Recently on a Mormon issues Facebook discussion group, I saw someone ask:
How does it happen that some former TBMs [True Believing Mormons] developed into atheists? From believing (or even a testimony) that there is a God into believing (or testimony) that there is no God at all…Why do you think, that once you allow yourself to question some parts of your belief (Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith etc), I mean once you start questioning Mormonism, you nearly automatically start questioning the Bible or God in general?
This is a question that I have seen often, and no wonder — especially on the internet, disaffected Mormons seem to disproportionately lean atheist and agnostic rather than Christian or some other form of theist. The ex-Mormon sub-reddit, which currently counts nearly 12,000 “recovering Mormons”, posted group survey results in early 2013 that showed that nearly half of those who answered the survey would describe themselves as atheist, another 30% would describe themselves as agnostic, whereas only 0.5% would describe themselves as Catholic and only 2.4% would describe themselves as following an “other Christian religion” (which I would assume includes Protestant denominations.) I have addressed what the active disaffected Mormon communities mean for the LDS Church’s claim to have 15 million members elsewhere, but in either case, certainly, reddit is not necessarily a site that is without population skew, so the exmormon reddit — even though it’s massive by Mormon discussion group size — may be skewed too. However, per Pew Research’s A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S., of the 30% of those polled who reported converting from their childhood Mormonism, around half claimed to convert to no religion.
Why do disaffected Mormons become atheist? Why do those who lose faith in Mormonism also lose faith in God and Christ? I think there are 4 reasons worth considering.
1) Mormons are raised to think that traditional Christianity got things wrong
The entire underpinning of the Latter-day Saint restorationism is the idea that the way Christ really expected Christianity to work was corrupted or lost. This is the idea of the Great Apostasy. With the Great Apostasy, many “plain and precious truths” were taken out of the Bible — which is why Mormons believe (as per the 8th Article of Faith) the Book of Mormon to be the word of God (period), but only believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly — there is room that any given part of the Bible may not be translated correctly, which necessitates Mormonism to provide the exegesis and fill in the gaps.
This reasoning leads to the 2nd point:
2) Mormonism is meant to be an improvement beyond traditional Christianity
When I was young, I used to crinkle my nose at my evangelical friends whose churches hired pastors as a full-time job. I thought: isn’t it great that Mormonism has a lay ministry with unpaid clergy? And I thought my friends would feel the same — I thought this would clearly be an occasion for holy envy for Mormonism.
But there was none such. My friends not only did not see what the big deal was with unpaid clergy, but thought that it was much more effective and righteous to have people who were professionally trained to be pastors and performed that role full-time.
This is a light example, but the mismatch struck me. The traditional Christian norm seemed utterly unappealing to me. Much to the chagrin of evangelicals who protest that Mormons believe “another Jesus” that cannot save, disaffected Mormons are unlikely necessarily to find traditional Christian theologies (whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) to be that much appealing. This is because in addition to teaching that traditional Christianity gets things wrong, the teachings of Mormonism prime one to think that alternative philosophies just aren’t good enough.
Much of Mormonism’s doctrines look great as foils to protestant Christian doctrines of the 19th century. How is baptism to be performed? Mormonism answers confidently with full immersion. What happens to non-converts? Mormonism’s heaven (though it is not without challenges) improves upon the idea that Christians go to heaven to play harp and sing glory to God forever by instead asserting a multi-tier heaven where the most devout continue to create and progress, whereas even those who don’t believe can achieve a level of glory. Families can be together through sealing and through proxy baptism.
Even on the question of how people become believers, Mormonism’s thorough free will model makes an alternative like Calvinism seem bizarre, cruel and strange. I have written before that the God proposed by Calvinist theologies is even worse than Mormonism’s picture of Satan — because although both take away agency, Mormonism’s Satan at least guarantees that everyone would make it back to heaven, rather than Calvinism’s assert of limited Atonement.
In The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens raise the case (even if they believe the Mormon concept of apostasy to be a cultural misperception) that the God of Mormonism is vulnerable enough to be worthy of our admiration, respect, and devotion — but in a way, to assert this is simply to say that the omni- God of traditional Christianity is incapable of such vulnerability, and thus not worthy of our devotion.
3) The same tools that deconstruct Mormonism can deconstruct traditional Christianity
At the heart of so many disaffection narratives is a realization that “the Spirit” is no longer viewed as a reliable way to gain knowledge. Perhaps one realizes that they had what they would have formerly called a spiritual experience during a decidedly non-spiritual time (like when listening to a piece of secular music), or perhaps one realizes that a particular prayer that they thought they had a solid answer to ended up going wrong. If one then starts to study the psychological effects that can describe these sorts of things (confirmation bias for when prayers work, for example), the basic issue is that those same psychological effects can be applied to claims of spiritual experiences from all religious traditions.
Many Mormons undergoing faith crises seek to underpin their religious beliefs in solid historical and scientific claims upon concluding that the spiritual is not a reliable way to claim knowledge. Unfortunately, they then discover that Mormonism’s history since 1830 is fraught — and its most ancient claims don’t make a necessarily compelling case along many scientific fields (anthropology, Egyptology, etc.,) Christianity, being a religion founded before the modern, science-driven, secularized era, has a lot of its major claims taken for granted, and it has had plenty more years for people to comfortably develop models where certain scriptures can be taken metaphorically. However, for the newly disaffected Mormon, when they have seen the value of secularism, even the non-literal iterations of Christianity won’t necessarily seem compelling over that.
4) Ultimately, Mormonism is distinct from traditional Christianity
Last, but certainly not least, regardless of where one stands on the question of whether Mormons are Christian, there’s certainly something to be said that Mormons are different from traditional Christianity. So, one can put a question like, “Why don’t disaffected Mormons become traditional Christians?” in a similar vein to, “Why don’t disaffected Christians become Jews?” Even though the former mentioned religions arose from the context of the latter mentioned religion (and share the religious texts), quite simply, the religions are not backwards compatible or interchangeable. Even for Mormons who do want to convert to other Christian denominations, there’s a process of learning what traditional Christianity is like — since the preconceptions of Christianity in the Mormon narrative differ from how Christian denominations conceptualize themselves.
- If you are a currently active Mormon, what appeals to you about Mormonism over other Christian denominations?
- If you have left the church and not joined another Christian denomination, what do you think about these explanations? Would you say there are different reasons?
- If you have left the church and joined another Christian denomination, what was it that led you there?