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We at Zelph on the Shelf attended John Dehlin’s “Mormon Transitions Retreat” in Park City last weekend, where we were able to learn more about healing and growth after an LDS faith transition while mingling with wonderful ex-Mormons, and even a few Mormons. One of the things that was discussed was how illogical humans are, at least compared to how logical we think we are.

Take conversion to the church, for example. As a convert myself, I can relate to this a lot. Religion provides answers to questions that have haunted humanity since the beginning of time, like “What will happen when I die?” and “What’s the point of all of this?” It swoops in and answers those questions for people, thus providing them with comfort and more purpose in life (typically). Though the price to belong to a certain church may be extremely high financially and in terms of time and effort, it’s worth it to people, because they get to feel like they have answers to life’s hard questions. (You can see this in legitimately dangerous religions/cults where people cling to their beliefs regardless of how damaging they may be. I highly recommend you watch “Going Clear”, an insightful documentary about Scientology.)

It’s not so much a logical process as it is an emotional one. This is demonstrated in the LDS church’s fundamental claim that “you can know it’s true if you pray about it”. For me, following that advice went a little something like this:

  1. Learn that the LDS church exists
  2. Think it’s a bit nutty (as most people often do when they encounter high-demand religions and cults)
  3. Enjoy spending time with Mormons; feel good around them
  4. Get taught by missionaries and the Mormons I know and like
  5. Feel emotional/peaceful in those lessons
  6. Consider that there might be something to Mormonism
  7. Continue spending time with Mormons and learning about Mormonism through whitewashed missionary lessons, generally enjoy it (though feel very pressured at times)
  8. Agree to change certain behaviors to reflect Mormon standards
  9. Feel pretty good about the whole thing
  10. Try Moroni’s promise. Receive no real response, but feel good around Mormons and doing Mormon things – sometimes really good – so decide that it must be true. Feel comforted and excited that I “know” something that will apparently bless my life. Feel euphoric

Of course, this is a simplified version of my conversion, but it’s fairly accurate overall. Notice that nowhere in there did I study the life of Joseph Smith beyond required (incredibly limited) missionary reading. I didn’t investigate the claims of polygamy I’d heard about, because I trusted the Mormons when they told me it was NBD because everyone was doing it back then. I didn’t conduct a literary or historical analysis of the Book of Mormon to be able to determine whether or not it was legit — I just believed the missionaries when they told me that good feelings were the correct method of determining truth. (Dumb, right? But I was a teenager. What do you expect.)

Now, let’s do another quick overview of my time in the LDS church. It went a little something like this:

  1. Enjoy my friendships and activities with Mormons
  2. Become more confident that what I believe is “true” — all these great people are saying it, after all! Grow to really, fully believe what I’ve been taught
  3. Read scriptures and pray every day. Find peace in doing that. Engage in other rituals that solidify my belief
  4. Ignore any “anti-Mormon” ideas or information that I ever encounter. Satan would inspire people to lie if this was the true church, duh! And it is!
  5. Go through life happy in the “knowledge” that I know what’s true — I know what happens when you die (perfect little three-kingdom system), I know that I’ll see loved ones who have died again (they’ll totally accept their baptism while dead), I know that I’ll be blessed temporally and spiritually and eternally for being chaste, being faithful, not drinking coffee, etc.
  6. Become more converted as I continue to invest more time and energy and emotions and resources into this religion
  7. Ignore the hits and count the misses — see “miracles”/answers to prayers happen in my life (the unanswered ones were just God answering in His own unique way in order to teach me)
  8. Believe everyone should be Mormon, because CAN’T THEY SEE THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY TO LIVE AND BELIEVE?! Feel euphoric

Again, a very simplified version. I want it to be clear how converted I was to Mormonism — there wasn’t (to use a popular meaningless phrase in the church) a shadow of a doubt in my mind that it was true! My conversion was continually strengthened/maintained by engaging in rituals, both personal and public — a common part of conversion to any religion.

