How Mormons Leave: Surveys as Scripts For an “Ex” Culture (repost)

Part One: The New Culture of I Lost Faith

How is a “I lost faith in the church” movement being created, as a culture and not simply a personal badge of triumph?

Having recently taken a look at the preliminary survey results of “Why Mormons Leave,” I offer this interpretation and analysis of the materials.  You’ll note that much of what I wrote about the Pew Survey, and about the process of Correlation, applies to this survey as well.  That is because what we are dealing with is a discourse-dependent entity: Mormonism.  What do I mean by discursive-dependent?  There is no such thing, outside of communities which use language to create, a thing referred to as Mormonism; without language we do not have Mormonism.  This may seem like an obvious fact, but there is much that can be derived from it, for language has its own logic when put into cultural practice.

We can begin to study how language creates new things, like Mormons, Mormons who have “lost faith” and other, new social identities.  Just as there are scripts for performing a certain kind of Mormon, enactable in certain spaces but not intelligible in others (Correlation created one version for use in corporation-owned spaces), so there are emerging scripts for enacting the ex-Mormon, or whatever they may be called (by persons claiming to “be” one, and by persons “outside” that group).   That a name is still lacking, which is used by both insiders and outsiders, this void is important, obviously.  Until LDS Church no-longer-attenders have a name which is used by LDS attenders, as well—just as “Mormon” came to used by the very people named by their enemies—the “movement” will remain subject to cultural forces that derive almost entirely from LDS Mormonism (stereotypically understood), pop culture (politics, consumerism, etc.), and educational institutions.  This is how continuity is created in “new” cultures.  Such formative processes, we’ll see, are at work in the “Why Mormons Leave” survey.

The Data

This survey is produced by “in-group” persons (recognizing that the “group” is still creating boundaries), just as the Pew survey and Correlation work were done by “insiders”.  And that means we can use this data as ethnographic material, not simply to see what is really going on “out there”.  What is going on, is surveys are, as usual, being used to design new things, rather than merely to refer to existing “social” trends.  On the to the analysis, then.

First, take a look at this graphic:

Notice that two columns are given percentages, the first designating moderate to strong as factors in providing a true answer to the question listed at the top (e.g., “If you no longer believe…”).  This assumes that a statement could be “moderate” or “strong” in terms of truth vis-à-vis the question; such gradation doesn’t, however, fit with the original question’s posing of the matter of belief in terms of stark belief/non-belief.  That is, one isn’t asked how strong one’s belief or lack of belief is.  The survey is trying to capture a process, a stream as it were in a box, but still insisting on it being a process (viz., moderate/strong).

But there’s more.  First, the answers are not mutually exclusive: some are embedded in the categories implicit in other replies.  For example, “Joseph Smith” is included in “church history,”  as is anything, potentially, that happened “in church” before today.  In fact, that there is a thing called “church history” distinct from other histories, and distinct from other things connect to “church” is itself something worthy of discussion.

Second, rather than interrelated or sequential (e.g., “I lost faith in Joseph Smith” and so “I lost my faith in Jesus,”) replies are listed as individual “factors” whose impact is to be assessed in terms of “factorness”.  That is, one is asked to identify “moderate or strong,” “minor,” “not a” or “primary” factors; but there is no relationship between adjectival “minor” “moderate or strong” which describe a force’s impact or something; and the other term, “Primary” which names a place in a sequence.  A sequence which one isn’t allowed to identify in the isolated replies, by the way; nor to order vis-à-vis other factors (secondary, tertiary, etc.).  A “Primary” factor is one that the respondent could say and still be speaking the truth, while a “moderate or strong” factor is not really entirely true or false, apparently.  That ambiguity could mean any number of things which are concealed in this survey.

