Repost: Expert Ex-Mormon

A friend asked me about this post, which I wrote a while back. Seemed a good idea to repost it.

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.

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12 Responses to Repost: Expert Ex-Mormon

  1. Runtu. You have give some wise advise here in this repost.

    To me the most important element to remember is that, for right or wrong, mormonism is imbedded into our families DNA.

    Any criticism of the church, fair or otherwise, often is viewed as a personal attack.

    I made the same mistakes with my wife. It took a full on argument with tears and all for me to realize her perspective. I felt I was sharing truth. She felt that I was metaphorically slapping her in the face every time I pointed out one of the church’s issues.

    We have since found wonderful space where we support each other in our faith needs.

    Great advice.

    • runtu says:

      I’m so glad to hear that. My intent isn’t to get people to leave but to help people who are already dealing with the fallout to navigate it with a minimum of pain. A painless exit isn’t possible, but we don’t have to make things worse than they already are.

      • I agree. I am still an active member, but with a newfound world view. It has been a challenge to find a peaceful place. But for now it is good.

        Voices like yours have made all of the differences in process these challenging issues not of my making.

        Thank you again.

      • runtu says:

        You’re quite welcome. I’m glad you have found a happy and peaceful place. That’s what matters.

        ETA: I should say that I have no interest in how people’s crises of faith resolve themselves, only that they resolve themselves in a positive way, or at least in as minimally painful a way as possible. I know a lot of people who have come through their faith crisis with their faith intact, perhaps even made stronger. I’m really happy for them.

  2. vikingz2000 says:

    There are a lot of good points in this post.

    My parents converted to Mormonism when I was eight years old, having been practicing Roman Catholics. About thirty years later I started to, as Socrates stated, “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and that was the beginning of the beginning (a new beginning, beginnings). I won’t bore you with the long story, but all of my children are now pretty much ‘out’ of Mormonism (three were always very active). My feeling is that I and my children were Mormons only because of a decision my parents made, not me or them. I, along with my kids just fell into line and followed along because that’s all we knew at the time. However, I now ask myself, “If the Mormon missionaries were to have tracked out me personally (instead of my parents), and especially in the Internet age, would I have joined the Mormon church? Would any of my adult kids? The answer is an unequivocal, “No.” So, I don’t feel any angst for having left the Mormon church. This is not to say that the Mormon church wasn’t of any benefit to me or my kids; it was in many ways, and no doubt it was better than had we been Catholics (especially for the mission, leadership, teaching, etc personal growth experiences).

    But I understand that it’s different for others because principally I don’t have any family, friend, or employment issues for having left. When I left, I had only a few members contact me (probably a reactivation assignment) and those meetings were totally uneventful and non-confrontational. I believe it helped things be that way because I always was very cheerful during the discussions and steered the conversations away from me towards them, and then I would just listen and continue to be interested in what they had to say. I never broached issues that would challenge their beliefs, and would manage to successfully steer awkward or inquisitive queries in other directions.

    Another tactic I would use is to say, “the Mormon church” rather than “the church”. E.g., “Well, the Mormon church certainly has or is blah, blah, blah…” rather than, “Well the church certainly has…”. This way it gave the impression or conveyed the message that I am not one of them (anymore). I made it seem as if they were speaking to a non-Mormon. This helped, I think, keep things civil and at arms length.

    There were only two times that I spoke of ‘the issues’. One was to an active Mormon who I know, and who came to me with some questions. I answered the questions in a very academic way, void of any personal emotion. The other who also came to me, but became confrontational, I simply said in a calm voice, “You know my level of scholarship about the Mormon church (again, not ‘the church’) is fairy ‘up there’, as is yours. However to discuss matters on an equal footing, would you be willing to read all of the material, i.e., books and websites, and also listen to all of the podcasts that I have listened to? Or put another way so as to better understand my position, if you could know that the Mormon church is not what it claims to be would you want to know by doing what is necessary, i.e., read, listen to podcasts, etc.?” He replied, “No. The church works for me and my family and that’s all I need to ‘know’.” I responded, “And that’s wonderful! I am happy for you and your family and I respect your willingness to remain fully entrenched in the Mormon church. It does indeed, as you say, ‘work’ for a lot of people. But it doesn’t for me, and for you to really understand why it doesn’t you have read and study the things that I did. If you are not willing to do that, then we really have nothing productive to about with regard to the Mormon church. We can talk about the weather, politics, and sure, religious affairs in general, but engaging in polemical discussions about Mormonism would not be productive. I am sure you would agree.” And he said he did, and that was that, and I never saw or spoke to him since then.

    Because of all the years I spent in the Mormon church (both good times and bad), it’s just a hobby or soap opera interest for me now; nothing more, nothing less. I don’t care diddily pop about Mormonism in that it could ever cause me, or I would cause someone else any angst about it. I am grateful to have had a Mormon experience, but it simply no longer became relevant in my life.

  3. There is a quote I stumbled across a while back that I think is relevant.

    “The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”

    – Alden Nowlan

    If we substitute the Church for adults, I think the quote has even more relevance.

