Second-Best Solutions

Last week, Bruce Young, a professor of English at BYU, wrote a response to Richard Bushman’s recent AMA (or, more accurately, a response to Bushman as filtered through hawkgrrrl).

I’m not interested here in responding to Dr. Young’s comments.[fn1] Rather, one of his comments has been playing itself out in my head all week, and I thought I’d spin it out here for others’ thoughts. 

Dr. Young writes:

My conclusion is that Latter-day Saints must of course make Christ the center of their faith and seek to be his disciples. But to be in any sense Latter-day Saint followers of Christ, it makes sense for us also to believe in the reality of prophetic calling and inspiration and in priesthood authority and the importance of ordinances and to “receive”—listen to and accept counsel from—the Church’s leaders. It also makes sense for us to accept the Book of Mormon as a witness of Christ and the Doctrine and Covenants as containing the voice of Christ. Since I believe—not with blind faith but after careful consideration and with what I believe is strong spiritual confirmation—that the things I’ve listed are true and real, I believe that truly following Christ also means accepting them. If others don’t believe these things but want to follow Christ, I certainly think that is better than not seeking to follow Christ at all—and I hope they find a way to support that effort that makes Christ a living reality for them and not just a subjective ideal.

I think he raises—and responds to—a central tension in Mormonism (and, perhaps, in organized religion generally): we need faith in and a relationship with Jesus, but part of that faith and relationship is mediated by a faith community, by a church, and by a set of scriptures and institutional practices.

So my question is, what do we hope for those who leave?

Before answering, a couple assumptions. Let’s assume (1) that the first-best solution is that people stay Mormon. Let’s assume, moreover, that, (2) notwithstanding our first-best solution, some people will leave the church, for whatever reason.

(N.b.: please don’t argue with my assumptions. For the sake of this post, they’re meant to frame the discussion, not to be the subject of the discussion. If you can’t go with me on (1) and (2), this probably isn’t the post to comment on.)

My thoughts? I would hope, generally speaking, that people who leave the church would find another faith community with whom they could worship God and improve their appreciation and understanding of Jesus and the Atonement.

I don’t actually know where most people who leave the church end up, religion-wise. It’s an empirical question, and I have no data.[fn2] To some extent, I think this crystalizes the tension inherent in institutional religion: if we really believe we’re the One True, then maybe deciding we’re not True means nobody is, so there’s no point in pursuing other religion.

At the same time, though, if our One True Church puts Jesus front-and-center, maybe an individual can decide (as I’ve stipulated that some will) that the Mormonism isn’t for her, but that she can better pursue her spiritual path through another institution.

Personally, I find the latter preferable to the former, but I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

[fn1] I think his response is, by and large, insightful, but I also think he misread Dr. Bushman in some important ways.

[fn2] If you have the data, I’d love to see it!


  1. Dave K. says:

    Sam, feel free to delete this comment if it violates the post rule.

    Nathaniel Givens wrote a post on T&S some time ago (I can’t find the link) arguing that if people leave the church they should do so because they’ve found something better. That’s a subjective decision, of course – finding something better – but his point was that they should leave for positive reasons rather than negative aspects of our culture or teachings.

    I would give a similar answer to your question. If people leave, I hope that decision leads them closer to Christ. Some may ask how that could be possible. But we excommunicate people all time for just that reason. Cutting of a relationship with the church (and its ordinances) can lead to a situation where people are better able to journey towards Christ.

    If someone cuts off the relationship on their own, I hope they continue to pursue eternal truths that point towards Christ. Just like the triangle analogy used in our marriage relations classes, I’m confident that if we are all walking towards the same point, sooner or later our paths will join together again.

  2. I would share that hope, Sam, and I would also hope that Mormonism (or at least its best attributes: service and community) would carry forward as that person moves on.

  3. My hope is that all of us will seek to find truth and to help make this world a better place, whether that includes a belief in a higher power or affiliating with a faith community or not. Because my conception of Mormonism is that it includes all that is good and true, by seeking the good and true, a person remains a follower of God and Christ and part of the Body of Christ (in the broad sense) from my perspective. And as David K wrote, sooner or later our paths will cross again. President Packer has differentiated being active in the church from being active in the gospel. I am quite sure he would disagree with me, but I believe a disaffiliated or unaffiliated nonbelieving child of God can continue to be active in the gospel (though s/he may not characterize him/herself as part of it). Certainly such individuals can and do cloth the naked, feed the hungry shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, which according to Jesus qualifies them to be at His right hand at the last day.