For example, if one picked “not a factor” under “I lost faith in Joseph Smith,” this could mean they still have “faith,” or never did; or, that whatever they believe about Smith, it has nothing to do with leaving the LDS Church.  If one doesn’t expect spiritual edification at church, one probably doesn’t leave because one isn’t edified by Sacrament Meeting.  The expectations and their failure to be found in what is regarded as the domain of the LDS Church—that is what is at issue here, and these expectations are not represented in this survey, unfortunately.  The expectations are often not under the control of the LDS Church, or Correlation, for that matter; but are often generated almost at random by one’s encounters here and there in “LDS” networks (families, roommates, classmates, neighbors, etc.).  There is no thing called the LDS Church which one can call up and talk to; that phrase describes an immensely complex cultural tangle of texts, persons, events, spaces.

Joseph Smith is not testified of in official LDS circles to be a world-class Egyptologist, nor an ardent monogamist; yet, such beliefs apparently contribute to one’s losing the faith.  What isn’t stated by the LDS Church, as we will see, contributes much to Mormons losing faith in what they imagine is the LDS Church, its stance on X, or its teachings about Y.  I suggest, and argue later on, that Mormons aren’t leaving the LDS Church, so much as leaving some imagined church, which is a social convention that fills the many spaces with many voices that speak for a generally silent official voice of the LDS Church.

So, the survey is not something which describes the reasons why actual people cease “believing” in claims made about the LDS Church, and accept other claims made about the LDS Church.  That previous sentence, in fact, gives some sense for how complex “belief” actually is, and how much is lost in using that simple term.  It also allows us to position “belief” as something like “consent to a phrase being true or false” (let us avoid matters of epistemology for now), rather than some psychological entity (which can’t be empirically studied).  So.  Where was I?

Ah, right.  Not descriptive, but a prescription for “joining” an emerging culture.  This ambiguity regarding “factors” is the first matter which begins to give us insight into what the survey is doing, and how.  It imaginatively isolates single “factors” as so many billiard balls; but then realizing this is absurd, particularly when one has relied on hierarchically related phrases, the survey allows one to “measure” not whether a factor is first in a sequence, but rather whether a factor was “”Minor” “Moderate” or “Strong” (in the published results these last two are combined).  Moderate or strong relative to what?  To other factors, of course.  But where did these factors come from?  From the survey designers.  That is, the entire range of reasons, and their relative weights, depends entirely on the picture of the world, as it were, maintained by the survey designers.  They have distinguished “factors” from a pool of phrases common in their not-yet-entirely-realized culture; fished out of Facebook, blogs, and hanging out.  This is one reason they, in this survey, are making a culture out of patches and parts, rather than describing why Mormons leave; or rather, explaining why they’ve lost their beliefs.

The most interesting, and to me humorous, reply is ranked rather high: “I ceased to believe in the church’s doctrine/theology.”  Imagine this conversation:

“What was a factor in no longer believing that the LDS Church is the true church?”

“I ceased to believe in the church’s doctrine/theology.”

“OK, but isn’t that saying basically the same thing, but with a different verb, cease, and a fancier terminology, doctrine/theology?  What exactly to you understand by doctrine/theology, anyway?”

“Whatever, dude.  You just don’t understand.”

This is funny to me, and telling.  Some of the other high ranking replies describe doing something, which leads to a loss of belief.  The exceptions, of course, are those foundational conversion markers: Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the general authorities.  Loss of faith in these is sufficient to bring about loss of belief in the LDS Church.  But this one reply trades on the pattern of doing something and losing belief (“I ceased…”), and blends it with the replies grounded in foundational markers, to give us essentially a restatement of the question itself.   That such a reply was allowed, well, it brings up a basic confusion in a standard mantra: I know the church is true.

What they generally mean is, “I believe certain claims made about, and sometimes by, the collection of texts, persons, and historical events I will call ‘the church’ are true.”  But only I would say something like that (though I wouldn’t, for obvious reasons).  Once the complexity of “losing belief” in a church is actually spelled out, the survey loses a great deal of its explanatory utility, and becomes instead something closer to a script for recruiting Mormons to new claims made about, and sometimes by…you get the idea.  We shall see that one outcome of this survey is to make clear my often repeated claim that there is no LDS Church outside of social conventions, outside of our imaginings.  The question is, then, how does one “leave” something that isn’t really a thing, a place, or an entity; and which doesn’t exist but in the imagination, after aggregating any number of distinct cultural processes into “the church”?  This survey gives some outline to that process.

