June 30, 2009

"Born-Again Mormon" Review, Part 5: "They leave the Church but can't leave it alone"

Continuing review of Shawn McCraney's I Was a Born-Again Mormon. See part 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9. For an overview of the historical use of the phrase "they leave the church but can't leave it alone," click here.

“…the least egregious infraction of Church law is the failure to act LDS while the most serious action a member can take and the one that draws the heaviest retribution from defenders of the faith is speaking up about the Church, its doctrine, or its leaders in a critical way – or even asking questions” (McCraney, p. 69).
Because Mormons place a heavy emphasis on the power of testimony based on personal experiences with God, coupled with the testimony of others in a community of covenants with God, statements directly challenging beliefs can feel threatening and personal. Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion, described a tension within the LDS Church resulting from the paradox of simultaneous searching and certainty: 
Mormons are admonished to ‘get their own testimonies’ and not live by borrowed light. But immersion in a culture so saturated in the rhetoric of certainty inevitably produces the pressure to express, if not to actually possess, personal conviction; and it produces a socially reinforced confidence about those convictions.

Perhaps this explains in part the proclivity of disaffected Mormons to so frequently react with bitterness and feelings of betrayal. It explains why people can leave the Church but cannot leave it alone.1
Perhaps it also explains why it can be tempting for members to vilify those who actively or aggressively manifest antagonism or even simply doubt toward the Church. McCraney remembers having often heard “local leaders and higher [saying] 'They leave the Church, but they won't leave it alone'" (p. 63).2 He admits to not knowing the original source, but it is commonly said in reference to disaffected Mormons who publish criticism or actively attack their former faith.  It is not true in every case that one who leaves the Church will never thereafter “leave it alone.” Some are perfectly capable of ceasing Church activity without attacking it. Those who can't leave it alone often do so loudly, however. Many of the more vocal apostates can't seem to get over their apostasy. Some feel compelled to warn others about staying in (or becoming involved with) Mormonism. Some actively seek confrontation by ridiculing former friends and church members as McCraney did. The Internet offers a new avenue for apostates both outside and within the Church to anonymously criticize the faith of those who still believe, thus finding support without disclosing their true identity. There are entire online communities, “cyber-wards” of sorts complete with testimony bearing of the falseness of the Mormon cult (or the “Morg” as it is sometimes called) and even general conferences.3

Indeed, at times the feeling of hate is manifest when former believers vent about their former faith. As Eric Hoffer described in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements:
We always look for allies when we hate...Whence come these unreasonable hatreds, and why their unifying effect? They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others- and there is a most determined and persistent effort to mask this switch. Obviously, the most effective way of doing this is to find others, as many as possible, who hate as we do...Much of our proselytizing consists in infecting others not with our brand of faith but with our particular brand of unreasonable hatred.4
“Hate” here could easily be replaced with “hurt,” and Latter-day Saints should recognize there are former members who carry real pain resulting from alienation and loss of faith. Some carry the pain quietly, others more vocally. I don’t intended to paint all former Mormons as utterly miserable; some report the feeling of peace and release upon losing their faith, but some understandably continue to emotionally struggle.

Reacting to doubt with hostility, indifference, or accusations of unworthiness can be destructive to  testimonies as well as relationships. In light of how McCraney discusses his own drug and alcohol abuse, he seems to believe some Saints inevitably attribute apostasy to sin. He is quick to explain at the outset of the book that in presenting such an “unadulterated expose” he risks “jeopardizing the small amount of credibility more anonymous authors generally enjoy.” However, he emphasizes, the book includes these details in order to demonstrate that his spiritually-unfulfilled condition was the result of Latter-day Saint beliefs, which “produce religious people who may not have any idea what it means to really know, love, worship, or serve God” leaving them unhappy and unsaved ("Prologue").

While some Latter-day Saints may hold that those who fall away must have committed, or desire to commit, grievous sin, I believe such a view is too short-sighted. Certainly there is scriptural precedence affirming that various sins can lead to apostasy,5 but there is also abundant scriptural precedence asserting that, if such were invariably the case, no one would retain a testimony or remain in the Church: “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6), and “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin and apostasy is a chicken-or-the-egg argument; the process is generally not an easily traceable, universal, or well-defined sequence.

Nevertheless, McCraney asserts that most Mormons struggle because they cannot live up to the expectations of the gospel. In the next section I will address his concerns for the "suffering Saints."  

Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Oxford University Press, 275. See also David G. Bromley’s The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements.