  4. Dave K. says:

    Other help is found in the scritpural parables about planting and havesting. The brances that are burned are those that bear bad fruit. All of those that bear good fruit are preserved, nourished, and eventually brought into the storehouse. Granted, some of those branches may bear 100 fold, some 60 fold and some 30 fold, but the gardener takes joy in them all. Too often in our church culture we make things “all of nothing” so that if someone is not willing to live 100% of the church’s teachings, we assume they live none of them. A better course is to focus on the good fruit in their lives and take joy in that, even if it is less than 100 fold.

  5. From the recent Pew report, approximately 1.7% of U.S. adults identify themselves as raised Mormon. About 1/3 of that number, or 0.6% of U.S. adults, identify themselves as having left. A similar number (0.5% of U.S. adults) identify themselves as having entered or become Mormon. The drops and adds account for the 1.6% who identify as Mormon currently. Of the third who left, more than half (58% of 36%) identify themselves as Unaffiliated. The rest are about 17% Evangelical and the balance spread across Protestant, Catholic and Other. (Of the 31% of adults identifying as Mormon who grew up in a different tradition, slightly more come from a Catholic background that any other, but the numbers are fairly evenly spread among Evangelical (19%), Mainstream Protestant (23%), Catholic (29%), and Unaffiliated (26%), with Other (3%) trailing.)
    It seems to me that your OP, Bruce Young’s comment, Nathaniel Given’s comments, and others, are largely responding to and decrying the more than half who identify themselves as Unaffiliated, suggesting that whatever “second best” looks like, it is not Unaffiliated.
    For myself, I reject your in-or-out dichotomy. For nearly 20 years now I have described myself as a Christian who practices in a Mormon community. There are tensions (the temple program and worthiness interviews generally don’t work, often enough I choose to be silent rather than trouble others with what I really believe, many callings are foreclosed and others tricky), but it’s where I know the hymnal. For me this is a pretty good second best.

  6. Regarding data…Pew has information on religious switching…it seems like they’ve updated their survey results in 2014: look at the table titled “Hindus, Muslims, and Jews Have Highest Retention Rates”

    It shows that of those who leave the church, around 60% (21/36) will become unaffiliated.

    I guess one weakness of this edition is that it doesn’t break out the unaffiliated further…so unaffiliated does *not* necessarily mean atheist or agnostic.

  7. (dang…I should have refreshed before posting my comment…christiankimball was on it.)

  8. If Mormonism isn’t what it claims to be and if Christianity isn’t what it claims to be, then aren’t we better off saving our time and money by leaving? Religion is a big commitment and can be psychologically harmful with the unnecessary guilt it imposes and with its desire to keep the adherents in a child like state. So for me, any alternative seems better than organized religion.

  9. Suni, not responsive. I’ll leave your comment, but with this warning: you can’t disagree with my premises here. I’m not looking at religion (or truth-claims) broadly; I’m looking narrowly at the ways we should address divinity within the LDS experience. If you’re not interested in the question, that’s fine. But I am.

  10. I was thinking of a sister-in-law, whose children are about the same age as my children, who left the church 6-7 years ago. She hasn’t ever replaced it with any other faith/community/church/philosophy. I don’t know if she considers herself any worse off. Do some find that no religion is better than a false religion (false in their eyes)?

  11. I guess it depends where you go when you leave. I mean, for me personally, worshiping with a good christian community that emphasizes faith, forgiveness, charity, etc., would be a better second best option than no faith community at all; but at the same time, I would think that no church affiliation would probably be better than joining an extreme fundamentalist church whose particular brand of Christianity emphasizes intolerance, condemnation, and conflict with those it deems heretics or sinners.

  12. In other words, in my opinion some non-LDS institutions are likely to enhance spiritual growth, and some are likely to inhibit it.

