|Frequently Asked Questions||WhyProphets.com|
Recently I have received a number of emails, some of them from ex-Mormons, regarding the pages on critics and why people sometimes leave the church. Thank you to all those who have given their comments. It gives me a chance to change those parts I got wrong (yes, I do make mistakes sometimes!), and clarify those parts where I may have been misleading.
Some of the emails have been very heartfelt, and reflect genuine hurt. I can come across as offensive. To these people I apologize if I said anything that was wrong. I hope that this page can clarify some issues.
I do have great sympathy with some points that are expressed. In any large organization there are aspects that suit some people more than others, and there have been times when I, too, have considered inactivity as an option. There have been times when only one thing has kept me from leaving the church: the awkward fact that it is true. None of the letters I have received change that fact, as I hope this page will show.
"You don't know much about ex-Mormons"
In Why do some people turn away? I concluded that those who leave the church for conscious reasons fall into three categories:
- "I was offended"
- "I prefer another church"
- "I am cleverer than you"
Here is the evidence:
1. Testimonies of ex-Mormons.
The page on Why do some people turn away? was created after studying internet sites such as exmormon.org. These sites contain testimonies of people who have left the church. I agree that these sites are probably not representative of "ordinary" ex-Mormons, but they were the best I could find. Obviously people do not come put and say "I was offended so I left" or "I was so clever that I saw through this idiot system" as that would sound pathetic. But that is what the experiences come down to, if you strip away the (very real) suffering and (understandable) invective.
2. Direct experience with people who no longer consider themselves to be Mormons.
I also based my comments on my own experience in the church, including several years as a branch president. I would often visit people who used to come to church but do not come any more. Some patterns soon became clear. However, it is a fair criticism that I only have direct experience of the church in Britain. Here, members are a small minority, and most people are converts. I imagine that things might be different in (for example) Salt Lake City. However, all the people who have contacted me - usually from the USA - fall very neatly into one of the three categories.
3. Confirmation from ex_Mormon readers.
The strongest evidence comes from those who have written criticizing these pages. Typically, they say "I did not leave because I was offended!" and then they go on to list things that offend them about the church. Or they say "I did not leave because I was cleverer" and then go on to describe an understanding that they feel is superior to the understanding of anyone who stays in the church.
So far it seems that the three reasons are accurate, but they are presented in a way that some ex-Mormons find offensive or misleading. Hopefully this page will go some way to remedying that.
"Each case [of someone leaving the church] is complicated. It cannot be simplified."
Yes and no. Certainly, any complicated situation loses something by simplification. But if we don't simplify we can never hope to understand anything. We all create simple models of reality in our minds all the time, and this means picking and choosing key ideas. That is what thinking and communicating are all about.
When we say that religious feelings cannot be simplified, I think we are confusing two issues - facts and feelings.
The facts are the reasons for leaving. These can be simplified, just as any other facts can be.
But the feelings cannot be simplified because they cannot even be communicated. This is probably where I have fallen down most badly. I am looking at the cold facts, and ignoring the tremendous feelings that accompany them. Feelings are so personal that I have not even attempted to do them justice. I am sorry if I have seemed insensitive, but it is far easier to discuss facts than feelings.
"I was not offended. I do not say my way is better than yours, or that I am cleverer than you. But I think that God has called me to a different path."
This is a very appealing idea, and a good example of the "I am cleverer than you" school of thought. In this case, the idea of multiple routes to God is seen as superior to just one route. One person prays and God says "join the Mormon church." Another person prays and God says "do not join." And who are we to question God? Perhaps he has different paths for different people? Perhaps. But this theory raises serious problems:
1. One world, one people. Are we really so different?
This 'many roads' position assumes that different people have greatly different needs and outlooks. It is true that we are all different. But are we THAT different that we cannot agree on common beliefs and goals? There is more that unites us than separates us. Why would God treat us so dramatically differently?
In my experience, the church is not at all the strait-jacket that some people describe. It is home to young and old, black and white, rich and poor, 'liahona' and 'iron rod' saint. Whenever it seems to be restrictive, a simple change of point of view (e.g. interpretation) solves the problem. With such a simple solution to hand, why would God tell someone to leave, with all the divisions and heartache that this implies?
