And I’m (no longer) a mormon

A few years ago, I had a conversation with one of my favorite Whatsitzers about some of his experiences as a Mormon missionary.  I asked whether he had ever converted anyone, and he answered that yes, there were a few. I pressed him asking, “How do you feel about that?”

I have to admit that I assumed his answer would be something like, “How do you think I feel?  I’m ashamed — wouldn’t you be if you ruined a bunch of  lives?” His answer, however, was something like: “I feel pretty good about it.”

I’m sure that my whole body registered shock.

He went on to explain that the people who he converted had very little going on, and that Mormonism gave them the tools to likely better their situations — there’d be community support, educational opportunities, and sense of hope for the future.

“Hmm,” I thought.  I was dissatisfied with the victory for organized religion, but certainly intrigued with his answer, especially given that he’s a guy who I really, really respect.

Through the course of the same conversation, he went on to share his experience of leaving the LDS fold. He told me that he could ultimately leave because his (Mormon) education gave him the critical thinking skills to see the logical holes in Church doctrine. “Hmm,” I thought, “Very, very interesting…”

Anyway, I was reminded of our conversation when I came across this video:


Then I found this video, which made me really glad that this particular friend, and a bunch of others, had the intellectual skills and courage to walk away from the bright (or at least comfortably known) future that they had peddled to others:

Now, we all just need to hope that Paris gets what he needs out of the Church, and can move on to one day become a happy, well adjusted exMormon.

13 responses to “And I’m (no longer) a mormon”

  1. FPS says:


    The first film pushes so many buttons for me, because I do have this idea that religion (toward which I have a kind of pathological hostility since I was a teenager, which I’m working on) does make people blissfully happy, even if it’s a pack of lies. Sometimes I get a kind of vertigo, a terror that if I did what religious people describe, I could let god into my heart, begin to believe, and not be such a mopey fucker who spends so much time thinking “I’d better enjoy this because the clock is ticking and there’s nothing after.” It’s half fear, half wish, of course.

    I think the people who made both films did something really smart in their choice of tone. The cloyingness and humorlessness people like me associate with religion is absent from the first one and the stridency and humorlessness I assume religious people associate with people like me is not int he second one.

  2. AWB says:

    I had a student from the West Indies whose family converted to Mormonism, due to the efforts of missionaries, when she was a little girl. And she saw it as the one thing that really saved her family, as the guy in the first video does. Everything was going off the rails, her father had abandoned them, etc. But by the time she was in my class in her mid-20s, she was so fucking angry at the church.

    I think the hardest thing about leaving an all-consuming religion is that it’s just how you learned to organize your thoughts, self-soothe in times of distress, and create community with other people, so when that’s gone, you at first feel like you have to reject not just the religion, but all forms of patterned thought, self-soothing, community, etc. They all seem creepy and dangerous, and definitely narcissistic. It’s one of the biggest reasons I won’t do yoga. The feeling of being in a room being told I have to participate in group movements while we “salute the sun” or whatever gives me the old churchy heebie geebies.

    I think the nice thing about the ex-Mormons I know is that they never forget that it was good to want to sit at a table with people you love. They seem to have dropped the religion, but kept their joy for community. That one is still hard for me.

  3. lane says:

    a black kid, and… carolyn pierson’s daughter… wow… nice job sg… all the buttons.

    with hair like that… yeah, life is incredible.

    tim! tell him to shut up… : – )

  4. jim rade says:

    I was converted to LDS in late 1965 (age 13) and lasted about a year in the church. My mother signed their mailing list at the NY World’s Fair; months later a pair of “Elders” (young missionaries) showed up and browbeat us into submission (my sister & dad avoided the pair).
    The church is racist, sexist and bizarre, I quit in ’67 when they tried grooming me for the priesthood (seminary school @five a.m.); my mother quit a year later when they leaned on her for tithing.
    More stalwart converts stuck it out for the business connections, family events, etc.
    I attended an LDS teen xmas party in ’67, the first time I heard a Jimi Hendrix record. They were also keen on the Doors & Creem. A few LDS kids snuck reefer out on the freezing porch. I heard later one kid (a non-convert from Utah) got busted.

  5. sg says:

    Jim, your drug story reminds me of a point Ken Burns made in his prohibition documentary. According to Burns, one of the reasons that it wound up becoming a Constitutional amendment is that several groups were concerned with what alcohol does to members of other groups, not so much their own — Southern Whites were concerned with booze’s effect on African Americans, for example.

