Ex-Mormonism: “It’s All Academic”
Recently, I was linked to a blog post provocatively titled: “A Little Study Will Lead You Out of the Church; A Lot of Study Will Bring You Back.” I think you should certainly read the article, so don’t just rely on my summary, but I would summarize Carl’s argument by presenting how he sees the disaffection process within Mormonism:
In my limited, personal experience, the reason a lot of people leave the church is as follows, or at least their story follows a kind of general pattern reproduced here (I’m not claiming to speak for anybody in particular, just noting the general pattern that I’ve seen, so if you’re reading this and you don’t fit the pattern exactly don’t freak out on me):
1. They are born into the church/are converted.
2. They live many wonderful blissful years enjoying the fellowship of the Latter-day Saints.
3. They go through the correlated curriculum, probably several times depending on the length of time this stage takes.
4. They fulfill callings. Bishops. Relief Society Presidents. EQ Presidents. Gospel Doctrine teachers. Full-time missionaries. One Area Authority 70. Etc.
5. At some point they discover that some of the things they have been taught over and over in the church are not entirely accurate, or at least represent a very much watered-down version of church history. This usually happens nowadays because of the internet.
6. They frantically do some more research, trying to disprove these new “facts.” They can find nothing official from the church on these various issues.
7. Because these new facts are, in fact, true, their minds are completely blown.
8. If they try to talk to someone about these new facts, those facts are typically labeled “anti-Mormon” and the concerns of these people are dismissed. Their personal worthiness might be brought into question. They are told to read, pray, and study more.
9. Because, again, these new facts are actually true, none of step 8 actually addresses any of the root problem, and further serves to drive them to silence and to drive their newfound doubts underground, where they fester.10. Because they now know all these facts, church becomes a substantially less fulfilling place to be. In fact, it seems so watered down and false that they begin to think “the church has lied to me about this. In fact, the church is lying to me, and everybody else, right now!”
11. After some time, the person decides that their personal code of ethics demands that they adhere to reality more than adhere to the church as they once saw it. So they leave.
But because Carl has done a deeper dive into these many issues using church-supportive sources, he has experienced an alternative route — that of adjusting paradigms, breaking the “overdeveloped sense of what it means to be a prophet or apostle.”
As a result of his study and paradigm shifting (involving things like adopting a limited geography view of the Book of Mormon because that is the only position that is actually supportable from the text according to his understanding), he boldly claims that:
…with few exceptions I can’t think of any reason to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that makes any kind of sense to me. (The legitimate ones I can think of would mostly involve abuse by a church leader, but to be clear I also don’t think my paradigm is the catch-all best one for everybody, even if I have only my own firsthand experience to draw upon. I am not the ultimate barometer of truth.)
Although he does mention leader abuse as an option (which, depending on how one interprets this, could perhaps be broader than I’m seeing it), and he also mentions that there are “few” exceptions, so there could be other exceptions than leader abuse, Carl simply sticks to academic issues.
Disaffection: It’s All Academic
Pay attention to his article. When I suspected this gap, I asked myself: when is he going to get to issues of values dissonance, of moral indignation, or the lived experiential failure of Mormonism for so many people?
Yet, Carl never gets there. He actually describes the process in the stages 8, 9, and 10 above, but he doesn’t actually address how to resolve it. This article is utterly devoid of that discussion, whether it be simply because Carl didn’t want to talk about that at this time, or perhaps because Carl doesn’t care or because he can’t imagine. I don’t have anything to lead me to take the less charitable latter interpretations (other than a negative reading of the above quote that he can’t think of any reason to leave the Church that makes any kind of sense to him), so I’ll suppose that Carl just didn’t want to talk about these things at this time.
Instead, I’m going to write about how — regardless of the motivation — this is a big miss for someone who claims that “with few exceptions” he “can’t think of any reason to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that makes any kind of sense to” him.
Because I would suggest that the basic issue with stages 5 – 11 that most often leads to disaffection (and that were mostly absent in Carl’s case, and thus he simply cannot understand) is not simply the presence of alternative information. Rather, it’s the fact that the reaction to the member learning the new information, or harboring doubts, or whatever else may be the case, cuts against point 2. The doubter no longer enjoys the fellowship of the Latter-day Saints as a direct result of their process of learning new information — just as suggested by stage 10.
This is the main striking difference about Carl’s story. As he puts it himself:
…because the “new” information I had discovered was not framed in a way that basically said “see what dirty liars the church correlation committee members are!” or “Joseph was clearly a fraud because he did all this stuff before he claims he met Moroni” I didn’t leave the church.
But from the flip side, we could put it like this:
Because Carl’s friends/family/mission president/church leaders did not frame Carl’s discovery of information in a way that basically said “see what a faithless, spiritual leper you are!” or “these ideas you are raising are clearly anti-Mormon because they do not support the traditional LDS material,” he did not leave the church.
