Seeing the Light: Parallels in Mormon Conversion and De-Conversions Stories
by Rosemary Avance
Today I have the privilege, I’ve been told, of offering an unprecedented perspective here at FAIR: I’m not Mormon. As FAIR is now marking its 14th annual conference, this is quite an honor—and a huge responsibility. It might seem rather paradoxical for a non-member to be invited to speak at an apologetics conference. I myself struggled a bit with what I might bring that would be both intellectually stimulating and also relevant to the conference’s goal of faith promotion. Since I study the diversity among those who are and have been Mormon, I settled on what I can offer that can only be shared by someone on the outside. As an outsider to your cherished faith, I want to talk to you a bit today about what it means to attempt to understand others’ beliefs.
On a blog post in late May of this year, fellow FAIR conference speaker and BYU professor of Islamic studies Daniel Peterson, wrote about what he calls “Peterson’s First Rule for the Study of Other Religions”. In his words:
If a substantial number of sane and intelligent people believe something that seems to you utterly without sense, the problem probably lies with you, for not grasping what it is about that belief that a lucid and reasonable person might find plausible and satisfying.
Until you understand why people of good sense, learning, mental health, and sound intelligence find a particular worldview convincing and worthy of allegiance … you haven’t really understood it. You don’t have to accept that other worldview, but, if you’re serious about understanding it, you really have to grasp it.1
Peterson’s First Rule is, of course, the underlying goal of all scholars invested in an ethical study of non-native cultures. From my perspective as a scholar of Mormonism and yet not a Mormon myself, Peterson’s First Rule has always implicitly been my own first rule as well. I want to grasp what it is about the Mormon faith and experience that is compelling to Mormons themselves.
Of course, studying Mormonism from this outsider perspective can be problematic. It is difficult to understand Mormonism on its own terms when starting from the perspective that, for instance, the Book of Mormon is not literally true—a perspective that is a given considering that I am not a member of the Church. Rather than staking claims on the Book’s veracity, my attempt to take it seriously as a religious text involves a recognition that, as sociologist W. I. Thomas noted 83 years ago, “It is not important whether the interpretations are correct—if [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”2
In my studies, I want to understand the plurality of experience and the plurality of hermeneutic approaches within Mormon interpretive communities. As he emphasizes, Dr. Peterson’s First Rule also has implications for the understanding of other worldviews—which, I might add, also includes ways of being Mormon.
Extending, then, Peterson’s First Rule, I would argue that even this distinguished group of Mormon apologists can benefit from understanding heterodox and former Mormons—despite that they may start from fundamentally different positions on, again, the origin of the Book of Mormon as a sacred text. Though an apologist may take the Book literally as an historical text, and a heterodox or former Mormon may see it as either allegorical or even fraudulent, the apologist who is interested in understanding the experience of the religious “Other” can, in this case, simply recognize that, to paraphrase Thomas, “whether or not the heterodox or former Mormons’ interpretations are correct, they are real in their consequences”.
So what does this mean, on the ground? What it means to “be” Mormon is a social construct that results from an interplay of definitions and practices, bandied about by different parties who have a stake in the definition of the term. While there is an official, institutional Church with more-or-less clear-cut doctrines and policies, the interpretation and inhabitation of these teachings and practices vary from individual to individual.
In other words: While there is a literal Mormon Church, there is no such thing as “Mormonism” as an empirically homogeneous or monolithic experience. Instead, there are Mormonisms, as various as the individuals who embody them, but predicated on certain communal elements that they share with their faith of origin. Individuals understand their faith and their religion in temporally, generationally, and geographically situated and specific ways.
This is a social constructivist perspective, and I recognize that at an apologetics conference it might need some justification. My point is not to say that there is no authentic Mormon Church out there, but to say that individuals craft their own definition of what it means to belong to that Church. Some individuals craft a definition that is in line with more traditional or orthodox interpretations of Mormon belief, practice, and culture. Others , those I call heterodox Mormons, craft a definition that may not involve belief or practice at all—a construct that alters the definition of what it means to “be” Mormon.
And why, again, is it important for us to give space to the viewpoints of faithful, heterodox, or even dissenting Mormons? To paraphrase Peterson:
Until you understand why people of good sense, learning, mental health, and sound intelligence find their particular interpretation and embodiment of Mormonism to be convincing and worthy of allegiance, you haven’t really understood it.
Today, I want to share my research to work toward a goal of understanding the breadth of Mormon experience. I’ll do this by paralleling the stories told by “faithful” or orthodox Mormons, on the one hand, with the experiences of two other communities of Mormons: the heterodox and the dissenting. What are their various experiences, and how are their experiences interpreted? How are these different, and how are they the same?
To begin, let me briefly introduce the research I’ve been doing on Mormon conversion and de-conversion stories or testimonies.