2. Is God the author of confusion?
If we reject the idea of authority, and allow contradictory teachings to be true, we must give up any hope of learning or of working together. Why would God want to promote such confusion?
When Jesus spoke of a straight and narrow path, was he trying to confuse us? When he said that no man comes to the father except by him, did he forget to add "unless you feel differently of course"? When he said to teach all the world and baptize them (or they would not be saved - see the end of the gospel of Mark), was he guilty of misleading us all?
3. How do you know God has called you to a different path?
Or how do I know that God has called me to my path? If we have freedom, we have freedom to be wrong, and to be misled. The great beauty and power of a shared belief system is that it provides checks and balances. When we drift too far from the truth, we have a fixed reference point to help us find our way back. Such a fixed position is essential if we want to follow God, or else we could spend our whole lives deluding ourselves.
This does not in itself prove that the Mormon belief system is the right one, but it does reject such a system without appeal to another such system (e.g. "the Bible says to leave") leaves us wide open to self-deception.
A parent-child analogy
God is our father. He knows and understands far more than we do, but he does want us to learn, and that means providing rules that we can understand and share with others. Perhaps I could draw an analogy with teaching children.
I have three children, at different stages of development, and sometimes I need to present ideas in a different way to each one. Does this mean that each will have a radically different set of rules and understandings? No. The greatest mistake I can make is to give the impression that I am inconsistent. Once each child believes (rightly or wrongly) that another child lives by different rules, I hear cries of "unfair!" and I lose credibility as a parent. This is not to say that they do not want different rules when it suits them. Like all of us, they like to be partial in which rules they obey, and always make a special case for themselves. But my job is to ensure that rules and opportunities are clearly understood and applied equally. This is not because common rules and opportunities are ideal from my point of view, but because they are necessary from their point of view. As the legal maxim says, "justice must not only be done. it must be seen to be done."
Bringing the analogy back to the reality of God and man, this overcomes the objection that God can do what he wants because we do not understand him. The analogy with our own children suggests that, if we are to learn anything, he will teach us a common set of rules and a common understanding. Not because that is ideal from his viewpoint (we cannot say), but because it is necessary from our own viewpoint.
In conclusion, I do not see the logic in the 'many roads' theory - it just seems like a convenient idea for someone who wants to leave for different reasons. But that is just how I see the situation. If you can find an alternative way round these issues, then you are certainly cleverer than me!
|No strong reason: drifting from the church|
"You say that most people who leave drift from the church without any particular reason. Where is the evidence?"
My evidence comes from personal experience. Perhaps it only applies to Britain (I have never visited America), but as far as I can see from statistics and anecdotes, the situation is the same around the world. The people who drift away form at least three large groups:
- Group 1: People who attend church and accept its teachings, but drift away either before baptism or soon after. The commitment was never great, so no great reason is needed for leaving. For every member who becomes settled in the church there are several who did not make it past the investigating part. They seldom have a serious problem with the church. But other things just got in the way.
- Group 2: Those brought up in the church, who drift away as teenagers. They come for social reasons (e.g. parents or friends), but the church is never something they really hold onto. They drift away because they never identified closely with the church, or paid much attention to what was taught. Sometimes they come back in later life.
- Group 3: Those who are fellowshipped into the church but never gain a strong testimony. Church is simply not a high priority, and they stop attending church when it no longer suits them.
These groups, together, appear to form the majority of ex-members. They are characterised as being still friendly toward the church, but they no longer feel it is "for them." Sometimes they pick up other reasons later on (such as joining another church, or visits from home teachers begins to become irritating), but these were not the original reasons for leaving.
I suppose that, to be fair, I am defining a "Mormon" as a belieer, as opposed to someone who has their name on church records. I do this because most ex-Mormons define themselves in terms of belief as well. Someone who once considered themselves a Mormon, but does so no longer, I class as an ex-Mormon. Incidentally, getting your name off church records is a simple process- you simply write a letter saying "I want my name off the records" and sign it. Sometimes you may get a visit to confirm that this is what you want (I have known several people who have said "I am leaving" when in fact they just wanted attention or else felt unworthy), but that is all. Any bishop will confirm that many people on the church records say they don't consider themselves to be Mormons any more, but will not write a letter to say so.
"I do not need organized religion. Like Abraham Lincoln, 'when I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad.'"
