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 many Latter-day Saints 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 whole-heartedly 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”.)

Believers 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 upset. 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? Should I start a Santa apologetics podcast? Idk.)

Because Mormons are operating under the assumption that the LDS Church is true — a belief ex-Mormons 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 were then able to view new evidence they encountered with less bias, though they likely still leaned heavily toward reconciling everything so they can remain faithful. (Like I did.)

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.

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 who knows!)

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.

Samantha Shelley
Samantha Shelley
Samantha is a freelance writer from England, known in the Mormon blogosphere for co-founding Millennial Mormons and Whatsoever is Good. She has guest blogged for LDS Living and Mormon Women Stand, and worked as a social media intern for Deseret Book. She hated writing all of that in this bio. You can Venmo her money for sandwiches using @Samantha-Shelley-1, and follow her on Twitter @TheSamspo for half-assed jokes and opinions.
  • HaroldTheCat

    Great article! Thanks for sharing!

  • markj100

    I appreciate what you’ve said here. Very honest and very frank. I think I agree with almost all of what you’ve said. Keep in mind, I’m an active Mormon with a low bar for feeling attacked. 🙂
    My only comment, or question, in regards to what you have written, is that most (if not all) of my friends who have left the Church become missionaries for leaving the Church. The post all sorts of negative comments, links to what they believe are complete histories of the Church which prove it flawed, wrong, or untrue. Of course this is their prerogative. In fact, personally, I’ve found it stimulating to do research on what they post. But, that aside, the direction of your article is to get ex-members to not avoid discussing with members why you left the Church, don’t upset them, and try to focus on the relationship you have, or would like to have with them. I appreciate that. And you did an excellent job of defining and discussing how difficult that can be, and why. (It was a bit one-sided, I felt, against members, but well-done nevertheless).
    My point is, however, that many of my ex-Mormon friends post and discuss anti-Mormon articles, ideas, etc., to the point that I feel they are attempting to bear testimony of the untruthfulness of the Church. You must understand that that is as difficult for a Mormon to tolerate as it is for ex-Mormons to put up with Mormons bearing testimony – or responding to those links with articles from FairMormon.
    The thing is, at least in my experience, is that ex-Mormons become somewhat obsessed with disproving the Church, almost as if, like a Mormon who reads scriptures to build his faith, he/she must seek out more and more evidence of the untruthfulness of the Church to support their faith – their faith that the Church is not true.
    I expect a person who leaves the faith would simply walk away and get on with his/her life. But they don’t. They actually spend more time supporting their new belief. Some have claimed that it is the Church that won’t leave them alone….I’m not so sure that’s the case, however.
    Overall, I did appreciate your article. You made some very good points. And I feel like learned a thing or two from it.
    But remember, whether you believe in the Church, or in Thor, or in science,….we all end up believing in something.

  • Brad Livermore


    I don’t think your observations about ex-Mo’s becoming obsessed with disproving the Church are wrong. However, I do take issue with your expectations that ex-Mo’s should simply walk away.

    Maybe an analogy would help – imagine that you invested your life saves with Bernie Madoff. Let’s say it was your entire retirement account. Now imagine that you came across clear evidence that his investments were frauds, and also lost your life savings to his fraud. But nothing happened to him; he keeped on taking people’s retirement money based on the fraud. What would you do? Would you sit ideally by and allow him to continue the fraud without speaking up?

    Leaving Mormonism, of course, is much more complex and warning others about the fraud is even more complex because it is something they hold so dear, as I once did.

    The pain is magnified tenfold over losing my retirement savings, because it was something that was so near and dear to me. I invested so much more than money (though the loss of a small fortune is painful too). I investment my heart. I invested countless hours of my time (that could have been better spent, especially with my children), I let it control major life decisions, I allowed it to teach things to my children that I now find reprehensible now, and I lived with serious doubts for a decade, blaming myself for my lack of faith and having no one to talk to, so as to not harm the joy it brought my spouse.

    And even more than the above losses, there is active harm perpetuated by the current Mormon church. There is the harm of youth suicides by gay teens (I learned of another attempted suicide by a gay teen friend of my niece just a few weeks ago). There is the sexisim it teaches young women, including my young daughters who were taught that their bodies were something to be ashamed of and that victims of sexual assault may be at fault for stirring feelings in men based on their clothing. It taught them that only men should lead and that women can’t even go camping without at least one man present. There is also the racism that is baked into its doctrine and can never be removed unless scriptures are completely rewritten or removed as cannon (including the BOM). I am ashamed that I let my children read a racist book that taught one’s skin color is a sign of righteousness (and no redefining of what “skin” means, or such other illogical explanations are going to fix that one).

