On Faking It

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published a column entitled “If You’re Faking Your Latter-day Saint Faith … Why?” The basic gist is, the columnist is puzzled why people who don’t believe in the church still participate, rather than living authentically. He writes about these fakers (and, if he were a Salinger fan, I supposed he would have used “phonies“):

They go to church, they fulfill congregational callings, they pay tithing, they socialize with believers and participate with family members in every aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, except for one.

They do not actually believe it to be the truth.

Call me naive, but this whole concept is tough to fit into my brain.

Why the heck would anyone pretend to believe in a religion that is as demanding, and often outright inconvenient, as the LDS Church is?

The column really got under my skin. In the first instance, it’s because I have no patience for people (inside and outside the church) who insist that, if you don’t buy into their conception of religion, you should leave. (I similarly have no patience for people who insist you have no choice but to stay—I’m equal opportunity impatient!)

And to be fair, I don’t think the columnist was insisting that people leave. But I still want to contend with the reasoning underlying his “[m]ind-blowing” (his words) revelation that non-believers would participate in church.

The first, and principal, issue I have is that belief and faith aren’t binaries. Most people don’t believe or disbelieve in the church. We’re more nuanced than that. Moreover, belief isn’t static. Some days—and even some years—people believe more, and some they believe less. That’s true of the church. That’s true of their commitment to their employer. That’s true of their faith in the government. The idea that you have to be fully committed or fully uncommitted is just unfathomable.

But it’s not just that he misses the idea of spectrum—it’s that he assumes that the church only provides value at some level of belief. And I certainly hope that’s not true.

Look, belief is a compelling reason to attend church. But lack of belief—whether complete or partial—doesn’t mean you can’t find value in it. Church also offers community. It offers moral instruction. It offers professional and personal connections. It offers an hour of free babysitting a week. It offers weekday basketball and babysitting gigs[fn1] and music and self-directed worship and a way to meet people and moving services and opportunities to serve and be served.

And those are all valuable things! They’re all good things! And I hope the church continues to offer reasons to come, even if you don’t fall on the high end of belief. In fact, I hope we start to offer more reason—I hope we can make our tent big enough to invite the LGBTQ community and people with tattoos and people who don’t follow the Word of Wisdom and people who aren’t rich successful businessmen. I don’t see any advantage to limiting membership and participation to those people would fit comfortably into the first couple episodes of WandaVision.

And look, it sucks for people who feel like they don’t want to participate but, because of familial or neighborhood or work or whatever pressure go anyway. I don’t for a second want to say that people have to participate. The church isn’t for everybody.[fn2]

But there’s no benefit in pushing people out. And there’s even less benefit in framing church participation as only having value for people who believe certain things at a certain level. There’s room enough for everybody. Or, if there’s not, we need to make room.

[fn1] In fact, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that teenage babysitters are making up to $30/hour in the post-heights-of-Covid world.

[fn2] Like my good friend who came to church when our downtown Chicago building was dedicated. He and his family have come to the baptisms of all of my kids and we’ve gone to several Christmas Eve masses with them. But when, in the dedicatory prayer, the person praying started asking that the HVAC system be blessed and the wiring be blessed and, like, the parking spaces be blessed, well, he managed to keep a straight face and I managed to keep a straight face but it was not easy.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


  1. Most people who hold the religious beliefs I do (i.e. not a literalist) tend to leave the church. For a long time, I assumed that’s where I was headed, and plenty of my co-religionists helped me towards the door, usually unknowingly, with strident rhetoric and binary perspectives.

    However, I found a way to stay, to be engaged, to carve out a niche where I can make my meager attempts to magnify my callings. Living my faith my way often creates tension with the larger culture, but here I remain.

  2. I think we are ALL faking it. We walk by faith, we see “through a glass, darkly.”

    A true believer accepts ordinances and commandments as earthly things that represent things beyond this earth and follows these patterns to learn to love and serve as Christ did. Is one who lives according to Gospel principles but professes not to believe really doing anything different?

