An Overdue Conversation on Church Vs. Religion

What would it take for you to leave the Mormon Church featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

What would it take for you to leave the Mormon Church featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

A couple of months ago, a long-time reader named Cynthia asked a question in the comments of a Friday blog post: What would it take for you to leave the Mormon church?

I found myself surprised by the question. I interpreted it as very heavy and personal and wasn’t sure what to make of it being posed so casually. I tried to give a thoughtful, brief response, but she was not happy with what I wrote and commented angrily. I was upset by the angry response, and took it down before people started fighting with her. I emailed her explaining why, then I got on a plane.

When I got off the plane, the conversation had continued without me and the new comments (several were very wise!) gave me a different perspective. I realized that Cynthia and I had been talking past each other. Her question wasn’t intended to be personal or intrusive, and my response to her wasn’t intended to provoke anger. I concluded we were talking about two different things.

She was talking about church, and I was talking about religion.

I didn’t feel good about how that comment exchange went down, and ever since, I’ve been thinking about the different ways people approach church and religion. I’d love to discuss the topic with you.

This is where my thinking is right now:

– When I think of Major World Religions with a capital R, I’m thinking of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. But I don’t think of those Religions as a monolith. I realize each one is made up of sub-set religions, sects, and churches. In this discussion, I’m focusing on Christianity.

– Those sub-set religions can be wildly different from one another, with a few common threads keeping them under the same Major World Religion umbrella. For example, you might have a very progressive church (both politically and socially), and a very conservative church (both politically and socially) that both classify as part of Christianity, but don’t have anything in common except a belief in Jesus Christ.

– Beyond doctrine, among the subset religions within Christianity, there’s quite a bit of variety in how they function. There are massive organizations (like the Catholic Church), and there are completely independent groups (like a congregation of 15 that meets in the living room of a self-proclaimed pastor’s apartment), that have no official ties to other religious groups or a larger religious organization in any way.

– There are some large organizations, like Mormons and Catholics, who generally run their congregations in a standardized way. Which means you can go from city to city across the country, or across the world, and find a Catholic or Mormon church and know just what to expect from the Sunday worship — down to the clothes, the sacrament prayers, and the songs.

– But that’s not always the case. Within some of the larger organizations, there can be congregations that run in very different ways. And there are dozens (hundreds?) of smaller organizations made of multiple congregations, and thousands of one-off independent congregations too.

– There are many people who grow up within Christianity, and experience their family “shopping around for a church.” They might move to a new town and try out a few different options before settling down with a particular congregation. Or they might attend one church for many years and then feel the push to try something new when a different pastor comes to town.

While looking around, they may be seeking for a particular feeling they want to experience at church, or they may be looking for social opportunities, or they may be searching for a group that has a specific stance or policy on a topic that is important to them.

– Other people may shop around for a church but keep their search within one of the larger organizations. They may identify as Baptist and feel committed to choosing from among the Baptist congregations in town.

– For Mormons, this works differently. Mormons are assigned a congregation based on their home address. There’s no shopping around or choosing (unless you visit congregations before you pick your apartment or house). There are occasional exceptions to the home address rule, but they are very rare. Mormons attend where they are assigned.

Additionally, Mormon congregations are organized in very planned predictable ways. The Sunday School lessons being taught on a given Sunday in one Mormon congregation, are being taught in every other Mormon congregation too. And we all use the same manuals and lesson plans. Sure there’s room for interpretation and the conversations and discussion might go in different directions depending on who is teaching, but it’s fair to say any Mormon could attend any Mormon congregation, and know what exactly to expect.

– So if I as a Mormon, was “shopping around for a church,” there’s really nowhere for me to shop except outside of Mormonism. Because it’s not okay for me to choose another Mormon congregation that I’m not assigned to, and even if I did, the people might change, but the lessons and teachings would essentially remain the same.

– Which brings me back to Cynthia’s question: What would it take for you to leave the Mormon church?

I could definitely look outside of Mormonism for another church. I’m sure I could find several churches that align perfectly with my political beliefs, and I know there are many churches that have some religious beliefs in common with me — like a belief in God, and Jesus Christ and the scriptures. The problem I would face, is that Mormons have a good chunk of unusual, particular doctrines (in addition to the more in-common stuff), and another church isn’t likely to align on those doctrines at all. How important are those uniquely Mormon doctrines? Well, to me, they’re really important.

– Because of this, I think of Mormonism as a religion, and not a church. I don’t know if I’m doing a very good job explaining what I think the difference is. I guess I think of churches as having a small set of core beliefs — God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible — that are fairly universal. Beyond those universal beliefs, one church might differentiate itself from another church based on who attends, who preaches, what the location is, what kind of community service is provided, who runs the music — that sort of thing. On the other hand, I think of religions as larger organizations, with a much more detailed set of doctrines, beliefs and ceremonies, that include a lifestyle and culture that goes beyond basic Sunday services. (Does that even make sense? I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t even really matter for this conversation. Hah!)

– As a general rule, Mormons who leave Mormonism, have concluded they don’t believe Mormon doctrines. Perhaps they don’t believe in the uniquely Mormon stuff, but they still believe in God and Jesus Christ and the Bible. In that case, there are any number of churches that could potentially be a good fit — both independent churches, and other churches that are part of a bigger religious organization. If a Mormon leaves Mormonism and no longer believes any of it (the Mormon stuff or the Bible or God), they tend to not choose another religion at all, and continue on with a non-religious (though still moral!) life.

– In my case, yes, I get very angry at some of the Mormon church’s stances, and I have no problem being vocal about things I want to see change in the Mormon church. But the idea of simply choosing another church instead is hard for me to wrap my head around. For me to leave the Mormon church, I suppose I would have to reject or no longer believe any of the doctrines, beliefs or practices as a whole. And if that was the case, I can’t picture choosing another religion. I suppose I would abandon religion altogether. Which I currently have no interest in doing.

– In addition, because I’ve grown up as a Mormon and lived my whole life as a Mormon, there’s a cultural aspect that’s hard to explain. Even if I left the Mormon church, I would still be Mormon by culture. The way I think, and the way I approach life, would still be heavily influenced by my Mormon upbringing. My friend Susan has been out of the Mormon Church since we were in college together, and still today, if someone hears she’s from Utah and asks if she’s Mormon, she says, “Yes, I’m a Mormon, but I’m no longer practicing.”

No doubt other people who have left the Mormon church would respond differently than Susan, but I totally get where she’s coming from. You can reject Mormonism, and want to disassociate with it, but if you grew up Mormon, there’s probably still a lot of Mormon in you whether you recognize it or not.

The closest thing I can compare it to is maybe nationality. It’s conceivable that I would move to another country, and perhaps even apply for citizenship there, but I can’t imagine not being American. Even if I no longer had an American passport, my experience growing up here would influence every part of my life. You know?

– So, when Cynthia asked me what would make me leave the Mormon church, my brain could not quite comprehend what she was asking. One of the commenters on the original conversation said, “In her first comment Gabrielle mentioned how hard this question is to answer. I see it less as a God/Church thing and would almost rephrase your question as “what would it finally take for you to abandon your mother tongue and family?”

I appreciated that comment so much. It did a much better job of trying to communicate what was going through my head. I understand that for many church-going people, their church doesn’t end up necessarily being like a native tongue. But for Mormons, our religion is a whole lifestyle — a lifestyle which includes church attendance, but isn’t solely church attendance at all.

