Song of the Week: MLK/Pride in the Name of Love
Technical Question for Computer-Savvy Types

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An’ if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know

Ah, The Clash. So neatly summarizing the dilemma facing the newly disaffected Mormon.  The question of whether to stay connected to a church in whose teachings one no longer believes, or to leave and venture forth into the "lone and dreary wilderness" that so many former Mormons experience.

In thinking about this question off and on for the last 18 months or so, I have developed an analytical framework that is helping me get closer to a decision, a framework I hope may be helpful to the (legions of) readers of Equality Time.  In short, I can think of two main reasons to be an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

The first reason to be an active participant in the LDS Church is if you really believe the Church's foundational truth claims.  The "foundational truth claims are these: (1) God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith "in a small grove of trees not far from his home"; (2) Joseph Smith, by the "gift and power of God" translated the Book of Mormon from actual gold plates delivered by a resurrected ancient American; (3)  John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, and other ancient prophets, now resurrected, appeared to Joseph Smith, and conferred on him the exclusive priesthood keys and authority making Joseph and his followers the only persons on earth authorized by God to perform ordinances necessary for salvation and to organize the Lord's "only true and living church upon the earth"; (4) the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true continuation of or successor to the church organized by Joseph Smith; (5) the most senior apostle of this Church (at the moment Gordon B. Hinckley) is the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and the only man on earth actively holding all the priesthood keys and the only person on earth entitled to receive revelation from God for the entire church and, indeed, the whole world.  I realize there are many other "truth claims" of the LDS Church (for example, the claim that Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless life, offered himself up as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the world in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cross of Calvary, was resurrected, and ascended bodily to heaven to sit enthroned at the right hand of God in "yonder heavens") but these five listed I think can fairly uncontroversially be considered the "foundational" ones.  Let's call them the "Five Fundamentals."

If you believe (or can say you "know" they are true, even) these five truth claims, then I can think of few reasons not to be an active member of the LDS Church.  A person who accepts the foundational truth claims may find much in the Church to criticize; he or she may even agree with any number of the issues I have identified in my 96 Theses.  But such a person could not leave the Church without suffering tremendous guilt and fear and personal consternation.  Let's take a look at some examples.  Suppose you are a true believer.  You are bored with church, hate your calling, the Bishop has been a total jerk to you, you disagree with the Church's involvement in the anti-gay-marriage political initiatives, and you are tired of hearing platitudes and cliches at General Conference.  As a true believer, your own personal dissatisfaction with the three-hour block or the correlated lesson manuals does not overpower your testimony that "the church is true."  After all, to a true believer, one's eternal salvation depends on one's activity in the Church (see D&C 76--being "valiant" and all that).  Belief in the Five Fundamentals is an effective shield to any reason to question continuing activity and membership in the Church.  Any personal dissatisfaction with the Church you might feel as a true believer is explained as a personal failure.  The Church is true; membership in it is the only way to experience a "fulness of joy," peace, contentment.  If you aren't feeling those things, there is something wrong with you, not the Lord's one and only true Church.

Does a lack of belief in the Five Fundamentals necessarily require an abandonment of activity or membership in the Church?  I don't think so.  If you no longer believe in the Five Fundamentals, you don't see the LDS Church as controlling the gateway to the only path back to God.  You don't see yourself as one of God's chosen ones by virtue of your Church membership.  You now see the flaws and weaknesses and problems with the Church not as aberrations from the ideal caused by imperfect people working in a perfect organization but rather as characteristics that define the organization.  You see the Church as a mixture of good and bad, a human organization with both worthy and unsavory attributes.  It's not that "the Church is true but some people aren't true to the Church," it's that the Church is a mixture of truth and error, right and wrong, inspiration and desperation, fear and faith, light and darkness.  Just like other human institutions, religious or otherwise.

For people in this situation, like me, the question of whether to continue activity or membership in the LDS Church becomes much more complicated than for someone who believes in the Five Fundamentals.  Now, the question becomes a cost-benefit analysis: for a doubter like me, does membership or activity in the Church confer more benefits than costs?  Whereas with a true believer, one can make a universal statement that membership and activity in the Church makes sense, for unbelievers no such universal pronouncement can reasonably be  asserted.  To the contrary, the question becomes a deeply personal one, informed by the totality of the individual doubter's life circumstances.   

