Leaving the Church, but not Leaving it Alone

I have plenty of friends who have left the Church.

Some of my friends were lifelong members who slipped into inactivity; others were loud objectors who asked to have their names removed; still others were asked to leave.

The lives of people post-Church are sometimes relatively unchanged. Even those who no longer consider themselves bound by the word of wisdom don’t smoke or drink; those who cannot wear their garments wear white t-shirts under their clothing. There appears in some people I’ve seen to be an odd reflection of their former Mormon lives. This could just be an example of “old habits die hard.”

I am curious, however, as to a phenomenon that I see on teh Intrawebs, however — people that have left the Church, and yet cannot get it out of their minds, lives and conversations. Many, many people seem to learn more about Church history and doctrine and spend more time discussing it and studying it once they’ve left the Church than they ever did while they were enjoying the fellowship of the Saints. Why is this so? I can think of a few reasons, which are mostly my own half-baked pop psychology:

Social Imprint. Being a mormon is a full-time job; we eat, drink and breathe our religion, and it’s hard to let go of it. You get to thinking in a certain way about things, then there’s this sudden vacuum and you have to fill it somehow — so you fill it with the opposite of what used to be there, which keeps you at least in the same social milieu, albeit from an utterly different perspective.

Anger. Lots of people leave the Church because they’re angry — maybe that same passion which caused them to get out of the foyer and into the bar across the street still drives them today, to find as many holes in the Church as possible and to persuade others to leave.

Boredom. Like I said before, being a mormon takes a lot of time. Maybe people just don’t have anything better to do? That’s the only reason the “Church Is Not True” podcast exists, so far as I can tell.

Social Conscience. When people get disillusioned and discover the “truth” about the Church, some might feel that there’s a need to warn others about the dangerous qualities of our cult. In essence, it’s a love for others that spurs in them a duty to warn about the Mormons.

Desire to Return. Maybe deep, deep down, they just want to be loved and welcomed back into the fold?

Anyhow, such are my random thoughts. I’m not the only one who can’t understand the fixations of some post-mormons. I am sure someone who has left the Church will be able to tell me in the comments why they can’t just leave the Church alone, and why they continue to frequent believing LDS sites and make comments. I should warn everyone, LDS and post-mormon alike, that I’m going to police this thread pretty closely, and will edit and delete as I am wont to do in my sole discretion to keep things pleasant and civil, like a presidential debate. If you’d like to talk about why you’re a mormon-fixated post-mormon, I’d strongly suggest that your comments address overall thought process and motivation rather than specific beefs with the Church.


  1. How about the fact that many who leave the Church still identify themselves strongly with its culture and heritage? The people you are referring to include lifelong members descended from pioneers. Despite having disagreements with the doctrine or with the historical processes that got the Church where it is, its history still provides ex members some sense of identity and place in the world.

    Rightly so, I think. It is a beautiful and unique story.

  2. I suppose there are myriad reasons why I’m still engaged, some of which I understand and some of which I don’t. One of the primary reasons that I do understand is that I am for the first time speaking openly about some of the very personal issues I have with the Church and it’s important for me to speak about those issues not just with others who have left the fold, but with those who remain as well. It helps my own thinking and my own emotionally processing and decision making. But it can also be painful, and I sometimes wonder why I bother.

  3. mpb, an interesting idea, and one I hadn’t considered (having little direct pioneer blood myself). So under your idea, this would be just a sense of history and self via the history of the Church, but only culturally speaking?

  4. Second to last sentence correction: “emotional processing”

    I kind of hate that term, but I used it anyway.

  5. I think that, for the most part, people who leave the church angry, usually over something that they have discovered which leads them to believe the church is untrue, generally attack the church out of a sense of duty. They want to help the dupes out. I am basing this off of my impressions, obviously, assuming that these are generally good people.

    I actually did a little reading in the DAMU today, for the first time really. It strikes me that some of the commenters there feel betrayed when forums such as this one, which are perceived as being “liberal”, do not give them free reign. It seems like they feel like we are fellow travelers and therefore ought to be seeking similar goals. In some ways this is true, but in others it is not.

    As an example, there are many evangelical Christians who believe that extended dialogue with the church (specifically with LDS scholars like Robert Millet or Stephen Robinson) will get us to renounce some of our core beliefs and adopt the tenets of the creeds that they believe are necessary to being Christian. I don’t believe that this is the goal with which Bros Millet and Robinson entered into the conversation and I don’t believe that it is going to be the end result. While both sides are seeking to better understand the other and to better explain themselves, to assume that this will inevitably entail a joining of the ways is naive. There are substantial differences between Mormon belief and protestant Christian belief that neither side is going to lightly dismiss. So is it also the case with the “lib” mormons (whatever that means) and the NOM’s and ex-mo’s out there, or, at least, I think that is the case.

  6. Chris, so it’s a matter of working things out in your mind to figure out where you stand? Or have you already figured out where you stand, and need more logic/support to bolster that stance?

  7. Being a mormon is a full-time job; we eat, drink and breathe our religion, and it’s hard to let go of it.

    I suppose that a formerly active Mormon who has grown up in the church, served a mission, been married in the temple, etc. who then leaves the church – suddenly has this huge void in his/her life.

    I would guess that the level of engagement has something to do with the ability of the ex-Mormon to fill that void. I knew one person who was Mormon and then converted to orthodox Judaism. That strikes me as exchanging one full-time religion for another full-time religion. But there are many less-than-full-time religions/churches out there and I suppose that might actually be a problem for the ex-Mormons who choose to join them.

    But this is all guesswork on my part. Honestly, it’s not an experience I ever want to have.

  8. Steve, on some issues I’ve figured out where I stand, on others I have not. I have seen a lot of people toss the baby out with the bath water when they leave the Church. I’d like to not to do that. Unfortunately, that metaphorical baby is harder to find than a literal baby, so disposing of the water can be a messy process sometimes.