    Speaking to people about the fraud we perceive is tricky. I know that it brings some people serious happiness, and may even be the best thing for some people at this stage in their life (my older single mom, for example). So I personally only answer direct questions from believers in my daily life, respond to flatly wrong facts when I hear them, of comment on controversial articles and message board posts where the open dialogue is part of the forum (thus, anyone visiting should expect it and be prepared for it). But, I can understand where more vocal ex-Mo’s are coming from. To them, they are sounding the alarm about the fraud the experienced, regardless of the pain it may cause the believers. Like active-mormons, they think they are doing there best to help bring people to the truth. Their intentions are often pure.

    But beyond that, there is a huge therapy component to the way ex-Mo’s ridicule and lash out at the church. We are in pain when we first leave. By mocking the previously untouchable and sacred church and its leaders, we ease that pain. Hopefully, that is usually done in appropriate forums, such as the exmormon sub on Reddit. Where any true believer ventures at their own risk. But the community and joining in the mocking is part of the healing.

    Finally, leaving it alone is also very difficult in many places. I still get contacted by family members and ward members to try and bring me back. So not leaving it alone is a two-way street.

    As for all of us believing in something – yes, that is true. But some of us believe in things based on objective evidence and don’t believe in things with clearly contrary evidence. That is how I form my beliefs now – what is the most likely fact based on the evidence. Do I have false beliefs still? Of course, but the difference is that I am willing to change them when new evidence becomes available or when I learn of new evidence.


  • PopLovesGranny

    Wow. Great words of wisdom. Helps.

  • Shane Ellis

    Every day I have family members post faith promoting articles or quotes from church leaders. I see dozens a day from family and friends. A single family members posts at least 2 a day. Many of these posts focus on not being weak and losing faith, or how life outside the church is harmful. From my perspective, those articles and the family members posting them are pointing the finger at me and my supposed weak resolve and how my life outside of the church is less than theirs. It can be very discouraging to know that these family members who I love, think of me as weak willed and living a sinful and probably miserable life.

    So I get to see dozens of those a day. But if I post one critical or historical thing about the church a month, I am called hateful and asked why I can’t leave it alone. If I were to say that those in the church will never have the blessings that those outside the church will enjoy (the mirror of a message I see everyday) I am told that I am being antagonistic and that I should keep my views to myself.

    So tell me markj, why is it hateful and antagonistic when I do it (very rarely), but perfectly acceptable for the rest of my family to do it daily, knowing I will see it and many times hoping that it will bother me enough to change my mind? As Brad said, we see the church as a fraud and as harmful. Of course we are trying to bear testimony to those we love of the untruthfulness of it. We want people out because we have seen both sides and feel the outside is better. And we know most people on the inside have never seen outside the cave and can’t imagine why anyone would even bother going out when it is so cozy inside. We try to let them know the outside is nice too and not as dangerous as they have been told. From our perspective, the danger is inside the cave with them.

    As this article states, we know it rarely works to just tell someone that the book of Abraham is a proven fraud, or that the supposed brass plates of Laban would have weighed a thousand pounds, but sometimes our logic gets ahead of our emotion and we forget that an emotional connection to the church will not allow logic to sway someone on the inside. But we hope and we wait.

  • Phil Prince

    I love the article. I haven’t left the church, but I know lots of people who really suffer when they leave or when someone they know and love leaves. It can get nasty and I think articles like this could help.

    I have a question about forgetting. I certainly agree with the post that ex-mormons don’t just forget about everything that shaped their life for years. Obviously much of that will stick with a person even if they actively try to forget. However, I’ve been surprised how often I talk to ex-mormons and they do seem to have forgotten a lot. It becomes most apparent to me in the way they talk about mormonism. Like last weekend I was talking to a new friend who was a deeply active mormon until he was 23 and now, only five years later, he talked about church as if he didn’t know that our congregations are called “wards” and terms like “Relief Society,” “Melchizedek,” and “mutual” were completely foreign to him. Maybe that was just a weird situation, but similar things have happened in other situations and I am frequently surprised and how quickly ex-mormons seem to forget the culture and language that was their entire life, often during the most formative years of their life. I guess this is mostly a psychology question, but why is that? It is because those memories are associated with pain? Is that cultural memory replaced by whatever new culture they are living? Do ex-mormons try to forget or does it just happen? Do you just forget when you don’t use it, like you would with a second language? Am I crazy for thinking that ex-mormons do seem to forget (sometimes within a matter of a few years or even months) their mormon culture and lingo?

