Why Mormons Are Leaving the Church: 4 Myths - Word&Way

Why Mormons Are Leaving the Church: 4 Myths

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash
Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

One of the most noteworthy findings of research into former Mormons was how happy they are with their path after leaving. (Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash)

With more people leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than in past generations, it seems everyone has an explanation for why this is happening.

But many of these explanations don’t hold water statistically, based on findings from former Mormons in the Next Mormons Survey (see here for more about the study):

1. “They don’t believe in God.”

Within orthodox Mormon circles there’s a general impression that people who leave the church abandon faith in God altogether, but this isn’t quite accurate, especially outside of Utah.

The NMS shows that very few former Mormons do not believe in God at all. Only 6% fall into this category, with another 8% choosing the agnostic option of “I don’t know whether there is a personal God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out.”

This means that 86% of former Mormons say they believe in God, though they may have doubts at times or feel God is more like a “higher power” than a personal deity.

It’s not accurate to characterize former Mormons as having rejected all religious belief. For most, the reality is far more nuanced and complicated.

Many actually hold on to not just a belief in God but to basic Christian teachings about Jesus and the afterlife. They do not, however, tend to still believe in specifically Mormon teachings about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or contemporary prophets and apostles.

2. “They left because they got offended.”

Another standing narrative within Mormon circles is that people left the church because they had an argument or misunderstanding with a member or local leader and chose to hold a grudge about it for years.

In a 2006 General Conference talk, Elder David A. Bednar gave several examples of this, including a member who was insulted by a comment made in Sunday School, and had not darkened the door of a church since; and another person who disagreed with some advice from the bishop and refused to attend until that bishop was released.

Out of a total of thirty possible reasons the NMS offered respondents to explain why they left, “I was hurt by a negative experience at church” only ranked eleventh overall. So it’s not irrelevant, but it’s not the most salient reason either. More popular reasons included a loss of belief that there is “one true church,” a lack of trust for church leaders about Mormon history, concerns about LGBT issues, and a general sense of feeling judged or misunderstood.

What’s more, in the write-in boxes where people were given the option to elaborate on their answers, some of the stories that could be said to fall into the category of “I got offended” were far more serious than Elder Bednar’s examples might indicate—for example, the church siding with an abusive husband/father in a divorce case.

What’s appealing about the “got offended” narrative is that it wholly and conveniently blames people who left without requiring those who remain to engage in any serious introspection about the ways they may have contributed to those departures. As such, I don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon, but it would be nice if we remember that this story has been constructed to exculpate the faithful, not to explain the actual choices of dissenters.

3. “They found another religion.”

More people are leaving Mormonism—but not so they can join another church.

Only a third of former Mormons now identify with another organized religion, including mainline Protestant (7%), evangelical Protestant (10%), Catholic (6%), and all other religions (11% combined).

The other two-thirds say they identify as “nothing in particular” (27%), “just Christian” (21%), agnostic (12%), or atheist (6%). Broadly speaking, they would be characterized as “nones” in today’s religious landscape.

religious affiliation chartThis is similar to what Pew found in 2014 about former Mormons: about six in ten former Mormons did not reaffiliate with something else.

And because the Pew study is comparative, we can look at people who left other religions and see patterns in whether they joined another religious tradition. For “mainstream” religions like Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and Orthodoxy, about half joined other faiths and half did not. For Islam, two-thirds did not, and for Judaism, nearly three-quarters did not.

What this seems to show is that Mormonism is (once again) somewhere in between a mainstream religion and a minority faith. Like Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and Orthodoxy, Mormonism is a Christian religion, which may facilitate religious switching in a predominantly Christian country like the United States. But like Judaism and Islam, Mormonism is also a tiny minority (less than 2% of the U.S. population in each case), and it is religiously distinctive. Both of those things make religious switching harder.

There’s also a Utah factor. In the NMS, former Mormons in Utah were less likely to reaffiliate with another religion. In fact, they tended to have significantly lower Christian beliefs overall than former Mormons who lived elsewhere in the U.S. It’s worth asking: what is it about former Mormons’ experience in Utah that seems to turn them off religion altogether?

4. “They’re lost and unhappy outside the church.”

Finally, one of the most noteworthy findings of the NMS’s research into former Mormons was how happy they are with their path after leaving.

When asked to make a binary choice about which better described their feelings after leaving Mormonism—“freedom, possibility, and relief” or “loss, anger, or grief”—93% of former Mormons chose “freedom, possibility, and relief.”

The “loss, anger, and grief” aspect seemed most present for respondents who were still in the throes of a very recent faith transition, or who had struggled with their membership for years before leaving Mormonism, or whose family members were all still devoted to the church.

They are a small minority, however—fewer than one in ten. This finding is at odds with a standing narrative in the LDS Church that to exit the fold is to leave warmth and happiness behind. That may be true for a time, but it does not appear to be true for life.

But here’s one that is sort of true: “They wanted to sin.”

In the study, a quarter of former Mormons chose “I engaged in behaviors that the Church views as sinful” as one of their top reasons for leaving the church. It ranked sixth overall.

Note, however, that the question is about behaviors they had already engaged in, not ones they aspired to do in the future, which means it’s more complex than a simple desire to drink or have nonmarital sex. It may be that respondents did these things and did not see a way back to full church activity afterward, either because they felt ashamed or because they felt judged by other members.

Dr. Benjamin Knoll contributed research and analysis that are discussed in this post.

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Jana Riess is a senior columnist with RNS. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.