You may have seen the panel I sat on with Scott Gordon and John Dehlin at Utah Valley University’s conference on Mormonism and the Internet this past March. The video of that presentation and the panel discussion are online, and it was briefly discussed in a FAIR blog posting.3 At that conference, I presented research on different types of Mormon communities on the internet. I paralleled the testimonies that faithful Mormons have offered me as part of my research, with the narratives of heterodox and former Mormons shared in online communities. These stories explain the process by which an individual came to believe or disbelieve. It’s a way of accounting for one’s status and one’s identity. Since that time, my research has continued and I have found more support for the themes I proposed. I’ve had the chance to interview seventeen heterodox and former Mormons who shared their “testimonies” if you will about how their beliefs and practices in regard to Mormonism have changed over time.
I want to recap the findings from that study, add some insight from the subsequent interviews I’ve conducted, and see if together we can come to better understand the “other”.
The role of the internet in religious life
To state the obvious, the internet is increasingly playing a vital role in the development of religious identity. For Mormons, the internet has the ability to serve community-reinforcing roles as a source for official information on the Church, a gathering place for believers, and even a space for faithful Mormon voices to participate in secular conversations. But as any internet-savvy Mormon apologist should know, the internet can serve as antecedent or catalyst for religious de-conversion. This function of the internet has long been implicitly recognized by Mormon leaders, particularly as the internet can serve as a source of what they call “anti-Mormon” information. I can illustrate this aptly simply by noting that when I first began studying Mormonism, the missionaries that led my discussions warned me not to “google Joseph Smith.”
My goal isn’t to play to the moral panics around the uses and misuses of religion and digital media. But the internet unquestionably affords increasing access to non-correlated information about Church history, teachings, and practice, and access to this information and to non-correlated internet communities has played a role in some Mormons’ movements away from orthodoxy and, for a smaller percentage, a movement toward disaffection. Many heterodox and former Mormons that I’ve interviewed have explained that the internet has been their sanctuary- quite literally- as they’ve explored and developed a new religious identity. In fact, I want to argue that some of the same impulses that drive religious communion in the offline world also motivate and shape participation in online communities for former, doubting, and nontraditional or heterodox Mormons.
In my dissertation research, I am interested in narratives of conversion and of de-conversion, in offline and online spaces, as modes of creating and sustaining ritual communities and identities. When I talk about narratives, I’m referring to the emic concept of testimony for believing Mormons, and the corollary of de-conversion stories for former Mormons. My recent research explores the discourse of heterodox and former Mormons on popular online message boards and parallels these with the testimonies of faithful Church members.
My approach is largely ethnographic. I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with current and former Mormons about their conversion (and de-conversion) experiences. My interest is in how people tell their stories, and how their stories fit structurally within the faith community, by and large a question best answered by discourse analysis. In recent work, I analyzed lay testimonies in relation to official Church discourse from General Authorities about the experience of reading the Book of Mormon and praying to know if it’s true. Lay testimony is a ritual performance that reflects almost verbatim the official, normative discourse, which in turn reflects the Joseph Smith experience and allows members to ritually embody the founding myth of their faith. In this way, narrative as a ritual is the essential communicative mode that actually creates the community of faith by delineating those within its boundaries.
Given the role of lay testimony in asserting Mormon communal identity, I began wondering about the role of narrative among less traditional Mormons such as those I’m calling heterodox. These Mormons, elsewhere referred to as “cultural” Mormons, New Order Mormons, Middle-Way Mormons, etc. , also partake in communities wherein they share stories that are narrative in structure and that situate them within the heterodox culture specifically and within Mormonism more broadly. In addition to heterodox Mormons, dissident and former Mormons share these same types of stories.
To begin to tease apart the role of narrative in these types of communities, I conducted participant observation at two online message boards for former and heterodox Mormons as well as seventeen interviews with users of these sites. In keeping with standards of anonymity for online participants, in this presentation I refer to these sites as The Path and The Escape. My interest is in seeing how the stories told by those I’ll call Pathists and Escapists converge with and diverge from the stories told by faithful Mormons. These groups represent three very different approaches to identity and community.
So now let me distinguish between the two online communities, so you’ll have a better idea what I mean by the Path and the Escape. I’m sure you’re all aware of groups that fit my very simplistic and probably overly reductive taxonomies here. The Path is generally sympathetic to the Church but draws a nuanced distinction between being Mormon and believing literally in the Church’s teachings. Pathists generally want to remain Mormon but take issue with the Church’s structure, politics, etc. They see the Church as a force for good in the world and want to see progressive change within the institution, Church culture, or both. They claim that Mormonism does not have to be “true” or “false” to be valuable. The forum itself is positioned as a community for learning and individual intellectual growth. Importantly, while these Mormons self-present as heterodox on the anonymized internet forum, many of them maintain an orthodox Mormon lifestyle and are not “out” as heterodox in their offline lives.