Apparently the saying was coined by Neal A. Maxwell in his 1979 book All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.), 108. Maxwell repeated the saying elsewhere, including several General Conference addresses (see “The Net Gathers of Every Kind,” Ensign, Nov. 1980, 14; “‘Becometh As a Child’,” Ensign, May 1996, 68; “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been,” Ensign, May 2004, 44). The phrase is often conceptually tied with an account of Joseph Smith asserting that once someone has joined the Church they have left neutral ground forever (see Daniel Tyler, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 15 Aug. 1892, 492). Both the phrase and the story have since received a fair amount of notice in various LDS publications and General Conference addresses. For example, see Hyrum and Helen Andrus, ed., They Knew the Prophet, (1976) 53-55; Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet, (1991) 52-53; Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121 and 122, (1996), 95; James E. Faust, “Enriching Family Life,” Ensign, May 1983, 40; Glenn L. Pace, “Follow the Prophet,” Ensign, May 1989, 25; Mary Ellen W. Smoot, “Steadfast and Immovable,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 91. For an extended discussion of this phrase, see BHodges, "They leave the Church but can't leave it alone," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, August 25, 2008.

Seth Payne's Sunstone presentation ("Purposeful Strangers: A study of the ex-Mormon Narrative,” 9 August 2008) notes some of the unique vocabulary these online communities have developed. These new phrases and names often reflect a “captivity narrative,” with names like “Reformed Former Mormons,” or using terms like “escaped” or “recovered” (Payne, pp. 2-3). It should also be noted, as Payne’s paper describes, there are unique strains of criticism coming from both secular and sectarian sides. McCraney’s approach is an interesting hybrid of each-- a rigid, fundamentalist approach to the Bible, but a naturalistic more secular approach to the Book of Mormon as an inspiring fiction, and Joseph Smith as a pious fraud rather than an evil and false prophet. 

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Harper and Row, New York, 1956), p. 88. I was promted to read Hoffer again when McCraney recommended his book several times: “Eric Hoffer, aka, the longshoreman philosopher, wrote an insightful but fairly despairing book titled, The True Believer...I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the psychology of people and their relationships to mass movements. Unfortunately, Hoffer is an atheist and can be quite acerbic in his approach to life...For every page of Hoffer, however, I recommend a chapter or two of the New Testament and some considerable time in earnest prayer” (p. 101, and p. 147 where he places Hoffer's work alongside Niccollo Machiavelli's The Prince and Christ's words in the book of Matthew). Hoffer’s approach is a remarkable and interesting one, especially because it often seems to make the most sense to any given reader in reference to the views of others.

For instance, see Alma 24:30 which states: “And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things” (see also D&C 93:38-39). I believe taking these verses universally is problematic, unless doubt or loss of faith itself is argued to be sin.


Anonymous said...

Dear Friend,
While you have made some fair points with this post, and perhaps tried to see the reasons why people leave Mormonism, its much much more complex. It is sad to see the reasons why people leave the LDS Church trivialized and typically misunderstood. With all due respect, if you could place your own beliefs aside and apply empathy you could write a much more convincing post.

Of course, the reasons why people leave Mormonism, or any religion, are greatly varied and dependent upon the person. While a discussion of this is well beyond the scope of a blog comment, if you would be interested in better understanding why intelligent Americans in general have been leaving religions for the last two hundred years, please read Without God Without Creed (Princeton Press) by Turner. Thanks again for your time and I wish you well.

The Sceptic

BHodges said...

The Sceptic:

I don't feel I have trivialized reasons why particular individuals have left the LDS Church. I think there are various reasons, some more compelling than others. It is too simplistic to assert that a person only loses faith in God or religion because they are evil, for example. I hope this comes across in the review here. If you point out something specific you feel has trivialized apostasy, let me know.


kristen said...

Anon - I felt your comment was based off a desire to see the blogger go into an all-encompassing post about any possible reason for leaving the LDS church. The post is specific to the writings of Shawn McCraney though, and thus clearly doesn't (and wasn't meant to) be a generalized statement that covers everyone who has left the church.

As for your comment of the writer "typically misunderstanding" someone's reasons for leaving, I strongly disagree. Being a lifelong member of the Church, I'd say the "typical" reasons members most frequently give for others' apostasy include sin, laziness, lack of priorities, being offended, and again, sin. I don't see this post as using these typical reasons; I see it as a way to show that there are many other factors and problems, and that the "fault" can be placed on both sides, both the ex-member and the Church/members.

BHodges said...

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Jared said...

I've spent considerable effort trying to understand why members leave the church who are seriously seeking to know God.

Additionally, I find it incomprehensible that any would find comfort in another church as McCraney claims. Nonetheless, it is happening.

There seems to be a common thread however, and McCraney appears to be another example. They put a great deal of effort in academic study, but very little into repentance and applying the doctrine of Christ.

From my experience I learned it takes a crisis of some kind for most of us to reach a state of humility where we can reach deep inside and turn to God with a spiritual energy that allows the Lord to rend the veil in our behalf. Spiritual energy doesn't come from academic study. It comes by prayer, pleading prayer, asking the Lord to intervene.