  13. John Gee has done a series (here: looking at the Pew data and data from a recent(-ish?) book on youth leaving churches and where they go. The data appear to indicate that most LDS who leave tend not to go to another church. Gee concludes that this indicates that “secularism” is the great antagonist of modern LDS belief. He does not, however, consider the idea that LDS apostasy narratives make choosing another church difficult.

  14. I have many friends who were raised in completely nonreligious homes. I have been surprised at how similar their core values are to mine–their commitment to the 10 commandments (excepting, say, Sabbath observance) is as strong as people I know who have been raised religiously. The old colloquialism “spiritual not religious” can be true–many of my nonreligious (in the sense of not belonging or attending services anywhere) friends are and seek to be close to God or a Higher Power. In fact, many truly are “religious”, if the definition of James is correct (pure religion is to care for widow/er, parentless, etc…).

    And conversely, as much as I complain about guilt and shame being such a part of Mormon and other religious culture, I have learned from my friends raised nonreligously that religion does not have a monopoly on guilt and shame and they can be very present in nonreligious homes. :-)

    My friends and family who have left Mormonism (either temporarily as “inactive” or longer term as “disaffiliated” or resigned) are trying to raise their children (and influence grandchildren)to share most of the important values in Mormonism (although without calling them such). In fact, I find the same spirit of joy, love, family togetherness, Godliness, as in practicing Mormon homes. We are on the same side. What we have in common is much greater than our differences.

    Similarly to Christian, I consider myself a person of faith who practices within the Mormon community. I am grateful for the community. I am a better person for it. I believe I am where God wants me to be.

    And I actually believe most of God’s children are doing the best they/we can to do right and be good and find the best and most healthy places to do so.

  15. I am a regular reader of BCC it has blessed my spiritual life in so many ways. I am also a United Methodist pastor I only disclose that because the author mentioned that a person who rejects LDS as the true church may then have rejected all. It has been my experience of the x Mormons that I hv meet are disconnected from all organized religion. My faith teaches anyone who follows Jesus is part of the one true church. So I think interdenominational or even inter faith exploration might me easier for me. From an outsider point of view the leaving of LDS seems much more dire than someone leaving the UMC. But somewhat like those who leave Catholism. I for one appreciate truly the deep philosophy of Mormonism much blesses me. Maybe if we loved each other better all fear would be cast out.

  16. What a great comment, Tom.

  17. Dave K. says:

    Tom, this is a little off topic for this post, but I feel it appropriate. You may be aware that on Monday the LDS church stated it may cease chartering BSA units. I have sons in scouts. We love it (though I can see why others do not).

    On Tuesday, still in a little shock from the announcement, I contacted another BSA troop in town. The troop is run by a United Methodist congregation and has boys that are friends with my sons at school. Within two hours of asking for help – in the middle of a business day – I received a lengthy email from the scoutmaster setting out a very well-run troop, an invitation to join should the LDS church separate, and (particularly touching to me) a statement that they would work around my boys’ religious beliefs – for example, allowing them to be absent from campouts on sunday. He even offered the possibility of creating an LDS “patrol” within his troop if other families wanted to join.

    I don’t know what will happen with scouts, but I can say that my faith in the goodness of other christians – particularly methodists – has grown this week.

  18. Nate W. says:


    “There are tensions…, but it’s where I know the hymnal.”

    I love this statement.

  19. I’m a lousy Mormon. I’m still a Mormon, but I almost never go to church and it’s better for my mental health that way. (Thank you, John C. You may have saved my life.) I don’t tithe and I don’t keep the Word of Wisdom. I tried attending other churches but if I’m going to go back to being a Catholic, which would mean participating in a patriarchal and anti-woman faith, I might as well go to church with my family, right? And I tried the Unitarian Universalists but they’re too squishy for my taste. I sang with some Methodists about 15 years ago when I was still a practicing Saint and that was a good experience, but the Methodist church in my neighborhood is all happy-clappy and that doesn’t work for me either. There’s a non-denominational open and affirming church 900 miles away that does a high church liturgy and has amazing music, but it’s 900 miles away, too far to commute. So I sleep in on Sundays and have thrown my back into politics.

    I was a convert. I jumped in with both feet, and church was basically my life for over 20 years. How can another church compete with that? With my husband and son going one way, and me going another, we’d be going in different directions all the time. I’ve often thought I might make a decent Christian but since I don’t even know if I believe in a supreme being or an afterlife any more it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Once you give up onlytrueness, everything else seems gray and washed out by comparison.