In contrast, The Escape is comprised of those who are antagonistic to the Church. They have left the Church or consider themselves “on their way out”. They generally take issue with all aspects of Mormonism and find few redeeming qualities in the institution or culture. Escapists are evangelistic in their passion to liberate active Mormons from the Church’s bonds. They see Joseph Smith and modern day Church leaders as either liars and frauds, or as deluded and psychopathic. They generally claim that the Church is a dangerous cult which dupes its brainwashed followers, or a systemically corrupt, power-hungry oligarchy. The Escape is framed as a therapeutic forum for recovery from an abusive religious system. Still, like the Path, not all Escapists are “out” in their offline lives; their family, friends, and Church leaders may believe they are still faithful Mormons, despite their online activism.
As I explored these communities, I noticed that the discourse in both places seemed strikingly familiar. Although heterodox and former Mormons obviously tell different tales than their believing counterparts, all three groups create testimony using narrative scripts. The ways that Pathists and Escapists talk about their relation to the Mormon faith follows a distinctively normalized structure that emphasizes cohesive narrative elements.
Let me briefly outline my theoretical approach. I consider identity to be socially constructed through discourse. In particular, I’m interested in Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis and his idea that we perform identity based on socially constructed scripts. Goffman’s notion of “face” as a sacred object constituted by the ritual of social exchange also informs this project.4 Mormons, then, construct their identities discursively, by learning and enacting socially sanctioned ways to perform Mormonism through particular Mormon speech codes.
In addition, I find religious historian Bruce Lincoln’s (1996)5 concept of triadic codefinition useful in thinking about the ways that members of ritual communities create identity. Lincoln argues that identity is a construct that emerges as a social group, a set of ritual performances, and a set of mythic narratives produce one another. In my view, the triad involved in Mormon identity is the ritual community, the performance of testimony, and authoritative discourse as Geertzian6 “models of” Mormon mythic narratives.
I’m also arguing against some current notions about the “marketplace of religion”7 and the idea from sociologist Anthony Giddens8 and others that we’re living in a “post-traditional order” where individuals can craft their own identities carte blanche. But against some of our preconceptions about post-modernity, I’m arguing that in these and other communities, identity is still constructed along limited, narrative scripts that legitimate identity and belonging, using what ritual theorist Catherine Bell9 calls formal ritual codes.
Renowned Communication scholar and practicing Mormon John Durham Peters argues that Western communication is predicated on a desire to connect mentally and spiritually with other beings.10 If this impulse truly is at the heart of what it means to be human, and if it finds one of its most prominent expressions in religious community, what are the implications for those who do not identify strongly with orthodox religion, or who refute it altogether? I am interested in the ways that individuals who find themselves outside the bounds of traditional religion still embody these impulses; particularly, the ways that offering a de-conversion story or heterodox testimony enacts a negotiated identity vis-a-vis a ritual community.
Narratives of de-conversion among members of the Escape are highly formulaic and canonic, and the parallels with conversion stories of faithful Mormons are uncanny. Individuals in both cases describe a moment when they learn an incendiary piece of information that threatens to upend their current worldview. For faithful converts, this may be framed as a seed being planted about the Gospel. Escapists, on the other hand, often describe a moment of intense dissonance resulting from some secular evidence, or the first time they were exposed to anti-Mormon literature, as a “seed of doubt”.
Both faithful converts and Escapists tell next of seeking out more information confirming or denying the initial information. Both groups often describe this as a time of uncharacteristic fervor and focus as they single-mindedly seek the truth and the liberation they are sure it will bring. Converts ask to have the missionary lessons, or read through the Book of Mormon and pray about its truthfulness; they often tell of hours spent reading and the inability to tear themselves away. Escapists describe a frenzied effort to seek out information from sources the Church deems illegitimate and anti-Mormon: the internet, books, or other former Mormons. The information they seek out might be on archeology, linguistics, biology, or history, but it is typically presented by the Escapists as a rational, intellectual attempt to pit scientific evidence against the irrational claims of religion.
After both faithful converts and Escapists engage in some kind of socially interactive, intellectual exercise to further their information, phenomenological experience ensues. Both converts and Escapists speak affectively and impressionistically—converts see the light, Escapists report that a light came on; converts were filled with a burning in their bosom, Escapists were filled with anger. Both ultimately experience peace and surety that their newfound knowledge is exclusively true or right, and both rely on affective elements to fill in where intellect leaves off.
The parallel between conversion and de-conversion goes even further. Just as the Church offers fellowship with likeminded individuals who recite the same conversion script, former Mormons online likewise fellowship and share their “testimonies” on a regular basis. Just as in Mormonism, where proselytizing through sharing testimony is incumbent upon all members,11 the Escape’s message boards are apologetic, a forum to proselytize a worldview. Ironically, the website explicitly states in its rules of conduct that the message boards are not to be used for the purpose of converting people to another faith—an explicit reference to organized faiths that belies the actual purpose and function of the site, which is conversion of a different sort: de-conversion, or as the site puts it, “transitioning to a normal life”.
