Apostate: A person who renounces a religious or political belief or principle
The most difficult thing about my leaving the LDS Church, other than the painful loss of faith itself, was how incapable most Mormons were of understanding and respecting my decision. Responses to the news that I was now an apostate varied, with some members being very loving and considerate (usually not wanting to hear specifics about why I left), and others being downright cruel. I can understand both reactions and why they occur, but it didn’t make the latter any less hurtful to deal with.
The thing many Mormons fail to grasp when talking to someone who has left the Church is that we understand how they feel. We’ve sat in the same lessons they have, we’ve read the same conference talks, many of us have served missions, and while our individual experiences may have differed, we’ve certainly known what it feels like to see someone you love, or like, or even just know leave the faith you’re committed to and believe is true. You want the best for them, and from your perspective, “the best” means the LDS Church.
Ex-Mormons know that standard operating procedure when talking an “apostate” is to bear one’s testimony in the hope that it will somehow provide the sway necessary to reignite faith. We can tell when someone is being extra nice to us purely as a missionary effort. We recognize reactivation tactics for what they are because we too have employed them. We didn’t lose our faith and forget our lifetime of experiences, funnily enough! (Though “they just forgot” seems to be a prevalent justification from Mormons about why ex-Mormons no longer see their past spiritual experiences as evidence that the Church is “true”.)
Mormons have to tell themselves that it is somehow a choice to lose one’s faith, when that just isn’t true. Someone trying to convince me that the LDS Church is true is like them trying to convince me that Santa is real. Like all children, I loved Santa, and wanted him to be real.When I found out he wasn’t, I was bummed. But there’s no turning back when you find out that he isn’t, and someone telling you to “choose to believe” in Santa just sounds absurd, as do Santa apologetics. (Does that exist? If not why not?)
Because Mormons are operating under the assumption that the LDS Church is true — a belief we once held — their behavior when loved ones leave is easy to understand, and even sympathize with. They’re often hurting, wondering what this means for their future and/or eternal relationship with the person leaving. They’re frustrated, because it doesn’t make sense why someone would abandon something that (in their eyes) is so good and true. If that frustration turns to anger, as it sometimes does, I can’t really blame them. They’re the product of their experiences just like we are, and sometimes the worst actions are fueled by good intentions.
When you believe wholly in your religion, it is almost impossible to imagine it not being true. You may be able to create a hypothetical alternate world in your head where it isn’t, but that’s about as far as your mind can go. In my experience, those who left the LDS Church did so because, for whatever reason, they became able to entertain one question (or a variation of it) for perhaps the first time ever — If the Church wasn’t true, how would I know? They are then able to view new evidence they’ve encountered with less bias, though they likely still lean heavily toward reconciling everything so they can remain faithful.
The majority of the religiously devoted are not able to seriously ask themselves the question, “Is the Church true?” outside of faith-affirming mental exercises that never legitimately pose the question because they’re asked with the believed answer already in mind. This is the fundamental problem with discussing your disaffection with a believer — they’re usually living in a mental bubble that is very difficult to think outside of. A bubble we once lived in too.
I don’t say that to insult, though I’m painfully aware that Mormons won’t like my blanket psychoanalyzing of their minds. Much of what I’ve learned about the psychology of Mormons and ex-Mormons has come through my own personal experiences, many of them repeated time and time again with different believers. But it’s also backed up by psychology, and I don’t want to water down facts.
I don’t harbor any negative feelings toward the Mormon version of myself I used to be, just like I don’t harbor any negative feelings toward current believing Mormons. I recognize their sincerity, because I was sincere too, and I still am, just with different beliefs. As a Mormon, I simply lacked awareness — of psychology, of the Church’s history, and of epistemology and valid methods of truth determination. One could (hypothetically) learn everything I did and remain a member — I can’t claim to know the ins and outs of everyone’s faith — but most people I know who have left the Church did so because they gained increased awareness in at least one of those areas.
(It kind of sucks even writing this because I’m operating from a basic psychology standpoint, which to me makes the most logical sense, but which believers (understandably) see as an insult to their faith. My understanding of the world is now fundamentally offensive to Mormons, which makes it very difficult to write an article that both Mormons and ex-Mormons could realistically read and gain insight from. As a result, this one is mainly geared toward ex-Mormons and those who are on the fence enough to be open-minded.)
Family members of an apostate usually have the hardest time coping with their disaffection. It can feel personal, especially for say, a mother who devoted her life to raising children in the Church she believes is true. She may view her child’s abandonment of the Church she raised him in as an abandonment of their relationship, and that can become a self-fulfilling belief if she’s unable to get past what is a very painful change for her in her child’s life. I’ve seen this happen, and my heart has broken because of it. I’ve even heard members who chose to cut off apostate family members claim that it was the apostate who chose to sever ties, though this is utterly false – they simply left the LDS Church and were met with ongoing hostility from their family members.
Talking to believing friends and family after leaving the Church can feel very lonely. You value your relationships with these people, and you want them to remain strong, but you’re now on totally different pages. Conversations about why you left are rarely productive, because anything a believer sees as an attack on their faith (such as bringing up Church history) provokes a defense mechanism in their brains, which often results in them defending their faith rather than truly listening to why you lost yours. Throughout those conversations, the ex-Mormon is able to understand what the believer might be feeling because they’ve felt it too, but there’s no way to make a believer understand what an ex-Mormon is feeling, let alone grasp the legitimacy of their decision to leave. And while ex-Mormons may understand why Mormons react the way they do, it doesn’t make them immune from frustration, or guarantee that they’ll be any more calm and collected in the conversation. I know this first-hand from many fired-up conversations I had with believers when I first left! It’s hard to reach an understanding when doing so requires the believer to legitimize the apostate’s reasons for leaving — something that puts their own faith in jeopardy.
It is for this reason that I don’t recommend trying to explain to believers in detail why you left the Church. If they ask specific questions, by all means answer them, as calmly as possible. But if there’s one thing I wish I knew when I first left, it’s that most believers cannot cope with hearing about Church history or current bad practices of the Church, unless they’re well-versed in apologetics and welcome the challenge. (Equally futile in my opinion, but there may be potential!)
When discussing your disaffection with loved ones, stick to “I feel” statements that don’t make them feel threatened — it’ll probably be more productive and less risky in terms of maintaining the relationship. Recognize that just because a fact is true, doesn’t mean someone is prepared to hear it or accept it as such. Many ex-Mormons naively think that Mormons will want to know the new information they’ve learned about the Church — we assume that if the church wasn’t true, believers would want to know. Surely they at least want to hear what you have to say before passing judgment, right? But honestly, they don’t. Or at least, most of them don’t. I know how that feels, because I lived it. You can’t educate people until they want to be educated, and you can’t unravel a person’s (highly conditioned) brain for them.
If your goal is to maintain relationships with believing loved ones, you have to be able to navigate conversations with an awareness of basic psychological principles, which means recognizing that you might not get to explain yourself properly. You might not be able to make someone respect your decision to leave, and you might have to put feelings before facts while talking to them. While you don’t have to legitimize their beliefs, you can recognize that they hold them and are unlikely to change them if they feel attacked. It sucks that the bar for them feeling attacked is so low, but it’s reality. Work with it. Good luck.