Leaving the Church to Sin

A common accusation against people who leave the Church is that they’re just doing it because they want to sin, and in response the leavers often construct some highly noble narrative exclusively revolving around intellectual honesty and/or personal integrity around social issues. 

I kind of roll my eyes in the latter case. Not that I don’t think that it’s sometimes or even often true, but rather because it denies the obvious role that the former can have. Given the natural springs pushing many people away from the religious lifestyle, I would be highly surprised if it wasn’t a major factor in general, even if not in every individual case. 

However, I don’t begrudge this being a factor when people leave. If there is a belief, religious or otherwise, that does not have a significant effect on somebody’s life, they are probably more likely to hold a certain “don’t know, don’t care” agnosticism towards it, or at least not push very hard on the possibility that it isn’t true. Conversely, if the logical implications of such a belief is denial of some fairly strong biological impulses (and no, it’s not just sexual minorities that deal with this), and restructuring of somebody’s life, it logically makes sense to look very hard at every possible angle as a sort of due diligence for foundational religious beliefs, and the justificatory bar for that system of belief is quite a bit higher.

This is why I suspect that the people who reach middle age without having ever really interrogated their religious beliefs in a non-superficial way didn’t have natural springs pushing them away from religious living. But if somebody is “born that way” with certain ingrained proclivities, there are very real costs involved in the religious life (again, this isn’t a euphemism for homosexuality, although that is a more specific example of a general case). We can gaffaw or try to shame them about their dispositions, but at the end of the day being a member is an act of denial for them, and in such cases the onus is on the system of beliefs asking for the sacrifice, with the threshold for justification being higher for people who, through dint of chance, are asked to sacrifice more for the religious life. So sure, some of those that leave want to “sin,” but we all want to sin (well, there are some natural Jesus types, but they tend to be CES professionals who live in Rexburg) and if you don’t actually buy the truth claims that’s not necessarily an illegitimate reason to leave. 

A common trope in leaving-the-Church narratives is the sense of catastrophe when one’s tidy metaphysical worldview breaks down. I’m sure this is a real thing and I’m not questioning their experience, but I suspect a just as common experience (if not more) is a sense of relief. When CS Lewis joined Christianity he said he was the most “dejected and reluctant convert in England.” The first time I thought I lost my testimony (long story) my immediate reaction had elements of relief.

However, there were always a few things I couldn’t quite make sense of on the other side of faith. Of course, Alma 32 has a flip side. Just as somebody can nurture the seed of faith so too can they nurture the seed of doubt, and had I kept pressing things I would have found reasons to put my reasons for belief “on the shelf.” Now my big picture perspective has changed enough that I would react differently if I left, but I can’t begrudge somebody who came to a different conclusion not thinking the sacrifices were worth it.

26 comments for “Leaving the Church to Sin

  1. I think most members default to the “go sin” conclusion as most that leave start doing things members typically dont do. If you’re not a believing member anymore, these new things you are trying are not sins to you. Most leave due to truth claims or being forced to be a member in something they never really believed in growing up and leaving the minute they move out.

    The church doesn’t “work” for everyone. I wish more members would adjust to the parts that dont work and not leave. We have a tendency to be all or nothing in this church. There is room on the pews for all levels of belief, conviction and conversion.

    I’ve met with x-members that feel relieved from the guilt of not doing the 30 things on the checklist. The thought of not doing all 30 things on the checklist and living the church in a healthy way to them didn’t cross their minds. Fascinating culture we have….

    The people I have tried to help with testimony shaking info were experiencing a catastrophe. Very traumatic experience for most.

    Rexburg? CES for sure….

    StepenC do we get to hear about your re-conversion story?

  2. How could someone leave the church and not experience some sense of relief? The church is in tension with the dominant culture and leaving the church releases a lot of that tension. Something as simple as eating out on Sundays is filled with tension for most active members of our church but leave the church and eating out is now a tensionless event.