– Before I conclude, I want to mention that I know someone is going to want to ask, “What Mormon doctrines are so important to you that you can’t reject them?” Totally a fair question, and I’ve jotted down some notes that may turn into another post, because it’s a whole other topic. On this post, I’m hoping the conversation is more focused on the idea of religion versus church, instead of delving into Mormon doctrine details. : )

Now it’s your turn. What’s your take on this topic? Do you consider yourself to be religious? Did you grow up in one religion but switch in adulthood? Would you say you belong more to a church or to a religion?

I’m especially curious to hear from anyone who has shopped around for a congregation or church. Is there something in particular you were looking for? Parameters that you searched within? And did you find something you like? Is it an independent group, or is it part of a larger organization?

Have you found a church or religion that feels like a perfect fit? Or are there things you disagree with and want to change? If you do belong to a religion, and someone posed the question at top to you, what would you answer? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — If you are in a position where you feel like you can shop for a church, here’s a website that scores churches on how clear their LGTBQ policies are. 

202 thoughts on “An Overdue Conversation on Church Vs. Religion”

  1. Misty Bell Stiers

    I find this infinitely interesting. I grew up Catholic and understand the sense of what it means to not just leave a church or religion “behind” but the culture built up around it as well. I grew up Catholic (CATHOLIC – I was a leader in my youth group etc and defined myself largely by that association.) Something happened in my early adulthood that caused me to leave it all behind. It was a painful, mourn-filled experience but one filled with answering the question “What do I believe in because I was taught and what does my heart believe?” I spent years researching different belief systems and going to different churches in search of a place I could call home spiritually. It was a long, arduous road and I eventually landed where I am today – at peace and happy in my beliefs and practices. It was not easy. I wouldn’t wish the process on anyone, but would hope for the outcome for everyone.

    1. So much love in your comment. Thank you. I especially love the last line: “I wouldn’t wish the process on anyone, but would hope for the outcome for everyone.”

      And I agree. I would hope that any kid or teen or young adult (or I guess any age) would take time to really consider “What do I believe in because I was taught and what does my heart believe?”

  2. I am formerly Mormon. When I decided to leave was when I realized that I didn’t actually believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, or that the BoM was literally golden plates translated, or that the temple was important or real. These are the very specifically Mormon things, and if you don’t believe them, you’re not really Mormon religiously speaking. And the church very clearly states, that if that stuff isn’t true, the church isn’t true. It’s very all or nothing, belief-wise, from the leadership. Not among individuals as much. Culturally speaking, yes, I will always be Mormon. But in terms of my actual beliefs, they just don’t line up. I much happier being authentic to what I truly believe instead of trying to believe things that didn’t resonate with me.

    1. Another Lisa with my EXACT same beliefs. Amazing! :) Isn’t it so nice to be able to follow your conscience rather than trying to fit it into a Mormon doctrine-shaped box? (I’m not saying other believing Mormons don’t follow their conscience, but while I was believing, I didn’t feel as if I fully could–just my experience).

      Gabrielle, I was one of the original commenters on that other post, so I really appreciate that you took the time to write out a whole post on this. I admire the way you kept the question on your mind and thought it through rather than just dismissing it. It makes you very approachable and real. I hope Cynthia reads this post too! Also, the commenter you quoted in this post is my cousin. She and I first discussed the thread by text and I also really appreciated what she said about family/mother tongue so I said, “yes! Put that comment on Design Mom please!” I’m glad she did and I’m glad it resonated with you. Thank you!

      1. Yes absolutely! I loved freeing myself of the complex mental gymnastics that I used to have to do in order to justify my “believing mormon” status with my actual beliefs. My life and soul is much more peaceful now.

    2. Lisa, your comment really struck me. Especially when you said, “These are the very specifically Mormon things, and if you don’t believe them, you’re not really Mormon religiously speaking.”

      I would say that I totally disagree with that statement. I think it’s very possible to be a believing Mormon who doesn’t care a fig about Joseph Smith, the BofM, or the Temple.

      Your comment has me thinking about where I feel like there’s room for disagreement in Mormonism, and where I think there isn’t room. (I don’t have an answer, but I’m sure it will keep me thinking for awhile.)

      1. I feel like that is so interesting that you disagree with that statement! I feel like those are such tent pole ideas in Mormonism. And leaders of the church often use those in statements such as, if JS was a prophet, it’s all true. If he wasn’t, it’s all false. Without those, you’re left with just…Christianity? I suppose? I don’t really know. Your take on it is truly fascinating to me and I’d love to hear more!

        1. As someone who is not Mormon but interested in it and other American religions (most of which aren’t around any longer), I am curious how the LDS church would react if you or another Mormon used a blog or public platform to question the role of Joseph Smith in the modern church (and I’m not suggesting you are doing that here). I know Mormons like Kate Kelly have been excommunicated for questioning church doctrine. Maybe that is an area where on one hand Mormonism as a deeply held belief is different than Mormonism as a church with leadership, rules, and constraints.

          1. Good question. In my opinion the concept of excommunication, and the actual action of it, has been applied so unevenly over the history of Mormonism that I’ve never been able to explain it or defend it.

            I truly don’t get it. And people who have been through the excommunication process seem to have such different experiences.

            I was thinking of that when I went to a lecture a couple of weeks ago by Michael Quinn. He is a Mormon historian who was excommunicated in 1992 for reasons that remain unclear to me (it seems to be vaguely assumed it had something to do with his research).

            During his lecture, I was surprised as he spoke of current and past Mormon Church Leaders with a compassion and respect that I’m not sure I could match.

          2. I’m not entirely sure, I think many different outcomes could occur. If an active Mormon publicly states they don’t believe some foundational doctrines of the church, I could see that person being removed from local leadership positions, to excommunication at the most extreme. Or maybe nothing would happen, it would be mostly up to local leadership.

            This is where I feel like there are the different types of Mormonism (or any religion) that we’ve been discussing. There is the “church”, which has certain rules and if you don’t follow them, maybe you won’t be in such good standing with the “church”. However, one of my favorite religious scholars Reza Aslan says, “Religion is whatever a religious person wants it to be.” When you think of it like that, we each create our own unique version of religion within ourselves. We can call it “Mormon” or “Catholic” or anything else, but really it comes down to creating the spiritual life we want.

      2. I find this SO interesting and eye opening. As a member I always thought there was no room for “active” members who did not believe in these tenants but it would be great to be wrong.

        1. I agree it would be great to be wrong! And I am so interested in an active Mormon who doesn’t believe the tentpole things, because we would have similar beliefs but have made different choices and I find it all so fascinating.

  3. I still think that your reader that asked what it would take for you to leave the Mormon Church was out of line. It says a lot that you were kind enough to revisit her question, but that’s just not an appropriate question to ask someone else.

    1. I think it’s a very relevant question. If gabby talks about women’s rights but belongs to a church where women are sidelined, if she believes in racial equality but goes to a church with all white leadership, if she expresses acceptance of gay people but goes to a church that clearly doesn’t then where does she draw the line? Can the church/religion/doctrine/culture shoot someone on fifth avenue and she still won’t care?

      I thought the church/religion/doctrine/culture was my whole life too. And now on the other side I just roll my eyes at my old self. How did I believe all that?

      1. Your comment brings up several thoughts, Jessica:

        1) There’s something in your comment that assumes I owe things to readers. Perhaps I do. But I would say it gets fuzzy quickly. Do I owe you updates on my kids? On their health or education? Do I owe you details about my sex life or relationship with my spouse? Do I owe you details about my spiritual life or prayers? Do I owe you details about my finances and income? Am I required to tell readers who I voted for in any election?