Now, membership and activity are optional.  I don't think my eternal salvation is hanging in the balance, that if I curtail my activity or leave the Church altogether I am dooming myself to eternal separation from my lived ones and everlasting sorrow and regret.  Instead, I now view the Church as just one of many human institutions formed with the intent of helping us better ourselves in the here and now.  So, the question of continuing membership and activity becomes a practical one: does the Church confer positive benefits on me and my family that are not available in greater measure elsewhere?  What are some of those benefits?  A community of caring people; opportunities for serving others; a framework for instructing my children in ethics and values; support for my marriage and family; a place to gather for spiritual expression, meditation, introspection, and reflection.

As I have spent a fair amount of time and space on the negative aspects of the LDS Church, I won't dwell on them in this post.  Suffice it to say there are many, and while I have made no final determination yet, I am leaning toward the conclusion that, on balance, the negatives outweigh the positives.  But even if, upon tallying up the positives and negatives, the Church on balance were to come out as a net positive, the question to ask is: might there yet be something better elsewhere?  The analysis requires not just counting up the positive and negative attributes of the LDS Church.   It requires comparing the costs and benefits of staying against the costs and benefits of leaving for something better.  And that's where I am right now.  I don't believe in any of the Five Fundamentals.  I see much good in the LDS Church but am troubled by many aspects of Church history, doctrine, policy, and culture.  And I am actively looking to see if I can find a place that possesses the positives without all the negatives (though I understand any such place will have its own set of negatives to be considered in a similar cost-benefit analysis.)  I think I may have found it in the Unitarian Universalists, but I am not utterly convinced.  Just color me cautiously optimistic on that one and get back to me in a few months.

Comments

Sister Mary Lisa

I myself am gun-shy to try out any new belief system or religion. I feel like I am still trying to recognize my own voice, and that'll take some time, especially considering how effectively the LDS church squashed my ability to listen to my own voice. I don't want to add to it the sound of others trying to convince me of their brand of truth.

It's fascinating to discover that I'm OK, really, and that my values are in place, without the church in my life.

Equality

SML,

I think that the "Church of Sister Mary Lisa" is an alternative just as much as the UU or Catholic or Quaker churches. Opting out of an organized religious system altogether is an option that can be assessed in the same way: is "taking a break," on balance, more beneficial than staying in the LDS church or attending any other church? Many times, I imagine, the answer to that is going to be "yes," at least for a time.

Sister Mary Lisa

Good point. It is interesting to go through this, I'll say that. Way interesting.

I have heard a lot of people in Outer Blogness talking about the UU and saying it may be what they choose. Must have some merit.

Lunar Quaker

There is another reason why one might stay in the church, and it is also related to fear. Not fear of eternal consequences, but rather the fear of human consequences. Some of these include the fear of divorce, fear of disownment, fear of isolation, fear of embarassment, and the fear of losing one's identity. I believe that the church hints at these consequences in subtle ways, making it all the more difficult for a non-believer to leave.

Equality

Thanks, LQ. You stole my thunder. I am planning a blog post on that very topic. You are correct. I intended to mention that in my post but forgot to include it.
There are a at least four types of people who are active in the church:
1. Those who believe and see the church in almost entirely a positive light;
2. Those who have lots of issues with the church but believe, so they see activity as in their best interest despite not necessarily enjoying it;
3. Those who don't believe but see enough positive things in the church to countervail their lack of belief; and
4. Those who don't believe, see more negatives in the church than positives, but remain active out of the fear of negative consequences that will result if they stop attending or resign. Folks in this last group are the ones not really addressed in my post--they'll get a post all their own as soon as I can trade in this square too-it for a round one.

Cut s dean

One´s voluntary presence in an organization supports that organization. You may not agree with the racist stance of your country club, but occassionally golf there, maintain a membership, have anniversary dinners there, then you support it.

I enjoyed the 96 Theses, Equality. Thank you. I thought the first 12 on concealed Mormonism were particularly apropos. I cannot support an organization run by men who hide the facts from the members, the unknowing widow with her mite who pays for the lifestyle of these men and treats them like holy stars.

It is a personal decision, and many factors (family, etc) are in the mix and whatever decision made merits respect.

I like the Clash, very much, and for me the song is "Stay Free."

Equality

Thanks for the comment, Cut. I sense a topic for yet another post--on when a personal disagreement with an organization's policies hits the tipping point. Obviously, we can't leave every organization we belong to with which we have some disagreement; if so, we could never bleong to anything. But you are right that there must come a point when an organization's policies and values and culture are so antithetical to one's personal values and principles that remaining a member (even an "inactive" one) constitutes the violation of one's personal integrity. I'm not sure where that line is drawn but I do feel as though I am fast approaching it.


"Go easy...step lightly."