What the Survey Gives You

What the survey actually gives you is a set of good guesses as to what “factors” you might trot out acceptably, when asked “Why did you leave?” And it gives you a way to imagine, statistically, what it means to others (“I’m like you!”) if you recite these phrases in certain spaces (e.g., blogs, bishop’s offices, Mormon Stories conferences).

These pseudo-scientific factors were derived, not from ethnographic research which would give you the sense of the “native’s categories,” and then a way to pose possible answers in a manner which would give you data useful “outside” that culture; but rather, the factors are from the natives who came up and could themselves answer the survey responses.  That is, what are on the survey listed as discrete “factors” are, in fact, inventions which select out from the world of things apparently grouped under “Mormonism” some few which are regarded (by the designers) as “factors” for one’s participation in the creation of “Mormonism”.  Obviously.  But.

What we have going on here is the attempt to bring life to a new thing, by organizing a series of statements into being as “factors” connected to the “same” thing, or effect: namely, losing “belief” in the LDS Church.   But it’s not actually “belief in the LDS Church,” so much as consenting to a different repertoire of claims made about the LDS Church.   And then, after consenting, one’s enunciating such claims becomes a way to perform one’s in-group identity, among a not-yet-realized group.  First, however, lines around a thing called “the LDS Church” must be imagined, like surveyor’s maps establishing property lines.

Obviously, one leaves “the church” only when “the church” as a culture has sufficiently realized “paths” for one to no longer be a part of that thing; meaning, “leaving” is itself dependent on the church having some imagined distinct “boundaries” for its existence, and for one’s participation in that existence.  Of course, excommunication is a status which marks one as outside the church, officially; but it says nothing about belief or faith.  What is being created is a rite of de-conversion to something experienced as “the church.”  Included in such a rite is removal of name from church records (which merely moves your name to another database, as I shown).  But now we are entering a phase where a positive post-Mormon culture is being created, with its own conversation stories, and signs of them that disbelieve.  This new culture depends on imagining a static, stereotypic “church” which can, in fact, be “left”; just as this survey has all the marks of Correlation in it, even as it attempts to do otherwise.

Correlating a New Culture

This brings up the more pressing matter: what is a “factor” anyway?  Here we come up against “folk theories” of society and belief, which are themselves culturally bound, and yet seemingly given factuality and life by way of a quasi-scientific instrumentality like a survey.   Like all Correlation materials, this survey is posed from a psychological perspective: “I lost belief.”  The absurd image of a bumbling man collecting and losing beliefs shows that one cannot isolate “beliefs” in such a manner as “factors,” so much as provide a script for persons who’d like to identify with the appropriate respondent’s ex-Mormon identity.  A “belief” is perhaps a complete sentence (usually beginning with “I [verb]…”, as shown by the list of possible replies.  That is, we are looking at the scripting for performing new identities, where one could say in reply to “Why are you such an apostate demon?” with the reply,” I lost faith in Joseph Smith.”   One could now suppose after reading this survey (or by participating in the discursive communities from which the responses were taken) that this is a common enough reply (or “factor,” allowing oneself to be a passive absorber of its “force”).

And, just as important, a reply like this also dangerous for believers to probe, for they too might lose their belief simply by continuing the conversation.  A line is drawn with such a reply, but also a selecting out of potential converts to the new creed (which was itself pulled from existing discourse).  Rather than “factors” that really bring “force” of some strength and push one “out” of a culture, these are replies which establish one “inside” a newly imagine culture of ex-Mormons who aren’t just a negative space on the map, but actually are acquiring positive creeds, as with any other American sub-culture.  “I lost faith in X” being the First Article of Faith in non-Faith, the “first discussion” being why “I lost faith.”

