Why are Ex-Mormons “So Angry”?

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PATRICK Q. MASON, Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University: John, this week I thought we would move from the lofty heights of epistemology to the realm of people’s emotions and experiences. One of the things that I’ve been confronted with, as I’m sure you have, is how strongly people feel about issues of faith and doubt in Mormonism. The emotions often run high, and we see those strong feelings expressed both on the internet (especially by anonymous commenters) and in interpersonal relationships between family members, friends, and ward members.

You’ve spent a lot of time these past few years working specifically with people who are transitioning out of Mormonism, or who are already out. Can you say a few words about the emotions that are attached to leaving the church? One of the things that people who remain in the church often comment on is how “angry” or “bitter” ex- or post-Mormons are. “Why can’t they just leave it alone?,” people often wonder.

JOHN DEHLIN, psychologist, post-Mormon, founder of Mormon Stories Podcast: Patrick, I’m certain that this will be one of the most important topics we discuss. Thank you for raising these questions. They are an essential part of the empathy equation.

One of the most hurtful things a questioning/doubting/disbelieving/post-Mormon (QDDPM for short) can experience is to be dismissed as “angry” by believing members — as if: (1) anger is a bad thing, (2) believing Mormons don’t get angry, (3) QDDPM anger isn’t justified, and (4) becoming angry automatically disqualifies someone from being listened to or empathized with.

The reasons for the anger vary widely, but often include one or more of the following:

  • Feeling misled or lied to by an organization (the church) that you once trusted completely — with your full heart.
  • Regretting the amount of time, money, energy, and reputation that you gave to the church – under what you later discover to be deceptive and false pretenses. In some cases people have given hundreds of thousands of dollars (yen, pounds, etc.) and several decades of their lives to church service — sometimes even sacrificing meaningful educational or career opportunities — only to discover that they built their lives upon what they now view as a fraudulent foundation that sometimes causes harm to good, innocent people (e.g., LGBT, women, people of color).
  • It is not uncommon for a believing spouse to divorce a no-longer-believing spouse because of their loss of faith. Having your family implode, with children as the collateral damage — all over a religion that you now believe to be false — can be terribly upsetting and disruptive.
  • It is very common to lose one’s entire faith community, lifelong friendships, and sometimes even employment over a loss of faith. This is not an exaggeration, especially in Utah.  What’s worse is that once someone leaves the church, it is not uncommon for parents, siblings, friends, and ward members to express ZERO interest in learning about or understanding why the person chose to leave.  This can be so…incredibly….frustrating and disorienting — especially when it involves longstanding and intimate relationships that you once felt were solid and authentic.  Still, most QDDPM are met with stone cold silence after they decide to disaffiliate.  For so many, it is one of the most bizarre and anger-inducing aspects of post-Mormonism.
  • Perhaps the most devastating blow of all can come from believing family members — parents, siblings, spouse, children — who often come to view the non-believer as a massive disappointment, regardless of how healthy or productive their lives become after leaving the church.  No one wants to feel like a disappointment to the people they love most.  Feeling loved, accepted, and valued by our family members is a core emotional and psychological need — and yet religious differences often immediately dissolve long and hard-earned feelings of love and respect.  I often joke that a former Mormon could cure cancer or win the Nobel Peace Prize and still be viewed as a disappointment by their believing Mormon parents, siblings, and friends. Why do QDDPM get so angry?  Such family devaluing, distancing, and ultimate rejection can be devastating to someone who simply believes that they are following their conscience (and the evidence).

These are just a few of the reasons that people become angry after a loss of faith.

Patrick: Breaking it down like that is really helpful, John.  We won’t have space to address all those aspects here, so we’ll have to take up some of that material in future posts. Here I wonder if we can unpack the points you make especially about family relationships, in particular spouses. In my experience, it cuts both ways. For every instance of a believing spouse who rejects their now-disbelieving spouse and may even move toward divorce for that reason, I have seen cases where the disbelieving spouse browbeats the believing spouse into submission. Most often I have seen this when the husband loses faith, and pushes and pushes and pushes, often in a demeaning and derogatory way, against his wife who doesn’t share his doubts and still wants to remain in the church — and especially wants to raise their kids in the church, as was “the deal” when they got sealed. Frankly, I consider this to be a borderline form of spousal abuse.

I’m not trying to let anyone off the hook here by dismissively saying there’s blame on all sides. And we need to talk about how the believing spouse can respect the changes that have occurred in their partner’s life as part of letting them grow. But it does seem to me that the spouse who essentially changes the fundamental nature of the marriage — pulling out one of the pillars that the relationship was built upon — has a principal obligation to display fidelity to that original arrangement.