  • Moderate32

    Excellent. This absolutely mirrors my experience.

    And Emma Watson could never write this well.

  • Stephen Smith

    Shane, I’m sorry your family members don’t understand how counterproductive their efforts are.

    I can’t speak for others. I can only speak for myself. I grew up without the Church. When I was 18 I accepted Christ as my Savior at a Christian College. When I was 21 I was introduced to the Church and joined. After reading the four standard works completely through twice, a Christian acquaintance loaned me an anti-Mormon tape. It really shook me. I didn’t know we were so bad and that the Mormon Church is false.

    But I felt like the Holy Ghost was telling me, ‘You’re right. He’s wrong. But I’m not going to spoon-feed you. I listened to the tape again, but this time, I paused the tape and looked up the references and what came before and after. I listened a third time and read the scriptures and realized that he was just a polemicist in apologist’s clothing.

    Over the years I became more aware of the dark side of Church history and the Book of Abraham issues along with many others. I also learned about ad-homonym arguments, half-truths, and strawman arguments that the critics of the Church use. I’ve looked at both sides of this issue. After 49 years in the Church, I see the flaws and the virtues in the people (including me). I wish Mormon had had Microsoft Word and a course in technical writing. The grammar in the Book of Mormon really gives my ADD a beating. Even with that major issue (for me), it is still the word of God. The Book of Mormon testifies of Jesus Christ.

    Even with all the hiccups, the restored Gospel is true. I try to read the Scriptures every day and after reading them completely through many times, I have to echo what Christ said to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” I’ve found that it is not about what I want as much as what my Father in Heaven and Savior want for me.

    For perspective, look at the Bread of Life sermon in John 6: 66 “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”, and Paul’s talk to the Pharisees at Rome in Acts 28: 24 “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.”

    I choose to believe.

  • Shane Ellis

    And there it is. The condescending testimony of someone who was strong enough not to require being spoon fed by the spirit or be fooled ad-hominem, half-truths, and strawman arguments. You managed to apologize for my family’s behavior and then do exactly what you were apologizing for.

    Look, I don’t agree with your assessment of the Church or that the issues with church history or scripture are just hiccups. If your biggest issue with the Book of Mormon is the grammar God gave word-for-word to Joseph Smith to use as the English translation (can’t blame Mormon for that), I doubt you have looked into many of the real issues there. And leaving the church does not mean walking away from Christ. Someone may do both, but the two are unrelated. There are many people who love and accept Christ but do not feel Him or his message in the Mormon church. I lived it and loved it and spent almost 40 years fully engaged in it in every way before reading essays on lds.org (https://www.lds.org/topics/essays?lang=eng) that led me down a rabbit hole that ended in a firm belief that the church was not restored by God, the story in the Book of Mormon is not historical (i.e. did not really happen), the leaders of the church do not have any greater connection with God or authority from God than anyone else, and that the restored Gospel as defined by the church changes so frequently that any definition of the word “true” becomes meaningless. My memory is too good to ignore the implications of such a drastic change in rhetoric on some topics such as those addressed in the Race and the Priesthood essay, as well as others. The holy ghost has testified to me that it was time to leave the church and move onto greater things.

    For perspective, read Mathew 7:15 and look at the amount of teen suicide in Utah compared to the rest of the country. Look at the usage of anti-depressants in Utah compared to the rest of the country. Look at where the church spends your money.

    I choose to accept all new information God puts in my path and change my course as necessary to remain dedicated to the truth. I choose to believe that He will not lead me astray.

    Now, do you see how that message of yours, when echoed back to you in my language and perspective feels somewhat demeaning and dismissive. I acknowledge that it must. The point of my original post is just that I wish people with a similar perspective as yours would also see that and acknowledge that I have as much right to believe what I believe and to provide my perspective as they do. My version isn’t any more hateful or antagonistic then theirs, or yours.

    I reject your belief and you reject mine. You hope I will see you are right and I hope you will see I am right. But as the message of this article states, I already know and understand your perspective and don’t need it repeated. You do not and will not understand mine.

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