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Fear and Loathing in Salt Lake City

Religion is based, I think primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing - fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.

--Bertrand Russell

They say there are strangers who threaten us,
Our immigrants and infidels.
They say there is strangeness to danger us
In our theatres and bookstore shelves,
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves.

Quick to judge,
Quick to anger,
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand.

--Rush—Witch Hunt (Part III of Fear Trilogy)

In a previous post I said I was preparing a post on fear and the LDS Church. In this post, I’ll explore ways the church instills fear in its members, and offer my opinion on why I think the church uses fear as a tool of social control and institutional preservation. In reading many blog posts and participating in numerous discussions in Internet fora over the last year and a half, I have observed that fear is an aspect of nearly everyone’s experience in Mormonism. At the same time, each individual’s experience with Mormonism is unique, and it appears the church has a variety of fears in its arsenal.

I see the fears the church uses falling into two basic categories: the first includes fears intended to keep us believing in the foundational truth claims of the church—even in the face of contrary evidence. In this category I would place the following fears:

  • Fear of science;
  • Fear of accurate church history (exemplified by Elder Packer’s exhortations in support of “faithful history,” which I discussed in a recent post.);
  • Fear of the “world” (as opposed to the “one true Church”) as a catch-all for all philosophical, educational, religious, or social systems that do not align with LDS Church teachings or practice; and
  • Fear of outsiders (non-members, “Gentiles,” ex-Mormons, people who subscribe to “worldly” philosophies).

These fears can be summed up neatly in a few oft-quoted verses from the Book of Mormon: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. . . .  And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.” 2 Nephi 9: 28-29, 42.

These four fears serve to insulate the faithful from facts that, as Elder Packer has pointed out, are “not useful” to developing and maintaining solid testimonies of the foundational truth claims of Mormonism. The church works systematically to persuade its members to distrust science when it conflicts with church claims, to separate from the “world,” which is defined generically as anything that differs from LDS dogma or practice, and to seek learning only insofar as it does not disturb one’s testimony of the church’s truth claims. The above four fears are intended to minimize exposure to, and damage from, information obtained outside of church-approved, correlated channels.

With these fears in place, the church can achieve greater success in implanting the second category of fears: those aimed at keeping members behaving in certain ways. In short, this second category of fears are intended to keep the faithful “paying, praying, and obeying.” This category I further subdivide into two types: dogmatic and pragmatic (acknowledging that there is often some overlap between the two). The dogmatic fears are theological or soteriological in nature; the pragmatic ones deal more with practical consequences associated with rejecting Mormonism in the here and now. Another way to look at it is that dogmatic fears are projections of magical thinking—they are spiritual in nature. Lest anyone begin to doubt or slack or, heaven forfend, think about leaving “the fold,” the church inculcates these dogmatic fears about the spiritual consequences that are sure to follow:

And that’s not all. The church covers all its bases. Not only will you suffer spiritually here and in the afterlife, but you are sure to suffer severe social consequences if you don’t “endure to the end” in “living the gospel.” Here are some of the pragmatic fears the church instills in its members:

  • Fear of church discipline (and the attendant shaming from the community that gives so much teeth to this fear);
  • Fear of unhappiness outside of full church activity (after all, “wickedness,” i.e., leaving the church or going inactive, “never was happiness”);
  • Fear of losing the respect of your spouse, children, or extended family (the church always portrays “apostates” as “prodigals” or “lost sheep” or “fallen,” etc.);
  • Fear of losing your spouse in this life (i.e., believing spouse will leave you over your “loss of faith,” seeing you as now-damaged goods and unworthy of lifetime companionship; after all, the church teaches incessantly that temple marriage is the only way to have happiness in this life and eternal life in the next);
  • Fear of losing your value system, your moral compass (the parade of potential horribles vividly described by church leaders is almost endless: those who leave are destined to become alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless, sexually promiscuous, and so forth);
  • Fear of being left with a lack of purpose and identity (patriarchal blessings contribute to this, as do church teachings about the pre-mortal existence and the literalness of the gathering of Israel—if you are not literally a spirit child of heavenly parents and a literal descendant of an Israelite tribe, then what are you, exactly?);
  •  Fear that your children will “go astray” without church (you can’t raise good kids without church programs, can you?);
  • Fear of uncertainty—if the church not true, is God real? Is there an afterlife? Is any other church “true”? Is there meaning to life? If so, what is it? (the church has all the answers that matter—we know “why we are here, where we came from, where we are going, and the one way to get there); and
  • Fear of change (changing beliefs, attitudes, and practices takes us out of our comfort zone. As Sue Monk Kidd says, “the truth may set you free but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”).
  • Now that I have listed some of the different fears that the church instills in its members, let’s look at how the church perpetuates this culture of fear. On this topic alone I could probably fill volumes. I will sketch only an outline of how the church uses fear and will, perhaps, come back to this subject in future posts or comments.