    The desire to sin isn’t always the same as the desire to do evil or become a heathen. If one has an unhealthy relationship with rules and stress, the desire to sin can simply be the desire to live with less tension.

    Which I think is why President Nelson said what he said a couple of years ago. “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.” In other words, if you don’t have a deep conversion to the gospel itself, the tension is going to get to you.

  3. This post seems so mean-spirited to me. I hope I’m wrong, that what I read isn’t what you meant as you wrote it. I understand that written communication doesn’t always come across accurately.

  4. @REC911: But I do think that not all of the relief in those situations is from the checklist. Some of it is pretty fundamental, like when the natural man really just doesn’t want to live a religious life at all. As far as my re-conversion story, there are about a half dozen of them…

    @Michael: Those are very good points. It is true that I’m using “sin” in a context-dependent way. As in, it’s a “sin” to drink coffee, but once you’re not a member it’s not a sin. There are a lot of cases like that before we get to sins that violate our collective sense of morality. As your use of the President Nelson quote suggests, you have to have a pretty good, live, active why for why you are denying yourself or else eventually you’ll just take the easier path.

    @PWS: You’re going to have to be more clear about what’s mean-spirited.

  5. Stephen C,

    Agreed and it will only get easier if we don’t have strong why’s! It’s like that with the church, marriage, and with having children (especially lots of children) and most things we might think of as commitments or high-demand. Sometimes it feels like modernity is one long exercise in deciding “You know, I don’t really have to do X thing after all”.

    A non-trivial part of my testimony is that we do and our choice to commit is the true purpose of agency. I think Elder Maxwell said something to that effect on occasion.

  6. I think a stronger theology of the body, such as is found in the Catholic faith, would be a good way to counteract contemporary discontents. I feel that many young people of my acquaintance go along with the current zeitgeist toward radical bodily autonomy and holding desire sacred (as our age is wont to do) because there is no compelling and articulated theology that contradicts current attitudes. Certainly is is natural to feel sympathy to people whose desires might consign them to loneliness if they resist and follow church doctrine, especially if someone close to you is so inclined. And I don’t just mean homosexual desire. We have reached a place where sexual mores seem to demand that women give sex outside of marriage in order to get male attention, where there are powerful incentives to see nothing wrong with participating in third part reproduction that denies a child father, mother or both, where abortion seems sensible and par for the course in securing sacred bodily autonomy.

    In fact, our bodies are meant to tie us to other people in ways that assure, on a societal level, the well-being of all of us. Marriage is between a man and a woman because men and women together produce children, who fare best when raised by their own two parents in a low-conflict marriage. Undefining marriage and the rise of technology now tells us that anybody and everybody deserves a child, if they can afford to pay the surrogate. Children are thus commodities to be bought and sold, and if you argue that genetic ties to their parents matter to children and parents alike, you are simply a bigot. The church does not take a strong stand on some of these issues. Yes, we continue to teach that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage is confined to man and woman, but stronger reasoning about this would lead to a stronger case for our position, and reasons to condemn the harmful practice of third party reproduction and other aspects of our age that litigate for radical bodily autonomy.

  7. Where this can get mean-spirited is when a leaver says “I’m leaving the Church because of X” and a stayer says “No, you’re leaving because you want to sin” as if they are mutually exclusive. Thus the stayer does not have to grapple with X, and the leaver feels (with some justification) unheard and disrespected. But I don’t think that’s what Stephen C is doing here.

    (Note that something very similar drives the epistemological bubbles that characterize our political discourse today: “I don’t have to grapple with what that person is saying because they’re on the other side.”)

    The core myth here is that there’s such a thing as Pure Reason, completely impartial and unbiased, and the corollary that if we can identify someone else’s biases then we don’t have to take their position seriously because it’s not the result of Pure Reason. (Our position, naturally, is the result of Pure Reason.) In reality–and I think this is what Stephen C is getting at–we all use motivated reasoning, we all suffer from confirmation bias, etc. So when Stephen C wants leavers to admit they want to sin, he’s not suggesting that will invalidate their other reasons for leaving or even make them unusually bad people. (Or at least that’s my take on the post.)