        What’s your take on what a blogger owes her audience? I think it’s a fascinating question. (And I don’t pretend to know the answer.)

        2) Though probably you didn’t intend it that way, your last line “I just roll my eyes at my old self. How did I believe all that?” seems quite flippant and self righteous. It’s hard for me to imagine you would respond the same way to people of other faiths beyond Mormonism. Would you ever roll your eyes at your Muslim friends and say, “How can you believe that?”

        Perhaps you would. I have no idea because I don’t know you. And maybe we all roll our eyes and say, “How can you believe that?” about some things — horoscopes or climate change or a virgin birth.

        That line just struck me as something you would maybe only say to Mormons, and I found it somewhere between odd and offensive.

        3) Your question “Can the church/religion/doctrine/culture shoot someone on fifth avenue and she still won’t care?” has been brought up in lots of different ways in the comments on this post and in my blog post too. And I think it applies to everyone, not just me.

        How should we respond when the organizations and systems and governments we live with are imperfect (and of course, they’re all imperfect)? Which ones do we abandon, and which ones do we fight to improve? And when is it okay to ignore known problems just so we can get through our day? I don’t have the answer, but that’s what much of the discussion really centers on here.

        You seem to imply there’s one correct answer in how someone should respond to a religious organization they don’t fully agree with, and that the way you responded (getting on the other side of religion) is the correct response. I disagree that there’s one correct response.

      2. I agree, Jessica. Like any relationship, we should have boundaries with a religion. If there’s absolutely nothing that could make someone walk away, then that religion has immense power over its followers in an unhealthy, abusive way. With no boundaries, people will follow their religion to the ends of the earth: to suicide, to genocide, to polygamy, etc.

        1. I think people are still confusing the difference religion and church, the message and the institutions.

          There is a huge difference between a spiritual message in which one can believe ( about love, about faith, about Someone watching over people, a Higher power, etc) that will be linked into a set of comprehensions given by a religion and the people in institutions that will organize rituals, dogmas, rules and will historically defend some points of view and develop some sort of social control.

          There is no One church no matter which religion or institution, as Gabrielle has already duly noted.

          But this go to all human institutions: there is an ideal of what they should be and what we believe in (judiciary system, educational system, capitalism system) and then there is how it can be deployed in many different ways – changing historically, politically, culturally over centuries.

          We may agree with the main ideas (God is our saviour, Love is important, family is great, serving others through the community is important and gives sense to our lives) and disagree in lots of other things.

          We may agree that for a society to work, we have to have judicial rules and in case of not respecting these rules, there must be some kind of “education or punishment’. We believe in some ethical principles and rules and think it make sense and it’s the best way for us to live as a community. But that doesn’t mean that we are saying that all the judiciary system is great, that all judges are fair and unbiased, that everyone has been treated equally or fairly. So what do we do?

          Some people will lay low and not question it and just try to stay out of law trouble. Others will study law and engage in the system. Others will fight the system. Others will try to move to another country for a fairer system. And some will be so disappointed in the system, that will think that the idea of justice is fake, unrealistic, utopic, etc.

          What would it take for one citizen to abandon the alliance to a justice system that is so flawed? Seeing innocent people going to prison? The racial bias? The gender problems? The horrible treatment of condemned people? The greedy and unethical lawyers? The ridiculous and abusive judges? Poor people who cannot defend themselves properly because they cannot afford good lawyers?

          The same goes to all human and ideological institutions… We can avoid some of them, we can try to destroy them to create something new from scratch or we can fight them, or try to change them from the inside.

          We can even choose our fights: I will not take this from a church, or an education system but I will not fight in all fronts: medical, judicial, etc. That’s what we all do.

          By the way, I do not believe in god, I do not follow any religion, but I do have the upmost respect for those who do, even in religions and churches that make no sense at all to me.

  4. I was raised in the Episcopal tradition. I was away from it for a few years in my late-teens and mid-twenties (actually joined the LDS church). Looking back I do feel like I was preyed upon by the mormons. It was easy to manipulate me because I was at a huge transition point in my life.

    Anyway, about church shopping. When I decided to leave the LDS church I wanted somewhere to land because I still believed in God and Christianity. I also really, really missed the liturgical aspects of the Episcopal church (which, incidentally, the lds told me it was ok to miss but God didn’t want it that way so I had to give it up. Ugh). But not every church does things the same way; each congregation has their own personality from the style of music to the language used in prayers. So I did church shop in a sense because there were certain aspects of worship that one congregation had and the other didn’t. I found a wonderful congregation for me. The first church I landed was fine, but ended up not working out because I could not in good conscience support the minister’s behavior. I searched for a new church and found one that was traditional in style of worship, had a thriving music ministry for me and my kids to be involved with, was welcoming to women as ordained ministers, embraced LGBT individuals (seeing two dads have their daughter baptized was a beautiful moment), and also feeds the hungry 365 days a year in their breakfast program. Mormons talk about church shopping in a negative way (at least in my experience) and it really frustrates me because I have to deal with mormon in-laws.

    I get the sense from you that you are not the type of mormon who is thinks mormons are right and everyone else is wrong. I appreciate that and I wish there were more people like you.

    1. I definitely don’t think “Mormons are right and everyone else is wrong.” And personally, I don’t see any justification in Mormon doctrine for thinking Mormons are the only ones who are right. I would say there are some deeply misguided teachings behind that thinking.

  5. This is why I follow you Gabby, for fascinating posts like this. I am belong to no religion or church. I did go to a Catholic primary school, but that was more convenience than religion. My mum was raised a Catholic, but left any belief behind when my dad passed away in a plane crash when I was 4. I am however still very fascinated by religion, and it is always nice to read and witness positive aspects, rather than the negative stereotypes you can often read.

  6. I am a Mormon apostate. I was raised in the Mormon church and followed the Mormon way of doing things for the first 45 years of my life. I was blessed, baptised and married in the temple. By age 45, I had become increasingly unhappy with many aspects of the church, and, with the advent of the internet, learnt facts about the church that i had never heard in over 4 decades of lessons and reading church magazines. I was appalled that a church which prided itself on being the one and only true church on the earth could hide and so ‘lie by omission’ facts about it’s history and running. My world came crashing down, but I rose from the ashes a happier person and felt free for the first time in my life. I cannot overstate how free I felt after leaving Mormonism. I had always secretly believed some things which were contrary to church doctrine, but I stifled them because I was trying to be a good Mormon. I finally felt free to openly believe what I thought was right. I no longer believed in Mormonism and my belief in God and Jesus Christ soon died as well. I am now an atheist, but unlike one or more previous commentators, I wanted nothing more to do with the church that I felt had lied to me and I wrote to my bishop requesting that my name be removed from the records of the church. As far as I know, I am no longer a member of record. I actually regret my years in the church and the sacrifices I made to be a temple-worthy Mormon.

    One conclusion I have come to is that my father chose to join the Mormon church because he believed the doctrine and he brought his children up as Mormons because he believed that to be the correct way. I gave the Mormon church my all for 45 years, but in the end I couldn’t do it any longer. I reject the notion that your upbringing and religion need to stay with you through your life. As I child, there were things that my parents did that I believed were wrong and I determined that I would never do those things to my children, and I have not. I often felt, when serving in primary, that I was indoctrinating the children when I taught sharing time lessons, and I felt uncomfortable with that. I believe that if we see things as wrong or undesirable, we can move past those things and no longer have them as part of our lives, despite our upbringing and how we have been indoctrinated. (It isn’t always easy though).
    I understand people wanting to feel part of a community of like-minded people, but there are many groups in society that one can join and participate in without being part of a church or religion.