    I have been critical of the ex-Mormon movement for some time, and many of your comments here, precisely because it would appear based on the available evidence that the vast majority of the DAMU is stuck, almost gleefully, in adolescence, and that any movement forward is actively discouraged. You said it was name calling, but to paraphrase Jack Nicolson from “As Good As it Gets”, “Is there any other way to look at it?”

    Everything from RfM, to other similar venues is based on keeping the anger, resentment, and disrespect towards the Church at an all time high, preventing any further movement towards either forgiveness, or wisdom. Ex-Mormons watch, read, analyze, General Conference talks with more intensity than Mormons, only with intentions to mock, ridicule, insult, and berate, all while cheered on by their compatriots. I have seen one bitter ex-Mormon scour the news for every Missionary, Mormon, or related death, and take morbid glee in point it all out. I am not sure how you can not recognize that your own mental health is related to your continued negative focus on the impact of Mormonism around you, which is nebulous at best given where you live.

    Another good quote, by Alexander Pope…

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

    The simple truth is that there is hardly reason to be upset that the Church is fallible, often mistaken, or that it denies these characteristics, this is ultimately life. If one studies religion with some depth (drinking a little more deeply) this is characteristic of almost any religion. There are anachronisms inherent in the BoM, problems with the POGP, and so on, but the same exists in the Bible, Sutras, Koran, etc… There is a Mahayana Buddhist story specifically justifying scripture that begins “Thus I heard the Buddha say…” when absolutely no one ever actually heard the Buddha say anything of the sort. The ultimate point of the story is that the ends (good teachings) justify the means (attributing them to the Buddha, when they are not authentic). Most would find this disturbing, until we realize that the NT is the same way, as is most scripture. This is life. Yes “they” do it too, which does not make it right, is not justification, but is simple fact. We are all fallible, so the question you must answer is what to do with it.

    But this is life. And it is possible to get angry, upset, livid, whiny, and so on that life is not perfect, but in the end, you’re still left with life, and the negative emotions associated with the anger, upset, whining, etc… is just wasted time, energy, and emotion.

    Many would argue this negates faith, that atheism is the answer, but this is shortsighted in my opinion. There was a recent study that tried to link religiosity with genetics, and that may be so, but there does seem to be a general perception that there is something more out there, and most want to find some way to connect with that external “other” in ways that suit their beliefs. This makes religion a little more grey, but in my opinion MUCH richer. If you support gay marriage, then the fact that the Church opposes it is not that big of a deal. You can still think the Prophet is guided by God, but just a little off in this case. The Priesthood ban is the result of latently racist old white men, who were not forced by God to make changes against their natures, despite God disagreeing. You can see it as a mistake, even if the Church refuses to admit it now. It will, eventually, so why get upset. You can read the BoM, find inspiration, even if not 100% sure there really was a Nephi or not, because it can still speak to you on a spiritual level.

    Certainly some devout Mormons would be almost violently opposed to such a faith position, insisting on “Orthodoxy”. Some of these may be GAs, but in the end, if someone wants to live that “Orthodox” life, it is their decision as much as it is mine to live an unOrthodox life. If there is a conflict there, no one can take my faith from me, even if they could take my TR from me (which they have not, so maybe I am just lucky, or maybe I just do not live in Utah?).

    When it comes to Mormons, many Mormons, including Bushman, the Givens’, and others (Dr. Bokovoy for example) have alluded to or stated outright, this is just part of the path of faith, accepting new information as amplification instead of faith killing, and a deepening relationship with God is possible, whatever he/she actually is (my gender ambiguity, not theirs).

    These people, in my opinion, are doing far more to help people in a “faith crisis” than the DAMU, since they offer a perspective that allows for forgiveness and wisdom, if we stick to the analogy above, instead of continued adolescence.

    I agree you did it wrong, suffered for it, and many could learn from your example, but you still are stuck in the “stupid fucking cult” mentality without forgiving the institution, or ultimately yourself.

    Maybe I am calling names, or maybe, as the wife of the previous head of my alma mater once said (when the sophomores were complaining about something and the head asked her what he should do about it) “They’re called sophomores because they are sophomoric.” Perhaps I am calling names, or perhaps I am calling the DAMU somewhat adolescent because they are, in fact,adolescent.

    • runtu says:

      Empathy is difficult for you.

      • Not at all. I hardly think I lack empathy, quite the opposite. In fact I think that someone should point out that the ex-Mormon emperor has no clothes on, and that it is hurting people. You have stated that your depression symptoms continue. I hold no malice towards you at all, so is pointing out that your rather continual negativity towards the “stupid fucking cult” might be a major part of this continued problem a lack of empathy, or evidence of empathy? Isn’t saying that forgiveness is better than anger actually very empathetic, even Christian?

