Yes, I am an expert in how to leave the church and do it the wrong way. A little background:
I have always been a history and knowledge junkie, and when I worked at the Church Office Building in the early 90s, I would go down to the historical library on my lunch hour and read whatever looked interesting. Around 1995, when I was no longer working for the church, I got invited to participate in an online listserv group, alt.religion.mormon. I moved on to other places, such as the ironically named FAIR board, where I was a defender of the church but tried to be fair and honest and kind with people who disagreed.
In 2005, I took an 8-month break from all Mormon online participation, and during that break, I realized that I’d known for quite some time that the church wasn’t true, but I just hadn’t let myself admit it. Literally, everything fell apart during a phone conversation with a friend who was distraught about Joseph Smith and polyandry.
When I got home, my wife could tell something was wrong, so I blurted out that I didn’t believe in the church anymore. For 2 years I tried to get her to listen to what I knew. I sent her articles, quoted books, asked questions about her beliefs, and generally challenged her as much as I could. Needless to say, we fought for 2 years. My sister, to whom I’ve always been close, began having long conversations with my wife about how to “fix” me. Our marriage nearly broke up, and I sank into a deep depression. In 2007 I attempted suicide and ended up spending 3 days as an unwilling guest of a psych ward in Houston.
That was a turning point for me. I realized that I’d been pushing my wife to hear things she didn’t want to hear, and she had been pushing back just as hard to get me to step back in line. We both changed because of my suicide attempt. We learned that it was OK to disagree, that it was OK for her not to want to know what I knew, and it was OK for me not to bow to her religious wishes.
So, here are some of the things I’ve learned:
1. Why do Mormons take it so personally when you state the facts about their religion?
Mormonism was part of our identity, perhaps even the main part. The LDS church is designed to be the center of a member’s existence; without the church, there would be a huge, gaping hole (which we all experience when we leave). So, whether they realize it or not, most Mormons predictably react as though a criticism of the church is a personal attack on them. No, it’s not rational, and in a perfect world, you could get people to step back and separate the church from themselves. But in reality, they do not draw a distinct line between the self and Mormonism.
2. Why is relatively uncontroversial information so threatening to a lot of Mormons?
The church has done such a great job of packaging its history and doctrines that anything else, no matter how trivial it may seem, is jarring to believers. Take the “rock in the hat” episode. It’s well-established that Joseph Smith used a stone he found in a well to pretend to find buried treasure, long before the Book of Mormon project began. And there is plenty of eyewitness testimony that he used the same stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon. But it’s not part of the approved narrative, so people get horribly offended and assume you’re just telling lies.
3. Why do my family and friends treat me like I’m an enemy?
The church has long taught that people who leave are apostates, and such people are evil. They are the kind of people who killed Joseph Smith. They have evil in their hearts and are motivated by hatred of truth and goodness. Heck, they’ve even had priesthood and Relief Society lessons about us rotten apostates. So, when you challenge their beliefs with new information, they assume that you are attacking them personally, that you are making things up, and that you are doing so in a dishonest attempt to make the church look bad.
4. How do I get through to them?
Unfortunately, the answer generally is that you won’t and can’t. But being confrontational just plays into the church’s script: angry apostate can’t just leave it alone but must attack God’s true religion.
5. So, what should I do?
There’s no right answer, but I’ll tell you what works for me. If I am tempted to discuss my loss of belief with someone I care about, I ask myself two questions: 1) What do I hope to accomplish with this discussion? 2) What is the likely outcome of the discussion? If the answer to 1) is “I just want them to know the truth,” that’s not good enough. The second question comes into play: How likely is it that they are going to know and accept the truth because of your discussion? If it’s unlikely, why bother? In my view, it’s fine to share your feelings and knowledge with anyone you wish, but when it comes to loved ones, make sure you have a definite goal in mind and that your conversation is likely to achieve that goal.
6. How do I convince my family and friends that my unbelief is not a personal attack on them?
This one is simple. As I said in question 1 above, the church makes itself the center of your life, your relationships, your marriage. One day my wife said to me, “Our marriage has always been built on the church and the gospel, so now I wonder what’s left?” I realized that both of us needed to recognize what our marriage was without the church at the center. We discovered that our relationship was about love, commitment, friendship, intimacy, passion, and so on. None of that depended on the church. Once we started focusing on building those non-church aspects, we started to heal as a couple.
