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Why are Ex-Mormons So Angry (and other questions)? Part I

August 18, 2011

A while back on reddit, a Mormon stumbled into the popular (and still growing) ex-Mormon reddit to ask the ex-Mormon denizens a few questions. Many of the questions were quite patronizing (despite the poster’s stated desire to “support whatever [our] beliefs [were] in a non-patronizing way”), and the proceeding conversation was less than pretty. However, it was a good chance for me to formalize some little-known dynamics of the disaffected Mormon underground that explain why some questions come up over and over again from well-meaning (or even not-so-well-meaning) Mormon (or even non-Mormon) outsiders:

  1. Are ex-Mormons all angry?
  2. If so, why are we angry?
  3. If not (or if there is some caveat), then why do we appear to be angry?

In addressing these basic questions, I made comments that I’ve made on many blogs and on many occasions, but recently I realized that I’ve never formally taken the time to post these things.

Until now. This is the first part of what has turned out to be a surprisingly lengthy two-part series. Part II may be found here.

1. Are ex-Mormons all angry? 

The simple answer to this question is no. Ex-Mormons are not all angry. This does not mean that there aren’t non-negligible elements of the ex-Mormon community who are angry. Neither does it mean that the ex-Mormons who are angry are not justifiably so, or angry for no reason. (However short this answer is, it necessitates the next two questions, and the next two questions are where the behind-the-scene dynamics operate.)

2. Why are (some) ex-Mormons (sometimes) angry?

The fact is that there are some ex-Mormons who are angry. And these ex-Mormons would argue that they have valid cause to be angry. One criticism of the Mormon redditor was to raise that “it’s kind of pathetic to get so wrapped up in something that isn’t a part of you now.” In more veiled terms, Mormons talk about people who leave the church, but cannot leave it alone. Both insiders and outsiders to church affairs wonder why people who leave allow it to take up so much of their lives. Why give power to the church if you don’t agree with it?

On the surface, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Other churches and religious communities do not have the dynamics that the Mormon/ex-Mormon one has, and people cannot see what lies beneath the surface of the ex-Mormon experience that makes it different from many other community dynamics (but the ex-Mormon, whether he has critically assessed these dynamics, nevertheless lives them.)

To begin to explain, I would raise simply that Mormonism isn’t something that you just leave and then — *poof* — it’s “not a part of you.” Mormonism is an extremely pervasive culture and religion. Many ex-Mormons have friends and family members still in the religion, and their standings with the church have extremely adverse effects to their relationships. They face their friends and family either constantly trying to reconvert them or these same people coming to treat them as if they have leprosy simply because they do not believe. Ex-Mormons may have their children preyed upon (or, at the very least, prayed for…to save them from the apostasy of the parents); ex-Mormons may have family members and friends turn against them. And that’s for the ex-Mormons who can leave. Many cannot openly reject the church without jeopardizing their relationships.

People are JUSTIFIABLY angry because of these relationship issues.

But think further: the ex-Mormon him- or herself was once devoted to the church. She was (at the very least) taught to trust the church’s teachings, the scriptures, commandments, and so on. So, even without any threat to relationships, the person who comes to believe that things are not as she was taught is JUSTIFIABLY angry because she put so much time (and money) in the church to find out that she was taught incorrect things. She who comes to believe that the truth was obscured from her is indignant. She feels JUSTIFIABLY betrayed and hurt.

So, in some ways, it’s more of a surprise to see people who walk away from it without having any adverse reaction. Considering that Mormonism isn’t just a once-in-a-blue-moon thing — that it is a total lifestyle — leaving it shouldn’t be easy. I don’t want to make assumptions, but when I see people who have little problem leaving the church, I suspect that they were never invested in the first place. (Ironically, this is the claim that many believing members will make of anyone who leaves — including the ones who struggle deeply over their exit.) To the contrary, when I see people who are active on ex-Mormon forums, blogs, and websites, what I see over and over again are people who were VERY invested in Mormonism when they were active, and who consequently have an incredible challenge to move away. They essentially have to come to terms with how to re-interpret most of their entire lives. What did the relationships mean? What did their activity mean? What did their service mean? How could this have happened to them?