First, the church makes use of apologetics to inculcate in its members many of the fears described above. For a good treatment of Mormon apologetics, I refer you to Bob McCue’s essay Mormon Apologetics: A Guide for the Perplexed. The use of apologetics creates uncertainty in members about their own doubts. Apologetics shores up dogma by making re-evaluation of beliefs more risky, and apologists work hard to create the illusion that “all is well in Zion—the smart, educated, faithful Mormons have it all figured out and there is nothing to worry your pretty little head about. Now get back to paying, praying, and obeying. The intended influence of apologetics is to depress the natural inclination for inquisitive members to seek information outside the narrow confines of Mormon-created scholarship. As McCue has said, “the objective of much of what FARMS produces [is] to persuade Mormons not to bother looking at sources of information that question their point of view.” What results is the fear that there is something wrong with you for having doubts in spite of the “evidence” they cite. If so many smart, educated people have assuaged their doubts and resolved their concerns, maybe there is something wrong with me, the questioning member muses. (For more on this phenomenon, I refer you to another excellent essay by Bob McCue, Do Smart Mormons Make Mormonism True?).

Of course, apologetics are really aimed at a small segment of the overall Mormon population—the highly educated and the well-read. While this describes a significant portion of the Mormon populace, it by no means represents all or even a majority of the members. For the bulk of the church population, the LDS Church relies on other methods for instilling fear into the membership. Mormonism is a strictly hierarchical, patriarchal, and authoritarian organization. The social structures in place reinforce the power and authority of those in leadership positions. Such structures include the way the church conducts Bishops’ interviews (using the Executive Secretary to summon the parishioner to the Bishop’s office where the meeting occurs behind closed doors, the agenda is set by the Bishop—often without prior knowledge on the part of the member being interviewed—, the subject matter obliterates personal boundaries, with the most intimate of questions being fair game—including questions about what the member eats and drinks, the kind of underwear he or she has on, and the member’s sexual activities); early-morning Seminary, in which high-school-age youth are indoctrinated in a narrow, literalist interpretation of the scriptures that focuses on drilling the principle of obedience to church leaders and conformity to the social mores of the church into the students; the Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs in which, again, obedience to church leaders and conformity of belief and behavior to church norms is reinforced through repetition and appeals to the authority of fear-inducing scriptural injunctions. In addition, the temple is made the center of Mormon life. This gives the authorities another opportunity to preach obedience to the leaders, more opportunities to motivate with fear—those “unworthy” to enter the temple are, by definition, in peril of losing the Holy Ghost, losing the blessings that come from paying tithing, losing their exaltation, being buffeted by Satan, and, if that’s not enough, not being able to witness a loved one’s wedding. Furthermore, the emphasis on temple worthiness effectively creates a stratified membership, bifurcating it into the “haves and have-nots,” the first-class and second-class citizens of the kingdom. Fear of social isolation or marginalization results, providing yet another fear-based incentive to members to “pay, pray, and obey” in order to get their membership stamped “first-class.” The church’s lack of a professional clergy, too, contributes to the social stratification. The need to fill callings is met by men in authority who decide where a member serves and how long, essentially controlling the member’s status in the organization—example: Brother So-and-So is not wearing a white shirt, eh?  Perhaps he should be called to the nursery. The social controls related to status in the organization have a profound effect—the fear of being marginalized in one’s social group helps keep “silent heretics” outwardly conforming.