    I think the only real difference is in degree, or maybe willingness to be convinced of belief. What one person feels as fervent testimony, another might dismiss as imaginings of the mind or emotions–yet both may feel moved to lead lives of devotion and service.

    I said to someone recently, “Fake it ’till you make it.” She said, “Fake it until you BECOME it.”

  3. Well, it is ok to be a PIMO Mormon, and I think there is a way to be authentic as a PIMO. When it is time to bear testimony, stand up and let people know your unbelief. ‘I don’t believe in Joseph Smith’ but here I am! I hope you still love me and support me as a congregate! But I have never seen that in the Church. You must doubt your doubts, and not publicize critique of the Lord’s anointed. You must put all ‘we don’t go there’ topics on a shelf and let the wait until the dice rolls 9 or 8. It is incredibly difficult to be an authentic person in the church and not believe because the TBMs will roast you. So PIMOs usually are unauthentic and closeted people because of social ramifications not to mention the Church might kick you out if you are too authentic. Not exactly a safe place for real people.

  4. Grateful reader says:

    What Gus said.
    I thank God someone gets it.

  5. larryco_ says:

    “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

    Two things shook me up when I served my mission in Tennessee. The first was that Southern Baptists focused much more on Jesus than my Church did, with no veneration of prophets. The second was that my mission president gave us a very long list of bible scriptures that “confirmed” that all LDS teachings were firmly grounded in Judeo/Christian scriptures. This was my first introduction to proof-texting, and just a casual reading both before and after the 2 or 3 verses plainly showed that many verses fell short of what was being claimed. It was around my one year mark that I began examining intensely the beliefs of my church, splinter groups of my church, protestant, catholic, and orthodox churches, world religions past and present, and all things religious. It has been a life-long quest. You name it – I’ve studied it.

    The first two things I realized fairly quickly on my mission was that, despite the Christian rhetoric that was everywhere (even on billboards), the wonderful southern folk didn’t really love Jesus any more than the wonderful Mormon folk. And whereas the Mormon folk of that time were kept in line by President Kimball’s Miracle Of Forgiveness, the Southern Baptists were kept in line by fear of not qualifying for “The Rapture”. The second thing I found was that So. Bap., Church of Christ, Holiness, J.W. preachers and parishioner’s alike were more skilled at proof-texting that I ever became. And since most of the anti-Mormon literature of that time was published on Printers Row in Nashville, it was everywhere and a definite learning experience.

    Point I’m seeking to make is that I’m now 70 freakin’ years old, and as U2 would say, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (completely). But, Sam, I not only stay because of the things you mentioned, but also because throughout my life I seem to have had frequent interaction with The Holy Ghost, a “gift” I was given at 8 years old by a holder of the priesthood of God. And finally, I find the basic doctrine of The Restoration beautiful and compelling, containing the words of Eternal Life, even in a flawed earthly church. As Terryl Givens stated:

    “We are, he (Joseph Smith) declared, eternally existent, inherently innocent, boundlessly free, and infinitely perfectible.” Terryl Givens BYU address from 2005.

  6. Thanks, larryco! I appreciate that.

    Gus, I have no idea what your acronym means. But I have been lucky enough to attend church in places where people are open about where they stand, doubts and belief and all. In fact, the idea that there is no faith without doubt was an explicit part of my education in the English department at BYU. So, you know, it’s there.

  7. I believe we all belong to our own church in many ways. It’s like we all have our own worldview. It can be very difficult for us to understand other people’s worldview because it’s so complex – what has gone into making them see the world that way. I believe the same thing is true with the church, there are so many things that go into forming our testimony and how we view the church and the gospel.

    I believe we are all under the umbrella of the Church of Jesus Christ. I believe this because it makes it easier for me to see everyone as my brothers and sisters. I think it’s fascinating that we all started as intelligence, than we all became spirit children of God, we all accepted the plan of Jesus Christ in the preexistence, we all are born with the light of Christ, we all will die, we all will be resurrected, we all will be taught the gospel and all the ordinances will be performed for us in the temple and we will all with a few exemptions receive a degree of glory.