To make an analogy, it would be VERY strange if someone who recently divorced a long-time spouse or who recently lost a long-loved loved one had NO adverse reactions, NO grief, etc., We might think them to be cold, or suspect the nature of their relationship to the person. It is far more common to see people having long-running issues that they have to work very hard at resolving over time…and if there are long-running relationship issues (say, protracted custody battle…), then we understand that there will be deeper feelings for a longer period of time.

So, that explains why many ex-Mormons are angry (and why there is method to the madness [pun very much intended]). I’ll address the final question (of why ex-Mormons appear to be angrier than we are) in Part II, which may be found here

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  1. Thanks for this series. You bring up some great points.

    I believe some former mormons (and mormons for that matter) are angry because they were abused (emotionally or physically) by parents who used mormonism as an excuse or tool for their behavior.

    I should write a post on MSP about it, but I think there is a percentage for whom that is the case. I think most people who were abused do get help or are able to work through it/process it.

    But I think that dynamic really hasn’t been explored and I believe is a good reason for anger. Ex: a teenager who was beaten for not attending church or a special fireside. While some may claim this is not common or not common any longer, I think it happens and has happened.

  2. That’s pretty harrowing, aerin. A post on that would be uncomfortable, but definitely worth it.

    • Seth R. permalink

      I don’t know about “harrowing”….

      Corporal punishment was just an accepted part of raising kids back in the 1980s. I remember a young male 4th grade teacher grabbed me and my friend’s heads by the hair once during class and yanked us around violently because we wouldn’t shut up during class. I relaxed and let him whip my head around without resistance, so it didn’t hurt me as bad as my friend who tried to resist it.

      Neither of us thought twice about it, and I doubt it occurred to either of us to even mention it to our parents. You’d just get in trouble again anyway.

      Different times…

      • OK, now that I firmly have in my head the mental association of Seth R and “whip my hair,” I can’t really take it seriously.

      • Wow. Where did you grow up?

        • Seth R. permalink

          Richfield Utah.

          • Ah. I grew up in San Diego, where I think if a teacher had done that to me, they would certainly have been fired, with some chance of also serving prison time.

  3. Interesting posts (I’ve just read both parts).

    I’ve never been particularly angry at Mormonism, but I know very well that my experience is not typical. That’s why I don’t mind you saying this:

    I don’t want to make assumptions, but when I see people who have little problem leaving the church, I suspect that they were never invested in the first place.

    But that’s just what I did, about 35 years ago: walked away and never looked back (until recently). I won’t minimize the considerable angst I felt at the time, but that was mercifully brief, and really, I seldom gave the church a thought for three decades — and I had indeed been deeply “invested,” both culturally and spiritually.

    Perhaps the long interval between leaving and looking back — and belonging to a family that really did their best not to reject me — helps explain my general lack of anger or bitterness.

    As I stated, however, I know my experience is not typical; and I certainly understand the anger, even if I don’t share (most of) it.

  4. Peter permalink

    I am an active Mormon, However, I think that I have an insight. Perhaps some anger would be dissapated if you realize that there is no person who is trying to deceive you or is benefitting from your activity. The article mentions how people are angry that they gave so much time and money into something that is not true. It appears that they think of it as a con to get something from them. It might help to realize that everyone who is still active in the church (including church leaders and general authorities)is still giving time and money because they sincerely believe. No one is getting rich. If you believe that they are in error, than you can pitty them. But to be angry at them makes no sense.

  5. SLK,

    there you go, disproving my entire hypothesis. 😉 For whatever it’s worth, I do think that people can have very different experiences (for example, I find my experience to be different than many other people’s I’ve read about. If you notice, I don’t write, “I suspect these people didn’t have faith to begin with”… Which is something I think a lot of Mormons would say of exmormons in general. That’s because I didn’t really have a faith crisis because I didn’t have faith and then lose it. I had more of a crisis because I couldn’t make myself believe… So in that way, I find my story to be very different from the others I’ve read, and that makes me always conscious of others who may have different yet experiences. I’ll stop rambling though.)

  6. Peter,

    While I think it’s good to try to offer insight, I think things are often a lot more complicated.