    I am Australian, so perhaps my church experiences are different to those living in the USA and particularly Utah, but this blog discusses many issues that would never be discussed in the Mormon communities that I was part of, or if they were discussed, the only valid view point would be one that was aligned with Mormon teachings. Any other views would be seen as being on the road to apostasy, and Mormons are discouraged from associating with apostates.

    1. I love the old quote that says (paraphrasing) You don’t need to live the afternoon of life according to the morning program. That has been my mantra as I’ve left the LDS church in my 30’s.

    2. So beautiful and relatable, Debbie! I especially loved this: “My world came crashing down, but I rose from the ashes a happier person and felt free for the first time in my life.” In the past year, I encountered the real history of the Mormon church and have gone through this same thing. The only thing keeping me from feeling fully free is the fact that my husband still believes and is very disappointed with my new apostate self (so opposite of how I feel!). To him, I’ve joined the dark side.

  7. I so appreciate your take on this – having grown up catholic, married a catholic, and baptized both of my children catholic, I find myself to still be incredibly conflicted about embracing this as the way to raise my kids, mostly because of the Church’s views on LGBTQ issues. However, I’ve heard it said, nothing is ever going to change if everyone who wants it to change just jumps ship or leaves the faith altogether. Which is so true.

    We actually just baptized our daughter last weekend, and my husband and I had quite a few long discussions on whether to go through with it. He was feeling major pressure from his VERY catholic, very opinionated family; my family is also still catholic but not pushy in the same way. Much of the time, I feel pretty ambivalent. We don’t have a church we absolutely love, and have gotten to the point where we pretty much attend for holidays only. But I feel a kinship and tie to the catholic faith, because it’s who I am – it’s how I grew up, it’s every tradition either of us know. It’s the songs and the rituals that are just part of me – even if I quit being catholic altogether, I feel like I have that bond with other current and former catholics.

    I was trying to explain to my husband the way I feel about being catholic right now, and it finally came to me – we live in Columbus, OH, smack dab in the middle of Buckeye Country. I myself am not a huge football fan. But there’s something about being a Buckeye fan that just makes you feel really special and proud. You have something major in common with other Buckeye fans, and you share those traditions and that pride. Much of the time I’m ambivalent about football in general, but it is so much fun to really “get” what it’s like to be an OSU fan, and it really feels like a privelege to be able to be a part of it, just because of where we live (I am also an alumni but only for graduate school, a much different experience than going to undergrad there, at least for me!) That’s how I feel about being catholic right now. Most of the time I could take it or leave it, but when I see people sharing in catholic traditions or sacrements, I feel like its a really special thing, and I “get” it, because it’s part of who I am.

    1. This analogy really works for me. My husband is a USC football alum and when we met & married, I often joked that I was joining his church. We now (occassionally) pull our daughter out of school for Trojan events & say, only half joking, that it’s our family’s religious holidays.
      Thinking of it this way helps me to both realize how deeply someone might identify with religion (I was raised religious but never felt that way) and also makes me wonder what other non-religious cultural groups might offer what religion does for those who don’t feel they “fit” with their religion.

  8. I love the open, kind and honest tone of your post – and of the comments and discussion it bred. Coming from an area with a larger Mormon community (I live in Wyoming), I totally see your point that being a member of LDS is a culture and a community in the way one’s country is. Such a perfect analogy.

    I haven’t seen a lot of comments from Protestant Christians yet, so thought it might be an interesting perspective. I’m Methodist and most churches I’ve attended have been Methodist, but I’ve also gone to a lot of other churches for services etc. when travelling. However, it seems to me that “church shopping” is more common among protestants because: A) the different denominations aren’t always that different, doctrinally (which, most belong to the same “family tree” and broke off from one another, so that makes sense.) B) A lot of the protestant churches have agreements with one another to serve other denomination members. For example, Methodists can have communion at Lutheran churches (anyone can take communion at a Methodist church, but typically only Lutherans take it at a Lutheran church). Another example is that, in my hometown, the Presbyterian church and Methodist church hosted one another’s congregations when their respective pastors went on vacation. All the protestant churches together also did interdenominational work like Church-in-the-Park, Vacation Bible School and mission work like food drives. Such interactions between different protestant churches doesn’t seem uncommon, so it is less of a change both culturally and doctrinally to switch from one protestant church to another.

    Also…. and maybe this is totally off-base, but… it seems like a lot of American culture comes from Protestant Christianity (often, historically, for not really great reasons, like xenophobia against the Irish, Manifest Destiny etc. but the fact still stands). All of our presidents have been at least nominally protestant, up until Kennedy, and many other leaders too (in part because they were gatekeeping who was being put into positions of power). Because of continuing cultural prevalence, in leaving a protestant church, you aren’t leaving that culture in the same way a Mormon not participating in the Mormon church, or a former-Catholic might miss out on the cultural aspects of their church.

    This got a bit rambly, but hopefully is still clear and helpful.

    1. Oh. Love this. I learned a ton from your comment. I didn’t realize that different protestant denominations have agreements with each other, but that totally makes sense. And I hadn’t thought about how “American culture” and “Protestant culture” really go hand in hand. When you said this, it really struck me:

      “Because of continuing cultural prevalence, in leaving a protestant church, you aren’t leaving that culture in the same way a Mormon not participating in the Mormon church, or a former-Catholic might miss out on the cultural aspects of their church.”

      That’s such an outstanding observation. Thanks for pointing it out.

  9. I totally get it. I grew up Mormon but no longer believe in it or practice it but it was a fairly big part of my life because it’s more than a religion it’s also a culture, especially if you grew up in Idaho or Utah. I really genuinely appreciate how many craft skills I learned from all the Mormon women in my life! For the record I am just not a religious/spiritual person at all and I don’t believe in God. I also remember being really young and feeling this way and my teenage years were spent just going through the motions to keep my parents happy.

    That being said I’m so glad there are Mormons like you! We need progressive thinkers in conservative institutions!

  10. First off, I’m genuinely curious about those who have identified themselves as atheist. To me it seems quite impossible to declare that you know definitively that there is no God. In making such a statement, it seems you would be declaring yourself omniscient, which is quite presumptuous. The most I think any of us can really be certain of is that we aren’t certain (agnostic).

    Second, thanks for a great post! It’s refreshing to take a topic that can be so charged and have an open discussion about it, where it feels very safe for readers to share a multitude of perspectives. I’m a devout Mormon and have been all my life. I recently moved from the Bay Area to Utah after living there my whole life except the time I was at BYU. I could see a lot of benefits to me and my children as we developed great relationships with friends and neighbors who weren’t members but with whom we shared similar values. I was part of an interfaith coalition there. I remember a Rabbi saying at one of our gatherings that he felt that learning about other religions would actually strengthen your faith in your own religion. I think Mormons can be very insular and miss out on so much when they are. Anyway, one reason I was nervous about moving is because of the Church culture you referenced. While it is a thing–a powerful and potentially good thing–I don’t want the Church to be merely a culture to my kids in the sense of a nationality or a language. I want it to be a religion for them–the means by which they come to know Jesus and that they saved by Him, and through which they serve Him. To an outsider, this may seem counter intuitive, but I hope that living in a very homogeneous environment doesn’t stifle their opportunity to strengthen their personal faith.