Notice that non-belief related replies are grouped at the bottom of the list, as the very question one answers concerns “belief” rather than “attendance” or some such practice.   Do beliefs change because one is unpopular at church?  They might, but that isn’t the standard narrative of disaffiliation.  Moreover, that these bottom three—offense, sinning, no friends—are also the same publicly stated reasons given by General Authorities and other leaders, this second fact also gives one good reason for not selecting them.  The taking up of a new voice as an ex-Mormon begins with rejecting the explanation for your existence, as given by some rejected cultural authorities.

One cannot begin a new culture by using the words of the opposed party, let’s say.  But one must argue with the king using the king’s language, as we see here; that language being drawn from folk psychology, in short, and Correlationism is a king’s subject here just as is this new movement.  Indeed, this “belief” psychologism is also the same position from which Correlation employees began their work fifty years ago; now undone by these same means.  I’ve written like a thousand pages, I suppose, about that subject, and so won’t repeat it here.  But what are these means here?  We’ll get to that in a minute. Now, back to the data.

The replies are mostly first-person subject-initial phrases (“I verb…”), with a few important exceptions.  As first-person phrases, the respondent is asked to “voice” these, and to compare with how such a statement compares referentially to one’s own life.  Hence, a creed.  These are respondent-relative, meaning, one would have to ask every single respondent what they mean by “I lost faith” or “I studied church history,” as it isn’t evident what these actually mean.  It’s not as if one replies, “I ate a banana,” or some such clearly defined, tangible act.  These most popular replies are also the most respondent-relative.  That is the logic of language working to organize speakers around indefinite, but seemingly shared, notions.

The resulting ambiguity in combination with the assumption of a single referent (“church history means church history, idiot!”) allows for seeming “factorness” to emerge, as if every click on “I lost confidence…” means the same thing.  But who defines the answer?  Whoever is the reader, which is to say: Mormons or not-Mormons-anymore, or ex-LDS, or whathaveyou.

Anyway.  Mormon culture is required for one to generate, “read” and interpret these results.  That is to say, ex-Mormonism is itself being created by the same means that Correlation attempted to create its own Mormonism: and both reject stereotypic, previously imagined Mormonisms (as cultures).  Both rely on abstractions which seem to convey shared beliefs, but which are actually defined differently person to person.  What is new here, with this survey, is that one can have a visual representation of the probability (80%? 84%?) that saying,, “I lost faith in Joseph Smith” will resonate with others, and thus, one will find a new community that seemingly shares your beliefs.  These are new creeds, built not from an overt priesthood, but are developed by way of democratic participation in surveys whose responses were pulled from existing discourse, appropriately enough.  But these replies are, of course, generated by some persons who seem, in more ways than one, to be replacing Correlation, rather than undoing it.

Now let us look at the exceptions to the highest ranking “I [verb of thinking/feeling]” and the less popular “I [verb]…” replies:

Church’s stance on homosexuals / Prop 8

Church’s stance on women

Church’s stance on science-related matters

Church’s stance on race issues

Notice that whatever the stance is here, it is not actually stated.  I would wager that if one actually asked what these stances were, one would not get the same reply from person to person, nor would these replies cite some church creed.  What we have here is the list of familiar social topics which are also popular for offering criticism (by way of including “oppressed,” or “disenfranchised” groups, of course).  Such topics organize social space, offering a ready-made posturing or indicating of one’s membership in certain non-church educational and political classes.  The vagueness of the matter actually allows these responses, as with the others, to draw from the sense of unity already “inside” those non-religious classes, to then build this new group seemingly “outside” the church.  Imagine this dialogue:

“Why did you leave?”

“Oh, you know, the church’s stance on X”

“Yeah, that troubled me too.  Let’s hang out.”

But there is no reason to believe these two share the same beliefs about that stance, or even whether the stance, say, on women, should be more “liberal” or more “conservative” (notice my dependence on political culture when characterizing the stance for you, reader!).  This is why a new culture of ex-Mormons is emerging, and doing so efficiently by trading on the same devices used by Correlation for creating a sense of shared beliefs and unity, while also giving new shape to existing non-Mormon cultural forms that obviously overlay one’s identity as a modern American.