    Once we accept that we’re not as perfectly rational as we’d like to think we are, we can also recognize that the more we think about the evidence for a given proposition, the more we’ll be persuaded by it. Spend enough time thinking about reasons the Church is false, and the odds are you’ll eventually conclude that it is false. Spend that time thinking about reasons the Church is true, and you’ll probably continue to believe it’s true. We sometimes talk about choosing to believe, but I think a lot of that comes down to what we choose to think about long-term.

    On relief vs. catastrophe, I’ve observed that one can feel relief at not having to live certain commandments anymore while also feeling that losing the sense of meaning the Gospel provides is a catastrophe.

  8. RS: It might not be as intellectual as Catholic theology, but I’d push back a little on the idea that there is no theology of sexuality and the body in the Church. It isn’t all “because the prophet said so.” For example, Holland’s talk “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” comes to mind, and for the average layperson that level of technical sophistication is more than enough to get the point.

    RLD: Yes, that’s a correct reading of my intentions. Matter of fact, in all honesty the original title was “in defense of leaving the Church to sin,” but I thought it was a little too click-baity and would have lent itself to misinterpretation.

  9. As an antidote to feeling too much relief when we leave–we may want to think about how the vast majority of human beings have lived over the last 10,000 years. Most of them have been paupers or peasants or servants or slaves. And if we jettison our beliefs–however well considered our reasons for leaving may be–what we’re tacitly implying is that those pour souls won’t get a second shot at life.

  10. Jack: That’s a very good point, and is very similar to another point I’ve thought about often: if our life’s value is determined in utilitarian terms, if what makes life worth living is the sum totals of our steak dinners and sexual pleasure minus our stubbed toes and anxieties, then 99% of people who have ever lived have not lived lives worth living. The fact that they continued to press on and eventually give rise to us, I think, is a testament to the fact that they grabbed onto something else to be able to make it. New atheist types love to point out that the less developed world is more religious and imply that it’s the religiosity causing the slower economic development, when I suspect it’s the higher suffering causing the higher religiosity. Everybody loves to quote Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” but nobody points out the phrase a few words before: “religion is…a heart in a heartless world.”

  11. Stephen C–The Holland talk is excellent so far as it goes. But it is not nearly comprehensive enough. There are so many more issues that need clear, even dry theological reasoning. A few years ago, as RS president, I taught a lesson on this subject during the summer when some young BYU students were home. Afterwards, one of them told me that they talk about this subject, including homosexuality, third party reproduction and the like, all the time, but the reasons given for positions were never very comprehensive or satisfactory. She was grateful for the lesson and thought it was the clearest treatment she had heard, but wanted more. That would include some philosophy, sociology, theology, etc. I have more faith in my fellow travelers than you I guess. I think they could comprehend a more complete theology of the body and would welcome it. I think it would save us the loss of some of our young people who get sucked in by the contemporary Pagan approach to sexuality, wherein sexuality of pretty much any sort becomes the highest expression of holiness instead of a gift from God with a purpose– to bring humans together to form families, commitments and communities.

  12. RLD–I wonder if people in the church could learn to recognize the messiness and uncertainties of history and all human endeavor. I have studied Mormon history extensively, and it is not always uplifting. Similarly, it doesn’t look to me like Christianity was absent from the earth during the “great apostasy.” It looks to me like it was very much alive and working wonders, though horrors were also commited in its name. Things are just not that cut and dried in the real world. For me, there is enough in the church that I can embrace and believe in, even if I don’t regard the story exactly as everybody else does. I’m afraid that a too-simple reliance on a too-simple story causes people to leave when they might stay if they understood that religion too has to flow through the crooked timber of humanity with all that entails. We can cling to some basics, but we don’t need to demand a kind of simplistic perfection. I do, however, understand that it is natural to want a simple, uncomplicted story underlying our beliefs. Depends on the person I suppose.