    The LDS church (to my knowledge) has never condoned drinking or drug use. Given this consistency, it seems to have much more to do with their own members than any outside group — remember the name of the game is to make a lot of money and to have lots and lots of kids.

    Rick Perry, where are you when we need someone to shout, “PONZI SCHEME?”

  6. KS says:

    SG, related to what you just wrote, I’ve been thinking about your post all day in somewhat similar terms, and by that I mean that I think perhaps Mormons are unique in their ability to successfully retain membership due to their peculiar group politics. There are all these jokes floating around that suggest Mormons are at their best when in the company of other Mormons, and vise versa. For ex: “Why do you never take only one Mormon fishing with you?…Because he’ll drink all your beer.” Also, I can’t count how many disbelievers I’ve known in my lifetime couldn’t bring themselves to quit the church out of fear of things like:
    1) disappointing others (namely their families, but then also their Bishops/Wards)
    2) what if they’re RIGHT and rejecting the faith on this earth means I’m screwed in the afterlife?
    3) while I may not believe in all the tenets of the faith, I can’t deny that I believe in family so I guess I’ll cherry pick the things I like and tolerate/fake those I don’t and hope for the best

    And I just can’t get over the irony of Mormons backing Prop 8 so strongly when they, of all religious groups (what with their emphases on their own persecution and pride in their own history), seem to have forgotten how recently they were attacked for their non-normative constructions of institutions such as marriage and family. Aren’t both (Mormons selective memory and recent practices) understood better in the context of group dynamics? We’re all radical together, or we’re all towing the line together? Individualism is shunned, and therefore I am truly intrigued that anyone would say that their upbringing in the faith taught them the tools of critical thinking necessary to eventually choose to reject it. (That just mystifies me and I’d love it if someone would elaborate on that point.)

    And finally, can anyone think of another religion where one who strays is seen as a traitor to the group more than as someone who lost h/ir faith or strayed from God/Jesus/Allah, etc?

    Well, this made for some fun contemplation today in the five or six free minutes I’ve had to think about it. Sorry if my comments are incoherent. Great post; low blood sugar.

  7. Dave says:

    Interesting juxtaposition of videos, and very thoughtful comments, Scotty. In my own post-Mormon life I’ve gone from having a certain amount of anger toward the church I was raised in, which transferred over to religion in general, to having come around to a pragmatist view of religious beliefs and practices. As William James demonstrated, people have the kinds of religious experiences they need to have. So when Paris asked God whether what the missionaries were telling him was true, he needed a sense of peace and clarity, and he got it. And at least on the facts we’re given in the video, I’m glad for him. He’s obviously a bright kid from rough circumstances, and now he’s got a religious community, a structure to his life, and apparently an entry into the middle class.

    Mormonism definitely makes it hard to get out. (I disagree with KS that it’s unique in this regard, although its mechanisms for enforcing community norms and keeping people in the fold definitely have their peculiarities.) So yay for the Emily Pearson video and that whole project if it helps people get out who’d be better off out.

    I think it’s possible to make general, if always tentative, judgments about ways of life that tend to be better or worse for people, and I wouldn’t rank Mormonism all that high on my own list. I often joke to friends that if they’re thinking of joining the Mormon church they should call me first and let me give them some reasons not to. It’s not a culture or an institution that fully values and empowers women, for example, and it’s brutal for nearly all its queer members. But yeah, for a few people it’s an improvement over what they’ve got; and for many people who are already inside, it’s a steadying, familiar thing, and the costs of leaving might well outweigh the benefits.

  8. sg says:

    Hey KS, it’s not the upbringing in the faith so much as the LDS emphasis on secular education that my friend was referring to — remember that for this faith (and most others) “successful” members act as living advertisements for the faith’s virtues.

    Since this church is so heavily reliant on proselytizing, I think that there’s a degree of cost benefit analysis that goes into supporting secular education. On one hand, they’ll lose members every now and again, but on the other, the more their members make, the more money there is for supporting the church. Also, there’s the idea of normalizing LDS. In other words, if my doctor is a member, and he seems so normal, then the church must not be so freaky-deaky.