It appears McCraney, and many others who leave the church, and yet are seeking to know the Lord, fail to grasp the message of the Book of Mormon.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but failing to call upon the Lord in persistent mighty prayer is at the top of my list.

BHodges said...

Jared, it seems to me that Shawn missed the message of the Book of Mormon as well. I extend the possibility that God has tried to work with Shawn as best he can; perhaps his born-again experience is part of the way God is still extending the arm of mercy to Shawn. However, I think his concerted efforts more recently to attack the Church on his television program evidence that there is more to the story as well. More on this to come in the rest of the review. Thanks for your thoughts.

Bookslinger said...

I met several fellow missionaries, while on my mission, who reached age 19 or 20, without a testimony and without understanding how to get one. Many in the MTC at the time I was, in the early 80's, had not even read the Book of Mormon cover to cover.

Most of those did not understand the relationship of faith to obedience and of obedience to testimony.

They spent 19 years in the church, were raised by active parents, accepted a call to go on a mission, and they still didn't "get it."

They still asked questions like "Well, WHY do we have to keep the commandments?" "How is convincing other people to join the church going to help me?" "Why should we bother people if they're not already looking for a church?"

One thing I came away with, is that some parents in the church just don't provide spiritual experiences for their children. Many parents don't bring the Spirit into their home. It's just a "church thing" to them. Many don't teach their children how to recognize the Spirit.

Even if the parents do have testimonies, and do have the Spirit, they still have to teach the children how to search and recognize. Perhaps all some parents teach, if at all, is "the checklist" of what to do. And, many parents just never teach at all. They think it's entirely the church's/ward's responsibility. After all, that's what primary and the youth program are for, right?

BHodges said...

McCraney relates that his parents were basically cultural Mormons who attended in order to keep their kids well-behaved. But they also let Shawn run amok as a youth as well, so it seems a little contradictory. Nevertheless, Shawn certainly had a checklist mentality.

Andrew S said...

Interesting series of reviews. I...admit...I'm not much a fan of scoping reviews (even though I get pretty longwinded myself), so I have only read parts and pieces of each...

anyway. I'm going to sidestep the comments that have been made.

Could it be that people who leave the church but can't leave it alone simply realize it *is* their culture? It is what they grew up in, it taught them how to think and how to see the world, etc.,

The process was incomplete, of course. And so, however you're going to explain it (I'm really not interested in the explanations because they indubitably will be condescending or presumptuous) you have someone who is one foot on...a cultural Mormon...but one foot out...who is not perfectly internalized in the Gospel. And no matter what they do, they can't pull in that other leg.

But really, they are in limbo. Leaving the church as an organization doesn't change the way one was raised. It doesn't change his culture. In fact, it makes him even more alienated...for now the ex-member won't fit in with nonmembers but also won't fit in with members, because his experiences are incompatible with both groups.

So if you have someone like this, especially someone who feels *hurt*, and it reaches to his core, then wouldn't it make sense that they leave but can't leave it alone?

I'm sure I'm not going to convince anyone away from what they've already believed concerning the issue, but I just want to point out that *that* is why people especially become frustrated over the trivialization, marginalization, or misunderstanding.

BHodges said...

Could it be that people who leave the church but can't leave it alone simply realize it *is* their culture? It is what they grew up in, it taught them how to think and how to see the world, etc.,

Andrew, I agree that being a Mormon (born and raised, so to speak) can make it all the more difficult to leave the Church and then "leave it alone." Thus as you say we can understand with some empathy why some folks seem to struggle with it. It deserves noting, as well, that there are people who leave the Church and DO leave it alone- even some who were born and raised Mormon. I have specific people in mind who, though they might make an occasional joke here and there about the Church, they really don;t seem to pay it much mind at all after a while. They are able to find new hobbies, and if needed, new friends. They don't feel the urge to join message boards or counseling groups. You'll note in this review that I am not precluding other possibilities for reasons for apostasy. I am not making simplistic assumptions about people leaving just because they "want to sin" or were "offended," though those things can be factors. It is too simplistic to assume those are always the factors, however, and regardless of the factors I emphasize this quote:

Reacting to doubt with hostility, indifference, or accusations of unworthiness can be destructive to testimonies as well as relationships.

Later in the review there will be more information on reacting to those who leave the Church. I hope you'll take the time to check it out. For the present, keep in mind this review is largely focused on folks who, like McCraney, leave and then attack the Church. Not people who leave the Church in general. Thanks for your comments.

Andrew S said...

Oh, I understand too, even with some who have grown up in the church their entire lives.

the question is...should we expect every ex-member to act as either case?

For those who drop all mention of their past, great for them. But does this mean this is the best way for all?

