one first-time attendee of Sunstone West commented on his blog: “Sunstone attendees treated me exactly the way we hope and ask ward members to treat all newcomers.” Let us extend that experience beyond the walls of this symposium. Let us, in our unique and individual way, seek out those who need and want to hear our perspective and our testimony. May I be so bold as to call such an effort Mormon neo-Liberalism?

Within the narratives reviewed for this study, it seems that the authors believed they were presented with an either/or, black and white choice: accept Mormonism and all of its disparate truth claims; or completely reject it. Yet, many at this conference are examples of those Latter-day Saints who do not reject Mormonism altogether but revel in its paradoxes, contradictions, and challenges.

These narratives would seem to indicate that a possible difference between the ex- and liberal Mormon may be the degree to which each perceives his or her individual latitude of belief within Mormonism at-large as well as their ability to perceive Mormonism as what Armand Mauss has called a “human institution” with its inherent strengths, weaknesses, and struggles.

I definitely did not see this coming — and by this I mean the…chastising?…of liberal Mormons for their inaction. In many ways, liberal Mormons are kin to ex- and former-Mormons, because both groups recognize the paradoxes, contradictions, and challenges (although  I guess ex-Mormons don’t do too much reveling over these things.)

The one things I am a bit skeptical of is how viable liberal Mormonism can be for everyone. I mean, I recognize that the church would be a much cooler place if it were like Sunstone or my favorite bloggernacle sites, but this doesn’t change the reality that at the end of the day, I do not believe in the central tenets of Mormonism or in theism at all. My viewing the Mormon church as a “‘human institution’ with its inherent strengths, weaknesses, and struggles” gives me little reason to believe, so my question to Seth and others is: if we recognize that this is a human institution, then why should we take for granted the spiritual and metaphysical claims that the church makes? Or does liberal Mormonism go so far that we need not accept those foundational claims?

Edit: Runtu also writes about the commonality of religious conversion narratives.

Update: Shameless self-promotion for my article at Mormon Matters.


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  1. sethpayne permalink

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the link to my paper. I think you raise a very valid question:

    Why should we take for granted the spiritual and metaphysical claims that the church makes? Or does liberal Mormonism go so far that we need not accept those foundational claims?

    My response would be that Mormonism should be whatever it needs to be for a particular individual and that each person should discard or maintain whatever dogma or metaphysical claims that make sense to them. I didn’t discuss this much in my paper, but I view Mormonism very much as an ethnicity. No matter how many of Mormonism’s truth claims I reject, I still view myself as fundamentally Mormon because the word, Mormon, represents much much more than my beliefs. It represents my culture, my heritage, and so some degree, my social ethics. It has very little to do with belief. Indeed, even if I became an Atheist, I would still be a Mormon.

    So, I would go so far as to say that a Mormon need not accept the foundation claims of Mormonism; much like many American Catholics do not really see the pope as infallible or the Eucharist as really going through a process of transubstantiation. They are still Catholic.


  2. Thanks for the link, I haven’t read the entire article yet but am interested in it. I hope to respond after I’ve read through it and had a chance to digest.

  3. No matter how many of Mormonism’s truth claims I reject, I still view myself as fundamentally Mormon because the word, Mormon, represents much much more than my beliefs. It represents my culture, my heritage, and so some degree, my social ethics. It has very little to do with belief. Indeed, even if I became an Atheist, I would still be a Mormon.

    OK, then I can say that I’m on board with that. That is, in fact, my position.

    But then, I’m kinda confused. What now is the distinguishing feature with ex-Mormons or liberal Mormons or whatever subcategorization of Mormons when we all acknowledge that we are culturally Mormon (if we accept that people should discard or maintain whatever dogma makes sense [or doesn’t] to them)?

    I mean, even in the whiniest narrative (I have to show my hand…as an ex-Mormon, I can’t STAND some exit stories, but I don’t think such reliance on RfM was necessarily unrepresentative…I just think it’s unfortunate that it is often representative), the individual recognizes that Mormonism is a part of who they are. Being an ex-Mormon atheist or an ex-Mormon evangelical is intrinsically different than being just an atheist or just an evangelical (which is why I think you found that in the narratives, the common thread is to drum that up: “Oh, I was a faithful member for x years and I had all of these callings, so I know what I’m talking about”)

    When people wonder about those who “leave the church but don’t leave it alone,” I think it’s because they do *not* realize that Mormonism is a culture…so if someone doesn’t like the culture (because of their problem with the religion especially), then essentially they are going to have problems because now they have to confront their childhood, their upbringing, their learned personality and thought process, etc.,

  4. sethpayne permalink


    You make some excellent points. If I were to do this research again, I would widen the net considerably and include narratives from many more sources. At the time I did this study, I was simply unaware of many of the additional stories out there. Also, I agree that my over reliance on RfM makes the particular points of data pretty meaningless. However, I do think the general pattern I saw would hold true for many non-RfM narratives sans the “whine.”