  9. Personally, I think most people who do leave the church do leave it alone. Or so has been my observation.

  10. Kim, that’s my observation as well, and I tried to make that clear.

  11. Kim,
    I believe your observation to be the accurate one. However, I think Steve is trying to figure out those who don’t.

  12. Why would you want to leave the Church alone?

    It’s such a cool religion. How can you not remain interested?

  13. I have a lot of friends who have left the church but culturally identify as Mormon and will always call themselves Mormon. I think their generation is the first to identify themselves that way (cultural but unbelieving Mormons). Many of them were raised in the West and/or have Mormon families that go back a long time.

    The other thing is that who can know who is traumatized and who is not, and how they are going to react to that trauma? Some people I know feel really really tramautized by the Church, which may or may not be wrapped up in their own Church experiences. Some people feel really hurt by feeling like they were deceived in some way or another. Not leaving the Church alone has more to do (in my mind) with trying to work out that hurt or trauma than trying to convince anyone else that the Church is not true. All of my gay friends that have left the Church are really hurt. Their obsessions with it I think has to do with healing/grieving. Some of it may help them grieve and some of it might hurt them. It’s hard to say.

  14. Amri, I think what you say about grief and healing is profound. Again, that’s something I hadn’t really considered.

  15. I think that’s it, Steve. Among many of my close friends and family members who have left, there can be a lot of disgust with the Church and the more controversial aspects its history. But among others, there is regard for its value as cultural identity. Not many people in this country can identify their heritage as strongly or uniquely as those whose family history includes association with the Church. Among my people I know who have left, there are many who still enjoy singing a rousing Mormon hymn or attending the occasional Church service.

    One individual that is very close to me even asked me for a preisthood blessing on one occasion (this about knocked me over given what I knew about her).

    Along Seth’s line of thinking (I hope he’s not being sarcastic because there are those that really think that). Another friend of mine describes the Church as having a very “rich theology”, one in which I know he remains interested despite his departure.

  16. I really ought to proofread before I submit…

  17. Michael Quinn uses the term “DNA Mormon” to reflect what mpb describes in the first comment. We’ve tried very hard for a hundred and seventy years to make our faith not just a religion, but an ethnic group of sorts; our successes here, I think, mean that particularly for those raised in multi-generational families finding out about Church history is finding out about ourselves. It seems natural to me that so radical a break as radical as leaving the church might lead someone to re-evaluate their identity.

  18. Maybe we can look at the Bloggernacle (or other online “communities”) to better understand communities like the DAMU. Lots of us hang around the bloggernacle a lot because:

    1) We have friends here
    2) We like to discuss and debate subjects we have in common with each other
    3) We are creatures of habit and online-community habits are often hard to break

    In fact, in some ways the only difference between a DAMU message board and, say, a sports enthusiast message board (like Cougarboard.com) is the subject matter. [edited] The regulars are at both of these message boards every day chatting with their online friends and such connections keep them (us) coming back for years on end.

    Nothing can unite people like a common enemy and I think that is partially why the DAMU is such a tight and group. (The “Yewts” tend to serve as the uniting common enemy at Cougarboard too).

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I think one possibility to add to your list, Steve, is that some people cannot leave the Church alone out of a lack of confidence that they made the right decision in leaving. Some people will wear out the rest of their lives trying to repeatedly justify to themselves that they did the right thing in walking away.

    I like to think that were I ever to leave, I would simply walk away. This has been the case with those of my family who are no longer involved in the Church, and I hope that I would be able to follow their example should it ever come to that.

    But I may be deluding myself. I have a huge intellectual investment in Mormonism (much, much more than any of my family members who have disengaged), and I can see how it would be hard not to remain engaged in thinking and writing and talking about Mormonism, albeit from a different perspective. Still, I like to think that I would indeed just walk away, take up wine drinking and focus my scholarly sensibilities on something else. Even if I came no longer to believe, I think I would still see the value in the Church for others and would not want to interfere with anyone else’s beliefs. I like to think that in such an event I would have the confidence of my convictions and would not feel the need to prove to myself that I had done the right thing by leaving.

  20. Steve,

    There are so many reasons that people leave. When you define leave do you mean go deeply inactive or have their names removed? Names removed is a whole nother level that in my experience far less common then simply slipping into inactivity. I spent 5 years in a bishopric in an urban area without a single name removal request submitted. There may be areas of the church like say a university town like Berkeley where requests for name removal are more common though.

    I like your list and look forward to reading the responses of those that have left. I am not sure that the angry bloggers you will get to post will be very representative of post mormons though. Kim above is probably right in #9

  21. Thomas Parkin says:

    When I left the church, I completely left it alone. (And, for the most part, it left me alone.) I wouldn’t have, in a million years, thought of checking in on a blog, website, etc. I wanted all the distance I could get. I wanted it out of my mind so that I could, as I thought, get on peacefully with living my life more, as I saw it, fully. I was that guy who, when I saw the missionaries coming to my door, I hid behind the coach or took another lap around the block – but, you know, without guile.

    I was never angry at the church. I hadn’t been raised to think that it, or anyone in it, was infallible, or even close – that because it was true it was _purely_ true – and while I wanted the distance from it, I never really ‘hardened my heart’ to it. I remembered spiritual experiences I’d had, some of which had been very powerful, and I continued to understand that deep within the church was something rather shiny and good. I was somewhat bemused at some of the treatment I’d received – at just how proufoundly people were effected personally by _my_ business, and by how wrong a particular bishop had been about me. (We quickly came to see more eye to eye – and came to develop some mutual respect – but he had told me he knew things about me – that particular troubles I was having were because of particular sins, and I knew he was flat wrong – I mean, I was guilty of some things and may have wanted to be guilty of others – but the picture he painted of me, to me, was not someone anything like what I was – I remember him getting angrier and angrier, red in the face, shouting, and me thinking ‘this is the voice of the church to you’ and knowing that something had broken and that I would spend some time away.) Beyond this – so you don’t think I now think my leaving was some one else’s responsibility, really, truly and frankly, I saw an opening that would allow me to commit some of the sins I’d been … treasuring the thought of. (The end of that is another story.)

