Why Are People Choosing to Leave Their Faith?

Last week, Jeremy Runnells, author of The CES Letter chose to resign from the Mormon church to preempt an excommunication for apostasy. I tried reading the CES Letter in its entirety sometime back, tried and failed – it’s long. I did listen to his interview with John Dehlin. To summarize briefly, Jeremy Runnells experienced a crisis of faith triggered by exposure to some difficult, messy parts of Mormon history. A relative referred him to a CES (Church Education System) director to help answer his questions. He wrote a letter detailing all of his questions but never got a response. So, instead, he posted the letter on the web, which subsequently went viral and has been a trigger for others to also leave the church. Because of this, he was threatened with excommunication but instead preemptively resigned.

First of all, was this an inevitable outcome? Did Jeremy Runnells have to leave the church because of the issues he encountered? Here are a couple of my favorite responses to the letter.

First, a Mormon historian wrote this response, entitled What We Should Learn from Jeremy Runnells: Some Thoughts on His Depature From the Church:

Do I think Jeremy is evil? No. I think he began as a sincerely troubled soul who was quickly swept up in the momentum, championed as a hero by the vocal post-Mormon community in podcasts, blogs, and Facebook groups (and who have organized two vigils in his honor). From the brief interactions that we have had, I actually think Jeremy is a pretty decent fellow and I hold no ill will towards him. I feel for him and think that things may have resolved differently had the CES Director he initially wrote to responded kindly, even if he had no satisfactory answers to offer. My hope is that we can all learn from Jeremy’s story. How can we who are intimately familiar with the historical record be of better service to members? How can we be better at disseminating our research to the public, rather than keeping it within an insular community of scholars and academics? The church has taken some bold measures as of recent to improve the instruction in their Seminary and Institutes. As Elder Ballard recently implored, Seminary and Institute educators no longer have a free pass of not answering historical questions. “Gone are the days,” Ballard observed, “when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’”

For those of us who are actively engaged in Mormon history and social media, and still remain actively-engaged in the Mormon faith, we can all do better at sharing our perspective in a sympathetic and charitable manner. We have nothing to be afraid of with the history of the church, but we should be humble in acknowledging that the history is not always flattering. As the church continues to extend its hand towards the refugees of war-torn nations, let us continue to extend our hand towards those who may feel like refugees of the war between apologists and critics.

Critics to the Mormon church have been around since the beginning. I understand the impulse toward such criticism. History is always more messy than the polished shine our history books often portray it to be, more-so when that history comes from the church trying to encourage faith and commitment. Reality is more complex. We’re all human beings dealing with difficulties in a flawed world. Messiness abounds. Joseph Smith, perhaps more than most recognized this. In D&C 93:24, he wrote:

 24 And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

Nobody should be afraid to study history, science, anything really. We should all be ready to deal with things as they really are, as they really were and as they really will be. Truth. But this is a difficult, longer than a lifetime pursuit. And it’s also why Jeremy Runnells’ website does Mormonism a disservice.

His letter is basically a survey of every problem ever conjured up about the church. The rub is that it’s largely accurate, though speculative at times. He drives this point over and over again, asking anyone to correct any errors and he’ll promptly correct them.  I believe he’s sincere in this. The problem though is different. It suffers, desperately, from the lack of proper context, historical and otherwise. It comes from a place of criticism so lacks a lot of grace, always assuming the worst. In large measure as a response to this letter, Brian Whitney is trying to address this lack of context by providing the information in a manner that’s easily consumable by a non-historians. The website is appropriately called  “Mormonism in Context”.  I’m not sure if this website will be helpful for someone who might otherwise leave the church or might push someone out. It still portrays church messiness and makes a lot of the same points found in CES Letter, but he does it from a place of scholarship and fairness and with much more background material in hopes of providing a why with the what. And I think it provides someone with enough information to make sense of the messiness, provide a footing for those who choose, to find a way to deal with it and remain faithfully involved. I recommend it.

But maintaining religious faith should not require a history degree. My 13 year old daughter, for example, who has yet to show interest in history to this degree, should still be able to find a path toward faithfulness.

To that end, I love Adam Miller’s much different response to the letter in this essay entitled Letter to a CES Student.

You are like this man, the Buddha tells his student. You are suffering and dying. And you can demand answers to all these speculative questions if you like — but if you do, you’ll die before you ever get any answers.

