Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

For many former Mormons, it’s hard to be “spiritual but not religious̶ …

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.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Forgive me for not reading every word and link but did you define “spiritual” tightly?

    I suspect that “spiritual” means different things to people from different religious traditions – and certainly many “nones” will have an entirely varied understanding.

    As to why “why former Mormons are so likely to drop out of organized religion altogether when they decide to leave Mormonism.” – I suspect that most people who are released from jail decide never to return to any prison – not just the one where they were formerly incarcerated.

  • Interesting. This study compares groups of individuals, but does not follow same individual through time, from being Mormon to being ex Mormon.

    I am wondering if there is a subset of the population who through their personality, reasoning style, or genetics, do not find religion satisfying or look at the world in this way even when they were Mormon. Someone can attend weekly for cultural and family reasons, and feel a disconnect or not experience “spiritual experiences.”

    It would be a difficult study to do, but a longitudinal study on individuals to see if their spiritual experiences on an individual level changed would be .

    One might practice Mormonism due to culture, family, etc, and perhaps the less “spiritual” or mystically inclined leave because of less spiritual experiences rather than these experiences reducing after leaving.

  • Yes, he states that they did define spirituality and that they used a standard criteria.

    (H)ow 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.

  • As I see it – Standard in the sense of common academic usage, maybe – standard in the sense of common understanding by non-academic human beings, no.

    1 and 4 are restricted to self-identifying Christians are they not? God usually means the Christian deity – as opposed to god(s) which embraces many religions and still means something totally foreign to non-believers.

    2 doesn’t define “spiritual” so could mean an external spirituality (gods etc.) or internal awe and wonder – very different understandings.

    People who have religious beliefs which include “God” are, like us atheists, able to “feel a deep sense of wonder and connection with the universe” – the fact that we are all made of stardust (atoms formed in an exploding star) leads us there. Atheists are not able to imagine 1 and 4 as anything more than delusion.

    I do not think that 1-4 meet the criteria for a “tight” definition.

  • Personally I have never felt any of those except 3, and my level there has actually increased since leaving the church.

  • Maybe I am missing something, but could this correlation be a chicken and egg situation? In other words, do people with high spirituality tend to go to church more or do people go to church more and then get greater spirituality?

  • Actually, I have a hard time buying either the premise or results of any self-serving survey on spirituality by the Mormons and for their benefit. I say that as someone who is 5th generation Mormon and am actually more spiritually whole by staying away than I ever was by attending. Mormonism actively stunts the emotional and spiritual growth of anyone who does not fit their cookie cutter mold for membership. The weird, harsh remarks of Mormon Apostle Quentin L. Cook about “non-consensual immorality” highlights how psychologically harmful and damaging Mormonism cam be for anyone struggling with anything out of the artificial orbit of Mormonism, whether due to race, gender or sexual identity/orientation, not to mention people who are themselves naturally intuitive, empathic and spiritual.

  • If you are someone with your own internal sense of the divine, Mormonism is very restrictive to growth in that natural, internal spirituality, especially for women, since Mormons want to control and tightly define such things for women.

  • I disagree with literally everything you just said, as someone who does not fit the “cookie cutter mold for membership.”

  • Good points. This is also what struck me. I am a spiritual Atheist. Spiritual in the sense of 2 and 3. Spirit can be understood as the state of your sense of self, the state of your being. More akin to the concept of soul, the core of who you are as a person. Feeling a deep sense of peace and well-being is about learning to be comfortable in your own skin. Number 3, feeling a deep sense of wonder and connection with the universe can come from understanding Science, History, and feeling comfortable again in your own skin BUT also with your place in the overall scheme of things.

  • I am content that I am at peace with myself and in awe of the universe but I wouldn’t describe myself as spiritual – mainly because the term is open to an understanding that would deny my (agnostic) atheism.

    There are religious folks who will seize on anything they can twist to deny the definition of atheism as simply the absence of belief in god(s). In my experience suggesting I am “spiritual” gives them an opening they will use to claim that I have a “soul” (another dangerous word) and therefore actually just kidding myself that I don’t think there’s a god in order to justify the evil, hedonistic lifestyle that I really want to have.

    I try to avoid giving aid and comfort to the opposition’s beliefs.

  • Shock. Not really. I knew that I could count on you to both disagree and be disagreeable. Thanks for coming through on both expectations.