  13. MS–I definitely think so, and I think the Church agrees. The Gospel Topics essays and “Saints” deliberately give a much “messier” sense of Church history than has been taught in the past. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds like the “Ancient Christians” book by the Maxwell Institute makes the story of the Great Apostasy a lot less black and white as well. (That said, a Christianity where “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is broadly accepted has gone very wrong and needs a Restoration.)

    On theology…we have a theology of marriage that makes it the critical mortal relationship of our lives and in eternity, makes sexuality a means of strengthening that relationship, and any other use of sexuality a misuse.

    We also have a theology of children that makes them a blessing (see Stephen C’s recent post on the topic or President Oaks recent YSA fireside). On the other hand, we don’t have a theology that says sexuality is inherently wrong and only justified by reproduction, nor a theology that insists on seeking to have children under any and all circumstances. Thus, unlike the Catholics or the Quiverfull movement, we don’t see birth control as inherently wrong–though it would be wrong for a couple whom God wants to have more children. We believe that sexuality can still strengthen a marriage when, for whatever reason, more children are not on the table.

    We also have a strong theology of adoption: adoption into the House of Israel, adoption into the family of Christ (granted, that’s one that may only come up when we read Paul every four years), and most relevantly here, adoption of children into families in the temple by the sealing power. You said “if you argue that genetic ties to their parents matter to children and parents alike, [people in society say] you are simply a bigot.” I’m not going to call you a bigot, but if you’re claiming that an adopted child sealed to their parents in the temple has a lesser relationship to their parents than a biological child, I will call you wrong. And I’d invite you consider the harm you might do by saying that where an adopted child (of any age) can hear you.

    I will concede though that highly valuing marriage, not thinking sexuality must be limited to reproduction, and accepting adoption as valid makes an enticing prima facie case for same-sex marriage. Don’t get me wrong–I support the Church’s position on the topic. But we should recognize that Church members who support same-sex marriage were probably led most of the way there by believing our doctrine, not rejecting it. I agree that this is an area where we could use more theology and more persuasive arguments. My hope is that the younger generation, who had to defend the Church’s position on the topic as missionaries (rather than it being something that just about everyone agreed with like on my mission), will be more inclined and better equipped to do so.

  14. I have resisted coming back to clarify about this coming across as mean spirited because I don’t think it will make any difference, but am finally going to in the hope that your expressed lack of understanding is honest and open to empathy for others.

    “A common accusation against people who leave the Church is that they’re just doing it because they want to sin, and in response the leavers often construct some highly noble narrative exclusively revolving around intellectual honesty and/or personal integrity around social issues.

    I kind of roll my eyes in the latter case. Not that I don’t think that it’s sometimes or even often true, but rather because it denies the obvious role that the former can have. Given the natural springs pushing many people away from the religious lifestyle, I would be highly surprised if it wasn’t a major factor in general, even if not in every individual case.”

    Calling it a “highly noble narrative” sounds sarcastic and mean.

    Saying “I kind of roll my eyes” is a highly negative way of expressing disagreement.

    Saying that their stated reasons for leaving “denies the obvious role” that the desire to sin plays essentially says they are lying.

    So, yeah, for me this reads as judgmental and mean. Again, I hope that is not what you were trying to say. It’s true that there may be multiple reasons why any one person leaves. This kind of meanness makes it harder for the people who struggle to stay.

  15. RLD—of course adoption is necessary and wonderful. BUT it is not nesessary to bring children into the world intending to deliberately deny them one or both parents. This amounts to buying and selling children, and that is what third party reproduction is about. The church discourages this but says “be prayerful” about it. I’ve read a lot about this and the consequences of such practices. I think a coherent theology of the body would condemn it outright, except perhaps in the case of two married parents who will raise the baby, but even then there are pitfalls. There is much to applaud, but the theology of the body In-N-Out church is woefully underdeveloped IMHO.