    1. Regarding your first paragraph, couldn’t we say the same thing about people who are convinced there is a God? If they are sure God’s existence is 100% certain, does that mean they are declaring themselves omniscient as well?

      Not asking to be snarky, just curious if you see both positions the same way.

    2. I have a little trouble following your comment because if “the most I think any of us can really be certain of is that we aren’t certain (agnostic),” then shouldn’t you identify as an agnostic as well? Not trying to be snarky, just trying to understand the disconnect.

      I think “agnostic” implies a total open-mindedness without any strong leaning or hunch in either direction. If religious people who have a strong belief but acknowledge that they can never be 100% certain don’t identify as agnostic, why would people who have a strong *disbelief* but acknowledge that they can never be 100% certain identify that way?

      Richard Dawkins defined “de facto atheism” as “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” This is how I identify but I generally shorten it to “atheist,” just as you identify as “Mormon,” not “de facto Mormon” or agnostic. Does that answer your question?

      1. Oops, hadn’t refreshed the page and seen Gabby’s comment yet! So funny be both said basically the same thing and both used the word “snarky”. :)

        I also didn’t mean to use my full name, it accidentally got autofilled. Gabby/moderators, is there any way you can change it to just my first? Not that I don’t stand behind what I said or anything, I just generally don’t use my full name for privacy reasons. Thanks!

        1. I don’t think that saying that one does not believe in god (or gods, for that matter), means they think they know it better than others. It may just means that the belief in a god or gods is not part of their system of beliefs. It does not imply everyone who does believe in god or gods are wrong. It just means that they don’t believe. Why do some people have to transform everything into “them” against “us”? If one doesn’t like chocolate , it doesn’t mean that for this person, everyone who does is wrong.

  11. In college, i remember telling my mom loosely that I was thinking i might check out some non-catholic christian churches. I grew up Catholic, in a very religious family, and my mom said, sure, check out another church, but you are always Catholic. I don’t think she meant this is a rule-based way, like, that NO MATTER WHAT I DO I WILL BE CATHOLIC, she meant it as guidance. She said, you are Catholic, go look elsewhere, and bring it back. You have to change the things you do not like from within. And I know, the Catholic church is an entity with big rules, but I still believe that she was right. My mom grew up with a pretty oppressive, dogmatic way of practicing religion. Very heavy. When I see certain Catholic imagery that reminds me of some members of my family, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. But that is not what I grew up with in my home, she wasn’t perfect (who is?) but my mom managed to stay with her faith in a powerful way, and hold onto what she held sacred, but to raise us in a much more spirit lead, compassionate, accepting, free way. She didn’t worry about rules in the same way, and yet she is certainly still “with the church” (meaning the doctrines of the church) as they say. She just has a different way of living that out. So, despite certain issues we have with Catholicism, my husband and I feel that we are somewhere deep down Catholic, and we live that out in the way that makes sense to us. I’m okay with the grey zone. That said, Catholic’s can kind of church shop, and even though Catholicism may be centralised, churches have VASTLY different flavours, oh boy. In my old neighbourhood in Toronto, hearing that someone went to one Catholic church or another just down the street could tell you a lot about that person’s leanings!!

    1. I love how you describe your mom. It sounds like she’s pretty amazing. And I also like hearing about how different Catholic churches have vast different flavours. With time, I can imagine the same thing happening in Mormonism.

  12. Church and religion is one of those topics I struggle with. While I admire people who can hold onto core beliefs aligned with organized religion, I also just can’t do it myself.

    I grew up with a church shopping mom. I have been to over 15 different types of churches growing up, (including Mormon for a while :) ). This gave me a crazy foundation for religion. I dabbled in church while in college, but once I was married and had kids, I felt that a stable church was probably something I needed to provide for them. We found a local Lutheran congregation we liked and joined. My husband was raised Catholic, but didn’t feel that he had to continue living as such. Lutheran was a good fit for him, as it is kind of “Catholic light” (his words, not mine lol.) We were active members of that congregation for over 15 years. But I always felt like I was on the fringe. As my children got older, they were becoming disillusioned due to some choices made within our church, and we decided as a family to take a break from church.

    I just didn’t have the deep down belief that was needed. And over time, I’ve learned to accept my own beliefs as okay. I feel like there is pressure in the US to either be Christian or atheist. I’m neither, and that’s okay. I don’t know that I believe in God, Destiny, or whatever. I have a hard time admitting that, because 1. I feel it’s personal, 2. I feel like my friends that are Christian will judge and maybe try to convince me, and 3. I don’t like debating with people.

    Maybe if I was raised in a specific religion, I might feel like you. I can totally understand why the idea of leaving the Mormon religion would be an insane idea for you. When there was crazy backlash in the Boy Scouts a few years ago, we struggled with what to do for our scout. We decided to stay and continue supporting Boy Scouts, because what it provided our son was beneficial. And to also have conversations with him about the things we saw that we didn’t agree with and why. I don’t believe that you have to agree 100% with an organization to be a member. You should feel strongly aligned with their core beliefs, but even then maybe you differ. And as a member, you should speak up when given the opportunity. But if we left every time we disagreed, we would never grow.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining my views well. I understand that to some people the choices that the Mormon church leadership has made make it unfathomable to them to be a member. And I understand that as a Mormon, the idea of leaving just because you don’t agree with some of the leadership decisions is unfathomable. What we all need to agree is that we will stop attacking each other when we make choices that are different.

    1. I think you explained yourself very well. And I’m in agreement with you.

      Trying to figure out how to live within imperfect organizations (and they’re all imperfect), that are run by imperfect humans (and they’re all imperfect), has never been an easy or simple thing or me.

  13. My husband and I were both raised staunchly Methodist, son and granddaughter of pastors. We attended several different Methodist churches as adults, until we ran into a really bad situation in one that lead to us taking a total church hiatus for about 6 months. When we were ready to go back, we instead went to a non-denominational church community, with an emphasis on music and fellowship. The deciding factor for us was that that was where our children felt at home. Truthfully, we’re in church at this point for the fellowship and so that our children have the experience and grounding of being raised in a church community. However, we have also taken breaks since attending there, and have tried to teach our children that being a Christian is not dependent on church attendance or adherence to church guidelines, but is a matter of personal faith and the actions you take as a result of that faith. We focus on discussing how a Christian treats others and how Christ should shape our daily lives, rather than how a specific church does.

    1. “being a Christian is not dependent on church attendance or adherence to church guidelines, but is a matter of personal faith and the actions you take as a result of that faith”

      I think that’s a really lovely approach.

  14. I’m not saying much that hasn’t been said, but adding to the conversation.

    I do think that being raised in a thought/religious tradition makes a difference. I once had a friend (atheist) ask me if I would have been a Christian if I hadn’t been raised as one. I think the answer is yes, but in hindsight, I would have liked to have asked her if being raised agnostic/atheist hadn’t influenced her as well.

    I am Catholic and chose the Catholic faith. However, I was partly raised Southern Baptist and have attended both Protestant churches and Ukrainian Catholic churches. Like others on here, I’m not always supportive of the Catholic Church’s policies, but I do know that much of the wrongs that we see in religion (and I’m speaking more from a Christian perspective here) have more to do with human fallibility and human interpretation than the religious tenets themselves.

    Like others, as well, I see a parallel between being a practicing Catholic Christian and being an American (or any nationality). You can vehemently disagree with the leadership of the country (or faith) or the direction it is headed yet still want to stick with it. I see staying with the faith also an opportunity to bring change and critique from within. We can make a difference in a small way.