    To your other point: I think people must be allowed to self-identify and self-name. Thus, if someone wants to remove themselves from Mormon culture and no longer wants to identify themselves as Mormon, then they absolutely have that right. I don’t think that one’s upbringing or membership in a Church necessarily ties a person to that culture forever. So, if I am raised as a member of a racist KKK family, I may very well grow up and want to completely reject that heritage. Some people feel that way about Mormonism and I think they have the ability to shed Mormonism and identify themselves in whatever way they see fit.

    The Church presents this false dichotomy to members all the time. Either you are with us, or you are against us. That’s just silly. I’m against the Church’s stand on gay marriage but I’m for what the Church teaches about education and work ethic. Its not an either/or proposition.

    Thus, when I say that if I became an Atheist, that I would still be Mormon; I say that because I would choose to be a Mormon. At the moment, I fancy myself as liberal Mormon. Some people call themselves ex-Mormons.

    I think one of the most emotionally violent things we can do to another human being is try to deprive them the ability and right to self-identify and self-name. This is what happens when TBMs refer to me as an apostate, and object to the fact that I call myself Mormon. I tell them that I want to be known as a Mormon for the same reason that Mormons want to be known as Christians. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell don’t get to decide who is, and is not, a Christian. LDS Church members don’t get to decide who is, and is not Mormon.


  5. I guess in the end, I think you did get on to something with the general “pattern” of the narrative, so that is why I don’t discredit the paper in its entirety (or maybe I’m just that nice :D; no one will ever know which one is the truth!)

    I guess I can see, to a certain extent, what you mean about self-identification and self-naming…but from another extent, I don’t think self-naming is the way to go. The names and labels we use correspond to certain ideas. We might have different ideas of what these names and labels mean (which is why some Christian groups vehemently disagree that Mormons are Christian — they have a stricter definition of the label — but when Mormons counter, we don’t counter to self-label. No, we actually believe that the ‘true’ definition of Christian should include us).

    So, the question is, what should the true definition of Mormon be? And it seems to me that when you drop the theism, then while you might be culturally Mormon or ex-Mormon, these might be appropriate labels, but just Mormon? If you drop some things but keep the theism, for example, then you might be liberal Mormon or New Order Mormon, and these also might be appropriate labels, but just Mormon? If you claim to just be Mormon, you misrepresent yourself and the church in front of others because there is a certain expectation about what the label means.

    I’m not saying that it’s all or nothing…and in fact, I have written about that on the site a few times. But even though you don’t need to follow every tenet of Mormonism to fit the bill…I’d think that there is a “Mere Mormonism” that must be adhered to. This is different from Mere Cultural Mormonism, and so on. So that’s why I wonder how liberal religion can be.

    From my perspective, as an atheist, I don’t say I “choose” to be Mormon. No, I say that I was raised Mormon so that is my culture and at best, the most choosing that I do is about which parts of that culture I will maintain and which I will not. But I cannot choose to change my past. I don’t pretend to speak for the church and the church doesn’t speak for me, so for me, “ex-Mormon” (or a similar label) best represents me whereas just using Mormon would be disingenuous because my cultural Mormonism isn’t enough for whatever “Mere Mormonism” is.

    So I don’t think the most emotionally violent thing we can do is deprive another of the ability to self-identify. Instead, I would say the most emotionally violent thing we can do is refuse another’s VALID definition. The tragedy in TBMs calling you apostate is because they are refusing to accept your VALID definition of Mormon. It’s not because you aren’t allowed to self-identify.

  6. Ok, on a trivial administrative note, is that it appears that the stories selected were from 1995, 1996, correct? (see the Ex-Mormon Narrative Structure first paragraph and Doctrinal Problems – the Laundry List). I looked it up, and I believe Quinn (Insider’s View…) and Compton (In Sacred Loneliness) were published in 1998. So I’m not sure about the “Tanner” vs. “Quinn and Compton” nuances.

