On a long car trip this weekend, I listened to a number of podcasts (many of them by John Dehlin of Mormon Stories) about people who have left the Mormon church. The reasons these people give for leaving include:
1. Feminist issues
2. Historical problems
3. LGBT rejection
As someone who has problems with all three of these, and as someone who became an atheist and is trying to come back to belief in God, I listened with a growing skepticism that has surprised me. It isn’t that I think most of these people are lying about their narrative of leaving Mormonism, but that they are missing some key piece of this narrative, which I think is a decision to leave that comes first, often due to a sense of something missing.
I’ve also watched with interest as Jana Riess of RNS has collected specific information from Mormons about why they’ve left. She divides the reasons into “doctrinal/historical issues” and “personal/social reasons.” But when she reports people saying “I didn’t trust the church on historical issues,” I can’t help but wonder again if the issue is really historicity or if it’s trust and if the trust problems might have come before people started investigating historical claims.
When I experienced my faith crisis, it was precipitated by a specific personal experience: the loss of my sixth child at birth. I found that the narratives being offered to me about why this had happened were excruciatingly painful or simply did not feel right to me. Most common among these narratives were: God chose this to happen to you to force you to change and become a better person. I consciously made a choice to stop believing in God because the idea that I had to learn a lesson that justified my daughter’s death made me repeatedly suicidal.
When I look back on this, I feel that my spiritual community failed me in multiple ways. My grief was dismissed or minimized and then simply ignored. My questions did not make sense to those around me whose experience in life was different than mine. But also, I no longer connected to the people I had once felt so close to. It would be unfair for me to say that it was all someone else’s fault. Both sides worked to create a broken connection. In one sense, church is nothing if it is not community.
My conclusion that leaving a religion is a problem of social connection and not easily reduced to “Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and lied about it” or “The Book of Mormon can’t be a historical record because of too many inconsistencies with the archeology of the region.” Too many Mormons know about the historical problems of the church and do not find them problematic. The church has posted its own “Gospel Topics” essays on its website to offer members a faithful approach to them.
One of the common complaints of those who leave Mormonism is that “no one” will answer their questions about the history of the church. “No one” will explain how it is that Joseph Smith gave different accounts of The First Vision or claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that all Egyptian scholars say are about something else. But to me, these complaints sometimes sound a bit hollow or simplistic. You’re only discovering now that science doesn’t prove religion? Didn’t you ever struggle with the contradiction of dinosaurs and the Adam and Eve story? You never thought about the impossibility of virgin birth? These are the kinds of questions every five year old has and they seem a bit juvenile coming now from an adult.
Also, the “real” answers to this are very simple for those who believe: these are mysteries of the church. Religion is, by some definition, about accepting the mystery that is the divine and embracing it. Religion is also about being in a community of believers who do not need the kind of factual evidence for religion that is necessary to science. In fact, they want to put demands for that kind of fact to the side as they worship the divine and connect to other worshippers in an ecstasy of religious feeling.
I honor those who make a decision to leave religion for any reason. I admire their courage. It is difficult to create a new identity and a new community. I’ve done both of these on some level. But the simple narrative of “I was lied to” doesn’t feel quite as true to me as it should. After all, telling me that you can’t believe that Joseph Smith translated the plates by looking at a seer stone in a hat, when you belong to a religion that talks about turning water into wine, resurrection, and a thousand other miraculous, counter-factual events (the flood, dividing the Red Sea, Jericho, etc) seems a little odd.
Religion isn’t about that kind of truth, is it? It never has been. Religion is about seeing the world differently, about seeing beyond our physical eyes, about accepting what is impossible as true. Religion is about faith in the most absurd things. Anyone who chooses for any reason not to be religious has my blessing. It was a choice I made for a long time and it was the right choice for me at that time. But it isn’t the only good choice.
Do I think that the Mormon church needs to be more open about the facts about polygamy and about other historical issues? Absolutely. But I think that to be fair, it is already moving in that direction. Do I think the Mormon church is doing damage to LGBT people and their families and to the rest of us by incompletely offering Christ’s grace to all? Yes, I do. I’ve written repeatedly about this and I will continue to do so. I think that women need more participation and power? I absolutely do and have written about that.
But religion is about truth with a capital “T.” It’s about sharing life lessons and about giving up the self, about reaching for that which is beyond the veil. Facts aren’t necessarily a useful way to help people do that. Community is.