  15. Though I was baptized as a child in the Lutheran church, I was not brought up in a religion. Both my parents strayed from what they’d been introduced to as children and decided to leave it up to me. I felt like I was searching for something my whole childhood but didn’t have the tools to find it until I met my husband, who is Jewish. Judaism spoke to me in a way that felt right. Tradition—-with it a sense of order and belonging–has always been important to me so that aspect of Judaism was perfect. And, because I converted in a reform synagogue, the rabbi explained to me that I could be a good Jew without ever stepping again in a synagogue or even if I didn’t believe in g-d. I loved that.

    As I got older I have shifted away from participating in an organized way because that doesn’t feel important to me like it did when my kids were small. They both have the good foundation that I was missing and are free to choose their own way to be Jews or not. I still identify strongly as a Jew because I chose to be one.

  16. Catholic raised and living in Toronto. Churches are very different depending on the order of priests in charge of the parish. At least in Canada. I grew up going to a Franciscans parish community. It was focused on social justice, helping the less fortunate, including everyone ( a non delivered) to your table and community work. It would put you in mind of our current Pope.

    I have attend other churched (in other cities & countries) run by other orders and the difference is at times very pronounced.

    1. I don’t know anything about the Franciscans, but I’m totally into how you describe their focus.

      And I apologize if my post came off as describing all Catholic congregations as being the same. I tried to be clear that I know the organization is massive and that there are variations within it, but I know my post rambled and I may have miscommunicated.

  17. I vaguely knew that Mormons were assigned to congregations based on where they lived, but it’s interesting to think through the social implications of that practice. As a Jewish woman in New York City, I am spoilt for choice, and like many involved Jews, I am involved with several different congregations: (1) a small synagogue where I have been a member for more than a decade, and where I have good friends and much personal history, but which I sometimes struggle with because it is a little too rigid and traditionalist for me, and because I don’t have confidence in the current rabbi; (2) a bigger synagogue in my neighborhood that is a better match for my tastes and beliefs, but that isn’t as good a fit for me socially–I go there a couple times a year, for community dinners and social justice programs; (3) a small traditional congregation that I used to go frequently, because the services are lovely, but drifted away from because I never fit in socially–although friends of mine who left synagogue #1 have now joined #3, so perhaps I should give it another try; (4) another small synagogue that a close friend of mine belongs to, which I visit very occasionally; (5) a huge, popular synagogue that strikes me as a little hippie, but that I visit once in a while when I am in a mood for singing and dancing; (6) a big synagogue in Washington DC, which I often go to when visiting friends, and where I now have a wide circle of acquaintance.

    There are some disadvantages to having this many relationships and this much choice. One is that I don’t see all of my friends at synagogue on Shabbat, because several of my closest friends in the neighborhood belong to other synagogues or switch off between multiple synagogues. Another is that Jews in my neighborhood tend to sort themselves in fussily nuanced ways, partly by their level of observance and preferred style of religious service, and partly by age (people in their 20s go to one place, people in their 30s another, people in their 40s yet another . . . and single adults over 30 feel much more welcome in some communities than others, as do LGBTQ people, and anyone from any sort of non-traditional background). I often feel that the local synagogue scene is too Balkanized, and an excess of choice makes for a certain amount of narrow-mindedness.

    On the other hand, one great advantage of living this way is that both I and those around me understand clearly that no one synagogue defines my religious practice or beliefs. People often join a particular synagogue for rather practical reasons: it is the one they can afford (this was one of the reasons why I originally joined my current synagogue) or it is the one that has the best children’s program, or it is the closest. (Traditional Jews don’t drive on Shabbat.) But my religious identity comes much more from my own reading and study, the practices I observe in my home, and conversations and experiences that I have shared with my closest friends. I don’t see my rabbi, or really any rabbi, as a decisive authority; if I’m trying to work through a religious question, I consult my library and/or knowledgeable friends. There are some Jews, typically those in specific Hasidic communities, whose practice is very tightly defined by their communities and their rabbis, but among liberal and Modern Orthodox Jews, I think it’s more typical that individuals practice according to their understanding and personal commitments and join a synagogue that is a more or less comfortable, but never perfect, fit for them.

  18. I’m not even sure what I want to add to this conversation, except I was thinking about your comment how people who were nice while they were in church are still nice after leaving and jerks ended up still being jerks. I was thinking about how I sort of believe that I was more of a jerk while I went to church, and now that I’m not active I am far happier and less judgemental. (I am not saying this is anyone else! This is strictly me talking about me!) I was raised SO strictly in the Mormon church. And I always considered my family to be really nice people (still do!) who just had really high standards. But the thing was, it felt a lot like I was also taught to talk out of both sides of my mouth—like, love everyone—but if they have a tattoo (or full in the blank) then we still love them but also they are not following the commandments etc etc. It is painful for me to admit this—I hope this won’t be taken the wrong way. Anyway, back in those days I followed your sister Jordan from when she was a less well known blogger. I loved her creativity and the way she was open to really seizing the special moments out of life. And then a few years later she posted some pictures of her wearing a two piece suit. And suddenly it was like I became the swimsuit police and acted like a total jerk and commented on it. I am totally and completely embarrassed and ashamed of my reactions to this day. But for me—that was how I was brought up. I’m not saying I wasn’t 100% responsible for my actions (please don’t think I’m saying it was the church’s fault at all or that it’s the same for anyone else) I hope what I’m trying to express is coming across gah—that the effect of my upbringing in the extremely conservative side of the LDS culture made me feel like I had to be some sort of crazed one woman crusader.(I could never understand why I felt like I had to fight so hard to defend what I believed until one day I realized it was because I was so scared it wasn’t true.) And I was miserable, because you know what? That’s not who I am. I am a supporter of other women. I love creativity and color and authenticity. I don’t know if Jordan will ever see this, but tell her man am I ever sorry. It took leaving a religion for me to be able to embrace myself and others unconditionally. I wish that I could have found a way to stay sometimes, there is so much beauty and kindness in the Mormon community, but it just didn’t work out that way for me. I wholeheartedly agree that each of us has to find the way that help us become our best, happiest selves. Ok I’m totally nervous to post this, but here it goes.

  19. I think it’s wonderful that you are willing to open up on something so personal.

    I grew up a committed Christian and there are still elements of this that I will carry with me forever such as the deep, personal connection I feel to my inner-spirit and through this a connection to “God” or the oneness of being.

    I painstakingly began my journey out of organised religion many years ago, it was slow and halting and precipitated through the ruthless philosophical and self-examinations of my husband (who also grew up in a church setting).

    Thesedays, personally I find a lot of problems in conforming myeself to a set of man-made forms in order to call oneself anything (any label that is). I feel like doing that is missing the point of religion (a Zen proverb: the hand pointing to the moon is not the moon). This was recently reframed for me through the writing of Eckhart Tolle in “A New Earth”.

    While I hold spirituality and connection to “God” (I put that in inverted commas as I do believe words are an inadequate mechanism to convey all they are supposed to represent and people can start to think the word is the thing rather than the thing itself….you know what I mean?!) Hah!…anyway…I hold them dear and as wrapped up in who I am as I am myself. I feel that one point of my earthly walk, while it started in the womb of Christianity, is to shed labels and identifiers in order to become a person of faith and faith is bigger when it defies all labels.

    So, I guess that’s where I’m heading: a label-less faith.

    That said, I also think there is nothing wrong is hanging out within the institutions as they are as good a place as any to get to that place of deep and precious spiritual connection. I am open to finding myself in a church again, but I’m not pushing the point as to do so no longer identifies me. I feel free from that, which is personally quite liberating.

