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That Open Stories Foundation Disaffection Survey…

February 8, 2012

You’ve probably already seen plenty of posts about the recently released preliminary results from the Open Stories Foundation survey (PDF alert) on why Mormons disaffect from the church. Jake at Wheat & Tares had a discussion addressing it (and will also have the second part of that post tomorrow, so be on the lookout for that.) Informally, one thing that I have heard a lot throughout the online Mormon world is complaints that the study isn’t all that scientific. It is not random, but then again, it doesn’t claim to be, either. It has a very directed focus and in some ways is designed to lead to the conclusions that it leads to. Nevertheless, something Dan Wotherspoon commented about on the page of the latest Mormon Matters podcast (which addresses the study, among other things), was really intriguing:

I meant to mention on the podcast that I was someone who started the survey but quit after probably going through more than half of it with increasing frustration as I realized it didn’t have categories that matched my place on the belief spectrum.

Dan followed that line by saying that he thought the study was still important, and I agree, but I think there’s a lot to this line as well.

I also didn’t take the survey. It’s related to what Shara (the person to whom Dan is responding in the comment I quoted above) had to say:

One thing I’d like to mention here is that when people were asked to participate in the survey it specifically addressed to those “who once believed that the LDS church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), but who no longer believe that it is.”  Do you think that there is a difference between those who no longer believe the truth claims of the church and those who leave the church?

I know several people who have left the church for reasons other than no longer believing, rather the church was no longer meeting their spiritual needs (i.e. boredom, no longer felt edified (aka correlated to death), “older” singles who no longer felt that they had a place in the Mormon church, believing lgbt that no longer attend because of church stance against lgbt communities, etc).  These people wouldn’t have taken the survey because it wasn’t that they didn’t believe the truth claims per se but rather their needs were not being met in church meetings.   Anyways, just some thoughts about the way the survey was advertised to begin with

I do think there needs to be a serious conversation on the things that Shara mentions in the second part of the comment (about the church no longer meeting spiritual needs…in other words, how relevant is the church?) But the reason I didn’t take the survey was because of the first part: I got caught up on the very premise of the survey: it was for those who once believed that the LDS church is the only true and living church upon the face of the earth…but I can’t say I ever believed that.

In some ways, I feel as if admitting that somehow gives me a few “Mormon cred” demerits. But that’s another thing: you could have been seriously involved in the church without having believed its claims (especially if you’ve been in the church your entire life.)

I just think that it’s interesting that someone like Dan would also say that he also couldn’t complete the survey because it was simply not broad enough to cover his experiences.

…but enough about that.

I think the Open Stories Foundation survey is good because it confirms (maybe because it was designed to confirm, maybe because it just “happened” to do so) things that are already central to ex-Mormon and disaffected Mormon exit narratives. It provides the substance for Mormon Matters and other influential internet liberal Mormons to discuss the fact that maybe, people don’t leave just because they were offended, or just because they wanted to sin.

Why is it wrong to leave to sin?

I feel uneasy about this trope…this pervasive narrative. It feels to me kinda like the whole choice vs. inborn dichotomy in gay activism and LGBT politics: it concedes something that should not have been conceded. In the case of gay politics, to adamantly fight for the inborn nature of homosexuality fails to address whether homosexuality is acceptable. If people say, “what if someone were to choose to be gay?” our response shouldn’t be, “That would never happen! You can’t choose to be gay, and a straight person wouldn’t choose to engage in a gay relationship.”…it should be, “So what? There’s nothing wrong with gay relationships.”

Similarly, in the disaffected Mormon realm, to emphasize history and intellectual issues drops the ball on what really could be behind statements like “being offended” or “leaving to sin.” I’ll definitely write more about this in a post of its own, but these statements only really make sense as negative statements if you accept an LDS model is true. Did he leave because he was offended (and clearly he should just get over it)? Or did he leave because he actually encountered something that was morally offensive? If the latter case, then why would we look at that as an invalid reason to leave the church?

…Or, take the “left to sin” trope. The disaffected Mormon would probably see things quite differently: she re-evaluated (most likely not of her own volition, but after being thrown into some situation that made her old moral views seem inadequate) her sense of morality, and found that some things that the church calls sinful just don’t seem that way to her. So why shouldn’t we considering leaving after a moral re-evaluation as being a valid reason to leave?

Are disaffected internet-chatting Mormons representative?

I think the biggest issue with this survey, however, is more in its selection bias. Obviously, if you give a survey to disaffected Mormons on the internet who have well-known disaffection narratives, then those results will confirm those narratives. But the issue wasn’t what disaffected people who visit Outer Blogness have experienced. Rather, the issue is 1) whether disaffected Mormons on the internet are representative of those who leave the church and 2) if not, for what reason do most people who leave the church do so?

The other day, Paul at A Latter-day Voice posted about his experience as the father of a non-believer. An anonymous commenter ran with a line that Paul had written:

“He did not like our rules for the house, let alone what he saw as our slavish attachment to church values which he rejected.”

Proof to me that leaving the LDS Church is simply childish rebellion where they never grow up. All this talk of leaving because of questions they have about its “history” or such is a smokescreen and an excuse. They want to be of the World and live by the World’s rules.

What struck me was that this anonymous commenter was so willing to generalize all who leave the church based on the experience of Paul’s son — ignoring, discounting, or marginalizing the experiences of anyone else.