The Church

By virtue of real timidity when addressing “problems” thought to divide current membership, the LDS Church has lost its voice on those subjects.   This fact potentially exposes “the church” to unlimited social pressures (and strategies for change!), because all that is required to silence some policy is that the phrase or topic now seems to find, among “faithful” members, something like a 50/50 split among its advocates and critics.  All that matters is the appearance of such a split, of course.  Then the “prophet” falls silent, and any number of “voices” emerge to provide clarity on the “stance” of “the church.”  Such a process was seen in the run-up to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, when Mormons could find anti-war and pro-war endorsements in the words of President Hinckley.

The LDS Church (whatever that means!) is clearly at fault for allowing it to have “stances” which are not, in fact, articulated so much as merely assumed.  How often have we heard, “this is not official church doctrine”?  And yet it is expected, apparently as an extension of the purported mouthpiece of the Lord, to have a stance on certain, seemingly troubling “issues”.  Letting a stance on women, homosexuals, race, and science-related issues simply to develop, of course, willy-nilly allows Mormons to fill in whatever stance they’d like to imagine is the “church’s”.  And this means, in short, that the most vociferous advocates of one stance or another, in settings regarded as “the church’s” (e.g., websites, buildings, landscapes, sidewalks) may be allowed to stand in for, and so define the stance of “the church” on some issue.  In reaction, similarly loud voices can respond by positioning themselves “outside” the church by offering criticisms of that reputed “stance.”  One could hardly say the Lord is the author of such cacophony.

So, where are Leavers (just to simplify things, and give them a name) finding these stances?  By generalizing from a few encounters, a few statements, into a stereotypic policy which can then, thank god, be rejected.  Even the stance on gays could not, I think, be clearly defined at this point, given all the legalism and political two-steps recently engaged in by official representatives of the LDS Church.  So, pick a stance you don’t like, and call it “the church’s,” and see if anyone else says the same thing.  This survey gives you some idea about how successful you’ll be at finding Mormons with similar grievances.  It also shows that there is no LDS Church outside of our experiences with persons, places, texts, and things we imagine derive from or are connected to “the church.”

What I’ve traced out also means that Leavers are drawing boundaries around what “the church” refers to, as a sort of thing; often by some blend of interactions with Mormons, with PR statements, and with their readings of various talks and teachings.  And then, Leavers are staking out territory “outside” those boundaries (by way of online criticism, initially) as a way of “leaving” “the church.”  All of this, remember, depends on (but not only on) language.  We’ve seen how the survey is an efficient tool for scripting conversion narratives, and for generating seemingly shared values among Leavers.  And that is does by trading on Mormon and American culture.

Historical Issues

Despite what I’ve argued is a very interaction-dependent “exodus,” it is interesting that the factors reportedly contributing the least to one’s leaving are those connected to actual people, rather than, say, imagined, historical, or televised beings (God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, General Authorities).  So, while most Leavers leave as a result of interacting with fellow Mormons, and filling in “the church’s” stance; or after hearing about some historical controversy (“Joseph Smith was a polygamist!”); they are rather disinclined to blame or credit friends and neighbors for their leaving.  It was a “factor” which most often is said to have caused it, seemingly.  Which is to say, if a historian teaches X, Y, and Z, she is not blamed for offending one, and causing one to leave (so long as these claims circulate elsewhere, of course; as I’ve learned from my own work).  Rather, it is as if “Joseph Smith” and claims about him existed independent of persons, books, and other media.  This imagining of impersonal factors as the cause of one’s movement “out” bears a very close similarity to the purported reasons for one having faith in the LDS Church: namely, one received (passively) a spiritual force (“witness”), which resulted in a “testimony”.  The Lord giveth and He taketh away.

Let’s turn to the next box.