    My own family – at least half of it – was rather heterodox – and while this may have made leaving the church easier than it would have been for some people, it also made it, I think, profoundly easier to come back. So, there is maybe another point against non-exploratory orthodoxy. I have several Mormon friends who were quite zealous in their orthodox chruch life and then, when things failed to be precisely as advertised, could find no middle ground, left and went as far to the polar opposite as they could, bitter, resentful, etc. For these, thier participation was never part of a search for the truth, or even a following of Christ, but only a kind of desperate discipline. Unfortunately, that lack of middle ground means that coming back can only be a reversion to their previous over-shooting of most of the marks – and that may be as intellectually dishonest as their utter rejection of the church – so that they are stuck in an unlikable place until they can lose some of the either/or.

    Anyway, just some rambling half thoughts.


  22. Amri,#13,

    Rural Utah, Idaho, and Arizona are full of completely inactive people who consider themselves LDS if pressed even if unbaptized. This has been going on for 100 plus years. I think your friends are repeating a familiar pattern but are often doing it say in NYC instead of Rigby Idaho or Thatcher AZ

  23. I’ve always thought people left the church due to the Hofer–Moest decarboxylation of d-glucuronic acid and d-glucuronosides, but that’s just my unscholarly opinion…

    Seriously, I agree with what has been said, and would add that of these sorts of people I have personally known, they do not leave the church alone also because:

    1. There friends are Mormon, and members talk about their religion alot, so former members feel a need to defend their view.
    2. Many leave the church due to some form of proactive action of their own to attempt to change the current status quo of the church, and continue such activities after their membership has expired. In other words, they did not leave the church so much as be excomunicated from it or remove their names from the records.
    3. Quinn comes to mind, and I feel all he can do is Mormonism, as that is all that his resume has on it(so far as I know), so I think he is trapped and unable to leave it alone…

  24. “Some of my friends were lifelong members who slipped into inactivity”

    I don’t know if you’re including these as people who have left the Church (I kind of read your post that way, but could be wrong). But I wanted to comment that, in my personal experience, some of those haven’t ‘left the church,’ in their own minds. I am thinking specifically of some surprising hometeaching visits I have had with lesser active members, who, despite their inactivity, still have testimonies. More than once, I would meet a hometeach-ee whom I would have, before meeting them, considered to have left the church. After meeting and talking with them, I wouldn’t be so sure.

    Again, I don’t know if you would include these people. In a sense, they have left the church, but in another sense they haven’t. Some of them were simply uncomfortable socially in the church, others had been offended by an individual but still regarded the church as true.

    Like I said, this is my personal experience, and I’m not sure how prevalent such an attitude is among inactive members, but I think it’s an interesting gray area between active members and those who have, by any standard, left the church.

  25. Matt W., I actually think the main reason people leave the church is because of the unreliability of BCC sideblog links — which, it turns out, can be edited and change over time! Since the gospel never changes, any change at BCC proves the church is false. So the fact that the mouseover caption on the Hofer–Moest, etc., link, has changed four or five times today provides us all with four or five good reasons to get our names off the membership records.

    Quick — I’ll race you to the mailbox to drop in my letter to the bishop. Ready? Go!

  26. Take one girl and have her sing “I’m a Mormon” and “Book of Mormon Stories” all through her childhood. Immerse her in the scriptures and teach her that there is only one way to happiness in this life and the next.

    Emphasize her pioneer heritage and attend many large family reunions at which grandmothers will speak tearfully of how grateful they are to have 100% of their progeny faithful LdS.

    Encourage her to attend BYU, and watch with pride as she marries in the temple and has three children.

    Listen uncomfortably as she voices concerns about the church, about history and doctrine, about current practices and beliefs. Be alarmed as she cries about the prospect of raising her children in this religion. Be unable to really understand, or talk about it anymore.

    This girl will have a lot to say and work through and sort out. She will need people who understand the radical paradigm shift she has experienced. She goes online, and finds people there talking about these things. Slowly, day by day, she comes to terms with her deep disillusionment.

    She reads and writes to know she is not alone. That is the ground zero answer for all of the disaffected presense, and this presense overlaps into the faithful bloggernacle because:

    1. There are still many interesting conversations that pertain to a post-Mormon.

    2. Once one has gone through this epiphany, this shift in faith, the truth seems so clear. The impulse to engage, to talk and debate, to share, is very strong.

  27. I recall from the Truman Madsen Joseph Smith tapes that Joseph Smith once said that once you join the church, you leave neutral ground forever. Truman Madsen emphasized the word “forever” and discussed it further. I’m curious what thoughts y’all have about this account by Joseph Smith. Is it true that once you’re in the church, you don’t go back to being neutral? If you leave the church, you’re either going to be for or against it?

    My sister left the church and while she doesn’t spend time advocating against the church, in our conversations, she’s quite anti-Mormon.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., I think you’re right about your point no. 1. A lot of times well meaning family and friends kind of force people to justify themselves, because they simply can’t accept that someone would want to leave. So they demand explanations, and the person who seeks to leave finds himself in a self-justifying position, and that can feed on itself. This is one way anti-Mormons can be created.

    If someone wants to leave, I think a little probing is a good thing, to make sure they are not totally misunderstanding something. But repeatedly pressing someone to justify his decision in the end is counterproductive, in my view. If someone really wants to leave, just let him leave already.

  29. Dan, the majority of the church is inactive. In a sense, they have left the Church; but, the majority of them are neutral (from my experience). Joseph had real issues with betrayal and from his experience it was probably justified.

  30. Ashley, your remarks seem extremely familiar — I’d say that the experience you recount is quite common among my friends who oppose the church’s claim to unique truth.

