Dear 100 Hour Board,
Over the years, I've kept in touch with the youth from my home ward. Into our teen years and then adulthood, most of us have remained on the Gospel Path...but a few have gone astray. Of those who've fallen away from the Church, none of them still live the commandments: they drink, smoke, live with their significant other, use foul language, etc.
I figured that people's lack of faith in the Church made them no longer see the need to live the commandments. My friend told me it's actually the other way around: those of us who remained active want to believe the Church is true because we agree with its teachings and enjoy the lifestyle associated with it. He said if we wanted to indulge in sinful conduct (drink, use drugs, sleep around, etc), then the arguments against the Church would appear much more convincing. No one likes seeing themselves as immoral, so they look for justifications to suit their own choice of lifestyle.
What do you think of this idea? Are people devout because they believe, or do they believe because they're devout? Maybe a mix of both?
Permit me to soapbox for just one moment as I push back against something implied by your friend.
There are a great many good, honest, and intelligent people who leave for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with wanting to justify a pet sin. Behind every decision to forsake the gospel path is a story as varied and unique as each individual person. And while those exit narratives, as they're often called, share similar themes and often touch upon the same major points, you can't just generalize a person or group of people's decisions to leave as a result of some burning or secret desire to indulge in sinful conduct. That may or may not be what your friend intended to suggest, and if I overstep here, I hope you'll forgive me. But I find your reasoning more sensitive than his. Some--I would say most--people do lose faith and see no need to keep living the commandments. The group for whom exiting the Church is merely a series of justifications and rationalizations for sinful desires is, I think, quite small.
I don't think the argument your friend presents is wrong, per se. If you're inclined to go looking for reasons to justify your bad behavior, you'll find them without much trouble, and there are people who choose to leave because they can't or won't give up particular habits, substances, or attitudes (just as there really are some people who choose to leave over being offended). But I feel the need to push back a little bit because it's too easy--and dangerous--to reduce people's reasons for leaving the Church to generalizations like this. It's simplistic, dismissive, and most importantly, it's a way to avoid having to actually dialogue with people who leave. I don't think that's helpful--either for those who have left and feel alienated and for those who stay and become dangerously complacent, maybe even self-righteous.
The other writers have answered this question with much better experience than I myself have, so I'll leave off with that.
There are a number of reasons why people stay in the Church or leave it, and it can't be summed up to one or two explanations for everyone. For instance, some people stay in the Church because they've received a spiritual witness of it - whether of its truthfulness or that it's where God needs them to be. For others, it may be that they see how much good the Church has brought into their life, or that it's an essential part of their family, or that it's their culture and upbringing. And, of course, it may be because they prefer its lifestyle.
Just as there are different reasons people stay in the Church, there are different reasons people leave it. John Dehlin of Mormon Stories did a survey (rather informal and a convenience sample) and found that most people left because they stopped believing in the theology/doctrine, studied church history and lost their belief, and lost faith in Joseph Smith and/or the Book of Mormon. Jana Riess did a better survey and found that some primary reasons people left the Church was due to feeling judged or misunderstood, distrust for church leadership, LGBTQ issues, stopped believing there is one true church, and couldn't reconcile their personal values with the church. It can't simply be explained for a desire to live a different lifestyle and drink/use drugs/sleep around.
While I definitely agree that people often do try to find justifications for their lifestyle (if only to reduce their cognitive dissonance), that isn't the only reason people act in certain ways. For instance, I know a good number of converts to the Church who really struggled with giving up coffee or alcohol or drugs. But because they believed the Church was true, they sacrificed the lifestyle they wanted to follow for what they felt God wanted for them. I know lots of people who don't agree with all the Church's teachings and actually think they'd have an easier life if they weren't a member. Yet they still faithfully go to church each Sunday and have a strong testimony. In the same vein, there are people who have left the Church who still stick by its lifestyle.
If people are in or out of the Church primarily based on their preferred lifestyle, this means that no one really has a testimony of the truthfulness of the Church or the gospel. They're only in it for the lifestyle. It doesn't matter what God tells them; if they realize a lifestyle outside of the Church is better (for instance, they can still swear off drinking and drugs, but now they don't have to spend hours at church each week), then they'll leave. You're just deciding you like the benefits of not drinking, spending Monday evening together with your family, not doing drugs, and not swearing, and making your decision to stay in the Church based on that.
To say that the main reason behind why people leave the church is only due to a desire for a certain lifestyle diminishes the real reasons why people leave the church. There are real historical and social issues that push people to do something terrifying - give up their understanding of life, isolate themselves from their friends and family, and leave the community that means so much to them. It also diminishes the real reasons why people stay members. If the real reason people remain in the Church is because they like the lifestyle, then you're saying their personal revelation, experiences with God, and ongoing sacrifices to stay in the Church mean essentially nothing.