It describes the various “historical issues” that “negatively affected your belief,” and compiles the results with highest ranking at the top.  Notice that some of the “issues” are merely titles of books: Book of Abraham; View of the Hebrews; Kinderhook Plates.  Others bring together two things, X and Y: DNA and the Book of Mormon; Blacks and the Priesthood; Women and the Priesthood.  A few actually name the apparent controversy: Masonic influences; versions of the First Vision; Anachronisms…; Issues with the authenticity or credibility…; Joseph’s use of peep stones.   A few name a single thing or teaching: blood atonement; Adam-god theory; Mountain Meadows Massacre.  These are four clearly distinct classes of replies.

Now, here is the pattern.  The issues which are summarized in a single name are all those attributed to Brigham Young, and which act as a shorthand for weirdness.  These also are things which most LDS Church attenders know little about, beyond the name; or care little to learn of (because the names are generally tied to usage by anti-Mormons, of course).  As Brigham Young-blamed eccentricities, seemingly, such things can be, judging by the survey, relegated to the background of one’s reasons for joining the non-faith.  When “polygamy/polyandry,” however, is extended to Joseph Smith, this is apparently when it becomes an “issue” affecting belief.

The “issues” which require a more elaborate explanation in the reply are all attributed to Joseph Smith’s biography.  Even if survey respondents were not aware of these particular “issues,” they could by reading these responses learn that these are, apparently, controversial issues among some people.  Moreover, in keeping with the scripting function of the survey, one could simply recite these very responses in conversation, and by explanation simultaneously preach the news of lost faith.

When it comes to single titles, like Book of Abraham, one can imagine there is more than just the existence of the book that is an issue.  But this sort of shorthand is a cue to Leavers that one has apparently done all the same readings, and reached the same conclusions as everyone else (apologists excepted, of course!).  But one need not have done any such reading, so much as be aware that others find the book troubling to their faith, and so might one also legitimately cite it, simply by name, as a factor for one’s lost faith.  Again, explanation, recruitment and conversion coincide in a little name.

The most commonly cited issues are the top four from the different groupings: a title, a word, X and Y; and DNA and the Book of Mormon, which blends a title into the X and Y pattern.   This pattern suggests that there is, as yet, no single definitive “issue” which Leavers rally around, in the way that, say, claims about the Book of Mormon (as a historical text) are used to bring up attendance rates at LDS chapels.  And this is where the survey takes a clear turn away from describing why one leaves the LDS Church, and becomes useful for understanding that there is, in fact, no LDS Church whatsoever (outside of socially contrived imaginings).

Just a note: I’ll return to the “costs” and “disclosure of faith” parts of the survey in a later post, where I examine another survey that describes disaffiliation with the LDS Church over the past ten years, among Americans surveyed.  Right.

So, what a survey like this exposes is that whatever “the church” is, it isn’t something given from the COB, or corporate HQ in SLC, or any such central location.  What is the church’s stance on X?  Make a guess.  Has anyone ever testified that Joseph Smith was the world’s greatest monogamist spouse, or that his understanding of Egyptian surpasses that of the academically trained Egyptologist?  (Alright, maybe McKonkie or Packer has said that, but whatever.)  Did anyone ever convert, gain “belief” and attend the LDS Church Sunday services as a result of these two issues being spoken of and witnessed by “the spirit”?  Yet, here one finds a new culture forming with just that assumption.  Or rather, forming by way of giving that assumption weight as a lever for being accepted into the non-faith.

The other troubling take home is that apparently losing faith in Joseph Smith, and in the Book of Mormon, are only listed as “primary” factors by 40% of the respondents!  That means, potentially, that a great many Mormons sitting at church do not believe in certain claims made about Joseph Smith (that he was a prophet, for example) or about the Book of Mormon (that it is a translation of a historical record of an ancient people); or even that believe the “church’s doctrine/theology”!  None of these is a deciding factor for why one sits in a pew.  There are other incentives, and that is at the heart of the now publicized mass exodus of Mormons from “the church.”  These incentives which were concealed, as I’ll argue in the following post, by many factors, among them Correlated texts, are no longer quite as incentivized as previously.  Why not?  Next time.  This presence of non-believers at church, as a persistent if declining trend, brings us to the next post, and to the discussion of other surveys.