  16. The Church’s position on surrogate motherhood is found in 38.6.22 of the Handbook:

    “The pattern of a husband and wife providing bodies for God’s spirit children is divinely appointed (see 2.1.3). For this reason, the Church discourages surrogate motherhood. However, this is a personal matter that is ultimately left to the judgment and prayerful consideration of the husband and wife.

    Children who are born to a surrogate mother are not born in the covenant. Following their birth, they may be sealed to parents only with the approval of the First Presidency….”

    So you’re right that the first paragraph leaves some ambiguity, but knowing that the baby won’t be part of your eternal family unless the First Presidency intervenes is a powerful deterrent. (You know you’re in trouble if your name comes up in the official business of the First Presidency. Sometimes they make your situation much better, like restoring temple blessings after excommunication; sometimes they make it much worse, like calling you as a bishop.)

    MS, it’s human nature to first feel that something is wrong (usually, but not always, that feeling is rooted in the light of Christ and correct) then try to find reasons why it’s wrong. Clearly you feel strongly about surrogate motherhood, but as you look for reasons why I’d encourage you to be careful not to accidentally implicate good things.

  17. RLD:

    “MS, it’s human nature to first feel that something is wrong (usually, but not always, that feeling is rooted in the light of Christ and correct) then try to find reasons why it’s wrong. Clearly you feel strongly about surrogate motherhood, but as you look for reasons why I’d encourage you to be careful not to accidentally implicate good things.”

    Wisdom of the ages.

  18. FWIW, my reading was similar to PWS. PWS, I appreciate your courage to share. My personal experience led me to read the post as being unkind. I recognize that may not be the intent. Understandably, YMMV.

  19. RLD and Jack—I DO feel strongly that deliberately depriving children of mother, father or both is barbaric, and quite often make this point in threads along with the proviso that adoption is necessary and good. In this instance I was concentrating more on the question of needing a more comprehensive theology concerning our bodies. I have to say that it would not seem like a big deal to me to have a child sealed after birth if I were inclined to commission a baby through a surrogate, as I think some of the Romney children have done, I’m guessing because pregnancy is unpleasant. The important point however is that the harm caused to children by third party reproduction is under-appreciated. Watch Jennifer Lahl’s Anonymous Fatherhood to comprehend this. There are grave dangers to women as well. Beyond this, however, clearer thinking on this subject would help with end of life questions that are very important right now. So many countries and states are moving toward euthanasia or already there. It’s frightening.

  20. @Jack–wisdom of psychologist Jonathan Haidt actually, from “The Righteous Mind.” Very interesting book. It actually inspired my talk for the year: at one point he describes an experiment where he created scenarios that involved conflicts between values so he could see what his subjects prioritized, and I realized about half the stories in the Gospels do the same thing. (The Good Samaritan is “caring for others” vs. “loyalty to your group” for example.) I doubt anyone will be surprised that Jesus prioritized “caring for others” over all all the other “moral foundations” Haidt identifies, and the only thing Jesus approved prioritizing over that is the First Great Commandment (think Mary and Martha, or the woman anointing Jesus with previous ointment).

    @MS–I wonder if the First Presidency would approve a sealing if a surrogate was used solely because pregnancy is unpleasant (thought that’s putting it mildly) as opposed to because the wife could not carry a pregnancy to term. But that’s complete speculation on my part.

    Personally I’m glad that we don’t share the Catholic “theology of the body” even though we agree with some of its conclusions. It leads to some ugly places. It’s fascinating how that theology spread to Evangelicals through their political alliance with conservative Catholics, and I’m concerned when Church members adopt it for the same reason. (I’m not including you in that, as you’re suggesting we create our own rather than adopt the Catholic version.)

  21. It sounds like this post is saying, “I know you think you leaving the church was this difficult, devastating, morally high-minded thing to do, but in reality you just found justifications to do something you were already inclined to do anyway and I’ll bet you felt a great deal of relief finding those justifications. Go ahead and own it!”