Randy

FWIW, I'm still on the rolls, though I haven't darkened the door of the local chapel since August 2001. We're one of those families nobody knows what to do with, and we had a nice arrangement with the local ward for a few years--we left them alone and they left us alone. Also, DW's family has taken it very easy on us, especially after her parents saw how badly our kids were treated during Sac. Mtg. here one Sunday. FIL was so annoyed that he offered to use his COB connections on our behalf. So we didn't need out to avoid being pestered. Significantly, DW views Mormonism as part of her heritiage, and she's not going to let the tinpot tyrants in the COB take that away from her. Ultimately, I stay "in" out of respect for DW and her family.

Cut s dean

Unfortunately, Equality, you are right. Many of us have accepted degrees from universities that present themselves as mighty cathedrals of learned wisdom, when they have at times shown themselves by their decisions to be evangelical tin huts stuck on a wet Welch hillside.

(As well another issue is whether your presence in the organization effects positive change within.)

Square Peg

Over the past couple of years, I've been running my own cost/benefits analysis on whether or not to stay connected with the church as a practicing non-believer.

Like every NOM, I have my own ever-evolving lists of reasons to stay and reasons to go. But Lunar Quaker's comment made me realize that virtually all of my reasons for staying are tied directly to my own fears.

Fear of irreparably damaging relationships with people I love very much...
Fear of causing pain and heartache....
Fear of being ostracized and marginalized...
And the list goes on.

So if I'm honest with myself I'm forced to admit that the main reason I choose to stay involved with the church is because I'm afraid to do otherwise. And that suddenly seems like a rather poor excuse.

Equality

SP,

I haven't had a chance to write up my post on fear yet, but one thing I plan to discuss is the fact that there are different kinds of fear. Some fears are legitimate--that is, they have a reasonable likelihood of actually happening. other fears are illusory--they are figments of our overactive imaginations. Staying in the church because you have legitimate fears of negative consequences liekly to occur if you leave is not necessarily a bad thing--at least as far as the decisionmaking process goes. It's a legitimate factor in your cost-benefit analysis.

Fears that are placed in you by the church's indoctination and incessant socialization over the years are another matter. These are the fears that we need to jettison and remove from our analytical framework (things like fear of bad stuff happening if you stop going to church, pay tithing, drink a cup of coffee, etc. or fear of being cast into outer darkness).

We need to distinguish between rational fears and irrational fears. Of course, some rational fears are rooted in the irrational fears of our loved ones, which makes the whole affair a rather tricky undertaking. But, to quote the kitschy Deseret book art, "I never said it would be easy..."

joom

I left for the simple reason it didn't fit me. The history, the doctrine, the inconsistencies of the religion didn't sit well. I am an all or nothing gal. I bought into the church at age 19 100%. Now I am 30 something I realize I can't raise my children in lies. All the good works and family inspiring stories cannot make up for the erronous beliefs surrounding the LDS church. I want my children to be good people based upon what is the RIGHT thing to do, not what some church tells them what to do in check list form.

Matt T

You've approached this issue in the same logical, step-by-step manner I approach it both consciously and subconsciously on a fairly continual basis.

I look forward to your post on "fear." It is the only piece missing from this puzzle.

We also sometimes sacrifice personal happiness for group happiness. For example, I might be more happy somewhere else, but my family's happiness may suffer to an extent that any marginal gains in personal happiness isn't worth the marginal losses in my family's happiness. In other words the decision is not really mine alone. It's a balancing act and it might require some trial and error.

So I remain "in" both for the positive aspects of the Church and the fear and family aspects. I wish I could determine which played a greater role in my decision. I tell myself it is the former, but fear sometimes it is the latter.

Simeon

It's a hard decision either way. There's nothing wrong with staying in the church if you can handle it. It drove me crazy knowing the concerns and quesions that I had would never be answered to a degree that would satisfy me.

Sister Mary Lisa

LOVE the new look, Equality. This is gorgeous.

Kullervo

For me, there was never really an option of being a New Order Mormon. The fact is, an unbeliever can't really fully participate in the Church. Not without lying at least.

There are interviews. Lots of interviews. Do you lie, or do you tell the truth? Ifyou tell the truth, you won;t get a temple reccomend (for better or for worse- but it certainly puts you in the second class of Mormonry). I assume you won;t be extended a calling, at least not a significant one. And you will be talked about, and worked on.

So you can attend meetings and all, but that's it. You'l be expected to keep quiet about your reservations.

I have respect for people who go the NOM route, and I understand that family considerations may outweigh the potential problems (that's why I went to church as an adolescent, after all), but in the end, it just doesn;t seem practical to me.

The comments to this entry are closed.