Now, let’s examine my deconversion process:

  1. Hear negative information about the church. Ignore it. Believe that I either don’t understand it properly (and probably can’t, because I’m a lowly human and my ways are not God’s ways) or that it’s just false/Satan’s spin on things
  2. Try to reason with a friend who is very faithful, but raises important questions about certain aspects of the church and its history, such as “Why doesn’t the prophet actually prophesy?” Bear testimony
  3. Reject any notions that elements of the church and its history aren’t as they seem, regardless of the evidence, because it feels really uncomfortable, and thinking about the “plainness of the gospel” makes me feel comfort, not fear. Cling to own (solid) testimony
  4. Do minor research into certain issues in order to help my friend not turn apostate
  5. Realize (through checking church-approved sources) that my friend isn’t turning apostate, just learning more about the “meat” of the gospel that most of us don’t understand
  6. Start to believe that the gospel and its history is more nuanced than I previously thought
  7. Embark on a stressful, overwhelming journey of trying to reconcile legitimate information and doubts about the church’s truthfulness with my faith. Shift beliefs to become nuanced when appropriate in order to continue believing the church is true (classic cognitive dissonance)
  8. Eventually just ignore everything I’ve been worried about altogether in an attempt to return to the testimony and peace I once had for the church
  9. After a lot more studying, stress, desperation, attempts to continue believing, and other feelings and pursuits, determine that there is next to no chance the church is true in light of all the very damning and legitimate information against it
  10. Decide to stay in the church anyway for my spouse and my own sanity
  11. Realize that people are being genuinely harmed by believing in the church’s false claims. Decide that enough is enough. Leave. Feel euphoric

My deconversion process was certainly the most logical of the three stages I’ve described, but it’s still not void of emotional decision-making. For example, I was willing to continue living life as a Mormon despite logically knowing the church was a fraud, because the emotional pain of ruining my husband’s (faithful) life was too much to bear, as was thinking about leaving in general. It was also my own emotions and conscience that finally gave me the courage to leave — I knew I couldn’t sleep easy at night knowing that I was perpetuating a lie that was often harmful and even dangerous to others.

It is because of how emotion-driven conversion and deconversion is that stating facts or presenting believers with more information does nothing to affect their testimony. So many church members say things like, “You could present me with anything negative about Joseph Smith and I would still know he’s a prophet”. Though this is clearly illogical and not at all smart to an outsider, it makes sense to a member of the church who has been taught that Satan is out to get the faithful, and will use any tools possible to tear down Joseph Smith and the Lord’s true church. That’s why members can easily dismiss information as “anti-Mormon lies” — it’s not until you actually examine it down to its roots (wherever possible) and start to see a distinct pattern of deceit emerge that you can really comprehend it. It’s easy to dismiss something when you don’t know much about it.

That’s why my testimony was strongest when I didn’t know much “anti-Mormon” stuff. I tried the hardest in my faith when I was presented with negative information, because of the doubling down effect that is very common when people are met with information that contradicts their beliefs. As Dave McRaney explains in the post I just linked:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

The moral of the story? Don’t try to explain with facts and logic why you left the church, at least when talking with believing family members or friends. Chances are, it’ll either have zero effect on them, or will actually cause them to hold tighter to their beliefs and more fully reject the idea that you have a legitimate reason to leave. Focus more on how you feel, while staying respectful of their beliefs. (As difficult as it may be — I know I’ve wanted to scream at people for being so illogical more than once!)

Good luck. It’s a thrill ride.



Zina Jacobs-Smith-Young
Zina Jacobs-Smith-Young
Zina Jacobs-Smith-Young would have been a millennial blogger, but she died in 1901. The wife of Brigham Young, and prior to that Joseph Smith, and prior to that Henry Jacobs, who was sent on a mission by Brigham before he married her, Zina loves writing, long walks on the beach, and playing the field.
  • Fabius

    I can attest to this. My reddit handle is swagavadgita. Growing up I had heard of anti-mormon material about the church and Joseph Smith but dismissed them as I believed they had to be false. Not a total rocket scientist now but I look at the information and can’t really square them with the man I sung hymns praising. He’s just not inspired at all. Not by anything holy anyway.

    • Richard R. Lyman

      That Reddit handle is brilliant.

      • Fabius

        Thanks!

  • Merrill Rules!

    So I thought this was pretty great. My conversion and deconversion took 21 years and a lot more ups in downs, but essentially the pattern was the same. Thanks for putting it together.

    Also wanted to say, I listened to both the podcasts on mormon stories! Good stuff!

  • Steve Lowther

    In your conversion process you state “Ignore the hits and count the misses”. Isn’t it just the opposite?