This is a good principle to live by, but it is limited and can be misleading. It is true that Lincoln is famous for taking each day as it came. He was not known for his political plans (freeing the slaves, for example, was not a long-term ambition). I recently read one of his better-known biographies, and I think it would be a mistake to say that Lincoln did not have any foundation dogmas.
Lincoln had two sources of dogma (dogma in the sense of written policies or doctrines). First, the Bible. Although he was not unusually religious, and he had his own views on many things, like most people of his day he had great respect for the Bible. Second, the constitution. His initial opposition to slavery, and his reason for becoming President, were based on his respect for the constitution. The Grolier Encyclopedia article illustrates both influences:
"Lincoln "was losing interest in politics" when the KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT was passed by Congress in 1854. ... Although he was not an abolitionist and thought slavery unassailably protected by the Constitution in states where it already existed, Lincoln also thought that America's founders had put slavery on the way to "ultimate extinction" by preventing its spread to new territories. He saw this act, which had been sponsored by Democratic Senator Stephen A. DOUGLAS, as a new and alarming development.
...In his speech at Springfield in acceptance of the Republican senatorial nomination (June 16, 1858) Lincoln suggested that Douglas, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and Democratic presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan had conspired to nationalize slavery. In the same speech he expressed the view that the nation would become either all slave or all free: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" [A famous saying of Jesus]"
I think we should follow Lincoln's example. We should follow our feelings, but we should base our beliefs on solid and reliable foundations. In Lincoln's case it was the Bible and the constitution. In my case (as a Mormon) it is the Bible and the other words of the prophets.
Simply following our feelings is, on its own, dangerous. In any war or other atrocity, there are people on both sides who believe passionately in what they are doing. I am sure that when the German people democratically voted in Adolph Hitler, they felt good about it.
Finally, the "do good, feel good" philosophy does not help in complex situations. Every politician (including Abraham Lincoln) has to make decisions that do not feel good, but are nonetheless right. I am sure he did not feel good about fighting a war, and sending thousands of men to their deaths. But he knew, from his experience, and from what he knew second hand from recent wars in Europe, that it was nevertheless the right thing to do.
So, in conclusion, the "do good, feel good" principle is good, but we need to have more.
"All religious truth is subjective"
This depends on your definition of religious.
- The "Word of Wisdom" (concerning tobacco, alcohol, etc.) is a religious truth. If someone who gives up smoking and lives longer, are his extra years of life just subjective?
- The existence of the religious texts written on metal plates is a religious truth. When archeologists dig up more such metal plates, are their discoveries subjective?
- The belief in marriage as a top priority is a religious truth. When my children grow up never having seen their parents (or anyone in their extended family) fight, and certainly not separate or divorce, is that subjective?
Call it subjective if you wish. But my religion is a practical one. I stick with it because it works.
Actually, the essential subjectivity of all experience is a Good Thing. It allows us all tremendous freedom in how we experience religion, or any other part of life. But that is a topic for another time.
|Reason 1: Being offended|
These pages are offensive
The basic problem is that these pages (which say why people leave the church) are offensive. That is, they cause offense. This is ironic, really. Several people have emailed me saying, in effect, "You are wrong! You say I left the church because I was offended! I did not leave the church because I was offended. That is a very offensive thing to say. That kind of holier-than-thou attitude is why I left the church." Hmm... does that make sense? "I did not leave the church because I was offended. I left because I was offended."
This church has to be the most offensive church on the earth Why? Because it is true:
- The church tells us to repent. Yes, every church says that, but many say that after we are saved (by baptism), our salvation is secure. But the Mormon church (and the Bible) say we have to keep on being righteous or we are not saved. So, even when we try to do right, we are called sinners! This is offensive. But it is also true.
- The church takes a definite stand on things. It says certain things are right, and by implication, certain things are wrong. The church is not a political party that tries to please everyone all the time and hence pleases no-one. Every time the church says "do this" we are inevitably saying "if you do not do this, you are wrong." This is offensive, but unavoidable.
- Finally, the church is full of real people. Real people get things wrong! We mis-apply church teachings, we misunderstand, we teach our own ideas instead of the revelations of God. We make a mess of it. We find ourselves unable to cope. We offend people by nature, and we offend people even more because we then say that our limited and messed up actions are the will of God!