  • My guess is both and neither. By that I mean I think you will find people who meet both definitions of what you described. And neither because I think a bunch of people who are regular church attenders will answer the questions with what they think the correct answer should be.

  • Please point me to some objective fact that you included in your original comment supported by something other than your own opinion.

  • Another nice failed effort to take control of the situation but I am well aware of your usual bag of old tricks. Next ploy.

  • You have no authority to do any such thing. And you silly spin on what others say is a 180 on accountability. One more fail at trying to put yourself in charge.

  • Religions have claimed that some words are religious AND therefore non-religious folk have no business using the words or telling religious folk how the words should be used. I am trying to take the words back and show that they also have a secular meaning. Spiritual, soul, moral, are such words.

    So when someone tries to tell me that I am really a believer because i claim to be spiritual I take that opportunity and reply why I am Not religious, why there is no God, I point out the flaws with their Theology, etc..

    In other words I set people up so that I can spread more of my message!

  • Oh, authority is an issue, is it? What’s your authority to make broad claims about the Church?

    This entire thread has been a total failure on your part. You contribute nothing of value to the discussions I have seen you participate in.

  • I am entitled to make my own observations based on my own experiences. You have no authority to “correct” my thoughts and opinions, much less my life history, but being a self-proclaimed LDS apologist you have your obsessed need to try to take over. But with me, you fail 100% of the time.

  • I’ll take #3. Anything associated with spirituality would, in my view, require acknowleding a higher power.

  • Ironically, I found personal spiritual through the Mormons but not because of Mormonism. My LDS Patriarchal Blessing asserts among other things that I have “the gift of knowing.” As soon as I could drive and back when LDS Sunday school was its own separate 90 minute experience, I used to go “church hopping” with non-LDS friends, skipping LDS Sunday School about half the time. Contrary to LDS assertions, this natural divining rod or “Truth Knower” felt the Holy Spirit just as easily in a wide variety of non-LDS Christian Churches. When I went on my LDS mission, my companions fell into two basic groups, whether by chance or design: gifted athletes with limited understanding of the Mormonism they were selling and guys who were “broken toys,” whether due to physical health issues or emotional/mental ones. As dysfunctional as my home life had been, I was always the “normal” companion, making me “Marilyn Munster” instead the “Eddy Munster” I was sure that I would be. I had occasion to interact with stuffy, sometime self-serving LDS General Authorities, a really cool Roman Catholic priest from Canada, a chill Evangelical pastor, several very gracious nuns, and an indigenous shaman, whose reading of me, literally changed my whole perception of spirituality. The shaman told me that the spirit of shamanism ran strong in my family and had been in my bloodline for several generations. He told me that I was a shaman at heart and in spirit. Decades later, after one of my sons started down the shamanic path, we talked and then talked with cousins we knew we could trust, only to find that I indeed had several “LDS” shamans in the family, all practicing real, authentic spirituality on the DL within the greater LDS community. Most of us are considered “Jack Mormons” or less-active, non-attending, but not all.

  • Mr. Ray, I am unaware of any conversation I have had with you previously, so I’m not sure where these generalizations are coming from, but you certainly have the right to make your own observations, but I likewise have the right to make my own observations that are in disagreement with yours. That’s what I’ve done. I also have the right to point out that your observations are no more true or valid than mine, and that therefore your argument is weak.

  • I have read your attacks on other contributors. You are like a starving dog on a bone in your Mormon apologetics. You never know when to throw in the towel due to being outclassed, out-argued, and out-reasoned. Thanks for becoming my personal stalker in your excessive zeal.

  • Personal stalker? It’s as though everything you say about me is clearly a projection of something true about you. I have no idea who you are. I don’t care who you are. You made a comment, I disagreed with it, and now you’ve gone on a personal attack on me, which is, like your first comment, totally baseless.

  • If that works for you, so be it. Just accept that there are others that know the God/higher power you believe in is nothing more than a figment of your imagination. For us spirituality is really about the state of your spirit/soul. Those who try to believe in and live a lie have a sick spirit.

  • No, of course not, but God – with a capital “G” is usually (IME) a reference to the Christian deity. That is to say “God” is (excusively?) the name of the xtian god – other gods tend to be known by other names do they not?

  • It was always hard for me to be religious in the LDS church because I knew the scriptures so well. So much LDS theology is anti-Mormon! I was excommunicated for leaving the LDS church and my relationship with God is so much stronger. My life as a nondenominational Mormon is far more spiritually rewarding.