By Eric Johnson
Note: The following was originally printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
In 2019, Mormon blogger Jana Riess wrote a book titled The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). While what she presents is not as “layperson” oriented as some of her other tomes – including Flunking Sainthood, What Would Buffy Do? and Mormonism For Dummies – Riess compiles important research that, among other things, can help Christians better understand the mindset of both current and former LDS Church members.
The surveys in the book are professionally done and extremely valuable, as hundreds of people belonging to the “Greatest Generation” (born 1927 and before); the “Silent Generation” (1928-1944); the “Baby Boomer Generation” (1945-1964); “Generation X” (1965-1979); and the “Millennial Generation” (1980-1998) were polled. The group known as “Generation Z” (born after 1999) was not included in the surveys.
Riess considered a variety of issues. For one, reasons why former Mormons left their faith are described in a chart on page 224. Respondents provided up to three reasons each. Here is the Top 10 list (with the percentage naming that reason included):
- “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church” (38%)
- “I stopped believing there was one true church” (36.5%)
- “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues” (31%)
- “I felt judged or misunderstood” (30%)
- “I drifted away from Mormonism” (26%)
- “I engaged in behaviors that the Church views as sinful” (23%)
- “The Church’s positions on LGBT issues” (23%)
- “The Church’s emphasis on conformity and obedience” (21%)
- “Lack of historical evidence for the Book of Mormon and/or Book of Abraham” (21%)
- “The role of women in the Church” (18%)
Let’s take a look at each.
- Personal values/priorities could no longer be reconciled. With a runaway culture that is more accepting of progressive values—including the validity of homosexuality as well as live-in relationships with the opposite sex, among other things—the attitude of prioritizing secular humanistic ideas while abandoning faith affects not only those leaving Mormonism but also those who abandon Christianity.
- Stopped believing in one true church: Pluralism (all spiritual paths lead to God) is more accepted in the 21st century. Many (including those still in the LDS Church) feel it is “narrow-minded” to say that there is only one truth. “Who are you to judge?” and “As long as you are a good person” are common responses used against Christians who rightly say there genuine faith can only be found in a personal relationship with Christ as revealed in the Bible.
- Leaders are not telling the truth: From 2013-15, the LDS Church published thirteen essays on controversial topics such as Joseph Smith’s polygamous/polyandrous ways, the Book of Abraham as a spiritual (not literal) translation, and the method used by Smith to translate the Book of Mormon (with a magical seer stone). For many, these Gospel Topics Essays included information they did not previously know, even though the facts had been readily available from sources such as mrm.org. Some felt betrayed because they were not taught the truth in their local congregations before 2013. This has certainly led to further distrust in church leaders. (For more on the Gospel Topics essays, see mrm.org/gospel-topics-essay-intro.)
- Felt judged/misunderstood: Related to the first point, those who decided to live “my way” no longer wanted to get judged by leaders and other members in their congregations. They may have become tired of hiding their coffee/alcohol intake, disinterest in getting temple recommends, and lack of church participation.
- Drifted away from the church: Those things emphasized in Mormonism—including fulfilling church callings, attending the temple, and practicing the Word of Wisdom—became less of a priority. This can easily happen to those who experience any of the four prior reasons.
- Engaged in sinful behaviors: Activities prohibited by the church became more attractive. The person who leaves for this reason either does not want to play the hypocrite or possibly get judged (see point 4). Many current Latter-day Saints consider this to be the main reason why people leave the church (i.e., “They must not have been strong enough to keep the commandments”).
- LGBT issues: This issue has become a lightning rod for the church’s leaders who have maintained that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. If the church ever decided to change its policy and allow homosexual marriages in the temple, it would involve a complete revamping of the traditional idea that only nuclear families can reside in the celestial kingdom forever. In addition, a third of all Mormons did not agree with the 2015 LGBT exclusion policy that banned children of homosexual parents from being allowed to get baptized. Although this policy changed several years later, it is still brought up by disaffected former members to this day.