You are going to have friends and family who insist on making the church the center of your relationship. If that’s all there is to your relationship, you don’t have a relationship with such people, so there’s no big loss here.
Let them be the nasty ones; let them be the ones who value loyalty to the church over love and truth. Don’t let it be you.
7. Does this mean I have to just shut up and endure the crap from my Mormon friends and family?
No, not at all. But what it does mean is that we must choose our battles wisely. Have you ever known someone who can’t talk about anything other than a specific topic, usually their religion or politics? I had an Aunt Helen who was a Scientologist, and when she visited (thank God she lived in Ohio, and we were in California) all she could talk about was her stupid cult. Pretty much everyone ignored her and avoided contact with her. My father incessantly talks about Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, so I judiciously change the subject because I’ve learned that arguing back is pointless. He’s not changing his mind, and neither am I. I realize that I can’t be the ex-Mormon version of my nutcase aunt because it does no good and just makes people want to avoid me.
Of course, someone inevitably brings up the subject of why I left the church. Again, what I share depends on who I’m with, what I hope to accomplish, and what I expect the outcome to be. My wife doesn’t want to know anything, so if she asks a specific question, I answer succinctly and leave it at that. An old friend of mine was constantly harping on me about my apostasy, but he wouldn’t listen to anything I said but would just argue and call me to repentance. Eventually, I sent him a link to MormonThink.com and told him that I’d rather he educate himself on the issues before we got back into it. To my complete shock, reading that on his own without my interference led him to question everything he believed. If I had kept up the defensive arguments we’d been having, nothing would have changed for either of us.
8. My Mormon friends tell me I’m bitter for being angry. Is it wrong to feel so angry? How do I get past the anger and hurt?
I’ve been told by countless Mormons that it’s wrong to feel angry and hurt, that it just means I’m “bitter.” They say, “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.” Screw that. Losing your belief is a loss, and that involves grief. Ex-Mormons go through all the stages of grief), and anger is one of those stages. It’s not healthy to suppress that anger. You’ll make yourself crazy. Get it out, but get it out where it won’t damage your important relationships. Message boards, such as the Recovery from Mormonism board, are great places for venting. One thing you’ll notice is that most people post for a few months until the anger passes, and then they move on. There’s no timetable, obviously, but the anger does subside. The time to talk to your family about your beliefs is not when you are angry and hurt.
So, what’s happened since 2007? Well, for one thing I’m not depressed anymore (a good therapist and medication did wonders). My wife and I don’t fight about religion anymore, and I find that I can appreciate the good she gets out of it without forgetting the bad. She understands that I’m sincere in my beliefs and not some evil apostate. My sister, who once thought I had lost my mind, respects my opinion about the church enough to ask me about things she feels she can’t ask other believers. My parents don’t agree with my reasons for leaving, but we have had good conversations about why I believe what I do.
Because I haven’t been in my family’s faces about my beliefs, my children have felt comfortable talking to me about their questions and doubts. Of my 6 kids, 3 were absolutely relieved to know that I don’t believe because they didn’t. One was married in the temple a year ago, though I would say she is very liberal in her understanding of church history and doctrine. The other two haven’t quite decided where they fit.
So, in short:
1. Find non-destructive ways to vent your emotions.
2. Recognize that what you see as truth will likely be seen as an attack by your Mormon friends and family.
3. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t be Aunt Helen.
4. Have a purpose for the information you share.
5. Focus on strengthening the non-church parts of your relationships. Don’t make the church the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.
One last thing:
I’ll bet you’re saying to yourself, “That’s not fair! Mormons get to treat me like crap, and I have to be all nice and forgiving.” No, it isn’t fair. Someone posted yesterday how sad it was that we are grateful for people being less nasty to us. If you need to be nasty to Mormons, join a message board and argue away with believers. But don’t return the nastiness from people who are important in your lives. I often have to remind myself that they are behaving that way because the church taught them to behave that way. That stuff has been pounded into their heads all their lives, and we can’t hold them entirely responsible. To steal a line from the church, “Hate the Mormonism, but love the Mormon.”
And by no means am I saying you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. When you are attacked and maligned, you have every right to defend yourself and your beliefs. But be smart about it.
I hope this helps. Like I said, I believe these things work because doing the opposite didn’t work for me and changing my approach has really helped. There are no guarantees, and there are no right answers. Do what you must do, but I hope what I have said helps in some small way.