John: You make two very important points, Patrick. For one, any sort of abuse, verbal or otherwise, should not be employed by either believers or non-believers. In fact, a huge percentage of my time these days is spent coaching disaffected Mormon to resist the urge to channel their anger towards their family and friends in unhealthy ways.  It’s completely natural — but not always healthy.  If I’m being honest, disaffected Mormons can sometimes be their own worst enemy and would do well to model the respect that they seek from their believing spouse.

You are also correct to note that it is most often the disaffected Mormon who broke the original marriage contract. And so it reasonably follows that the disaffected partner should seek to cultivate empathy for their believing spouse — realizing how difficult and traumatic such a change can be for a believer.

And while I’m willing to concede both points, I also cannot resist noting how easy it is for the believing partner to completely disregard or overlook the merit of the disaffected person’s anger in the first place, responding instead to the disaffected partner with anger, disdain, and disrespect.  As you know, believing LDS are just as capable of anger, even if it’s the passive/aggressive type.

As I understand Christ’s gospel, empathy is a core tenet that LDS church members (as Christians) are urged to “mourn with those who mourn.” Yet when it comes to matters of doubt or disbelief, Christ’s call to mourn and to empathize deeply with those who are suffering is often too easily ignored or dismissed by believers – when religious disaffection is involved. Once more, many believing Mormons refuse to even attempt empathy for fear of losing their own faith. This is a major dynamic that in my view often leads to anger.

In some sense, both parties should try to do better. Non-believers should seek to remember what it was like to once believe, and possibly use that empathy and experience to treat their believing loved ones with increased kindness, patience, and compassion. In addition, believers should remember and take seriously the example set by Christ, who they claim to follow, and work harder to practice the virtues modeled by Him — namely compassion, empathy, patience, and unconditional love.

Does this sound reasonable? Maybe both sides can and should do better. Maybe that’s what this blog project is all about.

Patrick: Absolutely. As you know, John, your last points are very much the message I tried to convey in Planted. I believe that the fundamental ethic of the covenanted Latter-day Saint is to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” We don’t get to choose, let alone dictate, another person’s suffering. We don’t get to mourn only with people whose struggles we personally identify with or approve of. Part of the radical empathy that Christ calls on us to develop is to go beyond our own pain, however real it is, to listen and enter into and relieve, or at least sympathize with, the pain of others, even when their pain causes us pain.

In these instances when a family member loses faith, there is real pain on all sides. As you know better than anyone, the experience of losing faith in Mormonism is often the most painful, disorienting thing that ever happens to someone, precisely because they had invested so much into their religion, and it is so wrapped up in virtually every aspect of their life. Then when they announce their disbelief, it also causes so much pain for their spouse, their parents, their siblings, and others — again, precisely because Mormonism is so deeply embedded in our lives. The problem is that we’re simply not sympathetic to other people’s pain, focusing only on our own. And then we get into destructive cycles of recrimination, victimhood, etc.

John: Those are all great points, Patrick. I, for one, find your call for increased empathy and compassion amongst believing Mormons to be one of your most important and (frankly) endearing contributions to this entire conversation. It is so refreshing — as disaffected Mormons have felt systematically invalidated by church leaders and many Mormon apologists for decades. I can’t thank you enough for the role you are playing in this regard, including your book Planted, and your recent speech at the FairMormon conference.

I think we’ve covered some important ground today. Next week, if it’s okay with you, I’d love to more deeply explore the reasons behind the deep sense of disillusionment, frustration, and betrayal that disaffected Mormons feel, which is usually at the core of their anger. Does that sound okay?

Patrick: That sounds great.  We need to continue this discussion, which as you say may be one of the most important ones we have together.  We all need to do a better job of understanding one another, and that includes the pain, anger, and other deep emotions that we all feel.  Hopefully our conversation can help bring more understanding, compassion, healing to our communities. See you next week!

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About Patrick and John

Patrick Q. Mason, Ph.D. is the Chair of Mormon Studies and Associate Professor of Religion at the Claremont Graduate University and a nationally recognized authority on Mormonism.

John Dehlin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and researcher who founded Mormon Stories Podcast to explore and challenge Mormon culture. In January 2015, an LDS disciplinary council ruled that his statements rejecting certain church teachings constitute apostasy, and he was excommunicated.
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