- Conformity/obedience: Younger generations especially are attracted by individuality (“Be true to yourself”) and are less likely to get in line to do what they are told by the leaders.
- Problems with the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham: This is the top historical issue for why people leave Mormonism.
- Women in the church: Many feminist members are pressuring their leaders to allow females to hold the LDS priesthood currently held by males only.
More than half of these top reasons involve nonbiblical and nonhistorical issues. As Riess explains, “Overall, personal and social reasons outweighed any specific doctrinal or doctrinal concerns” (p. 223). As mentioned in the first point, this can be attributed to the ever-changing culture that has become more liberal and less God-fearing in recent years.
Many current Latter-day Saints might be surprised to read this list. For one, a number probably thought that the sixth reason (sinful behavior) would have been rated higher. Another popular assumption held by many Mormons for why people leave the church is that they must have been hurt by fellow members; this point is the eleventh reason given in the poll (17%).
Besides the problem with the Book of Mormon/Book of Abraham in the ninth point, other historical issues were also listed:
- (Reason #12) “Joseph Smith’s polyandry (sealing himself to women who were already married)” (16%)
- (#13) “Multiple and somewhat conflicting accounts of the First Vision” (12%)
- (#15) “Denial of priesthood and temple endowment to members of African descent before 1978 (10%)
- (#16) “Seer stones [used in the Book of Mormon translation]” (6.5%)
- (#17) “DNA evidence that Native Americans do not have Middle Eastern ancestry” (3%)
Perhaps the most depressing statistic given concerns the fate of those former members who leave. According to Riess on page 220,
“Just under half (44 percent) have not become involved with another religious tradition since leaving Mormonism; these are represented . . . under the categories atheist, agnostic, and nothing in particular. Another fifth [21 percent] consider themselves “just Christian” but do not specify a particular church, which likely means they have retained Christian beliefs but are not regular attenders. The remaining third (33 percent) now identify as something else, mostly remaining within the Christian orbit.”
In other words, close to half of all former LDS members “have not become involved with another religious tradition” and were willing to exchange “the one true church” for absolutely nothing at all!
These folks may resonate with a saying that many church members repeat to one another in an effort to bolster their confidence in Mormonism: If the LDS Church isn’t true, then nothing else is. How often we have heard this statement repeated by former Latter-day Saints!
However, this is neither rational nor true. If the “Church isn’t true,” then something else has to be. After all, “nothing” is not something. If Mormonism is not true, perhaps Hinduism is. Or Islam. Maybe God doesn’t exist, which would validate atheism—a positive belief held by some that God doesn’t exist. Atheism is “something.” Or possibly we are living in a Matrix-like illusion and nobody exists. The list of possibilities could go on. The point is that, whatever ends up as true, it cannot be nothing at all.
Other possibilities, including biblical Christianity, ought to be considered by former Mormons. This is especially true for those who felt that, at one time, they really did know Jesus as their “Savior.”
Even more alarming is that very few end up as Christians. Out of the 33% who “identify as something else,” 11% now belong to other religions; 10% became evangelical Protestants; 7% are mainline Protestants; and 6% are Roman Catholics. When the totals for “evangelical” and “mainline Protestants” are added together, this totals a mere 5% of everyone who has left Mormonism. This number is too low, especially since there are more former members who end up as atheists and agnostics than Christians!
How many have become discouraged after leaving Mormonism and yet have no clue about the impressive evidence for evangelical Christianity? Certainly many weary Latter-day Saints are burned out and want nothing to do with religion, especially “Christianity.”
If nothing else, this is an important reminder that Christians should never desire Latter-day Saints to leave their faith without making available a reasonable replacement. When speaking with our LDS friends, neighbors, and relatives, the Gospel as presented in the Bible should not be an afterthought but rather a priority.
For a review on The Next Mormons, click here.