    I have no problem understanding why people would leave the church – when you get to know them, you quickly find out that their view is different than your view. You see the world differently than them and you see the gospel differently. I must admit, if I saw the gospel the way they saw the gospel, I would leave the church too, but I don’t, because my view is different than their view. In other words, I don’t belong to their version of the church, and I never did, that’s how different it can be. Still, I believe we are all under the umbrella of the Church of Jesus Christ. In other words, I have a very positive view of mankind. This might not make sense to you, but it makes sense to me.

  8. And what about those of us who need the support and compassion of fellow believers? Where should we go? I don’t go to the Church to hear my beliefs ripped to shreds by someone who doesn’t share them. So no, Gus, if you don’t believe in Joseph Smith, don’t get up in testimony meeting. You are more than welcome to attend and I really don’t care if you believe or don’t. And feel free to share your opinions outside of Church, but there has to be a place that is safe for the believers too. If it isn’t an actual church service, when is it?

  9. Chadwick says:

    “Why the heck would anyone pretend to believe in a religion that is as demanding, and often outright inconvenient, as the LDS Church is?”

    If this columnist is asking this question, then he hasn’t done his homework in the slightest. The bar for journalism the past few years is so low that I guess I’m not really all that surprised.

    There’s family pressure. There’s marital pressure. There’s not really being sure the church isn’t true since it’s kind of unprovable. There’s habit. There’s the impact on one’s profession. The impact on one’s children. There’s loss of community. I could go on.

    To really address this question would take a really long time. People and our social structures are complex.

  10. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    This kind of stuff bugs me because it’s yet another voice saying “you don’t belong”. It’s not helpful from any direction. Religion should be like family, unconditional love and welcome, light talk (if any) when disagreements exist, understanding when someone feels a need to stay away.
    I, and many others, do “stand up and let people know [our] unbelief”, just by attending. Our disagreement with some doctrine is obvious. Some of us even get up in Testimony meeting and express gratitude for the diversity of belief we see in our Ward. But not everyone can, nor should they be expected to.
    This kind of “you’re with us or against us” is unhelpful, to say the least.

  11. Ha! Where but in Mormondom would this Tribune article even have an audience?

    Try this: go to any modern Protestant congregation, round up half a dozen regular attendees, and ask them if they believe in their religion. If their answer is yes, ask them what they believe: what makes them Presbyterians rather than Methodists or Baptists.

    Then go back to your Mormon congregation and don’t quibble about whether the good people there believe what they’re “supposed” to believe.

  12. eastofthemississippi says:

    Just the Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave, unless of course you want to pay the very dear price of losing your still believing family.

  13. There is one thing I cannot understand. I understand the notion that we are to welcome all people, but how do we tell our LGBTQ brothers and sisters “come and be with us! You are welcome! But don’t hold hands with your partner. Also, you need to divorce your spouse if you want to go to the Temple. Also, don’t date outside of our established heteronormative norms at all if you want full fellowship. But you can still be you! Also, transgender folks, you cannot fully transition through surgery if you want to remain in full fellowship.”

    This could also extend to WoW or pretty much anything else.

  14. Old Man says:

    Those who convert to the LDS faith frequently talk of losing family connections as if some magical fence had been erected. Those who leave say the same thing. We can try to mediate a path between, but both sides know a fence exists. There are also fences between congregants based upon status, political ideologies or social situations. But the real point is that we are all commanded to “be one,” not many. Perhaps we should refrain from leaving, from erecting fences, and engage in the difficult process of unity.

  15. Erick, I agree that there seems to be a significant level of dissonance. And I also agree with your (implicit) idea that we shouldn’t judge people who choose to leave.

    My assertion is only tangentially related to either of those observations, though. And it is this: we have no right to tell somebody that they should leave, either because their beliefs or their identities don’t conform with the picture of Mormonism we’ve constructed in our heads.