So, truth is offensive, truth means we cannot dilute the message, and claims of truth make the inevitable mistakes all the more painful.
The church is most offensive because it is true.
"Mormons should be more tolerant - they do not follow their own eleventh Article of Faith"
I agree. But this is a good example of being offended by members. (The first of the three reasons for rejecting the church). We agree with what the church teaches (allow everyone to worship as they wish), but we get offended because church members do not always practice what they preach. There is no sense in getting offended like this. If we think Mormons need to repent (and we do), we should join with Gordon B. Hinckley. He spends his whole life telling people to have higher standards, and live up to what we profess!
Incidentally, we should not confuse tolerance with apathy. If you think I am wrong, you have no right to stop me believing what I wish. However, you do have the obligation to tell me - after all, if I am wrong, I am probably hurting myself and many others. In the same was, if my belief is any good, you should expect me to try and tell you why! You can still think differently, but our dialogue could help us both.
"The 'only true church' idea is offensive"
I am sorry if I offend people, but I say it how I see it. I would be dishonest not to. But I am quite happy for you to disagree!
The unique position of the church is discussed (from a Biblical perspective) elsewhere. In my opinion, this church is so much better than any other church or organization, and its position is so strong, that the phrase "only true church" is perfectly fair.
However, you are free to disagree! I think it is very healthy for each person to claim that their own version of truth is the best, the ultimate, etc. (see discussion) as long as they are ready to look at the alternatives. I think that a competition of ideas is healthy.
Let us each stand up for what we think. Don't be shy! Be ready to declare it boldly and clearly. Don't settle for vague or contradictory ideas. Find a belief system that has the strength to save the world. If you or I are wrong, we can go down with dignity!
"It hurts when you accuse me [and other ex-Mormons] of being weak, misled, etc."
Active Mormons are accused of worse than this. Or rather, the more we try to do right, the more we are sensitive to sin. I am also weak. I am also misled whenever I sin. Critics of the church are well aware of this, and refer to the guilt culture. So this is not an attack on ex-Mormons. It is an attack on anyone (myself included) who does wrong.
Of course, we should try to not be offensive - it does no-one any favors. But we have to accept that the church is unavoidably offensive (see above). All we can do is learn to live with it, and (as members in particular) try to be more Christ-like, as church leaders are always saying. I am sorry that this is not much help, but that is just how it is.
"Mormons think ex-Mormons leave because they have been 'evil'"
Mormon also think Mormons STAY because they are evil. The church, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, is not a playground for righteous people, but a hospital for sinners. So. I stay in the church because I am (to some extent) evil.
But is leaving the church evil? Not sinning (not being evil) includes loving one's neighbor, turning the other cheek, and (I conclude) following Jesus. And if Jesus set up the church to promote his word, then yes, leaving it is evil.
Whenever we do wrong, we are being evil. Even the apostles are singled out for condemnation at times. Matthew 16:23:" "But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me."
If we want to do what is right, we must be prepared to be told we are wrong, in strong and clear language. No-one is (or should be) singling out n non-Mormons in particular. You have your sins, I have mine.
"Mormons cut off and ostracize ex-Mormons"
Ordinary group dynamics
This should not happen, but if it does, why blame the church? This is a sad but natural result of anyone leaving one group and joining another. If you left a group of hedonists to become a born-again Christian, do you think your hedonist friends would treat you the same? If you were an active Republican campaigner and then became a Democrat, would your old friends feel as comfortable with you? When a teenager decides to rebel, does he has such close relationships with his or her parents?
In each of these case, there is not a conscious decision to cut off the person who has left, but people no longer understand each other. They try to understand why the person left, but often get it wrong. They no longer have as much in common. They feel uncomfortable. They may even be afraid of you. When you chose to leave a group, you are not only saying that the group is bad or wrong in some way (by your actions if not your words), but the fact that you felt strong enough to leave suggests that you are more likely to try to bring people with you. It is common (though not universal) for someone leaving a group to feel the need to explain themselves, and some people find this threatening.
More often though, a decision to leave a group is quite reasonably seen as a sign that the person does not want to be part of the group. Plainly, being in the group made you feel uncomfortable. Knowing that, people who are still in the group feel uncomfortable around you. Nobody likes to be around someone when they think (rightly or wrongly) that this person does not like what they do.
It cuts both ways
What I am saying is that the people you leave behind feel just as cut-off as you do. It works both ways. Each side (the group and the person who leaves) look to like-minded people for comfort. This means that the group retracts into itself, and the person who leaves - now out in the cold - feels the loss more acutely. Of course the person who leaves suffers more, but this is not a deliberate policy of the group, it is just a natural consequence of group dynamics, Mormon or otherwise.
This does not excuse unloving behavior. Showing a lack of love is wrong. But members are not all strong. Most church members did not join in order to face up to these difficult issues. They want to be reassured, not challenged. They find people who leave to be difficult, uncomfortable, confusing. They find themselves unable to understand or discuss the issues involved. hence the do not return email. It is not a deliberate insult, it is just how ordinary people behave when they feel unable to understand.
When leaders give counsel
But what about when leaders counsel people to deliberately leave things alone? I remember when I was first given a copy of "Mormonism - Shadow or Reality." A friend, a prominent local member, recommended that I do not read it, but give it back. I chose to ignore his counsel but read it anyway. At the time there were issues that I could not answer, and they troubled me. But later I found out the answers. The more I learned, the more I could see the weaknesses and problems in the book.
I have never known a church leader to say "don't talk to him," but I can see that it might happen. Someone who deliberately leaves the church and then wants to tell his story, especially if that person is eloquent or well read, could present a weak member with challenges they are not ready to face. This is not a question of blindfolding members. Each member can (and does) make up their own mind. But people often join the church because they want a simple faith. It works for them, and that is all they want. They are just not ready for challenges yet. Personally, I love to be challenged, but I must respect the right of others to prefer their comforts.
"You have no right to say that someone who disagrees with you has something wrong with them."
I respectfully disagree. Respectfully, because I respect that your belief may be just as strong (or stronger) than mine - how could I know your thoughts? But I disagree for the following reasons:
(1). If a believe a lie, there is something wrong with me.
I think that beliefs matter. Beliefs lead to actions. If I believe something that is not true, it could (and probably will) lead to real harm. That is wrong! It is bad! That is one reason why I made this web site. I think that these ideas are important. I want to know if they are wrong. I know that some things I believe will be wrong - I am not omniscient! By making these things public, I hope that some of you kind readers will show me where I am wrong. It may not be obvious, but I am constantly changing this we site in response to readers' comments.
Back to the point: if I believe a lie, then I am in a bad way - there is something wrong with me. There are plenty of things wrong with me. I recognise that. That is why I want to follow Jesus - I want to reduce that number!
(2) If you are right and I disagree, then I must be wrong, and there is something wrong with me.
But why be upset over it? Let us instead do something about it! Sure, we won't get perfect in this life, but we can each try to improve ourselves in the ways that matter, and the best way is by following Jesus. I believe that the "Mormon" church is the church of Jesus. And I will continue to be bold. I seldom see a good reason for leaving the church. I think that leaving the church is almost always a bad move.
Being in the church is all we need?
Of course, being in the church is not enough on its own - a sinner in the church is under more condemnation than a sinner out of the church. But if we are not happy in the church, maybe we just need to see things in a different way.
Let us use blunt language where we need to!
Maybe I am wrong. If so, there is something wrong with me, and I hope you can tell me plainly enough that I will see it. But if I am right, then I should do everything in my power to persuade people to join the church, to stay in the church, and above all, to make church life something that you and I can enjoy.
|Reason 2: Joining another church|
"I joined another church, but NOT because it was easier - it was very difficult."
This is a good point. In Why do some people turn away? I said that those who leave the church for conscious reason fall into three categories:
- "I was offended"
- "I prefer another church"
- "I am cleverer than you"
This refers to causes, not results.
Plainly, many of the people who leave will join another church as a result of leaving. But it was not the cause. The other causes are coming to different conclusions about doctrines, or being hurt by church members. Leaving because another church is easier is the easy way out. But leaving for another reason (and then joining another church later on) is not easy. I am sorry if I gave the impression that everyone who joins another church left because of that other church. That is of course not the case.
The bottom line:
The Mormon church has to be the most offensive church in the world - because it is true!