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For many former Mormons, it’s hard to be “spiritual but not religious”

Former Mormons don’t generally maintain a high level of spirituality when they decide to leave the fold, unless they become actively involved in another religion.

A guest post by Benjamin Knoll

A defining feature of today’s American religious environment is the rapid rise of the “Nones,” those who have no religious affiliation. Many of these Nones claim a “spiritual but not religious” identity, arguing that it is not necessary to attend a church or formally affiliate with a religion to have a connection to God and a meaningful spiritual life.

While this is undoubtedly true for many, the 2016 Next Mormons Survey allows us to examine this question more closely among a specific religious subgroup: Latter-day Saints. Members of the LDS Church are in many ways an ideal test case because they rank extremely high compared to members of other American faiths when it comes to their levels of religious behavior and spirituality.

In short, our survey reveals that former Mormons don’t generally maintain this high level of spirituality when they decide to leave the fold, unless they become actively involved in another religion.

Let me explain. In the Next Mormons Survey, Jana Riess and I surveyed 1,156 self-identified Mormons and 540 self-identified former Mormons about how often they have certain experiences that have been defined by social scientists to constitute “spirituality.”

Specifically, we asked them to report how often they:

  1. feel God’s presence and love,
  2. feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being,
  3. feel a deep sense of wonder and connection with the universe, and
  4. feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities or in answers to prayer.

To simplify, we combined these four answers into a single zero to one “spirituality scale.” A “1” score means that the individual reported each of these experiences on a daily basis, a “0.5” means a few times a month, and “0” means never.

Former Mormons have less frequent spiritual experiences than current Mormons. Notice in the graph how most respondents clump toward the high end of the scale for current Mormons while respondents are more spread out among former Mormons. A full 30% of current Mormons report each of those four spiritual experiences on a daily basis, compared to only 12% for former Mormons.

Looking at it another way, the average current Mormon reports these spiritual experiences a few times a week while the average former Mormon experiences them only a few times a month.

We also know from the Next Mormons Survey that just under a quarter of former Mormons have taken the steps to join another religion in which they are actively participating. Another quarter say they’re interested but haven’t joined yet, while just over half say they’re simply not interested in joining another religion.

Here’s what happens when we look at the average frequency of spiritual experiences among both current and former Mormons, grouping each by how often they attend religious services (either Mormon services or elsewhere).

Levels of spiritual experiences are nearly identical for both current and former Mormons once we compare them by how often they attend religious services, regardless of whether those services are in an LDS chapel or some other place of worship. Those who attend religious services anywhere on at least a weekly basis report spiritual experiences several times a week, whether they’re current or former Mormons.

On the other hand, both current and former Mormons report spiritual experiences only occasionally (perhaps a few times a year) if they rarely or never attend religious services.

In other words, Mormons who leave the fold have spiritual experiences as often as those who stay, but only if they keep participating actively in a religious community.

In sum, it seems there is good reason to fear that Mormons who “leave the fold” will weaken or lose their connection to God and spirituality, even if the majority of former Mormons believe in God (and they do). But this is only because most former Mormons—52% in the Next Mormons Survey—decide to leave organized religion altogether instead of seeking a new spiritual home.

Instead of asking whether Mormons who leave the fold will have a fulfilling spiritual life, a better question is why former Mormons are so likely to drop out of organized religion altogether when they decide to leave Mormonism.

Other findings of the Next Mormons Survey:

Benjamin Knoll is a professor of political science at Centre College. He is the co-author of She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in July.

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