    I belong to a community group of African-American elected officials as an associate member. They are a non-profit, and have a spiritual base. They pray before every meeting, and there are some powerful pray-ers in that group. I look forward to those prayers.

  20. Having already rejected your approach (thanks for letting my comment through), let me make a stab at a genuine reply. I am of the view that a religious community is best for most people most of the time, and therefore would encourage those who cannot find a place in Mormonism to look for a community elsewhere. Anecdotally, I hear Unaffiliated (most of all), and then United Church of Christ and Unitarian. However, when I explore the same question for myself, I think I’d look into the Episcopal community first. That’s partly music and ritual, but more because my understanding of religion has a deep sacramental thread. Also however, my anecdotes are virtually all people leaving out the “liberals, feminists and intellectuals” door. My understanding is that in some seasons the ultra-conservative door swings even wider, and I have no idea where that door leads to.

  21. I am currently disaffiliated, but believe in most of the Church’s foundational truth claims more than not believe them. I think that, in some ways, holding onto some of those beliefs inhibits me from exploring too many other avenues unless I saw them as potentially being supplementary to what I already believe. I am hesitant to invest too much.

    For those who repudiate the Church’s truth claims, I think that it would be difficult for many to affiliate with another organized religion due to how we have been taught to learn metaphysical truths, which is through communication with God and resulting spiritual feelings and experiences. We’ve been taught that receiving answers can be hard-earned. I believe that many of those who leave have put in a lot of effort to “earn” these spiritual answers and either have not or have received answers that seem contradictory to what they’ve been taught. That’s not to say some might not be led to another denomination, but I think a good dose of skepticism often accompanies leaving the LDS Church.

    While community can be nice and the positive influence of others as well, I can understand why Mormons who leave the Church would have a hard time seeing the point in personally investing in something else. That said, with an increasingly disintegrated sense of community society-wide, I can understand how on a macro-scale not affiliating with any one group would be the lesser option.

  22. My understanding of the sociology of religion lit is that Mormons and Catholics who leave the faith are more like to become “religious nones”, as compared with Protestants who are relatively more likely to just switch denominations.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Just a quick note. I’d written a lot on the Pew and ARIS studies earlier this year. My last post was in May. As I’ve said before there are reasons to be a little suspicious of the Pew data due to sample size (around 500 people) but also some conclusions that make no sense. But it goes deeper than the ARIS data and is probably the best we have. We should just be careful not to push it too far.

    Most who leave Mormonism enter the “Nones.” As others note this isn’t really agnostic/atheism although the size of that group within the Nones has been increasing. Honestly a lot of the Nones are simply disaffiliated in general. In past years they’d probably have still identified themselves as belonging to a religion even though they really didn’t do much with it. The biggest change is that the past decade or two more and more people simply don’t feel the need to say they’re baptist or even Christian. While there has been a rise of loose secularism it is this nominal change (i.e. change in name only) that seems the most significant.

    For Mormons this might mean that in the past they might have still called themselves Mormon (or if they’d occasionally attended an other faith, Episcopalean or the like) even if they really never went. Now they just say they are nothing.

    While it’s important to remember we’re dealing with aggregates it does seem like there are correlations to the group as a whole being socially disaffiliated culturally in general. (Again, in general with regards to the aggregate and not necessarily any particular person within that group) The other thing to note is that as an aggregate group the individuals within in shift in and out over time. So someone may for a period say they are nothing, may say they are Mormon for a time, then shift back to None or something else. i.e. the aggregate statistics don’t tell us much about froth.

    While the statistics are now very dated, studies in the 80’s suggested something like 40% of active members later in life had been inactive for some period. I’ve no idea if that’s true anymore it would go along with studies that suggest the Nones are a very frothy group.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Loch given the differences between how Mormons conceive membership and how Protestants do it’s questionable about whether a shift between churches (say a Baptist to Lutheran or shift to non-denomenational) is even really leaving ones religion. This makes Apples to Apples comparisons difficult. Catholics are a bit stronger but even there I doubt most would see a move from Catholicism to Episcopaleanism as that big a shift.