  20. I feel like the person who instigated this has no right to ask such a question. Obviously, you can choose to respond or not. I grew up in a unique way. I was raised in a very Mormon town. I went to a Christian church with one parent and was raised LDS with the other parent. The home life was chaotic, but we were fed, groomed and always had stylish clothes. At the end of the day, no one would have cared which church or no church I would have chosen. BUT I knew. I don’t believe everyone should or could be LDS, but I know it’s the right path for me. I can’t deny it.

  21. I think a strong undercurrent of this conversation has little to do with church and religion. It speaks to a common issue many share. When one has firm trust, strong knowledge, and a growth mindset they are more likely to be comfortable with themselves overall. This leads to tolerance of others. However, when one lives internally with doubt and struggle, they tend to seek external validation. When that doesn’t come, either on an individual, culturally or societal level, they become defensive, which leads to attacking others and intolerance.
    If we would all have the respectful space and place to pursue our questions, express our thoughts and follow our hearts, we would be living in inner and outer harmony.

  22. Gabby, it’s a real credit to you and the community you’ve fostered that this conversation has been very nearly 100% civil, gracious, kind, inquisitive, and caring. People have shared deep, personal feelings and have been made to feel welcome.


  23. Pingback: Links for your Weekend | a glass of milk

  24. I have truly loved reading all of these comments. What wonderful, honest thinkers!
    It has stimulated me to think about how very young my Mormon religion is, at least in this dispensation. ( My father knew a man who shook hands with Joseph Smith!)
    I am a grateful product of pioneers who gave their lives to begin the building of
    “Zion” with much sacrifice along with hope that their posterity would be blessed.

  25. Hi Gabby!

    I am so glad you have so thoughtfully constructed a conversation regarding this topic. It’s something that has had me curious about you for a long time! Because so many prominent bloggers/websites seem to have Mormon women behind them, I think a strange mystique arises from people who haven’t encountered Mormonism before. I think you inadvertently end up being the spokesperson for your religion: something I imagine can be either exhausting or exhilarating at times.

    I “left” the church a few years ago, although I think still in terms like you of never being able to undo your own heritage (or evening desiring to!).

    I have to say, still even shockingly so, that I have never been happier. But I find myself holding back on telling other practicing Mormons this, because it seems so disrespectful. Which, when I think about it, seems so ironic because it was my Mormonism that always exhorted me to share my joy and speak truthfully. I’ve always valued how much Mormonism emphasized honesty “in all our dealings”.

    I sometimes wonder/wish that all Mormons, regardless of whether you “stay” or “leave”, could adopt some sort of system of Sabbatical. I remember hearing of the Amish communities allowing their young adults to essentially take a break to “leave” the faith for a year or two as a way of truly testing out their choices.

    I was always a rather progressive kind of Mormon. I, like you, didn’t give a fig about whether someone believed in Joseph Smith. I didn’t believe that the temple was the only means to salvation for non-believing family members. And I didn’t believe doctrines such as the Book of Mormon being a historically accurate outline of Polynesian heritage (as cultures like them were once and still sometimes considered Lamanite descendants, etc). I always operated well within the church and community and simply wanted, paraphrasing Uchtdorf: to accept where I was and “lift where I stood.” I wanted to contribute and be the kind of “big tent” member unapologetically. Our wards were always lovely and welcoming and I never had big tension or problems with our priesthood authorities personally, etc.

    The breaking point for my conscience really had to do with my gay brother. His experiences of being quietly ostracized, of privately being disciplined by clergy (nobody seems to talk about the amount of private discipline always going on behind the scenes in every stake), and of the shaming process of not serving a mission (after his two older straight brothers had so “honorably served”) became so potently real to me.

    I found myself at first strongly resisting the idea, then compelled: for me, to remain in the pews on Sunday supporting the systems in place (although always privately protesting in my mind) was no longer sustainable. As an act of solidarity with the gay community, I decided to no longer enter the temple any more myself. A small minority like the gay community within Mormonism has no hope of change if the larger body of the heterosexual congregation doesn’t help partner with them. The temple is the pinnacle of Mormon theology: the mountain to which all the religious roads are supposed to lead. To accept (in any passive way) that gay married members cannot enter them, to me, was antithetical to Mormon belief in a loving and just and merciful God. It feels as wrong as segregated water fountains by race. If a church had separate water fountains based on skin color, I wouldn’t hesitate running out of the building. But for some reason, I was sitting there for so long benignly accepting gay people being denied something so much more essential than a drink of water: I was accepting the theological denial of their own salvation, covenants, sealings, baptisms, and priesthood. It doesn’t matter to me if a member doesn’t personally believe that: it DOES matter that the authorities who speak and define the belief structure of the church preach it.

    I know this can be a common story of many people who leave the faith, but the surprising revelation, the most unexpected and even shocking part in this process for me was the physical/mental/emotional experience of literally, for the first time, becoming a cultural outsider of my own faith.

    For the first time, I became the family member standing outside in the lobby when my sister was married in the temple. Despite all of my non-judgment of inactive Mormons or nonmembers when I was an active Mormon, it was literally an eye-opening emotional experience to physically experience the act of exclusion myself. For the first time, it was ME who was the person wearing a tank top in the informal Mormon mom playgroup or relief society brunch. For the first time, it was MY family that was being discussed in a ward council for outreach efforts.

    I am confident, I am strong, I generally don’t give a hoot what people think of me. But I found myself embarrassed to admit I was physically feeling stomach twisting anxieties ALL OF THE TIME around other Mormons due to my sabbatical. And it dawned on me: this is also what my gay brothers and sisters probably felt like all the time within this religious context. This may help to explain some of their ‘ever so mysteriously’ high levels of mental health issues! Suddenly my little brother’s entire history of unexplained digestive health issues and depression in high school suddenly seemed to have a strong correlate.

    Examining the church from the outside in, for the first time, was an incredible experience that I think every Mormon should have. Even if you choose to return. And by examination from the outside in, I literally mean to physically remove yourself from the experience. I think many Mormons mentally practice imagining what others may think or feel outside of the church. But I suggest a fully integrated physical and mental sabbatical from the faith. I have always heard Mormons suggesting that non-Mormons give the faith a try just to see how it improves their lives, which is a fair suggestion. And I think it also fair to reverse that admonition.

    In my mind, it is an excellent sociological tool to build very real empathy. If every Mormon “left” Mormonism for a year or two, and experienced what that process actually entails, and what it physically/emotionally/mentally feels like when it’s YOU, then I believe we can more accurately understand the unseen, subconscious mental power of the boundaries with which we are operating under. I’m not advocating a sabbatical simply to go out and begin drinking and partying to sow some wild oats (we actually still choose not to drink ourselves), but a sabbatical as an real life exercise to attempt to get inside the head and experience of someone who isn’t Mormon while encountering Mormons.

    Of course, this exercise can helpfully apply to any system to which one is deeply enmeshed, religious or cultural or even political. But for now the topic is Mormonism so I won’t digress worse than I already have!

    I ended up being too happy practicing my beliefs outside of structural Mormonism all together, although I still adore and cherish so many Mormon friends, family members and traditions (we still hold regularly FHE!). We attend a church much more aligned with our beliefs (although it isn’t perfect because I don’t think any human system is!).

    I didn’t welcome the idea of “leaving” my faith and my heritage, and frankly was completely surprised by the joy of no longer being a practicing Mormon. It felt like I had lost 40 pounds of emotional and theological/cultural baggage I didn’t even realize I was carrying for thirty years. I realized that some of my own anxiety, depression, and general mental entanglement came from an undiagnosed case of my own Mormonism.