    In other words, I’m not sure what that’s referring to – to what’s documented by either historian? Or the attitudes towards the subject matter?

    Second, on a personal note, my own story was never included on rfm for reasons unknown to me (but I did submit it, over five years ago). So I have some sympathy for the people whose stories are posted there.

    Thirdly, with that said, I can certainly understand why a person would not feel adequately represented by rfm ( and the narratives there.

    Andrew – can you explain more about what you mean by “whiny”? That’s a confusing term for me.

    Even Seth acknowledges (in this article) the sometimes very real anger and resentment some former members face in leaving the culture. And while some families/communities transition “apostates” (in the same use as the article) easily to non LDS life, some don’t. A even smaller minority definitely do not – children (who leave) are never spoken to again. Marriages can break up, vicious custody battles can ensue.

    And the amount of influence that the LDS culture and religion have in that process varies among a host of different factors.

    So, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that just because it wasn’t your experience that the leaving process was difficult, doesn’t mean that it’s not valid for someone else. And the expression of that anger and resentment (which might sound whiny in the ear of the beholder) may be very necessary to moving on. For someone dealing with deliberately covered up ab_use by a local LDS leader, it may take even longer.

    Now, that’s not to say I believe that a person should spend all their time in a victim mentality (see my post here. I’m also not saying that everyone reacts in their own way either – or that there’s one right way (that former mormon, inactive, liberal mormon, etc. aren’t equally as valid for a specific individual).

    As far as whether or not the church fits everyone, I also appreciate the notion that it may not be a good fit for everyone (spiritually and metaphysically). IMO – a breath of fresh air.

    I appreciate Seth’s article for two main points. 1 – leaving can be difficult for some people and 2 – there are some doctrinal points that are frequently mentioned by those that leave.

    • sethpayne permalink

      Just a point of clarification: the stories i looked at cover a period of 1995 – 2006. So, when I refer to Tanner vs. Quinn/Compton history, I am referring to the vast difference in quality. The Tanners are great at gathering primary sources and on being factually correct when they cite people etc… However, they are really not historians. They don’t weigh their sources very well and they seem to hold some sources up as reliable when they haven’t considered the inherent bias, the motivation of the writer, and perhaps even the dating of the source. Obviously, Heber Kimball quoting Joseph Smith in 1880 is not nearly as reliable as Wilford Woodruff quoting Joseph Smith in 1842. I have a lot of respect for the Tanners, but they are simply not trained historians like Quinn. Thus, readers have to do a lot of source analysis themselves. With Quinn and Compton, it is much easier as a reader because they are include source weighting as part of their analysis and will say something like “William marks says this…. but it is the only source and is not corroborated by any other source. It also comes 10 years after the even he reports …” THAT is good historical analysis. The Tanners generally don’t do this and so a reader unfamiliar with a source they cite may be under the impression that the source is very reliable, when there may be serious reasons to doubt its reliability or strength.

      • Thanks Seth for the clarification.

        If you are thinking about revising the paper, I recommend adding a note about the sample dates (when the stories from rfm and other sites were taken) and what you have above explaining the difference between the Tanners and Quinn and Compton. But, that’s up to you.

  7. re: aerin,

    Leaving the church should be a triumph. It should be able saying good bye to what was holding you back (and finding out what you want to keep from your past experiences).

    But when we see so many accounts instead of people who seem somewhat dysfunctional since their leave, and who still let the church get the best of them and their emotions, it doesn’t give ex-Mormons a good voice or a good impression. When faithful members are around and we treat them poorly (see Seth’s story about the paranoia/conspiracy theorizing he faced at an Ex-Mormon conference), we only show insecurity and a void of moral character.

    I understand that there is anger and resentment, and true hurt, but we can’t live in this…we cannot let others see this because then we feed the stereotypes that ex-Mormons are all unhappy and angry and spiteful when really, we should be creating an image that we are progressing with our lives and happy to do so.

  8. “if we recognize that this is a human institution, then why should we take for granted the spiritual and metaphysical claims that the church makes? Or does liberal Mormonism go so far that we need not accept those foundational claims?”

    I don’t know. American Jews seem to have managed this trick alright.

  9. If by referring to American Jews, you refer to the remarkable ability they have to cultivate a cultural Judaism that is remarkably secular…then I agree.

    But this kind of cultural Mormonism is what I’m already fine with. But then again, Cultural Mormonism never required the church to be divine or have any association with the divine

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