Critique of

"Understanding the Stages of Grief of Former Members Who Attack the Church"

by Craig Foster

Reviewed by Richard Packham

          Craig Foster, in his article 'Understanding the Stages of Grief of Former Members Who Attack the Church' (in the on-line Mormon magazine Meridian Magazine) completely misses the mark, and demonstrates that he does not understand at all.

          His first error is a fundamental one:  he bases his analysis on Elizabeth Kübler Ross's description of the stages of grief as experienced by someone who has lost a beloved person in death.  The analogy is quite false, since the death of a loved one is quite different from what one experiences when leaving the Mormon church.  The death of a loved one represents the loss of someone whose memory is still treasured and revered, someone whose faults are now forgotten and whose virtues are extolled, and someone who cannot be replaced.  When one leaves Mormonism, however, the church is no longer treasured and revered, and its faults are brought all the more vividly to one's mind.  And Mormonism usually is replaced by something the former Mormon values more highly and finds more fulfilling and joyful.

          A more fitting analogy would be to compare the former Mormon's emotional journey to that of a spouse whose marriage of many years ends upon the discovery that the mate has led a life of deceit, infidelity and abuse.  Or the cancer patient who has finally undergone the surgery to remove a diseased organ.

          Another indication of Foster's faulty analysis is obvious when one asks if he would also use the same terms to describe the emotions and acts of a life-long Catholic who converts to Mormonism, and who then is determined to serve a Mormon mission to spread his newly-found religion.   Is that former Catholic also going through a stage of "anger" at Catholicism, by proclaiming the truth of the Book of Mormon (which calls all non-Mormon churches "the church of the devil" and "abominable" and "the mother of harlots" (1 Nephi 13:6-8)?  (An aside: Why does Foster characterize writings critical of Mormonism as "attacking" the church, but such statements about Christianity by Mormons are not generally considered by Mormons to be "attacking" other churches?)

          Foster's analysis is too much influenced by one of the great myths (i.e. lies) of Mormonism, which inculcates into its faithful members the notion that those who leave the church are miserable and unhappy, and that the reason they left is because 1) they have sinned; 2) they want to sin; 3) they are weak; 4) they have not kept all the commandments; 5) they have taken offense at some imagined slight by someone in the ward; 6) they never tried to get or keep a testimony; 7) they succumbed to the temptation of Satan to read anti-Mormon lies; or some other such reason.  Whatever reason, Mormons - including Foster - seem to feel that it is a psychological (or spiritual or moral) problem that the still-faithful Mormons need to "understand."

          One must wonder just how many former Mormons Foster interviewed before coming to his conclusions.  My guess would be none.   He seems to base his views about the Tanners on Lawrence Foster's Dialogue article, which was a gross distortion and misrepresentation of the Tanners, their aims and their work.   Although I myself left the church over forty years ago, after having been born and raised in it (temple marriage, BYU degree), I did not know very many former Mormons until about six years ago.  Since that time I have become well acquainted with several hundred, and I am familiar with the written accounts of several hundred others about why they left, and how they dealt with their leaving emotionally.  And very few fit the stereotype that Foster and his church want to use to characterize those who leave.

          Foster is correct on one point:  many former Mormons go through a period of anger at being deceived, and at having devoted so much of their lives (and finances) to what they now see as a fraud.  But Foster (like many Mormons) interprets this anger as a personal problem of the former members, as something that "they" should deal with, and preferably without inconveniencing or embarrassing the church (which of course is, in the view of those leaving, the sole source and cause of their anger).   The implication is that the anger is unjustified.   One is reminded of a common reaction by Mormon bishops to victims of spousal or sexual abuse: get over your anger, forgive and forget.  The victim is made into the guilty one.   Anger is not nice.

          But certainly anger at having been deceived and betrayed is justifiable, and some do find a catharsis by writing an account of their experiences.  Deborah Laake and Sonia Johnson are two recent examples, Ann Eliza Webb (Brigham Young's wife, who divorced him) an older example.  And many former Mormons write without publishing (except perhaps at the"Recovery From Mormonism" website, or for distribution to family and friends) to express their anger and their frustrations.  Those writers typically write personal memoirs about their own experiences in Mormonism.   But the works of writers such as Brodie and the Tanners do not consist of their memoirs, but rather they are objective and well-documented treatises on Mormonism which Mormons do not like.  How can the Mormon deal with such authors? Foster provides the answer: we need to examine their deep-seated psychological problems, and "understand" why they are so "angry."

          Foster reflects the Mormon habit of seeing any criticism of the church - however justified, and however calmly and factually stated - as an expression of anger.  It seems to provide the Mormon with an excuse to dismiss such criticism: "oh, they are just angry."   To label the writings of Brodie or the Tanners as products of anger seems wide of the mark, and nothing more than a rationalized excuse to simply dismiss them out of hand.  Would Foster also characterize similar works by Wesley P. Walters (who was never Mormon) or Grant Palmer (who is still Mormon) as demonstrative of their authors' anger?  Or is James E. Talmage's criticism of the Catholic church in The Great Apostasy a product of Talmage's "anger and frustration" over traditional Christianity?

          Foster's article deserves the same criticism that Mormons aimed at Fawn Brodie for her biography of Joseph Smith: he attempts to understand the psychology of authors from their writings alone, without interviewing them, and without recognizing his own prejudices and his own need to "explain away" those who criticize his church.  By doing so he misses completely the key to "understanding" why former Mormons write.  It is the very same reason why Mormons go on missions: we believe we have important information that needs to be more widely heard.

          Foster is employing a double standard throughout.  He should take the advice at Matthew 7:3-5 and cast out the beam in his own eye before going after the mote in mine.

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©  2003 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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