Regardless of how your questions get answered, the Buddha tells him, still there is suffering, still there is sickness, still there is aging, still there is worry and distress and fear, still there is death. It is the work of addressing all this in this very world that I teach.

And also

Mormonism cannot bear the weight of itself. If you ask Mormonism to be about Mormonism, the weight of that inward turning and the redoubling of that self-regard will stifle it. Mormonism will collapse under its own weight and you’ll have lost the very thing you had hoped to find.

You can only save Mormonism by losing it. You can only save Mormonism by connecting deeply with what Mormonism is itself aiming at. This is the only way to be faithful to what Mormonism itself is trying to do.

Here Adam Miller changes the subject. Rather than looking at Mormonism, we should be looking at what Mormonism is looking at and then deciding if that’s where we should be looking as well. In other words, Does Mormonism work? And if it works, if it makes our lives better, then the past messiness matter less – though it still matters.

So, why do people leave religion? The real question, perhaps, is why do people choose to stay? Why do Mormons put so much of their time, energy and resources into this church? Are they afraid of the consequences if they choose another path? This is possible and for some likely. Living forever with your family and with God is what is at stake in some people’s minds. If losing your faith has eternal consequences, I can see why so many people feel shunned by their faith community when they start to question. No one wants to be led down a path that leads them toward apostasy. I can relate to this to an extent. For someone prone to anxiety, I’ve held onto Mormonism with this kind of desperation – with a tight fist rather than an open heart. It didn’t work. It was  a far too stressful way to live religion, and more importantly far too selfish. Faith based on self-preservation is no faith at all.

It’s also a faith built on an incredibly fragile foundation. Again Adam Miller in an essay entitled The Body of Christ.

If your life itself depends on the question, then ask a question that is rich enough to cover the whole rich span of that (messy, unfinished, broken, vulnerable) life.

Don’t ask the thin question: “Is the Church true?”

Ask the thick question: “Is this the body of Christ?” Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does it bleed?

This is a load-bearing question. This is a question properly fitted, by Christ himself, to address the existential burn that compels its asking.

If a person belongs to Mormonism only because they believe it’s literally true in some hyper specific and narrow sense of the word, exposure to messiness and flaws inherent in every single human being, including Joseph Smith and every leader of the church since, and in the earth-bound institutional church, that’s the kind of faith that can crumble, and perhaps it’s the kind that should.

Another reason someone may leave Mormonism is because it stops working for them. I felt this sadly while listening to John Dehlin’s interview with Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees fame. Tyler Glenn struggled with his sexuality within Mormonism for many years. Finally, he recognized this compartmentalization was causing severe psychic pain, and so he came out as a gay, believing Mormon in Rolling Stone Magazine. However, when the church updated its policy declaring gay couples apostate and disqualifying even their children from baptism, Tyler Glenn felt unwelcome and unwanted in the faith he loved. This led him to explore the critical arguments and in process finding plenty of reasons to abandon his religion. Fundamentally, I believe for him the church no longer and possibly never really worked.

So, if you asked me, in general terms, why people leave their religion, I think there are two broad and inter-related reasons why. First, they lose belief in the church’s truth claims perhaps as they encounter information that challenges it. Unable to reconcile the contradictions, ambiguities and difficulties, their belief fails and they leave. Second, they fail to find ways to make the religion work in their lives. For a variety of reasons, they find pain when they sought solace, community and comfort. Perhaps they had trouble finding a place within the religious community or like me they felt beaten up by the demands of the church rather than comfort and support when we fail to live up to those demands.

But I think there are ways to overcome both challenges and there are good reasons to try. I believe there is something essential to religious faith in many of the same ways I believe literature, math, science and art are essential. I believe religious practice is an essential part of a balanced, meaningful life. When done well, religion makes life easier providing tools to face difficult life challenges within an eternal context. There’s something about being a part of a community of people committed to caring for and watching over you in times of need. And there’s a loss when someone leaves that religious community, both for the person leaving and for the community being left. For some, this departure is necessary and inevitable for healing and safety. I hope those who leave can either someday find a way to return or simply finds an alternative faith community that works better.

I believe religion has answers to questions that can be answered in no other way but we have to ask the right questions and have the proper expectations. I think religious observance can and should work. Faith crisis sometimes does and should lead to faith deconstruction, but can and should lead to a reconstruction toward something better.