I know too many people who have remained in the Church or left it for much more intense and personal reasons than simply following their comfortable lifestyle.
-guppy of doom
Dear Jacob Bernoulli,
I think your question is simplistic. Surely a scientist like yourself wouldn't fall such easy prey to a basic cognitive distortion like black and white thinking. With humanity, these sorts of dichotomies are rarely helpful at all and upon closer inspection a great many other explanations often come to light. While no mathematical formula may be able to make the future known to us, social science can give us some insight into these types of human behaviors.
You boiled down your chicken-and-egg question this way: "Are people devout because they believe, or do they believe because they're doubt?" It seems like you have operationally defined "devout" to mean "following the behavioral rules set out in Mormonism." It's clear that you don't mean "living the gospel" or "having integrity" because you only cite the most basic behavioral rules: not swearing, reserving sex for marriage, avoiding smoking and drinking, etc. So if that is what we are talking about, I would agree that there appears to be some correlation between one's being "devout" and their belief in the gospel. Obviously it isn't a perfect 1.0 correlation (not even close, I'd wager) because we have all known jack Mormons who say they have testimonies but who sleep around and drink. I've also known ex-Mormons who don't believe the gospel is true but who continue to live all the rules you mention because they want to. Also, let's be honest, most of the people around you in church every Sunday have done a lot of things you don't know about, and if there were a way to bet that more active, believing Mormons break even big rules than you, Jacob Bernoulli, would estimate, I would put every last red cent I have on that bet. However, let's assume some correlation as it seems apparent there is one. Correlation does not imply causation. They could both be related to some factor which was unconsidered in your question.1
For example, sometimes people desperately want to believe and keep all the rules and still end up leaving. They leave because of real and valid intellectual or moral concerns. They didn't lose their faith and then shrug about the commandments, as you suggest. They agonized and probably still have moments, years after the fact, where they suddenly worry they may be damned. They didn't hate the lifestyle on the front end, so their exit was not easier for them the way your friend suggests. They wanted to stay. They could not.
This applies to very nearly every exmo I know. I have been out of Mormonism for over a decade now. That is a lot of people.
The reason I made such a fuss over the definition of "devout" at the beginning of this answer is that sometimes people leave the church due to what I would call devotion to principles of the gospel. I really believed the church was true. I believe in charity. James says that "pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Sure, it says to keep yourself unspotted from the world, but that is at best half the message. It is incomprehensible to me that some members of the church, yourself included if the tone of your question is any indication, would use words like "devout" to mean that they so loved their church they didn't smoke a cigarette this morning. To me, helping others is so holy that your interpretation seems like a bastardization of the word "devotion." The behavioral rules should not be the key indicator of who is a Mormon, a Christian, or any kind of good person. However, as I mentioned, sometimes this kind of point of view can push you out of Mormonism, but in those cases, people take their devotion with them. They may see R-rated movies and kayak on Sundays, but they take what was holy about their experience with them. You cheapen that experience when you say things like, "No one likes seeing themselves as immoral, so they look for justifications to suit their own choice of lifestyle." I may be a sexually active lesbian who lives in Portland/Sodom and Gomorrah, drinks socially, and swears with abandon. All of that is true. But I am not immoral. All those kinds of comments do for people like me is make us feel further alienated from our home faith and our active loved ones. It reminds us how active members see us, despite us trying to live moral, upstanding, socially conscious lives. We succeed at that, by the way.
Let's do a little case study. I have an old friend (let's call him L) who moved to the Portland metro this past year. We've gotten to know each other better this year, and I am so glad we did. He is my best friend and he has really helped me make sense out of things I have struggled with. L also left the church several years ago and has this one family member who, when they do speak to L, immediately and without context hurls accusations about L's behavior and character, all of which this family member (let's call him J) has wrong. It's clear that J, who is active in the church, does not understand that his activity in Mormonism does not alone make him a good person. It is also clear that J has no idea that there is any line between, for example, casual alcohol use and alcoholism, probably due to J's very narrow views of morality borne of Mormonism, which has stopped J from receiving any education on this matter. However, L still lives what are, in my estimation, some of the most important principles of the gospel, despite what rules he might be breaking with his choices. For example:
- "Mourn with those and mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:8-9). I am not always an easy person to comfort. My emotions are big and I have a lot of easily-triggered trauma. I've known L a long time, and he hasn't always been able to read my emotions. This year, though, when he moved and I was in a tough spot, he took a lot of time and listened to me. He lets me be sad when I am sad or angry when I am angry, and he does what he can. He has been endlessly there for me in a way that my Mormon family has never even approached.