  31. 2. Once one has gone through this epiphany, this shift in faith, the truth seems so clear. The impulse to engage, to talk and debate, to share, is very strong.

    Much like the new convert.

  32. Thomas Parkin says:


    I agree with the statment if the person has not only joined the church but has also received some portion of the baptism of fire. This requires a commitment of soul that leaves one forever changed. It doesn’t mean, I think, that it isn’t possible to join and leave the membership roles of the church with some nonchalance. Even life time mebers, looking like they are right off the cover of the Ensign, often are, as we often hear, not true converts. This isn’t unusual – it’s as common as air in the church.


  33. jothegrill says:

    I think that looking at the title of this post in a different way may have an answer. Leaving the church, but not leaving it alone. I have a family member who has had his name removed from the records, and the distance that it has put between him and his wife, and some of his siblings and other family members has been incredibly painful for him. He didn’t want to leave alone. He wanted to be on the same team as everyone he loved, but he needed to be honest about his disbelief.

  34. Exactly what I was thinking… I’m looking at the same fire, just from the opposite side.

  35. Once one has gone through this epiphany, this shift in faith, the truth seems so clear. The impulse to engage, to talk and debate, to share, is very strong.

    Ashley #26–I agree.

    I’m a questioner and a researcher. When I had doubts about the church, I researched and studied and because the internet became such an easy tool, it became a part of the equation. The Bloggernacle is a great source for continued research and this may sound condescending, and I don’t mean it to, but the Bloggenacle is such a sociological experiment for me. Why people believe what they do and why I used to believe that way and no longer can.

    I also agree with amri #13. There is a trauma in having my views changed so entirely from what I was taught my whole life. When I was 18, I was the victim of a violent crime. That experiece led me to go into Criminal Justice in college and I got my degree in that area. I feel victimized, in a way, also, by the church and I also study it, to understand it better.

    And then there is the human factor. My family and friends are LDS. I want to understand them, stay current with their beliefs and keep that connection.

  36. Why would you want to leave the Church alone? It’s such a cool religion. How can you not remain interested?

    I forgot to agree with Seth–Mormonism is fascinating. The history alone keeps me coming back.

  37. I agree with Matt W. and Kevin Barney (23 & 28), except I would add that even without people pushing them to explain themselves, those who leave may feel a lot of internal pressure to justify and explain their decision. Humans like to feel like we’re consistent and, as Seth R. mentioned in someplace else, most members believe that going apostate is just about the worst thing you could do. Having once held that belief, then going down that path creates some serious internal conflict.

  38. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 23 That’s rather unfair to Quinn, imo. There are LOTS of people going through the temple who don’t believe in the BoM’s historicity but who still accept the Church’s understanding of Christ, the priesthood, etc. What’s unique about Quinn is his courage to put it out there, and his willingness to openly live in the uncomfortable gray area between history and faith. In the long run, I suspect he’ll be seen as way ahead of his time.

    re: 24 I agree with that last paragraph completely. There is a huge gray area here. It’s not an either/or situation in many cases. How you reconcile that reality with verses like Matthew 12:30, I don’t know.

    Still, I must admit that I identify with the last category. I would love to come back, on the day when I can bring my family with me and be accepted as such. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    The New Order Mormons offer a list of reasons why people may “no longer believe some (or much) of the dogma or doctrines of the LDS church” yet choose to remain active:


    I think their list offers an interesting Yin to Steve Evan’s Yang.

  39. greenfrog says:


    By “leaving the Church” is it worthwhile distinguishing between those who have left the Church as measured by their geography on Sundays and those who have left the Church as measured by standards of orthodoxy?

    One can “leave” the Church geographically with core Church belief generally intact; similarly, one can “leave” belief in core aspects of the Church while sitting faithfully in sacrament meeting each Sunday morning.

    For me, at least, some of the discussion would be facilitated if the nature of the departure under discussion were clarified.

  40. greenfrog says:

    #39 was a cross post with several others…

  41. Thanks for this interesting conversation starter, Steve. I come to it as a believing Mormon with a son who has chosen to leave the Church. I have tried to learn from my grandmother’s mishandling of her son’s “apostasy” (i.e. constant reminders of the importance of the Church, family letters clearly intended for the “lost sheep”, ceaseless preaching)and to send the clear message that whether or not my son is Mormon, he is still my son and I will honor his choices.
    I find that I want him to have a spiritual life, whatever he chooses. When I visited an Episcopal church recently, I wondered if that might be a good place for him. Of course, he’ll need to decide what he wants. I would prefer that he remain in the LDS Church, but I can celebrate whatever spiritual growth he experiences in whatever context he chooses.

  42. If I left the Church, I can imagine it being something I still thought and talked a lot about. For one thing, I’d probably require a process of kind of re-orienting myself, figuring out what my perspective on the Church was–would I see it as something basically evil? simply fallible? good enough, but just not for me? I think I’d want to make sense of why I’d stayed for as long I had, and what my membership in it had meant to me.

    I also really liked Amri’s point about the need to grieve and heal.

  43. Steve Evans says:

    Greenfrog, I suppose it is worth trying to define what it means to “leave the Church.” Clearly, that doesn’t necessarily mean removing one’s name from the records, because that’s a formalistic step that few actually take the time to accomplish (and it ain’t easy!)

    No, when I consider someone to have left the Church, it’s primarily a factor of not believing in it any longer. Whether you’re sitting in the pews on Sunday or not is not dispositive one way or the other. And for purposes of this post, I’m speaking most often about those who no longer believe the truth claims of the Church, for whom the ordinances are dead acts.

    That said, how can you ““leave” the Church geographically with core Church belief generally intact”? Are you speaking as to people that have been excommunicated for various transgressions? Someone who has lost his or her membership for adultery (for example) but who still really believes in the Church — I would not (for purposes of this discussion) consider that person as having “left the Church” in the sense I had in mind.