  16. It seems that what underlies the point of view of SLTrib writer is that the rules, effort, and LDS lifestyle are not intrinsically rewarding, so one would only do it in an effort to go to super VIP heaven. For me the basic thesis of his article probably says more about how he views the LDS lifestyle he is living than anything else. I think there are people that like the lifestyle and it is intrinsically rewarding to them.

  17. Sam, I have a question about the following statement: “But I have been lucky enough to attend church in places where people are open about where they stand, doubts and belief and all.” Are you saying that people can get up and say “I have some doubts” or are you saying people get up and say “I have concluded that X teaching or historical claim is wrong for the following reasons. Let me explain how I got there and what evidence and experience got me there”. One of them is vague and hopeful while the other is frank disbelief conveyed with details. Do you actually have frank disbelief expressed in the wards you have been in or do you just have people who say “I struggle with some things”. There is a big difference between the two and between how I imagine wards would react to the two different scenarios.

  18. plvtime, I’ve heard both (though couched differently). Contextually they made sense; they weren’t blunt statements of disbelief. Rather, they were statements of disagreement couched in a worldview of belief. And when I’ve heard them, they’ve been well-received.

  19. For Sam and anyone else wondering what PIMO means: Physically In, Mentally Out. I think it’s pretty self explanatory once you know what it stands for.

    To Gus, I would say that you are describing exactly the sort of binary believe/doubt, in/out dichotomy that Sam is speaking against. If someone really is 100% mentally out, then I too can’t imagine why they would participate in church either. Personally, I’m almost always somewhere between 10% and 90% “in” when it comes to church. There are times I feel perilously close to single digits, and other times I’m riding high. Those high times are what keep me engaged with the church through the low times. Over the last few years, I’ve contemplated that there might become a day that I don’t go to church any more, and that’s something that I would have never admitted to myself for much of my life. But that day has not come, and may never come. Part of my current spiritual development is learning to sit with some uncertainties in life. Perhaps in the future, I’ll feel differently.

    The church does have a distressing (to me) culture of declarative believe in testimony meetings; but on the rare occasions that I do get up to share my thoughts and feelings, I stick to what I can personally testify of that day. Careful listeners might be able to speculate about some things if they were to make a list of what I avoid testifying of, but I doubt anyone is doing that. At the same time, I don’t get up and bear an anti-testimony by listing all the things that I don’t believe.

  20. Kristine says:

    Nothing funny about asking for a blessing on the HVAC system–they are notoriously immune from the basic laws of physics and work by sorcery.

  21. Left Field says:

    I always enjoy reading the Salt Lake Temple dedicatory prayer. Every component and furnishing is blessed individually–the heating system, wires, pipes, veils, walls, doors, windows, lath, “sanitary apparatus,” landscaping, maps (who knew?), curtains, seats, wood, plaster, glass, etc. Even the elevators get a shout-out, even though later legend has it that there were only mysterious empty vertical shafts, elevators supposedly not having been invented yet.

  22. Rockwell says:

    I didn’t read the Tribune article, but I have a great deal of sympathy for the author’s position, in spite of the fact that I have been attending as a non believer for many years.

    Maybe other people have a different experience, but I find Mormonism for Non believers to be a very uncomfortable lifestyle. A nonbeliever has to decide if they will pay tithing in order to be at their child’s wedding. They have to decide whether to accept a calling to teach a class on something they don’t believe. They have to decide whether to go to a recommend interview and what to say. I sympathize with anyone who says they don’t understand why people do that, even though that is what I myself did for a really long time.

    Although Sam says he has seen people express doubts that were well received, and I don’t doubt it, have a seen people called out in public for expressing doubts. In one case, a sister who questioned the historicity of the BoM ended up leaving Sunday school class in tears. I guess I’ve only seen that happen once, that I know of. Your mileage may vary.

    There are lots of reasons people might attend a church, but Mormonism tries hard to make sure people are either all in or that they keep quiet. If you are in wards that accept dissent or doubts, you are lucky indeed.

  23. Jeremiah S says:

    I may have tried to stay. But I’m gay.

