Rutgers University Press, 2018
Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters
Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters
During the last decade or so, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has seen a rapidly increasing loss of membership. It is not alone: most denominations are losing members, as America becomes increasingly secular. Over the last 20 years according to Pew Research, the number of adults answering "none" to the question about their religious affiliation has grown from five percent to twenty percent, with double that percentage among those below the age of 30. In the Mormon church the problem has become a frequent topic of articles in church publications and sermons, both at the local level and church-wide. They usually deal with how these personal faith crises can be prevented, and how the wayward Saints can be brought back into the fold. The present book deals with the various (usually misunderstood) causes of the falling away, but offers no solutions for the church.
E. Marshall Brooks lived and taught for several years in the Salt Lake area, during which time he became acquainted with (and interviewed) many Mormons and former Mormons. He frequently attended Mormon church services as well as numerous gatherings of ex-Mormons. As a sociologist/psychologist, he was interested in learning why Mormons would choose to leave the church, as well as why Mormons who no longer believe the church's claims would still remain active or relatively active in participating in Mormon worship and other Mormon activities. This book is the result of those interviews and the author's summary of the many reasons for the choices made.
Brooks is neither Mormon nor ex-Mormon, nor did he grow up in a Mormon environment. His own religious background is Methodist, although he stopped believing in all religion long ago.
His findings contradict what many Mormons believe (and what church leaders usually say) about those who leave the church or "become inactive." Faithful Mormons usually insist that if a Mormon leaves the church, it must be due to having committed some serious sin, or being unable to "follow the commandments," or having read too many "anti-Mormon lies." Another common Mormon explanation is that the member "was offended" personally by someone in the church. Mormon sermons even from the early days of the church retell such stories: a man left the church because his name was spelled wrong; a couple left over a dispute with another couple over "milk strippings." Still another common Mormon explanation is that the member "never really had a testimony" in the first place.
None of those purported reasons apply to the people Brooks knew and interviewed in Utah. Many had once had a firm testimony but were challenged by outsiders with claims about Mormon history that are not discussed in church classes, and the member set out to prove the challenger wrong. When it turned out that the challenger was correct, the member began to wonder about other things, and eventually "studied my way out of the church." Others simply began to see contradictions and inconsistencies in church doctrine. Still others came to disagree with some church practices or the church's position on certain social issues (homosexuality, women's rights, racism). A common theme, overlapping those already mentioned, was a growing distrust in the church's honesty, mainly due to its trying to keep unpleasant parts of its founding narrative and its history from the knowledge of its members.
Among those who no longer fully believe but still remain somewhat active, Brooks found that many do so to prevent the break-up of the family, since devout spouses rarely take kindly to a spouse who has stopped believing and then breaks completely with the church. Others remain in the church in the belief that somehow they can contribute to "reforming" the church better from within than as an apostate. Still others, although no longer believing in the theology, insist that the church "is a good way to live," whether it is true or not.
Brooks retells many of their stories, some in great detail. They cover a wide range of feelings, from anger and resentment to peace and satisfaction with life in general. With his psychiatric background he is able to bring interesting insights into the workings of the ex-Mormon mind.
Unfortunately, his psychiatric discussions are sometimes weighed down unnecessarily with the jargon of pscychology. It would have been helpful if the author could have used a style and vocabulary more accessible to the layperson.
A major problem with the author's study group is that he gives the impression that those who leave Mormonism invariably become atheists. That is certainly not the case. Many also turn (or turn back) to more traditional religions. Many Salt Lake City congregations of mainstream Christian churches have large proportions of former Mormons. One the the most prominent ex-Mormons in Salt Lake City is Sandra Tanner of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, who is a devout Christian. I know personally of a number of other Christians in the Salt Lake City area. Brooks completely ignores them.
Another problem is that in his analyses Brooks does not distinguish between those ex-Mormons who were born and raised in Mormonism and those who were adult converts. Surely there must be significant differences in why each group decides to leave and whether they become atheist or adopt another religious path.
A built-in shortcoming is that Brooks' study group is limited to those living in metropolitan Utah, where he was living at the time. He offers no suggestion that there might be differences in rural Utah or in the Mormons living in other parts of the United States or in foreign countries. He does not mention them as being perhaps different from his focus group. The implication is that his findings apply to ex-Mormons everywhere. That may not be so.
Brooks cites and quotes many works on psychology and sociology that deal with religious apostasy, often a dozen citations in a single page. But the citations are only to an author listed in the References section, with no page number. When he quotes - as he does frequently - from posts on Internet ex-Mormon discussion forums, he never gives the web address of those forums. Nowhere does he provide a list of those forums, or any contact information for the ex-Mormon groups where he found his interview subjects.
It is interesting that Brooks' conclusions corroborate a highly confidential report put together by an anonymous group of Mormon scholars in 2013 for the General Authorities titled "LDS Personal Faith Crisis." Although that report is not generally available, I was able to obtain a copy, and the similarities with Brooks' conclusions are striking. A lengthy summary of that report may be found here. Since the General Authorities have not chosen to make that report available even to members, this book by Brooks may serve as a more accessible answer to those Mormons and non-Mormons who ask why a devout Mormon would leave the church.
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