    In other words, “leaving” here means a conscious choice to leave the doctrines and beliefs of the Church behind.

  44. MikeInWeHo,

    I hope your day comes in our lifetimes–I remember my (normally undemonstrative) father whooping for joy when it was announced that all worthy (male) members could hold the priesthood; I trust there will be many who will likewise welcome their gay sisters and brothers with tears of joy, borne of years of longing. I hope so, anyway.

  45. So, do some people view themselves as cultural Mormons? Kind of like (loosely of course) those who are of Jewish heritage, but are not practitioners of their faith? Enough generations of Mormons have come and gone that some, by way of where they came from, are always to some small degree a little bit Mormon even if they are not currently “in” the church.

    What an interesting concept. I think perhaps that the cultural impact of our religion runs fairly deep. I like this topic, it intrigues me.

  46. I think people can’t leave it alone because they have paid 10% and they want to receive a return on their investment. [grin]

  47. I have noticed that Mike Quinn’s name has come up. It should be pointed out that he has, repeatedly and publicly, affirmed his belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. He has been challenged on the sincerity of these statements of belief, but I will take his word for it. [For example, Quinn wrote: ” I personally regard the Book of Mormon as ancient history and sacred text….” From “Being a Mormon Historian (And it’s Aftermath)” Smith, George D., ed., Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History [Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1992], p. 90)

  48. Steve Evans says:

    Word up, Costanza. Quinn is a quality guy.

  49. Re:#27
    That quote is used frequently to suggest that there is something unique about Mormonism in terms of the dynamics of leaving the group. In fact, this is a very common phenomenon that can be identified in religious communities throughout history. For a technical, sociological discussion see “The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements” (Praeger, 1998).

  50. MikeInWeHo says:

    Oh, I was confusing Michael Quinn with Grant Palmer. My mistake. I was thinking of Grant Palmer in my first paragraph of comment # 38.

  51. Aaron Brown says:

    Once upon a time, many years ago, I almost left the Church. I can’t speak as someone who actually left, of course, but I think I came close enough to leaving that I can almost speak first-hand to this issue.

    I think most of the reasons I anticipated I would stay engaged with Mormonism, on some level, have been voiced in this thread, so I won’t repeat those points.

    I also recall thinking as Kevin Barney does, however. I told myself that if I left, it would make more sense to break with Mormonism completely, yet I knew I progbably wouldn’t end up doing so.

    In any event, I stepped back from the edge, and have moved further back since. Not so far back that I can’t bitch and moan about the things I don’t like, of course. But I still do remember vividly what things were like back then, and it does irritate me when some try to “explain” the actions of the disaffected without ever having been in their shoes themselves.

    Aaron B

  52. Nick Literski says:

    This post raises a question that I have even asked myself, a year after having my name removed from the records of the LDS church. I don’t think there is any one easy answer, but several things come to mind:

    (1) There are certain LDS who immediately assume that anyone who chooses to leave the church must have done so because of personal sin. While I don’t think Steve intended this, his comment in the original post about “get out of the foyer and into the bar across the street” is an example of this attitude–as if that is the choice. Being confronted with this attitude can naturally make some of us vocal in reaction to it.

    (2) There are certain LDS who immediately assume that anyone who chooses to leave the church must just not really understand even the church’s most basic teachings. When I left, an old acquaintence posted a lengthy series of e-mails to a group we both participated in, giving me doctrinal reasons why I was wrong to leave the church. (Ironically, he made some serious errors in LDS doctrine in doing so, and I called him on them.) These people may mean well, but the assumption is arrogant on their part, and irritating to those like me, who spent many years teaching Mormonism on missions, in church callings, and in my case, even team-teaching an Institute class. Guys like me, who have a bit of an ego, can feel compelled to respond to these attitudes.

    (3) I spent 26 years studying the doctrine and history of Mormonism. I still find Mormonism fascinating from a historical, cultural and sociological perspective. I still find it interesting to discuss viewpoints, even if my views have changed significantly over past years.

    (4) I retain many friends in the LDS church who are open-minded and continue to be friends, despite our differing viewpoints. Choosing to remove myself from the LDS church doesn’t automatically mean severing personal ties and relationships. In fact, I would suggest that those who DO “leave the church alone,” never had a valued social network within it, making it much easier to “just walk away.”

    (5) As Chris Williams suggested, part of this is a matter of processing. There is a time of introspection and re-evaluation. As a result of that re-evaluation, perspectives change. Sometimes, new viewpoints emerge which (to me) seem so glaringly obvious, that it’s hard not to stand them up in front of active LDS, and shout, “Can’t you SEE this??? Are you blind???”

    (6) Finally, some may remember a talk that Boyd K. Packer gave about missionary work, in which he asked his listeners to imagine sitting down to a sumptuous feast, while another family nearby had the most meager fare. Surely, he said, those who were feasting would feel compelled to share their delicious food with the underprivileged, starving neighbors. The premise was that if LDS-ism brings you joy, you naturally want to share that joy with others. Well, odd as it might seem to some LDS, here I sit a year from leaving the LDS church, and (for a variety of reasons) I’m happier than I can ever remember. Despite a lot of LDS preaching about how “miserable” I should be after leaving the fold, my life has really taken some wonderful turns. With that feeling comes somewhat of a compulsion to “share the news” that one can actually have a fulfilling life while travelling a different path–something that many LDS simply find impossible to believe.

  53. #41: Thank you for your gratiousness in regards to your son. When I joined the Church, my parents afforded me the same space and support. It surprised many in my ward (I was in high school) but I have always appreciated the example set by my parents. It has helped me a lot as a visiting teacher, leader in church programs as well.

    #44: Word to that!