  9. KS says:

    Dave, you are probably right that I am making too much of the Mormon strangle-hold on its recalcitrant members. I actually have a shamefully limited knowledge of how religions function outside of Mormonism and Catholicism, and I’m admittedly heavily biased toward those two for personal reasons. But I wonder if you might possibly be apologizing for a form of cultural colonialism in arguing that because, for a few, conversion to Mormonism seems to offer them a unequivocal “improvement” in their lives. Not meaning to split hairs or offend, but perhaps judging what is “better” is somewhat more complicated than seeing opps for improved class status. I did note that Paris started to give his digits as 801-…a UT area code. Is moving to UT a double-edged sword for a man like that? There sure wasn’t a lot of African American cultural celebration going on when I lived there.

    And SG…ah, hmmmm. Well, if we’re going to put “successful” in quotes, I think “secular” may belong there as well. I say this as a former outsider-within who grew up going to public schools that were heavily dominated by (admittedly youthful and therefore often zealous and erroneous in terms of doctrine) stalwarts of Mormon culture. As Lane has suggested a time or two, I eventually left public ed. for parochial school, not because I found myself more drawn to Catholicism (the other half of my family’s faith, fwiw) but because I could be a more accepted outsider there than I could be in the heavily LDS-infused public schools of Utah that felt anything but secular to me ages 10-16. Mormon kids can be very mean to non-mormons. They drink a lot of Kool-Aid.

    On the other hand, I recently had a Mormon dentist in St. Louis who was awesomely tolerant, a real credit to his religion. He told me he never wanted to live in UT because UT Mormons think they are better than other Mormons. The hierarchies of the group seem to exist even within an insider-insider realm. I found that fascinating.

  10. Dave says:

    I’m definitely not offended by the suggestion that there’s some cultural colonialism involved in judging some life outcomes better than others. It’s true — that’s a very culturally delimited kind of judgment to make, and I occupy enough of a privileged position that my making such a judgment is suspect at best. On the other hand, Paris says his life is better. And (again, according to the limited info we have in the video), it looks better. He was homeless, now he’s getting an education in Utah. It’s probably hard for a black kid who grew up poor in Tuskegee to move to Utah, adjust to new cultural stuff, and deal with the types of racism and other judgments he’ll face in Utah. On the other hand, he doesn’t paint his previous life in Tuskegee as all that great, and I hear there’s some racism in Alabama, too. So I believe him when he says his life is better now.

    SG, I’ve always thought Mormonism has a relentlessly middle-class focus. It probably does have to do with the drive to assimilate and normalize after the polygamy persecution, all that “Angel and the Beehive” stuff. My sense growing up was that it was excellent to be middle class but definitely not as good within the Mormon culture to be either working class or wealthy. The Romneys and Huntsmans are looked at with suspicion. Among other reasons, rich people can largely shield themselves from the communitarian surveillance that Mormon culture values so highly. And look, Huntsman apparently drank liquor at ceremonial occasions when he was ambassador to China.

  11. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I’m suspicious of the William James thing, though, at least as an endpoint. Isn’t it apolitical in a troubling way? (NB: I know it only as a one-sentence concept and haven’t read in greater depth.)

  12. S. Godfree says:

    Dave, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the WJ point is that there’s a difference between a “religious experience” and simply being a member of a religion. By religious experience, we mean something like what Paris explains — that moment of clarity or warmth or whatever as opposed to being gay and born into an LDS family. Does that make sense? (I just woke up.)

    I guess another way of thinking about it is how in a the classic 12 step model, one is supposed to give over to a higher power. I’m sure that there are many recovering addicts who find what they “need” in this regard. That is, assuming that they are ready to quit whatever it is that they’re trying to quit.

  13. Dave says:

    Agreed, there’s a difference between being a member of a religion and having a religious experience. But membership in a religion typically involves having lots of small-scale religious experiences over time, whether or not you have the big flashy kind that James was mostly writing about. And you have a lot of small-scale other experiences, like the experience of community or the experience of boredom or the experience of having the Elders’ Quorum help you move into your new apartment, that are maybe not what we’d think of as “religious” experiences but are (fairly inseparably) associated with your religion.

    I agree this kind of pragmatism can be suspiciously apolitical. I don’t think the political analysis should stop with “whatever gets you through the night” in all cases, but often there’s not a lot more to say. Religious commitments are often politically relevant, and religious bodies are also political actors, but I don’t buy the Hitchens-style line that there’s something especially politically pernicious about religion per se. I think you have to be more fine-grained in a political analysis than just saying “religion”.