    Thanks to everyone for their insightful comments, this has given me much to think about! Religion fascinates me. And I also second the commentaries’ above recommending any and all work by Jonathan Haidt!



  26. What would it take for you to leave Mormonism? This is a question that I wrestled and wrestled and wrestled with. The short answer is complete and utter heartbreak through being convinced that the church was not the one true church on earth as I had believed and been taught. That is a big hurdle for truly believing Mormons, but a hurdle that eventually I met head on.

    I was 100% Mormon. Born in the covenant, married in the temple, seminary and institute graduate. I lived it. I loved it. My whole world centered on church, and scripture study, and ensuring that I was as right before God as I could be.

    Mormonism taught me to be believe in a God of love and justice and perfection. It taught me compassion and the principle of leaving the 99 to minister to the 1. These same teachings led me out of the church when I started diving deeply into some issues that didn’t sit right with me instead of just putting them on my proverbially shelf. What do we really believe about women, gays, blacks, aboriginal people? Looking at our true doctrine on these things in the wording of our temple ordinances and the words of our prophets, I knew that the church was wrong on these issues. And these issues weren’t small to me.

    I had an anguished soul for years over how could I leave the LDS church? It was my tribe, my identity, my purpose. My family, including my marriage was bound up in it. I finally left, literally after years of internal debate and strife, when I finally let myself accept that it is not the one true church on earth. Does it have good things in it? Yes. Is the community strong? Absolutely. But that was not enough for me. The church teaches that it is so much more than that. It has all of the ordinances for salvation. God himself directs the church. When I could not believe those claims anymore is when I could leave the Mormon church. I would guess that is the threshold for most Mormons.

    1. For people who have left the church in the last decade or so, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that church history was the main concern (versus social issues). But I could totally be remembering that wrong.

      I would also say that people who identify as “all-in 100% Mormon” are probably at much greater risk of leaving the church than those who don’t. At some point 100%-ers will realize the church has deep flaws and feel betrayed. On the other hand, if you start your relationship with the church aware of the deep flaws, I think it’s a whole different relationship. In my experience, there is a large number of church members who don’t experience Mormonism as their primary identity.

  27. Oddly, reading this post made me nervous for you, Gabby. Nervous because to my understanding, church membership is not a one way street. It is not only you that could decide you are done with the church, but the church could decide it is done with you. If this were to happen to you, I know that you would persevere, yet reading your words about how you could never makes me uncomfortable. I think, for me, it begs the next question to be, would you do anything and everything required by the church in order to remain a member?

    1. As soon as I hit reply I think I realized I made the exact mistake that this entire post was about, and mixed up Church with Religion. Do you see possible circumstances that would cause you to leave the church? When you hear of excommunication stories do you ever think “That could be me.”?

    2. Interesting question. If the church excommunicated me? I’m not totally sure what the consequences are. I believe I would still be allowed to attend church, but I wouldn’t be able to go to the Temple, or pay tithing, or have certain voluntary church positions (like teaching children). Would that still be workable for me? At first thought I would say yes. (I already don’t like attending the Temple and avoid it when possible.) But of course, I have no idea how I would feel if it actually happened. If you’re asking: Would I feel condemned by God? Would I feel unworthy? The answer is: No. I wouldn’t. Not at all.

      1. Oh, Gabby, Thank you.
        Thank you, Thank you for writing.
        If we read to know we are not alone, I am so grateful you write so I may read.
        You are the only other “believing”, “active”* Mormon beside myself who I have heard say aloud that they don’t like attending the Temple. I am quite open about it myself, but have always felt very alone in the sentiment as if enjoyment of Temple is central to being a Mormon and any other opinion is tantamount to apostasy.
        *these words mean so many different things to different people, hence the quotation marks.

  28. I’m very late to this conversation but feel the need to write my thoughts on this subject even if no one is no longer reading : )

    I grew up in a conservative Christian church with all its belongingness, support, criticisms, love, disfunctions, contradictions (eye4eye/forgiveness), potlucks, songs, and scriptures. I believed, both because I was too afraid not to and because I felt a deep spiritual connection to Jesus. When my husband and I as newlyweds moved into the graduate housing at university, we met people (for the first time) from all over the world with different languages, religions, and cultures. My world expanded along with my own interpretation of what connects people to God. I met people that truly acted as (what I thought of as) true Christians, but were Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Buddhists, Hindus….. I found that the many paths to God were just a matter of interpreting languages, customs, and cultures. I now practice yoga – not just the twisty body poses, but meditation, breathing, knowledge, service, etc and feel as if I have finally found the connection to Jesus that I was always looking for but couldn’t quite find in the church. I do miss the social support that churches offer and am quite envious of those like my sister who can count on endless casseroles and help with just about anything during crisis; but I disagree with too many of the early interpretations of scripture that have become tenants of the Christian faith to participate.

    I’ve also worked pretty hard to find out who I am outside of my identities – religious, family, etc It may be easier for those of us who didn’t have a very stable upbringing, whether within the family or religion to do this because of wanting to disassociate from past unpleasantness? I’ve found it to be so for me at least. So letting go of “The Church” and the negative associations I had with it was an actual relief.

    Thanks for letting us all contemplate this idea, Gabrielle. Love and respect to all!

  29. Being LDS, I’ve had to come to terms between the differences between the gospel, the church (leadership/culture), and congregations. I have many issues with the church and individual congregations that I’ve been part of, but for the most part, I stay an active member because I have no problems with the gospel.

    The church, to me, is the implementation of that gospel, whether that is by the leadership of the church (issuing proclamations and changes to standards) or through cultural norms and expectations. I very often disagree with Mormon culture and sometimes disagree with the church leadership, but that is expected given that those are based on individual humans rather than God.

    For the same reason, I may become less active due to disagreements or discomfort with certain congregations, but that would not lead me to leave the church.

  30. I’m coming late to this conversation, but I have to be honest, your thoughts were interesting to me. I was raised in a liberal (but traditional-style) protestant church (United Church of Christ), and as a 20-something, still attend, although I’m really not sure if I believe in God or not. I do, regardless of that, find peace and community in church, so I keep going. Thankfully, the UCC welcomes everyone and pretty much all beliefs, so that’s okay. I “shopped” for a church when I went to college. It took me a while to find a church that felt right. I remember the first Sunday, I went to an evangelical modern-worship-style church and I cried because it was not at all what I was hoping for. I then went to a Presbyterian Church for a few months because my mom was raised Presbyterian and I had always thought their beliefs were similar to those of my home church, but it never felt right and the beliefs were too conservative for me. Finally, I started attending another UCC church, and I found the church I was looking for (I LOVED the message there even more than at my home church). UCC churches are largely autonomous, and are free to choose how to worship, what to believe, etc. And most of the churches extend that freedom to choose what to believe to the congregants, which is something I love. Both my home church and the church I attended during college were open and affirming, meaning LGBTQ people are not only welcome, but also can be baptized, get married in the church, and be clergy/pastors (not all UCC churches are open and affirming but the denomination’s governing body is). This is really important to me, and I wouldn’t attend or belong to a church that was not.

  31. wow! I have so many thoughts swirling around in my head over this discussion! I am not an eloquent person, nor do I articulate well…but, at the heart of it all,
    what if we all just did what Jesus said? where would we be then? I think that is something that sounds simple, but is so hard to do. but what if?

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