In 1989 Glenn L. Pace said the following in general conference:
“It seems that history continues to teach us: You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone.”
This is an interesting and provocative statement. The faithful Mormon perspective is clearly explained in his next few sentences:
“The basic reason for this is simple. Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground. One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one, and Satan’s goal is not complete when a person leaves the Church, but when he comes out in open rebellion against it.”
I won’t dwell too long on that perspective. It’s quite well known within the church and comes as no surprise. In a worldview where there are two major opposing concepts (good and evil, God and Satan), and many other elements of the worldview are dichotomous, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the things are set up in such a way that departing members are now “against” the church, and cannot return to neutrality.
Now I want to turn around and analyse that statement from a non-believer’s perspective, because, at least the initial observation is based in reality “You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone”. This is especially pertinent to me as I can see how obsession becomes a tempting position to take.
Thought #1: Lots of people DO actually leave it alone
“It’s the squeaky wheel that gets all the oil” – my first thought about this statement of not being able to leave the church alone is that it’s a bit of an exaggeration. I think it IS indeed an observation based in reality, but only part of reality. If someone left the church and left it alone, then they wouldn’t make a noise, and wouldn’t be noticed.
The fact of the matter is about two-thirds of Mormons are less-active worldwide. They don’t attend church or engage in “active” activities (temple, family history, home teaching, etc.). This means for every believing and active Mormon there are two non-active, that would be a lot of noise if they ALL couldn’t leave the church alone. They probably have varying worldviews, from believing to disbelieving. My experience doing outreach as a believing member to less-actives is that they have indeed “left the church alone” quite nicely. Most of the time they get on with their lives and are truly not bothered by the church anymore.
The statement that they can’t leave it alone is, in my mind, not said with consideration towards less-actives. It’s said when considering people like me: formerly fully-active, fully engaged members. We are not your garden variety less-active, our circumstances are a bit more complex than that. We’ve exited due to intensity of research and interest, not apathy.
Thought #2: Those who struggle to leave it alone were generally the most dedicated in the first place
I think that some people who leave the church do struggle to leave it alone. And my personal conviction is that this is largely a function of the strength of their prior beliefs. Those who believed in the church most strongly and were most dedicated before are the types that struggle to leave the church alone when they lose their faith. This is the box I find myself in.
To be apologetic and sympathetic to my current viewpoint, I’d like to say the following: who in their right mind would wake up one day, realise much of what they’ve believed their entire life is wrong, and then just say “Meh, ok, let’s go to the pub!”?. I was serious about my beliefs before and I’m serious about them now. Re-creating an entire worldview and perspective on reality is no trivial matter. One has to break down and deconstruct everything one once believed and re-build a new one. It takes time. It’s emotionally and psychologically difficult. When one was fully dedicated to it before, that same amount of dedication and passion spills over into the new worldview. That’s why people struggle to leave it alone – because they genuinely cared so much about it in the first place.
It’s like a marriage and divorce. When one gets a divorce after many years of marriage it’s not a trivial process to just “move on” to the next marriage. It hurts, it takes time to heal, etc.
Thought #3: Can the church leave me alone?
One of the other reasons why people struggle to leave the church alone is the corollary: the church struggles to leave disaffected members alone. I think we’re all familiar with programs like lost sheep, home teaching, rescue visits, missionary visits etc. Not to mention family and friends who frequently reach out with concern to “bring the lost sheep back”.
While I do think that many of these are based in genuine sincerity on the parts of adherents, it’s easy to see how this stuff prevents people from leaving the church alone. When one is constantly reached out to, told one needs to repent, that one is being deceived by the devil, etc. it becomes more difficult to leave it alone. It sucks you back. It’s structured that way. And so to resist the “back-sucking”, people become more defensive, and thus more engaged overall.
In my case, constant exposure to things like missionaries coming over, going to church with family to support them, etc. re-engages the wheel of interaction with Mormonism, again and again, and makes it difficult to leave it alone – because it can’t seem leave me alone either 🙂
Thought #4: OK, now what, what do I want to do?
Given the above variables explaining why it’s difficult to leave the church alone, and assuming that I am not a victim but a proactive agent in choosing my life and destiny, I ask myself the question:
“OK, Shawn, so what do you want to do? Let’s evaluate, what’s the benefit of leaving it alone? What’s the benefit of not leaving it alone? What do you want for you and your family? Etc.”
I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and here’s my answer, again with a few variables.
Variable 1: Helping others
My faith transition was one of the most difficult and lonely times of my life. But there were people and pre-established structures there for me to help. I think the greatest thing is Mormon Stories Podcast – it taught me that we can objectively evaluate the truth claims of the church, challenge the culture, celebrate the good, critically analyse the truth claims, etc., but do it in a healthy, non-hateful and balanced way. We can balance critique with praise. We can be honest and brave. We can be empathetic towards imperfect leaders. This was so helpful to me, in fact without it I doubt I’d have come this far to a healthier and happier place.
So the first variable for me to consider is: pass it on. I was helped during a difficult time, so I need to help others. I feel an obligation to be there for people who are struggling with their faith – to provide them a safe haven to talk; a non-judgemental, open space where they can progress in any direction they need to. I want to try to be objective, not pushing my viewpoint onto them but letting them come to their own conclusions.
