I thought I would jot down some notes on this topic from Stan L. Albrecht, Marie Cornwall and Perry H. Cunningham, “Religious Leave-Taking: Disengagement and Disaffiliation among Mormons,” which is chapter 4 in David G. Bromley, Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy (Newberry Park, California: SAGE Publications, 1988).
The authors begin by noting that religious leave-taking has received far less attention in the sociology of religion than religious conversion, yet all religions experience this phenomenon, even growing ones like the Mormon church. Mormonism has a net advantage when one combines both conversion and disaffiliation, but disaffiliation nevertheless does occur. When people leave, they leave for various destinations: some go to another church, others terminate their religious involvement entirely, and still others cease public participation in the church but still on some level would self-identify as Mormon. In this chapter, the authors look at two processes: disengagement (decreased participation) and disaffiliation (loss or change of organizational identification). This chapter was based on two separate studies.
The authors measured disengagement along two different axes: behavioral (measured by attendance at church at least once a month) and attitudinal (measured by a feeling that the church is important in one’s life). This results in four groups: engaged believers, engaged nonbelievers, disengaged believers and disengaged nonbelievers. The final sample size for the study included over 1,800 members over the age of 18.
Projecting using life tables, they project that 78% of current members will experience a disengagement period of at least a year by the time they turn 65. Of every 100 members, 55 will become disengaged nonbelievers, 19 disengaged believers, and 4 engaged nonbelievers. This means that onlly 22 will remain fully engaged all the way to age 65 without experiencing a period of disengagement.
As disheartening as those statistics are, it is important to recognize that many of those who disengage will return to engagement. For instance, of the 55 who will become disengaged nonbelievers, 31 will return to active engagement status at some point. Based on their projections, by age 65, 66 of every 100 members will be active. Movement among these categories is very fluid and dynamic.
Age is a primary correlate of disengagement among Mormons, with the highest risk period being the late teens to early twenties (about 16 to 25). For adult converts, the highest dropout rate is during the first five years after conversion. The highest return rate begins at about age 20 and extends to 35, after which it drops off. This is correlated with the time when people marry and have children. Not surprisingly, parental socialization is highly correlated with whether children disengage over time; fewer people disengage who were raised in a religiously active home.
As for reasons for disengagement, the authors categorized the reasons given into six categories. Lifestyle reasons came in number one at 54%, with people wanting to spend their limited time and resources on other interests and activities. 40% indicated that they didn’t feel they belonged and 25% reported feeling it didn’t matter to anyone whether they attended or not. About a third gave contextual reasons (movement to a new community where they didn’t get involved, work schedule conflicts, etc.). 23% reported problems with specific doctrines or teachings, and one out of every five reported problems with other members of the congregation Some said the church demanded too much of their time and money, and others that it no longer was a help in finding the meaning in life. Female respondents in particular were affected by marriage to a nonmember spouse.
Of those who returned, more than half indicated a realization that something was missing in their life. Many wanted their children to have a religious background.
This part of the study was based on two state-wide surveys of general religious practice. 59 respondents were found to be former Mormons, which led to 28 in-depth interviews, which became the source for this part of the study. 39% expressed no religious preference, 18% were Catholic and 42% Protestant (heavily weighted towards those who considered themselves generically Christian or Baptist and were “born again” as opposed to mainline denominations).
It was apparent as they interviewed these people that they had always been somewhat marginal in the church. Most had stopped participating in their teen years. The majority was not raised in religious homes.
Typically, these people did not disengage because of a spouse, but rather their choice of spouse reflected the fact that they had already disengaged. In contrast, the decision to disaffiliate was heavily influenced by a spouse. Having children often raised difficult questions about which church they would be raised in.
Similarly to disengagement, doctrinal issues did not play a very large role. Because of their marginal status, most indicated that they really didn’t know very much about what Mormons believed. There was a greater tendency to reject the “norms” of Mormons as opposed to its doctrines: meetings too irreverent, not enough emphasis on Jesus and the Bible, lacking in Christian symbolism (no crosses). Many felt uncomfortable because they were not living according to the teachings of the church. More important than doctrine was a sense of social belonging.
Some conclusions: disaffiliation usually follows a long period of disengagement. Disaffiliation is in part related to a decision to join another church. Family issues and decisions about how children would be raised are paramount. Fellowshipping efforts by those of other congregations were also significant. Doctrinal issues were not central to the disaffiliation process.