As many of you know, last year I embarked on a major research study of four generations of Mormons and former Mormons. With the help of a number of social scientists, especially Benjamin Knoll, I’ve been able to gather nationally representative data that begins to shed some light on a number of questions that pertain to Mormon life today—including why approximately one-third of people leave the Church.
Do these people leave primarily because they’re upset by historical inconsistencies or problems, like Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy or questions about seer stones? I’ve heard this explanation from many people, especially those on the left who see the Church’s fluctuating approach to those complex issues as a sign of deception.
Or do they leave because they got “offended” by something someone said at church? This is the narrative Elder David A. Bednar focused on in General Conference a decade ago, and it’s been a prominent feature of LDS internal discourse ever since. I hear variations on it often, usually from current members who are explaining why people they know left the Church.
Well, guess what? Statistically, there is some merit in both explanations.
But for younger Mormons and women, there’s considerably more in Bednar’s approach.
We surveyed 541 former Mormons (in addition to more than 1100 current Mormons who did not, obviously, receive this question). We asked them to name their top three reasons for leaving the Church, choosing from nearly 30 options that were broken down into two main categories:
- Doctrinal/institutional reasons (concerns about the Book of Abraham, say, or the lack of financial transparency about what happens with tithing money) and
- Personal/social reasons (like being excluded, not feeling able to trust the leadership, or losing a testimony of the “one true church”)
Overall, personal and social reasons dominated the list rather than specific doctrinal or historical problems people had.
In the sample as a whole, the top answer was “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church,” closely followed by “I stopped believing there was one true church.” These findings are very consistent with a 2016 PRRI study of the “Nones” (people with no religious affiliation), whose top reason for disengaging from their religion was simply that they stopped believing its teachings.
Generationally, there were interesting and significant differences. Among Millennials, the top five answers were:
- “I felt judged or misunderstood.”
- [tied for first] “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.”
- "The Church’s positions on LGBT issues.”
- "I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church."
- “I drifted away from Mormonism.”
#3 is, to me, especially interesting. LGBT issues did not even crack the top ten for former Mormons over age 52. For Millennials it was the third most important reason for leaving, and among Gen Xers it was sixth.
There’s also a gender divide. Women are almost twice as likely as men to say they left Mormonism because they felt judged or misunderstood. In the overall sample of all generations, 40% of women cited judgment as one of their top three factors, while only 22% of men did.
So there’s some ballast to Elder Bednar’s assumption that many people leave Mormonism because they become offended. However, I take issue with some of the trivial examples the Church provides for what this might look like. Here are three examples Bednar gave in his 2006 Conference talk:
- “Several years ago a man said something in Sunday School that offended me, and I have not been back since.”
- “No one in this branch greeted or reached out to me. I felt like an outsider. I was hurt by the unfriendliness of this branch.”
- “I did not agree with the counsel the bishop gave me. I will not step foot in that building again as long as he is serving in that position.”
Compare that to these write-in reasons that some female survey respondents provided when they were given the opportunity to explain more about why they left Mormonism:
- “When I was divorcing my husband because of abuse and infidelity, his temple recommend was renewed, even though I knew he was drinking and sleeping with prostitutes (and beating me and my children . . .). I was not allowed to renew mine, because I might fall again before I was married.”
- “Death in the family and no real empathy.”
- “Lack of assistance for domestic violence and automatic support for the male abuser.”
- “As a woman in the military I was treated coldly and shunned by most of my peers as if what I was doing was wrong.”
Were they offended? Clearly. But were they not justified in being so?
In the Church, the accusation that “you’re choosing to be offended” is trotted out to diminish others and explain away legitimate grievances. Dr. Julie Hanks wrote a very balanced article on this for Meridian Magazine last year; as she put it,
It seems that all too often, the “choosing to be offended” card is used to judge, invalidate someone else’s experience, to shame or chastise him/ her, and perhaps even to effectively end discussion. It can also be used as a shield to avoid self-reflecting on whether or not we’ve acted offensively and need to make amends.
Sometimes, she notes, someone “choosing to be offended” is actually a healthy and emotionally appropriate response to a harmful situation.
One of the many things that Millennials inside and outside of the LDS Church can teach us is that there’s a lot of wisdom in Christ’s admonition to “judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged.”
If we don’t heed that wisdom, the Church stands to lose even more of its brightest and best.