Much of the conversation around ex-Mormonism has traditionally been founded on the assumption that Mormons leave the church for one of two reasons: because they wanted to sin or because they were offended by church members. As I embarked on my own complicated faith transition, trying and failing multiple times to nail down at exactly which point I was done with the church for good, I found that there are as many reasons people leave Mormonism as there are people who have left, each one as valid an experience as the next.
I told myself that, but I didn’t fully believe it. Leaving Mormonism is an incredibly lonely ordeal, one that can see friends disappear, family lash out, entire lives flipped upside down. It’s also possible to just drift away, never quite acknowledging you left on purpose and never getting chased down by overzealous member missionaries.
While working on combing through the various reasons one might leave Mormonism, I decided to post a survey on the ex-Mormon subreddit, hoping for some validation for my feeling that I didn’t leave the church just to sin (although I wanted to do that, too).
I was astonished at the response. I’d hoped for maybe a dozen responses — just enough to give me a few different perspectives as I worked on my essay. What I woke up to the next morning was an astonishing collection of 660 responses, ranging from no more than a couple of words — “church history,” “mind control” — to heartbreakingly honest stories of people who risked as much, or more, by staying in the church as they did by leaving it.
The responses represented a diverse cross-section of former Mormons, from those who could accept the church culturally and stopped believing because of the historical record to those who still believed in the basic truth of the gospel but couldn’t support current church social policy. There were people who despise both the doctrine and the culture and people whose greatest pain is that they can’t return to the time when they still believed and practiced, people who would love nothing more than to see it dismantled piece by piece and people who would be happier if they never heard another word about it.
All but one person confirmed they had been baptized into the LDS church, and there were mixed levels of church participation:
- 286 (43.3%) had not resigned from the church, but no longer attend and no longer consider themselves Mormon.
- 259 (39.2%) had resigned from the church.
- 83 (12.6%) had not resigned and still attend church, but no longer consider themselves Mormon.
- The remaining 32 (4.8%) no longer believed the church is true, but had varying levels of participation, still considered themselves culturally Mormon or specified that they had not yet resigned, but were planning to.
After reading through the responses, I divided them into four categories: social, cultural, doctrinal or church history issues. Once I figured out how I was defining each category, it was easy to choose where to place nearly every response — but the definitions were definitely a judgement call. I’ve done my best to explain my thinking below.
- Social issues: Problems with homophobia, racism and sexism within the church, as well as disagreement with the church’s involvement in politics and social conservatism pushed within the church. I also included the Protect LDS Children movement in this category, but I’ll dive into that at a later date.
- Cultural issues: Problems with the church’s control tactics, including information control, thought control, behavior control and emotional control. Includes anything that falls under the BITE model (from the organization itself or from member behavior), as well as mental health issues that stemmed from or were exacerbated by church participation.
- Church history: Problems with history of the church and its founding (including but not limited to the Book of Abraham, polygamy and historicity of the Book of Mormon), as well as how the church has approached teaching and/or explaining its history. This includes problems with misinformation regarding the church’s history.
- Doctrinal issues: Problems with inconsistencies in church doctrine, inconsistencies between prophets and lack or loss of testimony. This also includes problems with doctine itself, such as tithing and temple ordinances (although masonic influence falls under “history”).
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to share specific stories from the survey on my Instagram story as I work on diving more deeply into each of the above categories to give background on ex-Mormon concerns on a more granular level. I think it would be interesting, for instance, to look at the amount of “church history” respondants who pinpointed polygamy or the Kinderhook Plates specifically, or the amount of “social issues” respondants who left because of the Protect LDS Children movement versus the November Policy. In the meantime, you can find a basic breakdown of the responses below — and let me know either here or on Instagram (@themodestytalks) if there’s anything specific you’d like me to take a deeper look at.
Many responses mentioned items that fall into multiple categories, especially since I asked people for their primary reason for leaving the church and for additional reasons, if they felt like sharing. I’ve broken them down into the percentage of respondants whose “primary” reason for leaving belonged to a specific category, based on the questions asked, as well as the percentage that mentioned a category regardless of whether it was their primary reason. Find the full text of my questions at the bottom of the post, and keep in mind that this wasn’t a scientific survey.
Primary reasons for leaving Mormonism
Of the 660 respondants, more than one-third cited church history as their “primary” reason for leaving Mormonism. Of those, 32 (13.2%) referenced the CES Letter as the catalyst. Issues that are technically a part of church history but were specific to a certain angle of it (the Priesthood Ban, for instance) were included in the category I felt they fit best.
It was interesting to me that doctrinal issues took the smallest share of primary responses. I expected more “I just didn’t think it was true,” “why does the church change when they say God never does” or even “the temple really freaked me out,” but what I got was a much more nuanced, heartbreaking view of ex-Mormonism in general.
Interestingly, only two people out of the 660 mentioned mentioned either wanting to sin or wanting to do things that the Mormon church considers to be sins (“I wanted to have sex,” etc.) as their primary reason for leaving Mormonism. In those cases, I included the responses in cultural issues, as the BITE model includes behavior control tactics.
Overall reasons for leaving Mormonism
The chart above includes the total number of responses for each category throughout all three questions, which is why there are more responses than the 660 people who submitted information.
What I found to be particularly interesting when I removed the “primary” consideration and looked at the amount of responses that included any mention of a category was that church history only gained one response, bumping up to 243 total responses. Overwhelmingly, if someone mentioned church history in their response at all, it was listed as their primary reason for leaving the church.
This is in direct contrast to the “doctrinal issues” category, which showed the single highest gain when comparing between primary responses and overall responses (93 responses to 223 responses).
Social and cultural issues both showed modest gains, jumping from 178 to 204 responses and 140 to 163, respectively.
1. Were you baptized in the Mormon church? (yes/no)
2. Have you officially resigned from the Mormon church?
- No, but I no longer attend and no longer consider myself Mormon.
- No, and I still attend but no longer consider myself Mormon.
- Other (fill-in-the-blank)
3. What was your primary reason for leaving the Mormon church? (or for no longer following/believing, if you still attend)
4. Are there any other reasons you’d like to share for leaving the Mormon church? (or for no longer following/believing, if you still attend)
5. Is there anything else you’d like to share?