    If this isn’t your point, then you haven’t made your point very well. If this is your point, it’s cruelly reductive and dismissive of people’s actual reasons for leaving. No one seems to remember that one time Elder Uchtdorf commissioned a highly detailed and competent report on why people leave the church. We have data on this, folks. And while the answers are, indeed, varied, the most common answers are far and away something akin to “I found out things about church history and doctrine that disturbed me and didn’t mesh with the values I learned at church.” For most of these people, leaving is a natural responsive to betrayal and hypocrisy. If you find a different way to react to betrayal and hypocrisy, that’s ok but don’t disrespect the rest of us. I, like nearly every one of my friends and family members who’ve left, was never inclined to disobedience or rebellion of any kind and never pictured myself leaving. If I hadn’t had a faith crisis, I would have been a faithful member forever.

    And, by the way, it’s totally normal to feel relief and devastation at the same time. Ask anyone who’s left a bad relationship.

  22. Your response is an attempt to shoehorn the OP into a simplistic, highly predictable noble vs ignoble narrative when I’m trying to make a more nuanced argument.

    That study was not “commissioned by Elder Uchtdorf.” It was put together largely by non-believers trying to change the Church in their image (e,g, Greg Prince and John Dehlin) with some exceptions like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, and they successfully lobbied to get it onto Elder Uchtdorf’s desk. But yes, I’m sure the Church has done more objective studies on the subject and that the reasons are indeed varied, but fundamentally I’m a little skeptical that any rigorous study can really do much justice to the big “why do people leave” question, since it’s so psychologically complex and multivariate.

  23. Coming in late on this one, appreciate all of the comments.

    I think in the Church we’ve had a problem of trying to “commandment our way” to Christ. It can’t be done. We develop a true, authentic relationship with the Lord through our own misery, sin, and despair. Then once we do indeed love Him, we will want to keep his commandments. And for those we don’t understand or feel impossible to keep, we will keep trying and returning to Him. I’ve had to learn this the hard way.

  24. Kirkstall, excellent comment. I agree with what you wrote.

    Stephen C, with respect, I think Kirkstall’s critique may be that you’re the one doing the shoehorning. If you want to know why people have left, you could always just ask them. When you say you roll your eyes at their tropes and constructed, highly noble narratives, it makes it sound like you haven’t given that a real shot yet.

    Speaking for myself, my loss of belief did feel catastrophic at times, but it wasn’t my “tidy metaphysical worldview” that was threatened; it was the worldview I picked up in years of church, seminary, missionary training, and college religious education–all provided by the LDS church.

    Separately, if you’ve written about your temporary loss of faith and subsequent re-conversion, I’d love to read about it. Would you be willing to link to those posts?

  25. Yeah coffee is great. But I would have stayed if the church had been “ true”. Instead it lied to me and you and and hid 100s of billions of its donations from members. Plus taught me and you a sanitized and incorrect history of the church. I was a missionary and went to BYU and was active for 40+ years but none of those manuals and church lessons covered that Joseph smith slept with like 15 year olds and other men’s wives. Confronting that and then the racism of our church leaders. Than that led to questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon and book of Abraham. Then on a personal and family level my LGBT kids had no place in this church. Plus my wife felt a lot of regret for choices she had made to fit the role
    Of a woman in the church. Then after dealing with all that we felt like we didn’t have a place either.

    You can roll your eyes at this kind of narrative but I don’t see how you can honestly take all those things in and be then be like those silly ex Mormons just wanted to sin.

    Yeah at the time it felt like a catastrophe. Two years out it is a relief. Church was hard for no reason. anytime you want to seriously talk about it instead of ascribing motivations to exmormons that are unfair I will buy you a hot chocolate and I will drink my much more delicious coffee and we can talk about it.

  26. Brian, you don’t seem like the kind of person who would leave the church in order indulge in sin–well, with the exception of coffee. :D

    But I must say that I’m surprised at your reasons for leaving. You’re a smart cookie–and I think if you did a little more digging you’d find that there are good answers to most of your quandaries.

    Come back, brother.

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