        Consider the trail of broken marriages, families, and personal lives that litter the ex-Mormon community. Some angry Mormons would tell you that this is evidence of giving into Satan, or even punishment from God. I think it is neither, it is simply the influence of a method of leaving Mormonism, encouraged by an ex-Mormon movement, that is very unhealthy.

        As I mentioned in the past, I was told by a Brodie Award winner that being a part of secular culture demanded drinking. Specifically, “Mormons aren’t responsible with alcohol by not drinking any of it — the failure to engage is as irresponsible as overuse.” Not drinking is clearly irresponsible in this individual’s eyes.

        Oddly, this is not my world. In my world the only people I know who insist that you HAVE to drink, who get angry if you do not drink, are adolescents (because God forbid you are not “cool”). Having traveled in cultures characterized by VERY heavy drinking (US Military), I have never found that not drinking was really an issue. Maturity says that if you want to drink, drink (preferably responsibly) and if you do not, do not. That is my world. And this is what I consider healthy.

        How would the ex-Mormon world be different if, instead of breeding anger, continued resentment, and rebellion against everything the LDS Church stands for, instead they would admit that it is a flawed organization, that still has good parts that should be celebrated, and walk away forgiving the faults while admiring what is done right? What if someone was actually sad that a missionary died instead of using the headline as fodder?

        I think there would be a lot less broken marriages, families, and individuals.

      • runtu says:

        It just occurred to me when I was reading your last post. I think it is lack of empathy. Don’t get me wrong. I think your intentions are probably good, though I have doubted that in the past, but until this morning I’ve really struggled to understand your rather unhelpful approach.

        Empathy means you try to understand how another person feels. As I was reading your prior comments, it struck me that in the many months you’ve commented here, you’ve spent your time telling me how I felt when I was a Mormon, how I felt during my faith crisis, and how I feel now. And you have been telling me how I should feel in all those phases of life. There’s nothing empathetic about deciding for yourself how someone feels or ought to feel; quite the opposite.

        Empathy also means you try to see people as individuals. As your most recent comments show pretty clearly, you see me as part of some monolithic and seriously pissed off entity you can label the DAMU or the “exmormon emperor.” How else to explain your strange association of me with people who think there’s only one correct way of leaving the church, and it involves drinking? There’s nothing empathetic about pigeon-holing people and insisting that they remain in the neat little categories you assign to them. That’s quite the opposite of empathetic.

        But I do agree with your last paragraph. There’s not really a “right” way of leaving the LDS church, but I would say the wrong way is to position yourself as the antithesis of everything Mormon. Of course, you probably think I have so positioned myself. And forgiveness is crucial. I have forgiven the church. It took a lot longer for me to forgive myself, but I got there eventually.

      • Oddly enough I have never told you how you have felt, but I have commented on how you have acted, and continue to act (which does give a window into feelings. You say you have forgiven and forgotten? Are you saying that someone who has forgiven the institution and moved on pens snarky satire about Hiram L. Beasley? Calls the forgiven organization a “stupid fucking cult”? Even your explanation of how to be an ex-Mormon is based on an adversarial position. You seem to be so emeshed in the anger and resentment of being ex-Mormon, you do not recognize that it exists.

        The problem with this is that it carries over. You have a spouse and children who are still practicing Mormon. This animosity bleeds into the rest of your life. I have seen it in worse cases, men and women who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, but anyone who invests themselves deeply in animosity and anger can have it poison their life. Thich Nhat Hanh actually wrote a very good book about it, called “Anger” if I remember correctly; it is not very long. And much of this is the company you keep and the DAMU associations you maintain, many of which are toxic. The DAMU is certainly varied, but a common strain through it is anger, animosity, and resentment, all of which are very negative and toxic emotions, all of which are closely associated with depression and poor mental health.

        You could assume I am completely wrong, that I am way off base, and that nothing will happen. The problem is, over the years I have watched more than a few Mormon families implode because either one or both partners went ex-. Perhaps you will be the exception, it is not inevitable. But if I am right, it might be best to take some time off, reassess your anger, and deal with it. If one or more children decide to go on a mission, it would be nice to feel actual joy for them, instead of resentment. I could even recommend a good Zendo near you if you would be willing to sit for a while, I found it extremely cathartic after a difficult military period/transition.

  4. Simon Driver says:

    Joseph Abraham I am embarrassed for you. You truly sound obsessive and disturbed. Try to shake the snakes out of your head before you post. I am not interested in your attempts to rationalize your shameful sell-out to falsehoods that you know are false. I am not at all moved by your pedantic attempts to sound broad-minded. You are a liar and a fraud, and no one is buying the disjointed mess of neuroses you are selling. Maybe one day you will cringe when you read your old, phony posts like I cringe when I read them now, but do yourself a favor and just stop making us all groan with the awkwardness of your self-important janitor talk.

    • Eh…I have been called worse, likely will be so again. I do wonder if you are insulting me by comparing me to a janitor, or insulting janitors by comparing them to me. In either case, janitors are actually fairly important people, we should not ignore their contributions to our lives and overall wellbeing. My Seminary teacher was a janitor, very sweet lady.

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