  24. As an MSM (Middle Spectrum Mormon) who is PIMA (Physically In Mentality Ambivalent) fast and testimony meeting give me a unique opportunity to “pledge my allegiance” to the church while maintaining my own version of authenticity.

    When I bear testimony, I usually:
    -Share my gratitude for Jesus and his teachings
    – Express hope in the atonement and eternal life with my wife
    – Express love and gratitude for my wife

    I sometimes:
    – Express gratitude for the church and it’s leaders
    – Share a spiritual or uplifting experience
    – Talk about what I learned from my Lutheran minister grandfather
    – Share insights I gained from the scriptures or church leaders

    I never:
    – Say “I know the church is true”
    – Say “I know is a prophet of God”
    – Say “I know the BoM is true”

    So far, no one has commented negatively on my testimony sharing. If there are people who draw inferences about my apparent lack of faith based on what I didn’t say, then that is their problem, not mine.

  25. I appreciate the post and the comments. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    I’m somewhere in the middle too. I go to church, and bring my kids, and pay tithing. Sometimes I believe, and sometimes I want to believe, sometimes I go because it feels like home, and sometimes because of a mix of habit and guilt. I wish I could go back to the bright binary belief of my adolescence – but I think I’m stuck with muddling through.

    Anyone else read Rachel Held Evans? I’ve found her books immensely comforting.

  26. Faking it, let’s look at both sides. During conference just prior to the pandemic, we never heard any speaker directly emphasize that something was coming, or that we needed to prepare in certain ways, they could have made it vague but still got their point across. President Nelson even admitted in conference after the pandemic started, that he didn’t know it was coming. So why do we sustain him as a prophet? Is he faking it? What about the convicted child molester in Utah and years later in Rochester, MN was an Elders Quorum president and continued molesting children. Were those priesthood leaders inspired to call him to that position, or were they faking it? My brother was a child molester for over 20 years in the church and was a card caring, temple recommend holding member with multiple calling throughout his tenure. When he was finally caught he was a high priest and a ward mission leader. Were those leaders who, at that time, interviewed him at least yearly, inspired or were they faking it? So I have no problem with anyone moving forward in their journey in life, doing whatever they need to do. No judgement, we are all faking it in some aspects, and some a little more than others.

  27. senatorgravett says:

    I think there is a distinction between not “knowing” the LDS church is “true” and “knowing” it is not “true”, but which I mean this: Mormonism requests frequent affirmations of its truthfulness from members. I think, wherever someone is on their faith journey, as long as these regular affirmations do not cause discomfort, they can have a rich, full LDS life. If affirmations of truthfulness cause feelings of dishonesty or discomfort, they probably should find a new spiritual home, no matter how good the fringe benefits are.

  28. senatorgravett, I’m going to respectfully disagree. I don’t think anybody should either find a new spiritual home or keep their current spiritual home. Both are deeply personal decisions not amenable to generalization or outsider preferences. I’d prefer, very strongly, that we allow people to make that decision themselves, without trying to impose some kind of in-our-own-mind-objective framework with which to judge it.

  29. 100% agree. Why push people away from what they find value in, just because it doesn’t fit what you think should be valuable to them? Also agree on making as much room as possible.

  30. pconnornc says:

    This is a great discussion. My late son, who struggled at times to feel a spiritual conviction, shared that he could unwaveringly testify on his mission that if people would accept/embrace the gospel, then their lives would be incredibly blessed – even while he might struggle to say “I know God exists”. He stayed in physically, and inch by inch increased his conversion.

    I have always said that even if the church is not true (and I’m pretty convinced it is), it is a wonderful club to be part of – even if the dues are kind of high ;-)

  31. Thanks, pconnornc!

  32. In relation to various viewpoints, a few people here have mentioned paying tithing. Things Jesus said on tithing:
    “ Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. “
    “ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. “
    From the OT:
    “ Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. “
    In 2009, the Church, under the leadership of President Thomas S. Monson, added a fourth element:To care for the poor and needy.
    Whistleblower exposed church holds investments with values exceeding $100 billion.