And I want to get back to this point about how Carl’s differing response muchly seems to source from Carl’s different environment…because I think that this says something about how limited his advice can be exported. But I am actually digressing from my main point.
What if Mormonism simply doesn’t work?
As I mentioned in the above section, I generally see disaffection as being more about lived experience. The basic issue I see with Mormonism for many people in the world is that it doesn’t work.
Carl discusses academic topics. But what does he have to say for women who are dissatisfied with the inequality within Mormonism both at a cultural and at a theological level? What does he have to say for LGBT people who basically have a theological dead-end within Mormonism?
Carl discusses academic topics. But as I’ve tried to talk about above, what does he have to say about the lived experience of having academic issues in wards that don’t really know how to deal with that? What does he have to say about those with disbelief issues in a church that conditions its members to know?
I think that many disaffection narratives look academic and not pragmatic for a variety of reasons, so I’ll summarize them here:
- Disaffected Mormons don’t want to be dismissed as having left because of sin or being offended, so disaffection narratives have aligned around “objective” issues (of which people don’t exactly have to grasp at straws to find these)
- The church itself presents a strong “It’s either true or it’s a fraud” dichotomy, and the church also presents a very vivid picture of what it is, so when people find out that the church isn’t what it says, it seems the only viable option is that the church must be fraudulent.
- For many disaffected Mormons, the lived experience dissonance probably didn’t arrive until the academic issues arrived. If you’re not gay, don’t necessarily have any issues with the standing of women in the church, etc., then perhaps the first time when the church stops working is when you’re learning new information and finding that others either can’t help you, are afraid to help you, or find you dangerous for wanting to learn something different.
But still, I think the core is a lived experience thing. If the church did not raise people to have to “know” the church is the “one true church,” it would have to stand on its merits of what lived experience it offers…but for many people, without the idea that the church is true (so you just have to suck it up if you don’t like it), there’s not a lot that’s compelling. And, believe it or not, but decreasing expectations on prophecy and revelation doesn’t help that.
The Unsustainable Path
Carl’s blog post isn’t totally novel. It is the path that many folks within Mormonism have taken. I would personally enjoy greatly if more Mormons took the same path — I think that Carl’s Mormonism is generally a better, more thoughtful Mormonism.
But I don’t think Carl’s blog post is sustainable for everyone. I don’t think it is universalizable. The success of Carl’s path depends on the environment that the disaffecting Mormon lives in. Carl writes:
The church is noticing that many people are leaving over these issues. The topics these new statements are addressing can’t possibly be coincidentally the same ones that typically drive people out of the church. This is refreshing for me, because I’ve been in the trenches in this fight since I started my MA at Yale. I’ve watched more friends than I care to count leave over a superficial reading of the data, so I’ve tried my darndest to make sure that superficial readings aren’t given when I’m teaching. I get a lot of push back on this in the church, which is also frustrating because if not me in my congregations, who? If not in Sunday School or Seminary/Institute, when? It seemed for years the only person actually addressing these issues to help people in their faith crises was John Dehlin, and having him on my side is a pyrrhic victory at best, because he does way more damage than good, even if his heart is in the right place. FAIR has more recently been coming around to this idea of helping people through their faith crises. Also, recently Terryl and Fiona Givens, along with Richard Bushman, have begun to give firesides to help address these issues. But I still felt like a lone voice in the wilderness for much of the past 9 or so years, because none of these resources were official, or from the church.
But now the church has our back, officially, in trying to present the more complicated, meaty, and non-watered-down version of church history. If we can present the more complicated, meaty, and non-watered-down version of church history, people are less likely to leave. Inoculation works. It’s much easier to get to people before, or at least at the beginnings of their faith crisis. Once they’ve left, it’s much more difficult to get them to come back. But, as Don’s story indicates, it’s still very possible. Never give up hope on anybody.
But even here, there are cracks. Carl has tried his darndest to make sure that superficial readings aren’t given when he’s teaching…but even he admits that he gets push back on this in the church.
But what if instead of pushback, his temple recommend were taken away? What if he were dismissed from a calling? These are things that he cannot defend against — it’s just a matter of who the priesthood leads are in his path. Carl can’t say these things would never happen — because depending on the ward or stake, they do happen. When Carl says “it seemed for years the only person actually addressing these issues…was John Dehlin” (and he notes that was a pyrrhic victory at best), here’s a problem. You can have all the books and resources available — but how visible are they? Carl is speaking from a position of someone who apparently had access to church-supportive resources as early as his mission, and yet even he points out that it seemed for years that on John Dehlin was addressing the issues.
The basic issue is even if people are trying to help, it’s not universal. It’s local. It’s regional. Even for the church (which he seems to believe “has [his] back, officially”), it’s not clear statements over the pulpit. It’s random statements that go up without fanfare on LDS.org that then get shredded to pieces from a million different angles.
Even if I concede that it’s better to get people before, or at least at the beginnings of their faith crisis, the basic issue is that you can’t “get them” if every Sunday, the local ward will be dragging them back down.