  54. “They can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone” is catchy, but is the wrong way to phrase the phenomenon. It is not complimentary either to the church or those who exit. If former members literally “can’t leave it alone,” it sounds like the church (or God) controls susceptible members’ minds and doesn’t relinquish control when they try to leave, so that they surf the internet like zombies, inexorably and inexplicably drawn to church-related sites. Or the church is some sort of addiction that some people have a hard time shaking, so they surf the internet like alcoholics trying and failing to resist the bottle. I would say, “they leave the church, but they maintain some level of interest.” Less catchy, but more accurate and more flattering to both the former members and the church.

    Grieving is definitely involved in major life changes. Some like to talk through it with people who can understand. (And anger is a normal stage of grief…although unfortunately some people get stuck there.)

    Also, the idea of wanting some sort of return on investment is right. I spent 4 years actually staying awake and paying attention in early-morning seminary, 4 years at BYU, 18 months trudging around Siberia at great personal expense, 2 years teaching little kids to “follow the prophet” and to “love to see the temple,” etc. I’m not going to blithely chalk all that up as a mistake and never mention it again to anyone. I’m going to put my experiences to some kind of use, even if it is as a cautionary tale.

    But please don’t suggest former members are “filling a void” any more than anyone else on the internet is “filling a void.” I personally have a very full life, both online and in meatspace. Mormonism plays an eensy-weensy role in it, and I think allowing it to still have a role in my life is good for my integrity. (Integrity in the sense of integrating who I was with who I am and who I hope to become.)

    If people have the desire to return, they return. If they can get on the internet and gripe about the church, then they can just as easily get on the internet and look up the nearest chapel or the full text of the LDS scriptures or a pro-LDS forum where they can behave in a pro-LDS manner. Ascribing “deep, deep down” wishes to people who can but don’t act on those supposed wishes is silly.

  55. I have left the church alone for 16 years.

    What’s harder to leave alone, having once found it, is the bloggernacle.

    Having found it since about a month ago, I’d say that if I heard of a ward nearby where, say, the folks from Times & Seasons were holding forth on Mormon topics of their choosing every Sunday, I’d run, not walk, to attend.

    In any case, I will continue to leave the church alone, but I look forward to continuing to enjoy this newfound (for me) place where I can enjoy seeing peculiar topics given such intelligent treatment.

    I expect I’ll continue to spend most of my time reading at those blogs whose contributors tend to be believers … the stars seem to burn more brightly in such places, there’s simply a greater diversity of topic and a higher caliber of writing going on than what I’ve found at the sites where there is less at stake for the participants.

    On a personal level, the bloggernacle has helped me to calibrate my responses to my parents and siblings who remain faithful. I walked away ‘cold turkey’ and tended to be as dismissive of ‘borderland’ types as I was of orthodox believers. For what it’s worth, I think you have helped me become a better son and brother in this regard, and I no longer feel called upon to unload my own opinions on my family like a ton of bricks. To those I’ve learned from by your example of respectfully disagreeing, thank you.

  56. Thomas Parkin says:


    A year is nothing. Some of the happiest years of my life were spent outside the church. I made a ton of money in the dot.com boom, and had a big party. Wickedness might not be happiness – but sometimes we aren’t fully honest about the fact that in the short term it can be a lot of fun. (Not that you’re being wicked, mind). I learned many interesting things that I may never been exposed to if I had still been living as a full time Mormon. I met the atheist / pagan woman to whom I’m still happily married. The misery came slow and much much later.

    I’m not saying that your life won’t be full and rewarding – and I’m personally, as a fully beleiving Mormon – not of the mind that everyone is meant to spend thier life in the church. Just sayin. A year is nothing.


  57. There is another group of people that are being left out of this conversation: the lazy. While this certainly isn’t characteristic of most of those who frequent these forums, there are many who just don’t want to invest the effort to stay active. They have no theological or historical issues with the Church (oftentimes don’t even know about the ones we endlessly discuss here). They were never super enthusiastic about it at home and when they finally get out of their house and off to college they stop going entirely. These people usually leave the Church alone.

    (To be totally clear, I’m not saying anyone here fits this category or even any of your aquaintences, I’m just saying that I’ve observed there to be a group of people that fit this description (my own family members included)).

  58. Just to clarify,

    Yes, I was being completely sincere in #12. I do honestly think this is the best religion I could possibly belong to. It doesn’t surprise me that others remain interested in it once they’ve discovered it.

  59. Thanks Costanza for clarifying the believing status of Michael Quinn. He is indeed a believer and I, like others on this thread, have heard him affirm that. By Steve’s definition in 41, Quinn has not left the Church. And the same is true for many others whose membership the institutional Church has chosen to terminate for whatever reason.

    I think people leave the Church (either stopping attending or stopping believing) largely for the same reasons as they join.

    1. Some do so because they feel God has revealed (or at least hinted at) the validity or invalidity of certain truth claims.

    2. Others, because they believe that participating in or leaving the Church is the path God would have them follow.

    3. Others because the principles, practices and beliefs seem to “work”, or “not work”, for them–in terms of their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health. They perceive “value” for their “investment” of time and energy.

    4. And a myriad host of other factors.

    One problem, in my opinion, of our Church culture is an “all or nothing” attitude–our express or implicit condemnation of “cafeteria Mormons” or “lukewarm” members. Sometimes it seems like our culture views completely disengaged members as superior to those who may only attend Sacrament meeting once in a while, or who participate in Church but have real reservations or disagreements with certain teachings. At least “we know (or think we know) where the completely disengaged member stands.”

    Our all or nothing attitudes can lead to unhealthy perfectionism, discouragement, depression and even despair. The Church can seem like the parent who is impossible to please, where we can never measure up. It is not difficult for me to understand how some may feel healthier and even happier outside what, for some individuals, may be an almost toxic environment.

    For what it is worth, part of why I stay and actively participate in the Church is that I believe it can be a nurturing, affirming, and transforming environment, a channel through which we and others can experience the healing and redeeming grace of God and Jesus’ Atonement.