    A member who experiences dissonance, but chooses to remain, but would prefer not to add their tithe to the LDS Church investment fund, may consider paying their tithes and offerings to groups that they’ve found “do it unto the least of these my brethren”. There is much need around us. Starting with feeding children (our own, or others’). Our tithes could make a tangible difference to these humble representatives of Jesus.
    Say “yes” to paying a full tithe at tithing settlement.
    Attend the temple with your loved ones.

  33. Call me Mark says:

    Lisa L,


  34. “I know what you would say, and it would seem like wisdom, but for the warning in my heart.” –Ye olde prophet Frodo Baggins

    @Lisa L – at the risk of coming across too bluntly….well, shoot, it’s late and I can’t fully control how my comments are taken anyway. So! It’s pretty cavalier to take a single headline about the *alleged* amount of Church investments – from a junior dude pretty far down the proverbial totem pole – and assume you have a solid understanding of the massively complex topic that is the Church financial structure, so much so that you’d divert your tithing to more “worthy” charities. The commandment to pay tithing is to pay it to the Lord’s church. You and I are judged on our obedience to the commandment; we are not judged on the eventual uses of those funds.

    And what do we even know of how expensive it is to run this global church? Do you know how much money it takes to build and maintain temples? And they’re announcing 20-30 new ones every year! Who cares if the Lord decides to have a nest egg at the culmination of a historic bull market in equities? Whenever you’re tempted to judge the Church’s financial picture – of which you and I know almost absolutely nothing – maybe revisit this quote from President Hinckley, given in GC in 1997:

    “A recent magazine article praised us as a well-run financial institution of great wealth. It grossly exaggerated the figures.

    “The money the Church receives from faithful members is consecrated. It is the Lord’s purse. Our Church facilities are money consuming and not money producing. We are not a financial institution. We are The Church of Jesus Christ. The funds for which we are responsible involve a sacred trust to be handled with absolute honesty and integrity, and with great prudence as the dedicated consecrations of the people.

    “We feel a tremendous responsibility to you who make these contributions. We feel an even greater responsibility to the Lord whose money this is.”

  35. @Lily – “there has to be a place that is safe for the believers too. If it isn’t an actual church service, when is it?” *applause*

    Gus forgets that “TBMs” are real people, too. If you are working on faith, and working on believing, and asking God to help your unbelief, and giving the commandments a shot, and you’re not really there yet but a part of you *wants* to be there eventually….is this not authentic? Why do the proponents of “authenticity” use it as an excuse to foster their own cynical outlook on life while simultaneously using it as a cudgel against those who are trying to grow their sapling of faith? Why can a desire for “authenticity” only be allowed to describe your current state of being and not a future state you’re actively working – and stumbling – towards?

    There are plenty of forums to discuss doubts and disbelief. Maybe testimony meeting, designed to be a time to build each other up, doesn’t have to be one of these forums? I’m reminded of an Elder Holland quote from April 2013 GC:

    “When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I *am* asking you to be true to the faith you *do* have.

    “Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not!

    “So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.”

  36. Ah, the argument that the church’s finances are too complex for you to understand…so stay in your lane.

  37. @Comet – you tell me, amigo: does one come across as erudite or asinine when one opines on something of which they know absurdly little? Not paying tithing as instructed because you think it goes to some generalized investment fund is missing the mark.

    To underscore my point, here’s Elder Bednar last week at the National Press Club:

    Q: Given the significant financial strain that tithing is for those in war and abject poverty, is there any discussion within the Church about not requiring that for people in those situations? Or at least, paying tithing only after housing, food and other necessities have been paid for?

    A: President Hinckley stood at this microphone [addressing this very group] in 2000 and made reference to the law of tithing. I remember watching him teach in impoverished areas of the country and promising the people that the pathway out of poverty is keeping the commandments of God, including tithing. The Church doesn’t need their money. But those people need the blessings that come from obeying God’s commandments.

    By all means, donate to worthy causes – with as much money and as often as you can. But to donate to your local food shelter and call it tithing misses the point of tithing.

%d bloggers like this: