They Can Leave the Church, But They Can’t Leave the Church Alone

I have been mulling over this idea for awhile, this idea of people leaving the Church/Mormonism but being “unable” to leave it alone. Do you have someone in your life like this? What does it tell you about the gospel to know that they can’t leave Mormonism alone? Does it strengthen your beliefs, as you literally witness the adversary work his hardest against that which is clearly true? Is it not just another testimony to your beliefs? Do you see that the Spirit has left them and that now they are unhappy? Do you watch them feeling angry and sad and feel bad for them, wishing they could just see the error of their ways and — like the prodigal son — return to your loving arms? Do you see the literal unfolding of divine consequence, as you know that wickedness never was happiness?

Before you assume these things to yourself, I invite you to read these thoughts. They might just open your mind to being a little more sympathetic to these people you supposedly love. And even if they don’t make you more sympathetic (i.e., if you don’t actually believe they are true), they might at least help you understand and talk to your loved ones better (thus increasing the likelihood of convincing them to return to the fold. So, good plan, right?).

The Thoughts:

Mormons (perhaps all people?) love catchphrases. Catchphrases make it easy to remember a line of thinking all in one simple sentence — a sort of thought shortcut. The trouble comes when that line of thinking is flawed to begin with. We don’t need thought shortcuts for flawed thoughts. That just makes it quicker and easier to be wrong.

So let me explain to you a couple of reasons why people I have personally met, known, talked to, cried with, and loved have not been able to leave Mormonism alone after leaving it.

(Anecdotal, true, but when we’re talking about people’s motivations — why they can’t leave it alone — that’s all we really have anyway).

They didn’t leave Mormonism until it left them. Alone. And with absolutely no direction.

Take a second and think of some of the most life-changing events you’ve ever gone through. Now take the one that was the most negative/difficult (at least initially). What was it like to go through it? What did it teach you, about life, about yourself? Would you avoid it if you could go back and do it over again? Do you share this experience or the lessons learned from it with others?

Guess what, for a lot of people, their faith crisis/transition/loss is one of the most difficult and misunderstood events of their lives. They learn and grow and cry and scream and read and pray and look for answers and lose family members and get told to be quiet and are treated as a visceral plague with every question and every doubt that they seek help and answers for. When they make their way through this cave of darkness, they often come out the other side with gems of both knowledge and experience. And they want to share. They want to help. They don’t want others to be lost in a dark place, treated as a visceral plague like they were.

At the same time, they are hurt and they are angry, and that hurt and anger spills out into their prose as satire or sarcasm or hyperbole. You need to bear with this. This is how all humans deal with emotion. Look past it and search for the meaning of what they’re trying to say and see the integrity with which they say it. For just a second, suspend your judgment of what you think got them feeling this way, and listen to what they are telling you got them feeling this way.

I compare it to a domestic violence relationship. I realize that may come off harsh to believing Mormons, but suspend what you believe is accurate for a second in favor of what someone is telling you they feel, because whether you believe they’re right or wrong, what they feel is what they feel. And they feel abused.

They had a world. A world full of concepts, and truths, and beliefs, and ideas. A world full of hopes, and promises, and progress, and eternity. They believed in good people persevering through hellish conditions to build up a church of truth and expand a great message of happiness — the good news — to all the world. And this information COLORED them. It colored their understanding of love, of family, of themselves, of the various sciences and earthly concepts. It colored their faces and their hair and their clothing and their language and their work and their hobbies and their relationships. They were drenched in its color.

And then they were betrayed.

They were betrayed because they learned (or they think they learned, if that makes you feel more comfortable) that the good people of old were actually harmful and lying. They learned that the hope was false. That the promises were empty. That the messages were hypocritical. Some of them learned they were not loved. Some of them learned that they lived with teeth-gnashing guilt for years for no reason. Some of them learned that they developed complexes and addictions that they would never have otherwise developed.

Some of them wasted away their time, their energy, their educations, their relationships trying to stand firm to something they now believe is utterly false. They shunned opportunities for good (“it is better to go on a mission than to join the peace corps”), they shunned people they should have loved (“don’t date anyone you wouldn’t marry”; “don’t jump in a pit to try to push someone else out”), they increased their likelihood of poverty (putting off education for missions, placing no limit on the number of children they had, making life choices based on feelings rather than logic); they lost out on opportunities for personal education (“mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children”); they wasted their life feeling empty because of a faulty womb (“God’s commandment…to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force”). Some of them starved themselves or cut themselves, wondering all the while if they were Legion and if God could and would cure them of their filth, all the while reading and praying and fasting more fervently than ever trying to place themselves more in line with a book they now believe is nonsense. Some of them came close to suicide. Some of them are no longer with us.

Whether it is or isn’t, it feels like the ultimate betrayal. And so they are hurt. They are.

And not only are they hurt looking back at the years lost to anguish, anxiety, or self-righteousness, but they are hurt looking forward as well. They spent all their time making sense of the world through the lens of what they now believe to be just random ramblings by a non-prophet, and now they have to make sense of it all over again, from scratch it seems, and often without the support of their community, their family, and their closest friends.

Whether you agree with it or not, this is how they feel. They got out of an abusive relationship. And so now they are going to talk about it. It is the single most prolific and far-reaching decision most of them have ever made. They are going to talk about it. They are not going to leave it alone any more than you would leave your greatest life lessons to sit in silence.

It stole and broke their families.

“Where is your husband? Oh, I’m so sorry for you. Let us know if we can help. We’ll say extra prayers for your family.”

The Church is full of statements that indirectly infer that believers should not fraternize with any non-believers, especially if the non-believers are vocal about their non-belief. This is not because the Church directly says they shouldn’t fraternize with non-believers; it is because the Church characterizes non-believers as something they are not, and because the Church does not equip believers with the tools they need to truly socialize with people who have different beliefs and practices than their own.

Consider the words of Elder Carlos Asay as he explains here that those who sow doubts by referring to changes in Church publications (like I have in the past with regard to the Blacks and the Priesthood essay being in direct conflict with 2 Nephi) are apostates, anti-Christs even, who only want to disturb your peace, and that they should be avoided.

Consider this talk by Elder Claudio Zivic as he lists the different options for what makes a person apostatize, none of which includes having sincerely searched for truth and having found it elsewhere (or at least having not found it in Mormonism).

Consider Elder Ballard’s 2014 talk about how “in [his] experience” those who apostatize simply forgot that he and the other apostles speak for God.

It is a mischaracterization. It turns a loved one into a dangerous minion of Satan, and, no, I’m not being hyperbolic. This is literally what is being taught between the lines. To be fair, there are plenty of other teachings that encourage believing members to be loving and inclusive of their non-believing loved ones, but in practice this doesn’t happen often. Or at least not very well.

And that is likely due in part to the second problem, which is that believers are not equipped with the tools they need to socialize outside of Mormonism.

When you believe in a fundamental truth whose ribbons run through all aspects of life, how do you carry on a conversation apart from those ribbons? When your Sundays and your Thursdays and your Mondays and your nightly routines and your morning routines and your first Saturdays of every month, and your Christmas parties, and your Halloween trunk-or-treats, and your babysitters, and your monthly visits are ALL engulfed in Mormonism, how do you converse with those who aren’t a part of these routines, this community? When several of the most common “worldly” practices (careers for mothers, baseball games on Sundays, chatting over coffee, Happy Hours after work, etc.) are against your beliefs, how do you carry on a conversation?

And so an “apostate’s” marriage, and family, and friendships, and neighborhood, and community gets broken down and ruined. The “apostate” is left alone while the rest of his or her community has casserole and brownies at the ward party, or plays basketball with the ward members, or kisses their children as they leave for camp.