    I believe condemnation of “selective” obedience or “cafeteria” members is misguided and unhelpful. Oft I think our hesitating and partial steps to participate or believe are like the “widow’s mite”: they may seem weak, small or inconsequential to some, but they are acceptable offerings to the Lord. And in time they can lead to fuller and healthier participation in this community of believers, and a deeper and more satisfying relationship or “connection” with self, with God, and with others.

  60. Chino Blanco- thank you for your comment- and you’re welcome to comment here- as long as we, too are invited to bloviate at the meeting house peopled by the T & S-ers!

  61. Steve Evans says:

    DavidH, thanks for the comment. I admit that I am not as interested in why people stay or leave — I think those are pretty good questions, but ones where I have some ideas already. I guess I am more interested in why some of those who leave the Church find it is still so consuming a topic. Most of the comments so far have explored this in ways I haven’t considered. I’m grateful for everything thus far – and thanks to everyone for a thoughtful thread thus far.

    Beijing, sure some of my comments were silly. I acknowledged that.

  62. I joined the church 10 years ago this month. Over the past 3 years or so, I have decided that the LDS church is not the “only true and living church” and the leadership has no ecclesiastical jurisdiction or authority over me. I don’t pay tithing, I don’t wear garments any more, I have a drink now and then, I play a lot of blackjack and poker, and I go to sacrament meeting once a year on the week before Christmas.

    I have not resigned my membership, and I probably won’t out of respect for my wife. She is quite involved in her ward and has a rock-solid testimony but is not super-orthodox on some of the cultural rules.

    So where does that leave me? Why can’t I be a mormon on my own terms? Why do I have to follow the “rules”? And if I do leave (or they kick me out) why can’t I discuss it online or with people I meet? “Those who leave the church, but can’t leave it alone” is, IMHO, the church culture trying to impinge on my freedom of speech to discuss this organization, its members, culture, history and theology. Mormonism is a fascinating subject, and I suspect I will continue to read, discuss and learn more and more throughout my life, even if I am on a different spiritual path.

  63. “Mormon. I think their generation is the first to identify themselves that way (cultural but unbelieving Mormons)”

    Wasn’t that, for a while, the normative sense of being a jack Mormon? Of course the term was broader than that. Say someone who believed in some vague sense but preferred not to be too socially a Mormon.

    BTW – what I find interesting isn’t that those who’ve left want to share. After all we encourage recent converts to share the gospel with their past acquaintances. Rather it is the tone sometimes used. Yes I’ve met missionaries who sometimes have made me cringe in how they deal with non-members. Ditto with members. But while it is there some of the hatred really is amazing. It makes a bit more sense in heavy Mormon areas like SLC due to social dynamics. But some of the stuff on the net is always surprising to me.

  64. Hmm.

    My first reaction is that I don’t like the question. I suspect that many (most?) attempts to characterize complex phenomena in simple catch-phrases, such as lumping the diverse interactions of diverse groups of former Mormons under the simple banner “leaving the church, but not leaving it alone,” are bound to provide incomplete explanations. I’m not sure that it’s even a fair question to ask if we’re looking for an actual explanation. It seems to me that church members endorse the catchphrase (which is affirming and comforting) and thereafter lump together others’ behavior under it. I suspect that attempts to match actual behavior to the catchphrase are more likely to be eisegesis than exegesis.

    But, be that as it may, the catchphrase does have some currency among church members. So it may be worthwhile to ask why some former members engage in the kind of behavior that active members would describe using the catchphrase (even if it makes the most sense to reject that characterization altogether).

    I suspect that a major factor, not on your list, is the idea of reorientation. This takes place for at least two reasons.

    First, for many former members, the act of discovering additional information about the church (JS polygamy or MMM or whatever) is itself a precipitating event in leaving the church. They leave, just when they find out the interesting stuff. And given that conjunction of events, of course they want to talk about church issues after they leave.

    Compare it to, for example, the series finale of Buffy. As viewers, we’re in a sense forced to depart from the viewer relationship, at the exact same time that we receive a major influx of new information. Of course we want to talk about the new information, see what we think of it, discuss it with friends or family or whoever. That desire is not squelched by the end of our formal status as viewers of new episodes of Buffy.

    The second reason is a natural desire to place old events and ideas into a new narrative. Again, we can illustrate with popular media. Say that you watch a movie with a major plot twist at the end. Say, Memento or The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense or Fight Club.

    At the end of the movie, you’ll want to go back and watch it again. And as you re-watch the same movie, with a different understanding, different meanings become apparent. You say to yourself, [Um, spoiler warning, in case anyone didn’t know this one] “aha, Ed Norton was really Tyler Durden all along! Now that part makes sense, but in a different way.”

    I can’t speak from experience here. But my sense, having discussed religion a few times with former members, is that the same recasting takes place for many former members. That is, they undergo a process of reprocessing old understandings using new baseline assumptions, just as we watch Fight Club the second time through with new information and see things differently. And I suspect that that recasting is what is taking place in a number of conversations, that active church members view as hostile or threatening remarks that show an inability to leave the church alone.

  65. Soggy Bottom Boy says:

    Wow, Nick Literski out? Dude, I remember your temple website long before blogs were even invented. I got a lot of goodies from it. But I am glad to hear that you’re happier now.

    similarly, one can “leave” belief in core aspects of the Church while sitting faithfully in sacrament meeting each Sunday morning.

    That’s where I am, and it’s nice to know that others are there too. I still attend for my wife and kids, but for nobody else. The Mormon church just doesn’t give me the ROI that it used to. About 8 months ago I started longing for more autonomy and freedom, and found myself getting out of callings, spending more time with my family, keeping more of the money I earn, and I found happiness in so doing. It’s a constant level of happiness – I had to strain to find happiness when I was more active in the church.

    But to get to Steve’s point with this post – I think if I were to leave entirely, which is very likely at this point, I would also leave it alone and have no compunction about telling people that I was once a Mormon. I would even stand up for Mormons if I had to. Good folks. Who knows, maybe if the church demanded a little less from me I might find myself going all the way back.