  25. Clark Goble says:

    To the original post, I think for some people leaving the church might be appropriate. For whatever reason. Even when we force people out via excommunication the ideal is that this will aid their path to return and live the commitments. (We might debate how often that happens – but that’s the ideal)

    If we take the plan of salvation seriously then we all chose to come here to learn and progress. We don’t know how much the particular experiences we face are necessary for our own unique development, but in general I think we have to say this class of experience is necessary. Yet if we believe that then clearly God thinks the vast majority of his children don’t need the gospel in this life because that’s how he’s designed this world. Most of the limits of people hearing the gospel clearly are due to God (who frankly could have flooded the world with prophets if he had wanted to)

    Given that, I suspect we should be more cautious about how we view those who for some time leaven the faith. It may be a path that they need for their progression. I think we can hold that to be true while simultaneously holding that this is the true church and only through its ordinances can we be saved are receive the fulness of joy.

  26. I just want to say I too hv deep beliefs and my belief that anyone who follows Jesus Christ is of the true church guides how I treat those who do not agree with me on every issue, I still see them as family.
    One of the teachings I hv particularly found meaningful is the LDS view of pre/ mortal life. We as UMC hv no view like that; we dont exist til the sperm and egg unite and for some not until birth!
    But if I understand LDS at one time we were all on the same side. I prefer to model that even now if given an opportunity. I hope that doesn’t sound happy clappy.

  27. Clark, I appreciate your thought about being “cautious about how we view those who for some time leave the faith.” The choices I have made to step away from the Church have been made with considerable prayer and I don’t feel at odds because of them. While I understand why the Church wouldn’t want to encourage this line of thinking for its own sake, I also think we want to be careful about denying people’s individual spiritual experiences because it contradicts what is expected. This can actually have the unintended effect of destroying faith because it gets a person to doubt their own communication/relationship with God.

  28. And Tom, it doesn’t sound happy clappy! :)

  29. Martin James says:

    I think “non-practicing atheist” is what we should hope for them. It would seem that from within an LDS perspective the question is quite close if not identical to “what will help them the most at the day of judgement and the assignment of kingdoms. Unfortunately, not much is known in detail about what sins and positive actions count what amount at judgement day.
    Based on that line of thought, what we would wish for them is what will minimize the amount of sin they do. One would have to balance paths that have similar beliefs about sin and atonement, with whether those beliefs actually result in less sin and/or more repentance.

  30. Ann Porter’s comment really struck me. Her comment “Once you give up onlytrueness, everything else seems gray and washed out by comparison” seems spot on for the friends and family I have asked about their choice to leave the church.

  31. My last comment on this, I also agree with her comment. That is why any thing other than Christ will disappoint, Richard Bushman comments in the link provided come from a mature true honest man of faith.
    The LDS church has much that blesses as does my own, but All fall short of the glory of God, but not of the love of God.
    Thanks for allowing this friend to share

  32. FarSide says:

    Sam, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to respond by playing around with your premises by adding a third, which combines elements of the first two: a member of the church rejects or seriously doubts several church teachings—prophet and apostles are incapable of leading us astray, polygamy was divinely inspired, the current generation was specially chosen for last days, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, etc.—and yet he elects to retain his membership. I, personally, fall in this category. And I suspect I am not alone.

    In essence, I have abandoned many tenants of orthodox Mormonism and joined a “new faith community” of like-minded Latter-day Saints for whom Christ is our lodestar. In other words, this need not be an all or nothing proposition.

    I realize that if you come to certain conclusions—e.g., that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God—you have little choice but to leave. Under those circumstances, I would share your hope—that the withdrawing would member find another belief system through which he can worship God, absorb the teachings of the Son, and grow spiritually.

    But the first message I would like to send to all questioning Latter-day Saints is that you can reject certain Church’s teachings without leaving the Church. And you can do this while still keeping your temple recommend.

    If you are a Republican or Democrat, I am confident you do not espouse all elements of your party’s platform. Yet you willingly retain your party affiliation. There is no reason why you can’t approach your religion similarly.

  33. For me it is the narrative that makes it difficult to be affiliated with another church. The LDS story on paper is the best deal out there, and after 50 years in Mormonism, nothing else measures up. It really ended up as the old fashioned “to good to be true” deal of the century and now where do you invest yourself after all you knew was fabricated? I am working on it but we now do a Jewish sabbath and consider ourselves Christian. It is a confusing road after Mormonism. No surprise 50-60% are unaffiliated.

