In 1981, Boyd K. Packer gave a BYU fireside where he said:
“Remember: when you see the bitter apostate, you do not see only an absence of light, you see also the presence of darkness. Do not spread disease germs.”
This is not surprising, as those who leave the LDS Church have been demonized since its beginning, when Joseph and Brigham would order members of a Mormon vigilante group known as the Danites to kill those who apostatized.
Sidney Rigdon, in a letter he once wrote to to Orson Hyde, said, “…it was the imperative duty of the Church to obey the word of Joseph Smith, or the presidency, without question or inquiry, and that if there were any that would not, they should have their throats cut from ear [to] ear.”
Said Elder John D. Lee, “Punishment by death is the penalty for refusing to obey the orders of the Priesthood. I knew of many men being killed in Nauvoo by the Danites. It was then the rule that all enemies of the Prophet Joseph should be killed, and I knew of many a man who was quietly put out of the way by the orders of Joseph and his apostles while the church was there.”
By contrast, Boyd K. Packer’s words about ex-Mormons seem tame! But that doesn’t mean they don’t still have enormous power over Church members, most of whom have lived their whole lives being taught that apostates wanted to sin, got offended, or just weren’t strong enough to “live the gospel”. Nowhere in Mormon teachings is there room to believe that people leave the church because they determined, against the desires of their heart, that it wasn’t true. Any evidence that contradicts claims made by the LDS Church is deemed “anti-Mormon literature” (or the new favorite, “slanted”), just as evidence that contradicts claims made by the Church of Scientology is considered “suppressive”. Such labels allow church members to reject the validity of evidence that doesn’t confirm their beliefs, and avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.
Though many modern Mormons are becoming more tolerant of those with different beliefs—even those who leave the LDS Church—we still have a huge stigma to overcome. I spent hours chatting with an active Mormon online yesterday, who was determined to believe that I deliberately slant evidence when using it in Zelph content, and who ascribed motives to my criticism of Mormonism that don’t exist. He spoke to me with far less respect that I spoke to him (because my criticism of the Church justified it, apparently), calling me a “bigot”, “not normal”, “not funny”, “just as bad” as a white supremacist, and liking tweets that said I was the worst of the millennial generation and need to be “called out” for what I “truly am”. He told me I’m “immoral and tacky”, while also making it clear that he didn’t think I had a right to call out what I think is immoral. I’m human, and it hurt, especially as I had tried so hard to facilitate constructive dialogue with him. (We actually did have some more constructive dialogue once we started talking one-on-one, thankfully.)
I criticize Mormonism because I believe in the words of J. Reuben Clark, who said “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” The fact that Mormonism is demonstrably false aside (at least according to what I consider valid methods of truth determination, I.E. not feelings), I call out the Church because I don’t believe in a god who would let racism run rampant from the very top of his “true church” for 150 years under the pretense of “divine will”, yet who thought Joseph marrying teenagers was important enough to get going within a few years of the Church being founded. (Conveniently with no revelation until Emma found out.) I don’t believe in a god who leaves our “heavenly mother” completely out of the narrative, despite teaching women that they’re in charge of raising children. (Just not the most important ones?) I don’t believe a church is led by a god when its leaders have to be knowingly dishonest to perpetuate a false narrative. (Joseph Fielding Smith lying about the seer stone and saying it was an “anti-Mormon lie” when he had it in the Church’s vault at the time, for example.)
Having your character constantly called into question (not even called into question—just flatly denounced) because you’re following your conscience really hurts, especially when you’ve already had to deal with the grief that comes after your religious worldview collapses. Ex-Mormons have to give Mormons the space to share their beliefs, or they wouldn’t be able to maintain any Mormon relationships, but we are expected to keep quiet about our thoughts on the Church, because negativity—even that which seeks to correct misinformation and prevent ongoing harm—is seen as evil contention in Mormonism, which does not accept criticism from “outsiders”.
When Mormons start realizing that ex-Mormons and those who criticize the LDS Church can be good people with good intentions, their narrative starts breaking down. Developing compassion for those who lost their faith after encountering new evidence is fatal for Mormonism, because in order to perpetuate the narrative that the Church is true, believers must think that losing one’s faith is a choice that is made with bad motives.
The best thing ex-Mormons can do is change the narrative about themselves—by not making Mormons feel attacked or like they need to defend their beliefs, by opening up constructive dialogue when appropriate, and by fostering and maintaining positive relationships with believers. We won’t always be able to change people’s minds about us, but we can try. At the end of the day, we’re all just human. We all hurt the same. We’re all (usually) trying our best with what we understand and have experienced. Peace requires tolerance of those with different beliefs, and in the Mormon/ex-Mormon community, I think that tolerance needs to start with ex-Mormons, because we are the ones who have experienced both sides of the coin, and can therefore (usually) empathize with Mormons better than they can empathize with us.
Be a safe space for Mormons, but when they ask you about your disaffection, don’t be afraid to tell them that you wanted the Church to be true—that you researched with the bias that it was. Let them know how much you cried out in prayer wanting God to take away your doubts—to give you some kind of answer to the endless evidence indicating that your beliefs were based on fallacies. Be open with them about the pain you experienced as you lost your faith through research, and how hard you tried to make it all work. Try to help them understand a world that they don’t understand, while using your understanding of their world to be non-threatening. Remember how you felt when you were in their position. Ex-Mormons have a lot of work to do if we’re going to change a narrative created by 200 years of teachings that liken us to “disease germs”. See the humanity in others and let them see the humanity in you.