And if their family just got ruined by something that not only utterly misunderstands them, but that refuses to listen to them for fear they will lead it astray, and that leaves them alone as the one out because it either fears talking to them or doesn’t know how to talk to them (or both), then is it really any wonder why they might want to talk about that? Why they might not be able to just move on from that? I mean, if they seek to listen and be heard, maybe they can get their spouse back. Maybe they can get their family members to start calling and chatting with them again, to treat them normally. Maybe they can help others feel loved when they too are questioning. Maybe they can help a sibling or a nephew or a friend or an old home teacher. Maybe they can clear the misunderstanding. Maybe they can heal relationships. Maybe they can be seen once again as a good father, or a good daughter, or a good neighbor. Or just good.

And so they’re going to talk. They are not going to leave it alone, when it effects the very fabric of their relationships.

It continues to effect them.

What really spurred me to finally write these thoughts out was a horrendously ridiculous comment from a gal (well-meaning, I’m sure) on this Facebook post. The gal who commented literally thinks that the only anti-religious info being spread in the world is all anti-Mormon (read: Mormon questioning); that no one is attacking the Catholics or the Baptists or the Buddhists or the Jews, etc. It was the most naive thing I had read in a long time, and the fact that it was being used to justify the public shaming of a 12-year-old girl who had just done the most brave thing she had likely ever done, was tragic. Absolutely one hundred percent tragic.

It’s not that this commenter hears so much discussion about Mormonism on account of Satan seeking hard to destroy God’s one true church. I would place a high bet (sinful, I know) that the real reason this gal hears so much discussion about Mormonism is because she lives in a circle of Mormon friends, who have Mormon family members and Mormon Facebook friends, who read and share Mormon things on the internet, who attend Mormon gatherings and listen to Mormon leaders, who talk about Mormon things the way others talk about the weather — an easy topic because it’s something everyone around them has in common — ,and who — when they leave the Church — are just like the others I’ve met: effected.

And that’s the thing, Mormonism continues to be tragic for many, many people. It is NOT always happiness. It is NOT true that it “doesn’t do any harm, so why fight it?” It does not always lead to stronger families, to righteous confidence, to peace. It so often leads to conflict, cognitive dissonance, and sorrow. And I’m NOT talking about the type of sorrow suffered by those who “the Lord would not always suffer…to take happiness in sin.” These people are usually the most by-the-book-righteous people in Mormonism.

And once they leave, they cannot escape it.

It surrounds their families, their communities, often their neighborhoods. It checks in on them from time to time. It invites them (with ulterior motives) to hang out. It writes them random, often anonymous warnings about how they’re going to hell. It tells them they’re ruining their children. It refuses to let their children play with its children. It crosses them off of potential spouse lists. It prays for them to turn from their wickedness, and it tells them as much. It posts passive aggressive memes knowing they’ll see them. It calls them on Sunday and tells them what a wonderful time it had at church and how they are missing out on so much. It pans up and down when it sees them, eyeing their (completely normal, but I guess it would say “worldly”) clothing choices. It feels a surge of righteousness at standing boldly and loudly (in print or spoken word) against how they act or even who they are. It misunderstands them. It fears them. It judges them (call it righteous judgement, call it pity, call it caring, but spoken or silent, it is judgment). And it leaves them substantively alone but practically bombarded by Mormonism.

And so even those who have emotionally moved on and who have made new communities and relationships are prodded and poked and pushed and prompted and provoked. So they are going to talk. They are not going to leave it alone, when it continues to refuse to do the same for them.

Mormonism colored me.

It is part of who I am; it is woven throughout all my childhood memories; it is the entire foundation of my college years; it was the guiding force for my first post-grad school job, for my move to Colorado, for my choice to have children (luckily, I think the logical parts of me were secretly at play in these decisions as well).

Whether I accept its teachings or not now, how profoundly ridiculous it would be to think that I would just never talk about it again. Why on earth would I leave it and then leave it alone? This is the sentiment of a thousand voices who were all trained to sing under the guidance of a Sunday hymn.

So you can take that sentiment and apply meaning to it if you want— “this must mean Satan has it out for the Church, and Satan must have it out for the Church because the Church is true” — and then you can give that sentiment a little catchphrase — “People can leave the Church, but they can’t leave the Church alone” — and you can continue to feel biased about your position. Or you can listen.