  34. “Finding another faith community” requires putting your trust in someone again. After all you believed and worked in your entire life is exposed in your opinion as a fraud, it is extremely difficult to trust anything you here again. Dr Bushman in a prior essay thought Mormons should put Christ before Mormonism. I failed in that regard I admit, but when shaving or white shirts, offerings diet become an issue of salvation or even holding a calling, the church was involved much deeper in my life than Christ. From the underwear I wore to the inability to speak on certain issues or criticize leadership in any way, the church put itself before Christ in my opinion. Elder Oaks stated very clearly that we have to be obedient and follow along the leadership. When I read about breaking up with Scientology, and it was so parallel to the Mormon way. Making promises and covenants before you know what your promising to. When all of your hope and belief is broken it is hard to find solace in another faith for me.

  35. jiminpanama: No question that it is difficult to trust anything again, when the one-true-church Mormon paradigm is broken. But that seems to me a wrong approach anyway. Trust in God. Trust in Christ (that is an important sense of “taking on the name of Christ”). But trust in an organization, a group of men (and women?), any earthly institution? Not for me. Sometimes a church or a religious organization (or even political organization) will give the impression that it saves. Usually it’s an impression, and not literally what’s said. In any event, I would call it heresy.

    Trust in God. Don’t put your trust in the arm of flesh.

    On the other hand, a community of reasonably like-minded persons, walking the path together, supporting and sustaining, talking and sharing, is a good thing. Not a saving thing, by itself, but supportive and comforting. And very likely necessary, as (in my opinion) we need to be looking out for others, we need to be participating ourselves.

    [This seems a little preachy, so let me slap on a big “opinion” or “personal experience” label, from top to bottom.]

  36. I know it was a wrong approach. I still believe in Christ and am looking for something bland that has a faithful, friendly fellowship. Nothing preachy or hardcore, but something to remind us of Christ.

  37. As I have ping-ponged on the edge of church activity and affiliation I have struggled mightily with this question of “leaving for a better alternative” or “the right reason” etc. One thing keeps coming back to me, something a good Mormon friend use to say all the time, “It is more important to do good than to be right.” From my sample of size of the people I know that have stepped away this seems to be a pretty good heuristic for their post-Mormon success. Those that have found ways to continue to “do good” seem to be happy and living meaningful lives.

    One thing I love about Mormonism, the more universalist kind of Mormonism that I believe is the minor strain in the church and in tension with what is emphasized these days, is the idea that we will all be recompensed for the good that we do and living by the light that we know. There will be time to tick and tie things like ordinances and affiliation after this life. There is no burning hell (except maybe for a very small few) just levels of awesomeness and a loving Divine. I think you can make a good argument within the universalist Mormon theological framework that it matters relatively little if someone leaving Mormonism goes to a faith community or which one they go to (Christian, Buddhist etc). What will matter is whether they seek to do good. And we all know that Mormon’s do not have the monopoly on that, even as we provide some meaningful and consistent ways to serve.

  38. I’m an Episcopalian, because Anglicans have been doing correlation since the 1540s.

  39. MikeInWeHo says:

    I remember when gst was a TBM with GOP leanings. My how time flies.

  40. Mike, I’m still a right-winger, more or less.

    I’ve been thinking about this post since it went up. I think that for many Mormons the answer to the question of “What do we hope for those who leave?” is “Whatever is most likely to eventually bring them back.” And what is not likely to bring them back is if they “find another faith community with whom they could worship God and improve their appreciation and understanding of Jesus and the Atonement,” which was Sam’s hope for them. Many Mormons would rather hope that they felt a void.

    Less generously, you might say that some Mormons would hope that they felt not just a void, but loss, confusion, pain, etc., in the hope that it brings them back, or serves as a lesson and warning to others. Maybe both.

    Acknowledging that someone could “improve their appreciation and understanding of Jesus and the Atonement” outside of Mormonism is not something that all Mormons are equipped to do, and so the suggestion that someone is doing it can be threatening. So they’d prefer that ex-Mormons just leave religion behind altogether.

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