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.

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