I think more people could do it, (and offline, more people *do* such a thing). Because it's about dealing with the new people you are surrounded with. Clearly, outside of the church, many people do *not* care if you were in or not. So, you don't talk about it. You don't relate about it. I know about that in more than one aspect than just with the church.

What it seems like when people propose this...is that they propose that ex-mormons forever detach from their pasts. And perhaps some may do this, and some may do that for any other religion. But the question we have to ask is: why fully detach from a past and start anew when most other individuals have the freedom to build and to blend, not just stop and cut losses? Why would someone want someone to do this? I don't know your intentions, but it seems to me the answer often is: because they don't want to hear it or hear about it.

Again, don't presume that I'm presuming things of you in your review, so there's no need to start apologizing and defending for things I haven't even accused you of.

I'm just hoping you will see that even for individuals like McCraney who leave and then attack the church (which fortunately you recognize this is different than those who leave in general), even these individuals have reasons for doing such.

BHodges said...

the question is...should we expect every ex-member to act as either case?

I've not suggested otherwise. :)

For those who drop all mention of their past, great for them. But does this mean this is the best way for all?

Personally I see constructive and destructive ways of dealing with ones past. I don't have much of a problem taking people for their word when they describe hate or anger or whatever in regards to the Church after they leave. However, I do worry about the level of blame, or the amount of time dedicated to such a pursuit. I also worry about the black and white view that some people often take, where the Church becomes the Devil incarnate and everything "it" does is totally evil. And some just can't seem to stop complaining about it. Couldn't that time be better spent? It's like crying over spilled milk. There can be a time for so doing, but how much is too much before a person just becomes a victim who only sees evil in the other side? It's oddly the same feeling some members might have for them: a black and white, (you're evil and I'm good), outlook, and it's not psychologically healthy. I don't expect people to forget about their past, but I hope at the same time they will extend a little charity, the same they want members of the Church to extend to them. Oddly, some demand from others what they are unwilling to give. And I see that as a problem.

I'm just hoping you will see that even for individuals like McCraney who leave and then attack the church (which fortunately you recognize this is different than those who leave in general), even these individuals have reasons for doing such.

In regards to McCraney, he appears to be more theologically motivated than anything we have talked about between you and I. His former-Mormon identity gives him a certain level of prestige among his co-religionists, and one that he plays up as much as he can on his television program.

Thanks for your thoughts, Andrew.

Andrew S said...

I also see certain ways of dealing with the past as being either constructive or destructive.

But questions like, "Couldn't that time be better spent?" and comments like "It's like crying over spilled milk," miss the mark.

For these individuals, they are at position where what they are doing *does* feel like the best way to spend their time. To treat their afflictions like "spilled milk," something that should be gotten over in a comparatively short amount of time is to "get over" a very integral and central pain in their lives that actually still has remnants throughout life (e.g., whereas you might eventually stop grieving over a loved one who has passed away, it's a bit different to leave family members, friends, and associates who are still there, still in your life [or in the lives of others you know], and still doing things that pours salt in what wounded you [e.g., Prop 8 involvement for certain people]).

To be sure, some people become what they hated and despised, just on the other side. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, because I know that it does. But at the same time, I understand that many times, people cannot escape the trap without betraying themselves...something they've done for a significant portion of their lives and which has indeed hurt them.

Your analysis about McCraney is probably more accurate though; I'll concede that to you.

BHodges said...

You must keep in mind we are not talking about everyone who leaves the Church. I am specifically addressing those who angrily turn against the Church and attack it, and spend considerable time doing so. So my comments over "spilled milk" are in that regard. Comparing the situation to grieving is a good comparison. There are various stages, and various ways people can deal with their "loss" or their feelings of hate/betrayal, etc. There are healthy and unhealthy ways. There are healthy and unhealthy lengths.

Moreover, people who leave the Church need not leave friends and family members. If they do so, they should do so on their own terms. I don't believe it is right for any active member of the Church to turn on a loved one simply because that person no longer believes. To the contrary, I argue directly against such behavior, and it is part of the reason I have written the review in this way. As you'll see in further installments (should you care to read them) I don't overlook that aspect of things in the least. It is integral to my approach to McCraney, and by extension, anyone who "leaves."

Sandee said...

I left the church because it could not stand up to the quote by brigham young. it could not stand up to the bible. i left because the church is not correct about the entity of God nor is it correct about atonement, grace, works, or the need for the church to be restored. I left the church because it is WRONG. i AM NOT nor was not commiting any sin to cause this decision.

BHodges said...

Sandee, it is unclear to me whether you actually read what I wrote in this post. Your comment is a personal declaration about what you don't believe, followed up by an assertion that those beliefs are not the result of sin. If you read more carefully you will see I agree that "sin" is not a good response to the question: "why do people leave the LDS Church."

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