The search for truth has led millions of people to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, there are some who leave the Church they once loved. One might ask, “If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?”
Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.
In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.
-President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Oct. 2013 General Conference, "Come, Join With Us."
Richard Bushman is a faithful Latter-day Saint and a professional historian whose biography of Joseph Smith was sold in Deseret Bookstores. In his interview with John Dehlin for Mormon Stories Podcast he lays the groundwork for a more constructive dialogue between traditional and disillusioned Church members.
Richard Bushman: All I would like to persuade people is that the facts don't compel you to confess that Joseph Smith had to have made up that book simply by piecing together these little bits of a puzzle that were in his culture at the time. The facts don't compel you. This is a decision...that can go either way. You've got people who are well-informed on both sides of the debate who see that book differently, and--you're free! You are free to choose and still have a respectable view of the evidence and take all these things into account.
John Dehlin: So, you're saying the evidence allows for sort of plausible deniablility. You're not compelled to conclude that it's true by sheer facts and evidence alone.
Richard Bushman: Well, you're not compelled by evidence to conclude that it's fiction. I mean, it goes both ways...there's not enough evidence on either side.
-Mormon Stories Podcast Episdode 050: Richard Bushman Part 4
It is not good news if you are the kind of person who needs to be certain all the time - the kind of person who always likes to feel he has all the answers, and that he is on the 'right' side. However, if you can let go of the ego's need to be 'right' all of the time, this ambiguity can be very good news for religious diplomacy. We are not compelled to believe one way or the other, but we are compelled to respect those who have reached a different conclusion than us. If we can't reasonably hope that everyone will reach the same conclusions, we can at least hope that everyone will be informed by the same evidence. And because of the somewhat ambiguous nature of the evidence, it is my hope that increasing awareness of the evidence will make people on all sides more humble and respectful towards one another.
The following are among the possible reasons people leave the Church, but this list is not at all comprehensive, and as Uchtdorf noted these are NOT safe assumptions. In my experience, none of them fit. But let's think about them for a moment.
- The individual was bitter/oversensitive, offended by someone
- The individual was prideful, didn't respect authority, wanted authority for him/herself
- The individual was decieved, uncritically studied anti-Mormon literature
- The invididual put devotion to 'intellectual' pursuits and/or 'secular' causes before devotion to 'the Gospel' (as traditionally understood by Mormons)
- The individual wanted to sin, or was ashamed to return because of sin
- The individual was lazy/selfish, not willing to make necessary sacrifices for God and the Church
- The individual never really had a testimony to begin with
"A Comprehensive List of Why People Leave or Stop Believing In the LDS Church"
It is one thing to simply speculate about why people leave the Church, based purely on anecdotal evidence; another thing entirely to actually ask them. While the list of seven assumptions provided above may be among the possible reasons people leave the Church, a better list can be found here. John Dehlin compiled this list based on the responses of thousands of contributors who left the Church or experienced a change of faith. Unlike the seven assumptions above, these reasons people leave present some real challenges to Mormon culture, the institutional Church, and the traditional Mormon testimony. For this reason, members of the Church usually don't want to think about them. Being heavily invested in the Church, they have a great personal interest in not giving too much attention to these uncomfortable perspectives.
For traditionally believing members, those seven assumptions have the benefit of sheltering their traditional paradigm from further examination; a function they accomplish by placing all of the blame on the individual who leaves. If we want to avoid re-evaluating any part of our testimony, it would be better to assume that the individual who left had some significant character flaw. That is much easier than actually trying to understand them. It allows us to avoid all the angst, hard work, and soul searching that is necessary to uncover whether or not they have any legitimate questions, concerns, and grievances.
To be clear, I am not saying that members of the Church deliberately mischaracterize and demonize those who leave the Church out of some malicious intent. Instead, I think that these subconcious biases create a blind spot and a very natural human prejudice against people who pose a threat to their comfort and complacency. As Joseph Smith once said:
“We ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangely present themselves, and are so congenial to human nature, against our friends, neighbors, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ from us in opinion and in matters of faith."
It is problematic enough when these assumptions are expressed and perpetuated by lay members, worse still when they find their way into general conference talks and Church publications:
It is not surprising that some in the Church believe they can’t answer Alma’s question with a resounding yes. They do not ‘feel so now.’ They feel they are in a spiritual drought. Others are angry, hurt, or disillusioned. If these descriptions apply to you, it is important to evaluate why you cannot ‘feel so now.’
Many who are in a spiritual drought and lack commitment have not necessarily been involved in major sins or transgressions, but they have made unwise choices. Some are casual in their observance of sacred covenants. Others spend most of their time giving first-class devotion to lesser causes. Some allow intense cultural or political views to weaken their allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some have immersed themselves in Internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and, in some cases, invent shortcomings of early Church leaders. Then they draw incorrect conclusions that can affect testimony. Any who have made these choices can repent and be spiritually renewed.
-Elder Quentin L. Cook, Oct. 2012 General Conference, "Can Ye Feel So Now?"