The church also capitalizes on members’ emotional or spiritual experiences about the Book of Mormon and basic gospel doctrines. The church works hard to get people to “feel the spirit” using techniques time-tested to manipulate emotions and trigger numinous experiences. Once someone experiences such a feeling in any church context, it is interpreted to mean “the church is true.” President Ezra Taft Benson, in one of his more famous General Conference talks (given as an apostle but reprinted and oft-quoted during his Presidency), said that every objection to church claims could be answered simply by asserting one’s testimony in the Book of Mormon. Said Benson, “the only problem the objector has to resolve for himself is whether the Book of Mormon is true. For if the Book of Mormon is true, then Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was his prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, and it is being led today by a prophet receiving revelation.”  Leaving aside the fact that there are holes in this logic wide enough to steer an oil tanker through, the leaders use this logic to demand unquestioning obedience to church authorities. Once a member has a “testimony,” the member will accept the harsh scriptural injunctions and prophetic pronouncements as “gospel truth,” even as the word of God himself. Not coincidentally, Doctrine & Covenants 1:38 is a scripture mastery scripture for seminary students. It says, “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” . Constant reinforcement from the power structure and social network is used to keep the fear level up. Fast & Testimony meetings, home- and visiting-teaching messages, General Conference addresses, church magazines—all these are used to reinforce the idea that members’ spiritual feelings provide a basis for the claims of absolute authority for the Brethren in spiritual matters.

And then there is the temple. In the temple, members are placed “under solemn covenant” not only to not reveal the signs and tokens (and, for the older ones among us, the penalties) associated with the endowment ceremony but are also told by the actor playing Lucifer at the height of the ceremony that “if they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars this day, they will be in my power!” The temple ceremonies thus play an important role in instilling fear in the members.

Having covered the barest outline of the methods the church uses to instill fear in its adherents, the question next arises: why does the church use fear to hold its community together? Why not use other constructive methods to build a cohesive community of faith?

Again, entire books could be written on this subject. I will offer just three possible reasons why I think the church relies on fear as a motivating and organizing principle. The first is simple insecurity.  Generally, people who instill fear in others are themselves insecure about their own position. That which is true for individuals also applies to organizations. Fear is a defense mechanism. It is rooted in the church’s own insecurities about its message and program.  Noteworthy is the fact that insecurity in individuals often leads to arrogance and false bravado, as the insecure person overcompensates for his or her insecurity. For a classic example of this, look no further than your neighborhood playground, where boys will be found teasing girls in an expression of their insecurities.  The church, of course, is fond of quoting Joseph Smith, who is alleged to have said that he kept order in Nauvoo by “teaching correct principles” and letting the people “govern themselves.” Were the church to do more than merely pay lip service to this maxim, critics like me would have little to say. But nothing is further from truth in today’s LDS Church (whether it was actually true in Joseph Smith’s day is a debatable proposition I will leave for another day). What are some of the insecurities the church may suffer from? For starters, there are the foundational truth claims (for a list of what I deem the Five Fundamentals of Mormonism, see my previous post here.) The church, in insisting upon a literalist interpretation of these truth claims as the basis for the authority of its leaders, has painted itself into a corner, and at least some of the leaders are aware of it. The church fears too much knowledge, it fears scholarship and science, because these are toxic to the Five Fundamentals. So the church’s fears are transferred to the members (as Pink Floyd said, “Mother will put all of her fears into you.”).

The second reason I think the church uses fear is simply ease. It’s easier, at least in the short term, to govern through fear rather than by “teaching correct principles and letting the people govern themselves.” Like a parent who pulls out the belt to deal with an unruly child rather than taking the time to discipline in constructive ways or like the tyrant who finds it easier to rule by boot and gun than by wisdom and persuasion, the church takes the easy way out. It’s much easier to tell people that “Satan” is out to get them and will destroy them in all sorts of horrible ways than to develop persuasive arguments in support of whatever new rule the Brethren decide to impose on the membership. For example, why bother explaining the rationale for the rule that women are to wear just one set of earrings when you can simply turn it into a loyalty test—“do it or you are a covenant-breaker, and we all know what happens to covenant-breakers, don’t we?” The church has used fear as a motivator and tool of social control for so long that institutional inertia just keeps it going. Change is hard. And motivating people in positive ways simply requires more energy than using fear.