…Yet, as I shake my head at what this anonymous commenter has done, I wonder how many disaffected members on the internet do the same thing to others who leave for less intellectually-focused reasons?

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  1. Well, it certainly isn’t very scientific, but it still shares some interesting information. It was pretty interesting to read through all that. It looks like a good effort was made to cover a variety of reasons, and more importantly, it seems like the approach was made with the understanding that losing faith and deciding to leave the church can be an extremely complicated process with many contributing factors. I don’t think the study has really “marginalized” anybody’s experiences, but it does suffer from the flaws of trying to express faith-related experiences in statistics…emotion isn’t easy to translate into mathematics.

    As far as whether internet ex-Mormons are representative of the ex-Mormon population, that’s an interesting question. Just about every kind of organization or group of people with a common interest has a certain level of internet presence. Something about the way leaving Mormonism tends to leave people angry makes me think that perhaps ex-Mormons are more vocal and more dedicated to sharing their opinions than most groups. I’d be willing to bet that the ex-Mormon internet presence is at least a more accurate representation of the community than is the case with most other organizations.

  2. Dan,

    Yeah, I certainly don’t think that the survey itself marginalizes any others’ experiences, but that’s why I consider the “representativeness” question important — because how people use the study, the context in which the study is presented or discussed, etc., will influence whether it marginalizes. For example, if people come across thinking, “Wow, I guess this is a good guide for understanding anyone who leaves the church,” then now we’re at this place where we can’t really talk about the non-intellectual issues, because people think those aren’t a big deal for *anyone*.

    With respect with representativeness…responding to what you say here:

    Just about every kind of organization or group of people with a common interest has a certain level of internet presence.

    This begs the question: do people who leave the church have a common interest?

    Obviously, ex-Mormons who feel strongly enough about their experiences to blog about it, post on FB, etc., have something in common (and perhaps the study is good at showing what things they have in common). But in answering that, you haven’t answered in general if ex-Mormons who blog/post in forums/listen to podcasts/etc., are representative. In other words, something about leaving Mormonism tends to leave a non-negligible portion of people angry, but that doesn’t say anything about whether all people who leave Mormonism are angry. This is a question that I’ve addressed before.

    It is very possible that Mormonism is very polarizing. After all, in addition to people who get angry when they leave are people who, when they have faith crises, develop these really nuanced “liberal,” “unorthodox” views and stay. It’s almost like they are experiencing a different church night and day, sometimes.

    So, if there are these polar opposites, can’t there also be people who just drift away, but don’t really make too much of a fuss about it?

  3. Andrew,

    You’re right about Mormonism being polarizing. But I doubt there’s any absolutes. The “unorthodox” people you mentioned are evidence of that. There have to be people who “just drift away” without making a big deal out of it. They’re probably the silent minority who don’t share much about their experiences on the internet.

    So my opinion on your first question, “Do people who leave the church have a common interest,” is that they often do. But not necessarily. Not all of us are angry and determined to share the cause of that anger with the world. At least, I’d think that’s the case.

    But this is a common issue with research like this. If the participants are volunteers, the sample is almost definitely skewed toward a certain type of person. You have no way of assuring that the sample is representative.

    So I guess, instead of “what does this information mean,” the question becomes “How can we still accurately use this information?” If it’s not representative, can it still be helpful?

  4. Dan,

    I think it can be useful in a limited sense. However, I think that it won’t often be shared in appropriate context. For example, people will probably say it’s a study about those who leave the church…when we don’t know if it’s representative of that at all, given the possibility for a silent majority that could exist that just don’t share their experiences on the internet.

  5. Obviously, if you give a survey to disaffected Mormons on the internet who have well-known disaffection narratives, then those results will confirm those narratives. But the issue wasn’t what disaffected people who visit Outer Blogness have experienced.

    Even for Internet exmos, I’m not sure it gives the whole picture, as I said in my last SiOB. For one thing, he gave a list of possible issues, and my “last straw” wasn’t on it. Additionally — while he did a fairly good job of pinpointing the last straw that broke people’s shelves, and finding the various items on people’s shelves — you need to know why people have this shelf in the first place, and why breaking it breaks them out of the church, to get the whole picture.

    Learning about the Book of Abraham wouldn’t be as big a deal if people weren’t pressured to regularly stand up and publicly declare: “I know the church is true with every fiber of my being…”

    Discovering less-faith-promoting facts that you didn’t learn at church wouldn’t be nearly so much of a shock if teachers were allowed/encouraged to use their own materials and to hold a real discussion, rather than spending countless hours on scripted discussions from a correlated manual.

    Many people would be more willing to overlook problems with the truth claims if the whole Mormon experience were a net positive, that uplifted them.

    That said, I’m glad that John Dehlin put this effort in, and I think his survey is valuable.

  6. p.s. I think it would be really interesting, if possible, to do a study of how close the average Mormonism-defector’s story is to the Internet-exmo narrative. This narrative may be fairly representative.

    I’ve talked to a lot of people who never became active Internet exmos, but who left after not-really-intentionally reading too much on the Internet.

    Then there’s the ripple effect: For each person that leaves — and (surprisingly!) doesn’t end up dead in the gutter of a heroin overdose — the questions “Wait, is the church true?” becomes a bit more thinkable for that person’s friends and relatives. That’s a non-trivial part of the exit experience of the exiters in the ripple — even if it isn’t the “last straw” for any of them.

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