In this video presentation, John Dehlin discusses his survey of over 3,000 disaffected Mormons regarding their decision to leave the Church. This survey illustrates just how inaccurate and unfair the popular myths tend to be. In addition, this survey provides highly valuable insights into the real reasons people leave. Finally, Dehlin volunteers some incredibly helpful advice about how to love and support those who are questioning, undergoing a faith crisis, or leaving the Church. In doing so he refers to several beneficial resources not specifically mentioned in this post.
Without any fanfare, the Church began an initiative late last year to raise awareness around some key issues that were effecting people's testimonies. The essays are probably more candid than anything officially published by the Church in decades. The existence of these essays helps to remove the stigma that is often associated with discussing tough questions. Over time, this may help bring an end to the loneliness and isolation many people feel when they first find out about these issues. This effort can also prevent the feelings of betrayal which have been felt by many members, who faithfully studied Church resources for years (and sometimes even decades) only to find out about these problems from an episode of South Park, or while doing a simple google search as they prepared to give a talk or lesson in Church.
While there is much about these essays that is worthy of praise, in many cases these essays assume things not in evidence. There are also severeal relavent (and important) pieces of evidence that have been omitted. But if you want to understand your fellow Mormons, at the very least you should read what your own Church has to say about these issues. Beyond that, I suppose it is up to everyone, individually, to decide how deep in the rabbit hole they should go.
"First Vision Accounts"
"Book of Mormon and DNA Studies"
"Book of Mormon Translation"
"Translation and History of the Book of Abraham"
"Bible, Inerrancy of"
"Becoming Like God"
"Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah"
"Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints"
"Race and the Priesthood"
FAIRMormon: Critical Questions, Faithful Answers
Sunstone: Mapping Mormon Issues
"Approaching the First Vision Saga"
"Written By the Finger of God? Claims and Controversies of Book of Mormon Translation"
"Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates: A Guide for the Overwhelmed" – PART I
"Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates: A Guide for the Overwhelmed" – PART II
"Biological Evolution: Toward A Reconciliation of the Science and Our Faith"
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Topic Pages
"Book of Mormon Studies"
"Book of Abraham"
"Old Testament Resources"
Joseph Smith's Polygamy: Brian D. Hales
"Biographies of Joseph's Wives"
A Disaffected Mormon's Perspective and FAIR's Defense of the Church
Jeremy's letter is best thought of as an introduction to these problems, not the final word. It contains many links for readers to follow in order to get more information on the various subjects treated. If you choose to read Jeremy's "Letter to a CES Director," one might say you are going fairly deeply into the rabbit hole. In the interest of getting both sides of the story, it is probably a good idea to read FAIR's response along with Jeremy's letter.
"Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony," by Jeremy Runnells
The thing that is most impressive about Jeremy's letter is how comprehensive a summary it proves to be. To understand the tone and purpose of the letter, consider the following description, taken from the introduction given on Jeremy's website:
"A native of Southern California, Jeremy was born in the covenant. A 6th generation Mormon of Pioneer heritage, Jeremy reached every Mormon youth milestone. An Eagle Scout, Returned Missionary, and BYU alumnus, Jeremy was married in the San Diego Temple with expectations and plans of living Mormonism for the rest of his life.
"In February 2012, Jeremy experienced a crisis of faith, which subsequently led to a faith transition in the summer of 2012. In the spring of 2013, Jeremy was approached and asked by a CES Director to share his concerns and questions about the LDS Church's origins, history, and current practices. In response, Jeremy wrote what later became publicly known as Letter to a CES Director."
A FairMormon Analysis of "A Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony"
FAIR is an acronym for Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. "FairMormon is a non-profit corporation that is dedicated to helping people deal with issues related to anti-Mormonism. The word “apologetic”....literally means “in defense of the faith.” It is not talking about apologizing to anyone or being sorry for something." To this FAIR adds, "Our objective is to defend the faith against those who would attempt to destroy it." While FAIR's posture can rub me the wrong way sometimes, I greatly value their contribution to these discussions. In a recent interview, even Jeremy expressed appreciation for FAIR's willingness to respond to his letter, thus providing his readers with an alternate perspective to consider before making up their minds.
Some Thoughts On How to Handle Conversations With Your Nontraditional Mormon Friends and Family:
In closing, I wanted to leave you with some helpful advice about how to support your loved ones who wrestle with the faith. For the sake of brevity, I will just link to my other post entitled, "20 Things to Keep In Mind When Talking With Your Nontraditional Mormon Friends and Family." Finally, I'll wrap this up with this fantastic quote by a man I greatly respect:
"To be sure, there is a risk associated with learning something new about someone else. New insights always affect old perspectives, and thus some rethinking, rearranging, and restructuring of our worldviews is inevitable. When we look beyond people’s color, ethnic group, social circle, church, synagogue, mosque, creed, and statement of belief, and when we try our best to see them for who and what they are—children of the same God—something good and worthwhile happens within us, and we are thereby drawn into a closer union with that God who is the Father of us all."
-Jeffery R. Holland, Ensign: Aug. 2013, "Standing Together for the Cause of Christ"