Finally, I think the fact that the use of fear is so pervasive in the church speaks to the character of those who lead it. Their willingness to employ harmful social-control techniques in order to maintain church membership speaks to their ultimate motives, which are to keep the church financially prosperous. If their motivation was to “bless the individual” they would respect agency, promote truth, and eschew the use of fear, guilt, and shame in favor of rational persuasion, encouragement, compassion, individual expression and empowerment.

So, how should we respond to all this fear-mongering? I should note that not all the fears mentioned are irrational or phantom fears; some are very real. So, it’s not enough just to ignore them. Even the ones we recognize as irrational may have powerful effects on us mentally, emotionally, even physically. I look forward to discussing this further with the many wonderful readers of Equality Time. Thanks for stopping by—feel free to comment; I’d love to hear from you.



The fear tactic is probably a remnant of Joseph Smith's limitations. He started a religion with limited intellectual resources, which required him to demonize those who were smarter and better educated.

Jordan F.

Equality: are you saying that we who choose to stay do so because we are afraid? I don't feel like I'm afraid- am I just cloaking my fear?



I'm saying that the church attempts to instill fear in its members in the ways I describe. How successful the church is in accomplishing its purpose, of course, varies from person to person. No, I don't think that members of the church are all quivering gobs of fearful goo. But I do think these fears play a major role in keeping people from embracing some of the doubts they might have about church policies and doctrines. And I think these fears do keep people from talking openly and hoenstly with one another in the church generally. And I think that many people with serious doubts about the church fear one or more of the consequences that I mention in my post. As I said, some of those fears might be justified (will my spouse leave me or my parents disown me?); others might be completely phantom (will Satan drag me carefully down to hell if I stop wearing my garments?) I can tell you that I have experienced some of these fears but not others. I really can't speak to your own experience. If you are immune to the church's fear inculcation, more power to you!

Lunar Quaker

Could it be that the degree of the church's use of fear tactics is directly correlated with the availability of information? When I read about church history, I see fear-mongering as a cyclical phenomenon. In the earliest days of the church, people had first-hand experience and a high degree of familiarity with church leaders. Thus fear was required to exert control over the members. During the mid-20th century, though, the church was growing and prospering, and people were more removed from the leadership. The internet did not exist. In this environment, perhaps fear tactics were not needed. Now, as books are published and the internet makes information freely available, the fear tactics have returned.

Floating in the Milk

The pragmatic fears are my demons. I've known that Joseph Smith was not a prophet for a long time now, but fear of the consequences of leaving the church have kept me silent. My mother has stated explicitly that she would disown any child that left the church. I have minimal about the strength of my marriage at this point, but I do fear the strain I know it will put on my husband, who I love very much and don't want to hurt.

Sister Mary Lisa

I'm just very glad that I didn't have that particular fear (the one of marital ramifications) since I'm married to a non-member already. It is amazing how many fears you accrue as a member of the church. It's entirely true. Your list here is great, Equality. Very well written. My fear now is that my discovery that I really have a voice, and a valid say in what happens in my life and what I want my life to be will be too big of a change from who I was before. The husband and kids are already hating it so far.

My fear that my TBM dad would come at me with scriptures ready and hellfire and damnation speeches once he knew about me not believing it was true anymore has not been realized. I've actually e-mailed him twice to see if he'd like to discuss it, but he ignores me.

mayan elephant

well done equality. very well done.

i liked your response to jordan. i agree that not every member is fearful, but certainly its part of the doctrine, culture, PR and curriculum.

just as there are some that are not fearful, there are others that compound their fears by "fearing for the salvation" of their children and others that may have escaped the faith. its just my untrained observation, that this is very common among mothers in the church. but, what do i know? really? damn devil messes me up so bad i fear i no longer know anything at all.



Excellent post.

I liked the typology you gave for different doubts. The one that plagued me the most was "pragmatic." I was told through a blessing or whatever that if I didn't stay absolutely faithful I would never find a spouse and never be happy. This kept me in line for a long time. However, the funny thing was that when I got married there was nothing left to keep me from questioning and the doubts poured out of me. Thanks for the post, it was enlightening.