  66. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 63 LOL! Anybody who can analogize apostasy to Buffy The Vampire Slayer should at least be a Seventy. Can you imagine how much more interesting General Conference would be if Kaimi got to write the talks???

    On a more serious note, given the enormity of the problem of inactivity, it’s not surprising that the active membership has evolved an “affirming and comforting” cultural response. That is essentially denial. If denial becomes untenable, there are two options: 1. Admit what is happening and change, or 2. Admit what is happening and embrace a theological explanation for a smaller Church (“Great Sifting,” etc).

  67. D. Fletcher says:

    There are some who realize they have left a real community for…no community at all. Even if they’re not believers, the Mormons they used to know will probably still listen to them. Just like with a family, it’s hard to make a complete break.

  68. Though I hadn’t encountered it before this thread, if you want to stick a label on me, I probably fit the rubric of the New Order Mormons that MikeInWeHo posted a link to, above.

    Geographically, I’m in the pew on Sundays. For that matter, aside from illness, work, or travel, I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of Sundays in my entire life that I haven’t been in an LDS pew for Sacrament meeting. By any of the standard measures (other than temple recommends), I’m a fully active member of the Church. But my beliefs differ very substantially from the content of the Gospel Essentials manual –and, fwiw, my spiritual experiences are not fully consistent with it, either.

    I’ve come to understand the Church’s take on things as a conceptual model that is laid on top of the raw experiences of life. It accounts for lots of aspects of life, and it does a remarkable job of highlighting and interconnecting some of the most important aspects in important ways. But it’s far from the only way to conceptualize those experiences. And, with regard to other aspects of experience and life, it does a distinctly bad and harmful job of assembling and inter-relating those ideas. Sometimes I wonder which outweighs which, and whether that is even a useful way of thinking about it.

    Could I walk away? If I were not fully connected to my family, which is quite LDS-centered, perhaps I could, but the conceptual structure of the LDS Church and doctrine would continue to shape my thinking, as it’s embedded in my mind.

    In this context, I remember reading recently about a study of the brain that was performed on two sets of London cabbies. (You can google “London,” “Cab,” and “hippocampus” to find lots of references, if interested.) The hippocampus is apparently one of the key parts of the brain that sorts out spatial relationships. The size of the hippocampus was measured for a group of drivers who had just started the rather intensive training for getting a cab license in the labyrinthine streets of London. And the size of the hippocampus was measured for a group who had been London cab drivers for a long time. As I understand the study, there was a substantial difference between the sizes of the hippocampuses of the two gorups, the experienced drivers having larger hippocampuses than the newbies.

    The study suggested the possibility that we change the structures of our own minds by engaging in particular types of training and learning, reinforcing some neural pathways, diminishing others, increasing neurons in one area of the brain, removing them in another.

    If that inference is correct, it suggests that there could well be not just an “LDS belief” set, but an “LDS mind” set, as well — a structure of neurons and thoughts that develop and reinforce over time among those who live and embody (literally) LDS teachings and lifestyles. Of course, not everyone in a particular pew on Sunday morning is likely to have incorporated the belief set to the same degree. But for those who have done so, yet still find themselves “not believing,” it would be most unnatural — and perhaps physically impossible — to simply discard over night the neural wiring that they’d developed over the course of a lifetime.

  69. re: 66 I think I know what you’re referencing, D., but it doesn’t always have to be that way. There is, however, no substitute for the structure provided by a religious organization like the Church. It’s like a collective super-ego, and to have that stripped away for whatever reason can be extraordinarily traumatic. Not surprising that some who leave really crash and burn.

  70. Matt Thurston says:

    I remain active albeit quite heterodox. Were I to leave (I don’t plan on it) I would probably stay engaged in discussing things Mormon.

    I like the quality of the responses to this post, both from the believers and the non-believers. Were I to leave, I think all of the responses would apply to me in various degrees, but the strongest reason I’d stay engaged is that I love my Mormon friends and family members, and I’d stay involved in the discussion because of my longing both to understand and to be understood.

  71. Ashley (#26),

    Your post is typical of many that I read; it’s a sequence of receiving certain information during your upbringing, finding out new information later, and being unable to reconcile the two.
    What I don’t see in your story is any mention of testimony, which I think is a hugely important consideration. I know what it’s like to come across new information that challenges a lot of my long-cherished beliefs about things. But at several points in my journey, I have had experiences I can never deny, which have kept me in the Church.
    That said, I know what it’s like to feel like the Church “system” simply does not work for me. In my single years I had those feelings very acutely, and I almost married outside the Church in an effort to maintain some activity in the Church completely on my terms, without the constant “supervision,” for lack of a better word, of an LDS wife. But even in those times, I could not deny things that I have come to know on a very personal, spiritual level.
    With the exception of Grant Palmer, I rarely hear that kind of experiential understanding being alluded to by people who leave the Church. And for that reason, I find it hard to relate to people who leave based on simply weighing sets of information on some logical scales and following whichever side the scale tips to in their mind.
    In my seeking, I have come across the usual troublesome topics of blacks and the priesthood, polygamy, the MMM, etc. but I have chosen to not put them on a scale to weigh against my understanding of the Gospel. Instead, I try to examine those issues through a lens that accounts for the frontier worldview of the founders of the Church, and the humanity of all our members, including the Prophets. Their humanity makes them worthy of my compassion and even forgiveness.
    In that light, I don’t feel a need to analyze so much as I feel a need to forgive in response to a lot of the unfortunate things that have been said and done in the history of the Church.
    I think that if I did not have a testimony, it would be easier for me to leave and then hang around, just out of curiosity. But I feel like, given what I know, if I were to leave, it would have to be an absolutely clean break.

  72. Thoreau once wrote “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


  73. Sorry Pouchg, as I indicated above, I’m not interested in particular anti-Church sentiment.

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