  • Spaziquia

    I can’t say I completely agree with the overall message here. Just because emotions are mixed in that doesn’t mean it’s completely emotional. For myself the emotional tie with the church was never enough, there needed to be some appeal to logic. I feel like the church has tried to appeal to logic as well, even with the manipulative “Satan’s gonna use whatever he can so watch out!” It still suggests that there is some intelligent device that we need to be aware of and thusly use one of our own. The GAs try to use a lot of “oh see that makes sense” arguments like “the more you repeat it the more you’ll know! “Of course that’s how it works. Duh. Repetition leads to better recall. So we understand it logically and it adds to our conversion. The emotional, and general, manipulation is what blinds us to these tricks. We are brainwashed to trust these men because they love us and would never lead us astray (emotional). Then they back it up by showing some hint of a logical argument and go “see? They’re smart too!”
    I do like that you mentioned the white-washed missionary lessons, because that’s certainly what they are and they absolutely appeal to one’s emotional side over logic. However it confuses me when you start talking about how much you studied and found “legitimate information” (evidence = logical appeal) but then stick with “it’s all emotional.”
    Also the last bit I absolutely disagree with. You can’t treat members like illogical buffoons, that’s not fair! They’re trying to make sense of things too! Also showing someone the opposing side doesn’t necessarily mean their previous opinions will get stronger. Belief perseverance is a real thing, but it shows that beliefs remain despite opposing evidence, not get stronger. One of the “remedies” for belief perseverance that my psychology textbook talks about is explaining the opposite. It’s not enough to ask people to be objective and unbiased, rather the researchers here had a group of people consider the opposite. “…To ask themselves ‘whether you would have made the same high or low evaluations had exactly the same study produced results on the OTHER side of the issue.” Explaining why has been found to be successful!

  • Margery Becker

    Dear Zelph, I want you to know that all religions do not provide answers and tell people how to behave. My religion stimulates questions, inquiry, and doubt. Sincerely, MB

  • Sam_Millipede

    It is definitely true that (almost) all people acquire their religion through emotional attachment, (almost) none via something passing for logic or reason. So, as you say, religious faith is usually lost by walking the same path in the opposite direction.

    I was lucky in that my mainstream Christian parents were churchgoers and dragged me along, but we never prayed or talked religion at home, and when it was time to pray in church or elsewhere, for me it was simply putting my hands together and waiting (or saying the words). I never felt I was talking to anyone or anything, no holy spirit bothered me. At no point was my rational soul disturbed by religious feelings, so I never had to use faith to reconcile mumbo-jumbo with the reality I saw around me.

    But Mormonism intrigues me, for various reasons which are not relevant here. From the mainstream Christian point of view, the beliefs of Mormonism look wildly ridiculous. The outsider sees a hodge-podge of historically implausible American exceptionalism, a bunch of con-men posing as prophets apparently to exert power over others, some ridiculous fables, a holy book claiming completely inaccurate translations of Egyptian texts as its source, absolute principles that vary from decade to decade – if you haven’t been taught it early on, or persuaded by a charismatic preacher, it’s laughably absurd on its face.

    That’s for a mainstream Christian – but then the boot can be placed on the other foot, and we see that the more distant fables of Christianity equally don’t bear examination – there is no historical or archaeological evidence of the Exodus, the global flood of Noah didn’t happen (and appears to have its roots in the older Epic of Gilgamesh), the traces of the polytheistic roots of Judaism left in the bible, the incompatible descriptions of the Easter story, silly creation myths, the absurd idea that a god splitting into two then being dead for three days is a huge sacrifice that somehow saves humanity, a chosen people which seems to have perpetually bad luck, it goes on.

    So, I am curious. When Mormons are leaving the LDS, what are most moving towards? Do many move towards mainstream Christianity? Do some choose other, non-Christian, religions? Or do they (as I would wish) understand that underneath the hood, most religions and sects are as crazy as each other?

    I can see that one could simply reject Mormonism as a perversion of Christianity by self-proclaimed but non-Godly prophets and shift over to the mainstream, but I suspect that the intensity and absolutism of Mormonism might encourage an all-or-nothing reaction. Is that right?

  • Ross Nat Man Williams

    All of this is rather surreal for me at this point. My wife and I both have LGBT extended family members some by blood and others through marriages. Our family resigned in 2004. One of our 6 children, our oldest has returned mostly because she lives in St. George UT now, and is married back into it, yet she is far from TB. My experiences, as a convert are very similar to your own, though my journey went on for 30 years. Mostly because the internet wasn’t available for much of that time, and then I was to busy for years to address my growing suspicions. Our family was rather intwined at one point with D. Todd Christofferson’s younger brother, Wade and his family. I wish I could talk with him now. Thank you for what you’re doing. If you have any interest check out my FB page @ https://www.facebook.com/ross.williams.79230

  • Thomas

    me and my wife are going trough it now… the struggle is real! i thougt i knew stuff as a RM but i found out allot trying to help a mission buddy! im white and the wife is black, found out according to Brigham Young i will burn in hell. yes i know now he is a basket case.. im pretty down to earth now and the polygamy in the beginning gets me, i cannot get over the the sneaky dishonorable way how they would steal peoples wife or get young girls to marry them… i mean what!!!??? there is no honor and that kills me inside and feel betrayed!

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