At a recent book signing, a reader asked me why precisely it is so difficult for Mormons who stop believing or begin to believe in a different way to leave. I've talked about this before here. I've also talked about the costs of being excommunicated officially by the Mormon church, even if you no longer believe in the supernatural effects of such a ritual here.
The reality is that Mormonism isn't quite the same as most other religions. Leaving Mormonism and joining another form of Christianity is not like moving from one Protestant faith to another. Mormonism is more of a culture than other forms of Christianity and it permeates more of our lives than just Sunday worship. Mormonism includes marriage and having children, food and housing choices, work and friends, hobbies, and our very sense of self. Making it hard to leave may be partly a design of the church, but in some ways it is unintentional.
Yes, some Mormons shun family members in an attempt to get them to reconsider a choice to leave. But there are more important, subtler problems with leaving. Leaving Mormonism can mean leaving the certainty of having instant friends wherever you move, as well as specific financial assistance in hard times, from direct funds from "fast offerings" in the local ward to food from "The Bishop's Storehouse," not to mention the uncountable hours spent helping ward members clean houses, mow lawns, paint, shovel snow, babysit children, and even move out of the ward boundaries geographically.
I went through a faith crisis following the death of my sixth child, Mercy. Though I considered myself an atheist for several years, I continued to attend services, in part because losing my friends and family members as well as my faith system was too much of an obstacle while I was in the midst of suicidal depression. But it is also true that even if I didn't believe in God anymore, I was still unable to disentangle all the parts of myself that had been raised Mormon, including a kind of judgmentalism about those who left the Mormon faith.
Mormons believe that while everyone will get some level of heaven, only a very tiny portion will go to the highest level of the third kingdom, the celestial kingdom. There are many Mormon scriptures that talk about the "strait and narrow path" to God, as in Matthew 7:14 (strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it). In 3 Nephi 27:33, it reads,
And it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings he said unto his disciples: Enter ye in at the strait gate; for strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it; but wide is the gate, and broad the way which leads to death, and many there be that travel therein, until the night cometh, wherein no man can work.
It becomes reflexive after years of Mormonism to think of every step outside of the strict lines of Mormonism as a sin that leads off this narrow path. Even thought can be a sin. Leaving the church entirely? For many, it is impossible. The only people who do that were "lazy" and don't want to obey the Word of Wisdom any longer. These people choose coffee and alcohol or smoking over their faith. Others leave Mormonism because they wanted to "rail against the church," or to "kick against the pricks."
While I didn't believe in God or Mormonism for that time, I also did not have the energy to become anti-Mormon and to hate the religion I had grown up in. I had no frame for talking about a life after Mormonism that wasn't filled with either hate or debauchery. I also didn't have any pattern for finding a path within Mormonism that was different than the typical strict interpretation of the doctrine that I had followed before. I had been told all my life that "Mormon intellectuals" (though I was one) were to be feared. I had stayed away from the very thriving community of thinkers represented by the Sunstone symposium (sometimes called "Sinstone" by those who are more rigid in their thinking) who might have helped me.
As a result, I felt entirely alone and isolated, unable to talk about my journey to a new way of thinking with other Mormons, even those I considered close friends. If I did try to gently get at the problem, I was encouraged to read the scriptures more, to pray more, and to do more church service, which felt like a brush off.
It's only been recently that I've started to find Mormons who, like me, are finding their own way, clinging to doctrines they love, rejecting others they find abhorrent, studying Mormon history with a critical eye, and finding a faith that is more resilient--as well as ex-Mormons who know the faith's beauties and foibles and have found paths outside of faith. I wish I'd had more of those people around me when I was at my darkest spot, when suicide seemed the answer to my anguish over what seemed like God's death in my life.
Dr. Kristy Money, Mormon psychologist and founder of "Healthy Mormon Journeys," has created a new podcast that helps Mormons along the way of faith transition. Her new website offers free counseling to those who cannot afford it, in an attempt to save marriages and families that could be at stake when it comes to faith changes. There are too many Mormons who are divorcing because they cannot see how to negotiate family life after a faith crisis, too many parents who won't speak to adult children, too many aborted family reunions.
The new foundation HMJ launches next weekend in SLC, kicking off with a sing-a-long concert on Thursday January 19 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, including John Bonner and Jan Chamberlin (who resigned from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir over the group's decision to sing at Donald Trump's inauguration. There will be a reception Friday night at the South Valley UU society, and a communication workshop there Saturday. All are welcome. on).
I'm hoping that all Mormons will be able to see some wider paths to take with family members, no matter their faith, and that Healthy Mormon Journeys becomes the norm rather than the exception.