No not all members are fearful. It may be that the fear has just rolled off their backs or they had exceptional parents or whatever. But it could also be that many of them have never felt fear because they have never gotten close enough to the line to challenge all the "certainties" and thus threatened to violate the boundary where fear begins.

Juggler Vain

I think belaja has touched on an important element of the way fear seems to work--people who are motivated by fear don't necessarily spend their days twitching in terror. In my experience, it's more common for people to create a protective boundary around the scary thing and then avoid it. As a believer, I did not live in constant fear, but fear constantly influenced my life by keeping me from thinking certain thoughts, and being with certain people, and doing certain things that I understood to be "dangerous" or some sort of threat to me. I wasn't freaked out, but I did respect more boundaries than I do now.


Thanks for posting this equality.

I agree with your assessment of why the LDS church continues to use fear. Many thinking people reject that faith for that very reason - they don't want to be manipulated into thinking or living a certain way.

I disagree with belaja. I distinctly remember countless lessons and stories about not associating with people who drink, dating only mormons, etc.

There was a real impression that a believing mormon should be frightened of dating non mormons and people who drink.


Oh, I remember all those stories and lessons too. I guess in my case, I had a grandfather who drank coffee, chewed tobacco and cussed up a storm. And the rest of the family seemed quite safe from his vices. I also grew up with almost all non-Mormons and I knew from experience they weren't scary or would drag me into evil. So I suppose the fear-mongering didn't get to me on that level. I got the same message that I should be frightened of non-Mormons but I just never took it seriously. I did, however, stray far too close in those years to certain "thought crime" boundaries and that was when the really terrifying stuff--Satan will deceive you, you will be under his power, you'll never prosper, you won't be with God again, you won't be with your family, etc., etc., etc.--came roaring up at me. And there really was no balm for that fear. There were a couple of serious moments in my younger years where I really faced my doubts and issues with the church and the fear was just overwhelming. And everything and everyone around me was contributing to and affirming to me that sense of some kind of evil inside my own brain (which was much more frightening to me than the phantom of any beer-swilling non-Mormon ever could be) which would destroy me if I kept thinking and feeling along those lines. It made my eventual enlightenment take far, far longer than it otherwise would have. I suppose there are different lines of fear that activate for different people.

Also, I really wasn't saying that those messages weren't there, so much as if you keep a far distance away from the lines they demarcate, then your fear doesn't get activated. You know--as long as you stay in the center of Zion's camp, as it were, you have no cause to fear. So the fear itself is what keeps you far, far away from any line of questioning. I totally agree that fear is used as a tactic just as you described. But what happens, it seems to me, is a lot of times Mormons will, quite truthfully, deny they feel any fear--but that's because they stay far away from the lines they are told they are supposed to fear. It's still a fear-based tactic, but as JV says, they may not spend their time twitching in terror at the approach of non-Mormons or whatever.


In my case fear has influenced my reaction, or lack thereof. Fear of divorce, fear of "disappointing" parents who are in their twilight years, fear of loss of family associations, etc. If I could have cared less about those things and other similar things, I would have just walked away about four years ago. My path has been to gradually influence the people with whom I feel the most at stake to understand that my probable eventual "walking away" is not such a big deal. The church uses the combination carrot/stick of eternal families to influence my loved ones to fear my potential walking away. The church uses the notion that if children go astray, it is the parents fault to influence not only me but my parents. I don't want my parents to feel that they have failed with me. Nor do my parents want to feel like they have failed.

The eternal family is a big draw for many people, but it is a double edged sword within the church because you can only have an eternal family if you are obedient and worthy. I can shatter my wife's perception of her eternal life simply by calling a spade a spade and noting that the church's foundational truth claims are,... well, not true.


In my own experiences, fear most prominently affects parent-child relationships, and I am not immune from it.

Otherwise, I'd have to say that fear takes a back seat to guilt in terms of prevalence within the Church.


Excellent post. I think you're spot on with much/most of your analysis, and you've given me some things to think about.

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