My first attempt at doing so is the creation of the Australian Mormon Stories Support Group, the first closed Facebook group supporting transitioning / ex / exploring / unorthodox Mormons in Australia. It’s been very rewarding and helpful for all of us to have a place to share. The group has grown quickly.
I’ve thought about it further: do I want to do anything else? Should I do more? My honest conclusion is that maybe sometime I’d like to do a meetup for our group, but generally speaking aside from this and donating to Mormon Stories, I feel like I’ve done my part to contribute.
If I do feel “called” to do more, I will. But for now I think I have tried my best to tick the box of genuinely helping other people. I am also very grateful to those who have dedicated more time to this space than I have, I think they’ve laid a fantastic foundation for others wanting to do their homework / research / find support.
Variable 2: Getting my life back
I have slowly come to accept myself as proudly agnostic. I’m proud of the fact that I’m willing to admit that I genuinely don’t know if there is a god or an afterlife. I think this admission requires courage. I admit “educated ignorance”.
One day my daughter is going to ask me: “daddy, what happens to us after we die?”, and instead of telling her a story that may or may not be true, I will say “honey, many people have believed many different things about death, but we simply don’t know”.
Given that I just don’t know, and all I really know is I have this life. Don’t I want it back?
The other day I took a walk while my family were in church, on the way back I came to a bus stop outside the church and just looked at the church logo, with that familiar font:
I wondered: how did I get into this? How did this happen? How did I come to believe this? The most honest answer was that I was brought up within the system, like most other people.
I’m 28 years old now. I still have plenty of life left in me. Do I want to spend the rest of it obsessing over something I no longer believe? Do believing Mormons obsess day and night about how Zeus is not a real god? Do we even give a second thought to scientology or Xenu the overlord?
I can see the danger in letting what I don’t believe define me. This is one of the reasons I don’t like the term “atheist” – does it make sense to define yourself by what you don’t believe? I don’t think it’s healthy.
I want to find a new identity. I want to clearly articulate the values and principles that I hold most dear, that form the foundation of my life, and live it authentically from there.
Conclusion: I do want to leave it alone
Given all of the above, I actually feel like I do want to leave it alone. Sure, I want to try to support others who’ve been through the tough times that I have, but if anti-Mormonism becomes my full identity then I have no identity – I am just an empty shell of a being, with no real substance. While there are many elements of Mormonism that I will always embrace, (for instance, the Word of Wisdom, golden rule, etc.), I do think it is time to move on.
And so I’ve set a goal for 2016: as one of my new year’s resolutions. I wrote this in my journal on January 1:
“Resolution 1: mentally move on from Shawn’s Odyssey
I am still in a phase right now where I spend a majority of my brain resources thinking about Mormonism, my life in it, and the various factors. I don’t think this is healthy and sustainable in the long term. While I don’t anticipate shutting down Shawn’s Odyssey entirely, I’d like to find a way to gradually move on to the point where I don’t spend every spare second in the exmormon subreddit or reading various Mormonism related books. I’d like to set a goal that within this year, I will gradually reduce my Mormonism related time. Shawn’s Odyssey has reached a conclusion, though it (my spiritual journey) may never be completely over, I have plenty of information to support my viewpoint. I am confident that it is true. Thus it is time to re-establish myself, find my new character and move on with a positive, healthily life.
Summary: Slowly, and naturally reduce the amount of mental resources I dedicate to thinking about Mormonism. Move on from Shawn’s Odyssey. Find a new spirituality and find joy in the new journey of life.”
Thought #5: OK, so how can I leave it alone?
Turning over to the practical side; how can I leave the church alone? How can I move on?
Without writing a whole other blog post about it, I think it involves some of the following elements:
- I don’t have to respond to every post on Facebook where people have a Mormon parade OR an anti-Mormon parade.
- In fact, learning to filter my newsfeed to remove such parades might help a lot.
- Reduce the amount of Mormon / ex-Mormon / apologetic / atheist content I engage with
- In other words, stop visiting the exmo subreddit, lds.org, FairMormon, zelph on the shelf, Mormon stories, general conference and atheist stuff.
- Stop reading books on Mormonism.
- Clean my YouTube suggested videos to reduce Mormon stuff.
- Write in my Shawn’s Odyssey blog when I need to get something off my chest (like this post today), but don’t otherwise push myself to write more. This is not a blog I am planning on growing.
- When I attend church with my family:
- Bring a book to read
- I won’t be attending the 2 last hours
- Go out and do some meditation or take a walk
- Don’t give it a second thought and don’t allow myself to be emotionally blackmailed by others. Just be happy.
- Never accept meetings with priesthood leaders (unless they watch my 3 hour video first – like that’s gonna happen)
- Never join in religious discussions with missionaries or teach with them
- Develop my other hobbies: Chinese, poetry, exercise, family time, YouTube channel.
- Make more non-member friends that share various interests with me.
- Support others going through their journey, but avoid lengthy / obsessive discussions about stuff.
I think with these steps and this goal in mind, the answer is “yes, I can and will leave the church alone”.
Now, let’s “go and do” 🙂