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Survey explains reasons why Mormons leave fold

By Eric Johnson

While the Mormon Church is losing members due to a variety of reasons, a survey shows that doctrinal and historical issues cause more defections than anything else.

Compiled by the group that produces the Mormon Stories podcast, the survey (“Causes and Costs of Mormon Faith Crisis”) was taken during the fall and winter of 2011 and released on January 30, 2012. It was put together to “shed light on the reasons that some members are losing the faith or leaving the fold.” Those who were invited to respond had to have “once believed that the LDS Church is ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D&C 1:30), but who no longer believe that it is.” Three thousand former Mormons responded. Almost six out of ten were men, seven of out ten were married, and a third came from Utah. Ninety percent were from the United States.

These were the top four reasons for leaving the LDS Church:

  • “I studied church history and lost my belief” (39% primary factor, 81% moderate to strong factor);
  • “I lost faith in Joseph Smith” (39% primary, 84% mod-strong);
  • “I ceased to believe in the church’s doctrine/theology” (38% primary, 87% mod-strong);
  • “I lost faith in the Book of Mormon” (35% primary, 79% mod-strong).

Although they did not finish anywhere close to the list above, other reasons for leaving the church included the “church’s stance on race issues,” “I lost confidence in the general authorities,” “church’s stance on women,” “church’s stance on homosexuals,” “I did not feel spiritually edified at church,” and the “church’s stance on science-related matters.”

When it came to the historical reasons for leaving the church, the issues causing the greatest problems were the Book of Abraham, polygamy/polyandry, blacks and the priesthood, and DNA and the Book of Mormon. While there are many Christians who believe that evangelism should only be done through “relationships,” this idea did not even register on the survey. And how else would the average Mormon generally find out that there were doctrinal and historical problems unless someone was willing to take the time to present information that could very well cause conflict or be taken the wrong way? While there is a risk in presenting this information, the survey shows that such a tactic is worthwhile if the goal is to get someone to leave Mormonism.

For those who were married and had a faith crisis, a total of 86% told their spouses a moderate amount or everything about their disbelief, with only 14% keeping the information quiet. However, they were very unlikely to tell their parents, as only a third said mom and dad had a moderate knowledge or knew everything about the child’s disbelief. Apparently not wanting to disappoint mom and dad is a big influence for keeping the information private. Meanwhile, only 10% said their bishop had a moderate knowledge or knew everything about the member’s faith crisis, meaning that most “apostates” do not confide doubts with their spiritual leaders.

Several respondents shared a frustration about members who leave non-believing spouses. Asked what she would say to a top leader, one female said, “Tell your bishops and leaders to tell their members to NOT divorce their spouse when they leave the LDS church. My husband was advised by his bishop to divorce me. We had 10 children. It was awful.” A male respondent added, “We desperately need a General Conference address telling spouses to not divorce an otherwise good spouse over non-belief. I have several friends who have been divorced over primarily this issue, and my own marriage is still on the rocks due to it, even though I am fully active.”

Respondents also felt a sense of betrayal. One said, “I never questioned the church until I realized that things were said at the pulpit in General Conference that were verifiably not true. If a prophet or apostle can lie over the pulpit, they cannot be ordained of God. . . . Had the church never lied about its own history or anything else for that matter, I would probably still be a Mormon today.” Another added, “Some of the issues with church history would never have been an issue if they had been presented truthfully the first time. The more upsetting part is that I feel like the church was making an attempt to hide its history. If something is worth hiding it makes it look more false. Plus it hurts to be lied to.”

If nothing else, the survey showed how emotionally damaging it can be to a person who leaves the Mormon Church. As Christians, we must be sensitive to the crisis these folks go through and do whatever we can to make their transition from Mormonism to Christianity be as smooth as it can be.

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