- "Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer your substance unto him that standeth in need ... Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand ... But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent..." (Mosiah 4:16-18). I have seen L give large sums of money to people on the street who are asking for enough to cover a room for the night and some food. I have overheard people thanking him for money he sent them during a hard time. I have heard him talking about not eating out as much for the rest of the month, and then I have found out later that he sent a large sum of money to a loved one in a jam. I'm sure there are others I have not heard about. L makes a really good living (I make the median income for the area, and his income is over twice mine), and he makes good use of it by helping others. He understands charity in this way. He does not demand explanation from people or judge what brought them there. He just helps, as King Benjamin directs.
- "Honour thy father and thy mother" (Exodus 20:12). I have challenging familial relationships, especially with my parents. Previously the people who I was spending time with advocated complete shutdown of these types of previously neglectful or abusive relationships. L's relationship with his mother has not always been easy. Still, L has a good relationship with his mom. He moved to Portland so he could be stable somewhere and his mom, who was recently widowed and lives alone in the country, will have somewhere nice to go. He does not expect anything from his mom, no type of support, should she end up moving. He just wants her to be safe and nearby. The way he handles his relationships and models good skills has really helped me form a healthier relationship with my mother. I am able to exercise more charity toward her and it has helped fill a void in my life. My mom also expresses gratitude at the state of our relationship.
- "Men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). My anhedonia could peel the paint off of walls. I'm convinced. L does a great job of modeling being involved with things that bring him joy and he has suggested things to me along the way. I have new interests and have a better sense of how to make myself happy. If you haven't ever had a really bone-crushing depression, you may not understand how big of a deal that is, but trust me. It is a big deal.
- "And blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. ... And blessed are all the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. ... But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (3 Nephi 12: 7, 9, 22). L and I have talked about how, due to our long friendship, we have each seen the bad in each other. Our relationship has not always been rosy. L is a merciful person. He has forgiven a lot. He is not against confrontation or strongly sharing ideas, but in his personal relationships, he wants peace. He will listen to you and confer with you. He will find common ground. He has done this with me even as I know I am being irrational or critical. He is willing to hold space for others' beliefs and needs and value them.
Long answer to your question, but basically the answer is neither. The truth is more complicated, more interesting, and more painful.
- The Black Sheep
1 I'm clearly not a practicing Mormon anymore. I am an agnostic atheist. I feel that my participation in Mormonism harmed me. The intent of this answer is not to try to rip Mormonism apart. It is just to provide an alternate perspective to a question that is offensively simplistic about Mormonism equaling good and anything else equaling bad. That kind of attitude further harms people like me and harms the relationships that we have with our active friends and families.
I wanted to spend more time in the middle of my answer diving into what some of this alternate explanations could be, but frankly my mind this week is firmly with the pandemic and the protests and institutionalized racism and not with this. The main answer is the most important part. Still, I feel like it's worthwhile to explore some of the reasons this might be true without putting all of the burden on us lazy, immoral jerkwads who decided to leave the church. Mormonism is not a casual organization. It is not the come-as-you-are church on the corner with the nice lady pastor in jeans. Mormonism makes demands on its adherents' time, money, beliefs, and behavior. For a lot of people, this is what makes participation worthwhile. It hardly makes sense for one's relationships with the one true church to be casual, after all. Still, these kinds of high-demand organizations and groups are vulnerable to suboptimal outcomes, some of which might provide answers. Here is one example:
Groupthink is an idea from social psychology that basically says that when people are in groups that value conformity or agreement, they may value those things so much that the group makes bad decisions. Psychologist Irving Janis wrote about eight symptoms of groupthink, but here are a couple of the most relevant.
- Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group. Because ex-Mormons are stereotyped as weak/stupid/bad, and because they are associated with wanton drinking, sex, and frivolity, active Mormons face a lot of pressure from the ingroup to avoid these things. This hits on another symptom noted by Janis:
- Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group. We have all seen and felt this in Mormon spaces. There is a lot of pressure not to question the behavioral regulations of Mormonism. Once the prophet speaks, the debate ends, etc. People who uphold this sort of black-and-white ideology are seen as being "spiritual," which has a lot of social capital in Mormonism.
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group. Adherents to Mormonism often believe it alone has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them god, and so they accept the behavioral rules, often with little-to-no questioning. This leads to the silencing of real questions about, say, the harmfulness of drinking red wine despite benefits outlined by the medical community because conforming is such a high value in Mormonism.
So, Jacob Bernoulli, maybe a lot of active people don't like the Mormon lifestyle at all, as your friend suggested, but really just feel intense social pressure to keep the rules, and they have rationalized that out in their heads as they themselves enjoying the lifestyle. Maybe when people begin to separate from the ingroup due to their own doubt and therefore value its opinions less, they no longer feel the intense social pressures to keep the rules that they once did not question. They may in fact rebel against that feeling as they become aware of their own lack of previous engagement with the issue. This could (and indeed does) lead to a lot of research about the forbidden behaviors once they are no longer forbidden. When they find these behaviors are low-risk or can be made low-risk, maybe these people change their behaviors.