    For example, if it’s not any one person who is trying to deceive (which I think is fair for the most part…although there are certainly things that some people say or do within the church that is kinda iffy)…then you are left wondering how there is an *entire system* that perpetuates something it is not.

    To use an analogy…sometimes people can say or do sexist or racist things without intending to harm or even intending to be sexist/racist/etc., These things can happen because people grow up within a culture that encourages these insensitivities…so you don’t have to have malicious intent to nevertheless say or do some things that really hurt.

    It might help to realize that everyone who is still active in the church (including church leaders and general authorities)is still giving time and money because they sincerely believe.

    This often hurts even more. Because when the disaffected person has learned (x fact about history or doctrine), yet no one else will believe it (or even if some faithful people have already heard x fact but believe regardless), it feels as if people won’t face reality. That’s why you see a lot of people talk about “brainwashing” and what-not. I understand that that’s really an unfair kind of judgment, but from the perspective of the disaffected person, that’s what it looks like often.

    That sincere belief aspect is often frustrating elsewhere. After all, when ex-Mormons get mistreated by friends and family within the church, they know it’s because those friends/family sincerely believe in the church’s teachings about what to do with those who fall away. It’s not because they want to hurt, but because the church has particular ideas of how to “help” that often aren’t that helpful.

    No one is getting rich.

    Well, the church organization itself is incredibly wealthy. It has ownership stakes in several businesses, and there is little financial accountability to members. All of these points often become stickler points to many disaffected members.

    If you believe that they are in error, than you can pitty them. But to be angry at them makes no sense.

    I hope this comment helps to explain that anger does make a lot of sense. I do think that many people do move to a state of pity though.

  7. Yes, I did notice (and I understand). I just have a contrarian imp who sits on my shoulder and occasionally takes over the keyboard. 🙂

    And FWIW, though I think this is my first time commenting here, I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite awhile — long enough to get some sense of your tone and general point of view. And having that sense of context helps.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    I think part of the reason none of the “controversial” stuff bugged me was because I didn’t suffer from this nagging conviction that I could have, or would have, spent my time any better – left to my own devices – if church obligations had not been in the picture.

    I also tend to suspect that a lot of ex-Mormons have a highly inflated view of just whatever it was they “missed out” on.

  9. Why are Mormons so angry? Seriously. The shortest tempers aren’t to be found on my side of the tracks. But everybody just kinda chuckles at pointless ‘nacle fury, don’t they?

    • Seth R. permalink

      Chino, I’ll take the furor over at Times and Seasons over the crap on RfM or MDB any day.

  10. Seth,

    probably just a bunch of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

    Then again, knowing people from my ward, being Mormon doesn’t keep them away from those thins either.

  11. Seth – it was rfm that I read recently about allegations of abuse within families.

    rfm is typically what people go to in order to give examples about angry exmormons. And while there are more than a few angry exmormons over there, if some of them grew up in potentially abusive homes that were also mormon, do they have a right to be angry?

    But it’s not just some mormons or mormon families of course, lots and lots of religions have authoritarian figures and sometimes physical abuse.

    I don’t know how it all plays together (correlation vs. causation) – do they relate at all? Is religion totally separate from the abuse? What is abuse anyway? What one person might consider abusive, another might not (hence your post above Seth). So it’s pretty complicated, and why I probably won’t do a post about it.

    • Seth R. permalink

      aerin, they have a right to share their experiences, but not to impose their own twisted past on the rest of us.

  12. I like how you compared the relationship with church to the relationship with spouse

    leaving either does leave one angry – often the leaving is connected to earlier anger

    and some people will leave because there’s just nothing left between the two parties and no anger and some leave because there is still emotional components to resolve – thus anger leaves the door open to return or to fade into no emotion and separate lives.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Why are Ex-Mormons So Angry (and other questions)? Part II « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. Why are Ex-Mormons So Angry (and other questions)? Part I | Main Street Plaza
  3. Why are Ex-Mormons So Angry (and other questions)? Part II | Main Street Plaza
  4. Link bomb #11 | Main Street Plaza
  5. Jon Adams Exmormon « Mormonism Scam or True Blog

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