Unlike the Escape, the Path emphasizes that individuals must come to their own conclusions about faith, rationality, and secularity – members are heterodox in their approach to their faith. The Path is less vitriolic and less apologetic than the Escape, although anger, sadness, and loss are still main themes as individuals come to terms with a religion they now see as less than perfect, and perhaps less than inspired.
Still, despite the array of experiences represented, the testimonies offered through the Path are still formulaic in some important ways. Like members of the Escape, Pathists previously occupied a position of faithfulness and normativity in relation to their faith, accepting the history and doctrine of the Church on the Church’s terms. They often begin by offering their Mormon bona fides: whether they have pioneer ancestry, were “born in the covenant”, served a mission, married in the temple, hold a recommend, etc. They next describe some event or piece of incendiary information which interrupts their idyllic faith, with more or less catastrophic results. Often, Pathists tell of social or cultural failings of the Church sparking questions or doubts. While an Escapist might tell of anti-Mormon information of huge import to the Church’s success as an institution—like accusations that Joseph Smith forged the Book of Mormon—Pathists often describe social issues like frustration over being singled out for not wearing a white shirt to pass sacrament, or being bothered by the Church’s history of racial discrimination. Often times the issues are political or doctrinal rather than historical or scientific, like the Escapists.
Still, it is not the issue itself that differentiates the Pathists from the Escapists, but their response to it. Escapists are either “out” of Mormonism or on their way out. But after confronting their issues, Pathists participate in the Church “on their own terms”, which might mean attending but harboring disbelief, not attending but identifying culturally with the Church, rejecting the Church altogether but allowing that others might come to different conclusions, attending but refusing callings, etc. Importantly, Pathists occupy a liminal state between assent and rejection.
As with the Escape, ironic posting guidelines for the Path specify that the Boards should not be used for bearing testimony or for polemics against the Church. But despite the fact that their testimonies are not in keeping with the normative ones accepted by the Church, their personal accounts still function as testimony by establishing points of affinity with other members of the community.
Among faithful Mormons, testimony serves the ritual function of creating and maintaining religious identity. In offering testimony, testimony is created; by stating that one knows the Church to be true, one comes into that knowledge and into a binding obligation to the Church. So what do we make of de-conversion stories?
Questioning and former Mormons engage in a ritual of sharing that binds them in a spiritual community — despite their disavowal of faith. They imagine a worldview predicated on logic and rationality rather than emotion and faith, yet discursively mirror the experience they denounce. Importantly, the ritualism of these communities problematizes a traditional reading of ritual theory which emphasizes the centrality of embodiment in successful ritual. While believing Mormons obviously put their bodies on the line for their ritual community, doubting and former Mormons often self-consciously do not. Not only is the internet a disembodied mode of communication, but these practitioners often have vested interest in remaining anonymous. Perhaps their dissatisfaction or doubts have not been publicly registered and so they are both participating in offline communities of belief and online communities of dissent simultaneously. Others opt for anonymity to shield still-believing family members from scrutiny, embarrassment, or disappointment. Anonymity makes it possible for unconventional Mormons to share what they otherwise would not. As one member of the Path put it, he recognizes “the sensitive nature” of “being public with my spiritual journey”. Mormons who do not tow the line in belief or practice face disappointing family and friends and even run the risk of ostracism or excommunication from their community of faith—a threat to their identity that they may not be prepared to confront. That their communities online still function ritualistically illustrates the complexity of the relationship between technology and ritual and opens up new areas for scholarly inquiry. What is lost in ritual that is disembodied and anonymized? What is gained? Could belief be manifest in the ways that Mormon disbelief was in this study, and satisfy the same communal and individual impulses without embodiment and identifiability?
At this moment where religion and modern technology collide, we might expect to see the erosion of religious impulses—as has been the prediction of scholars of secularism since the Enlightenment. More recently, Anthony Giddens (1991) and others argue that the modern condition frees individuals from traditional roles and canonic scripts for how to do identity. But the narratives of current and former Mormons belie this myth of modernity, instead underscoring the central role of such scripts in both communities of belief and disbelief. Individuals use narratives that are bounded by normative constraints to create their identities. In our supposedly modern age, individuals still yearn for what religion claims to offer. Desire for intellectual and affective fulfillment, purpose and consistency in life and in death, and shared experience with others are still very much vibrant parts of the lives of those within and without the bounds of organized religion.
I hope this exploration of Mormon narratives has been illuminating, as much for its insight into these groups of “others” as for their parallels with Mormon normative models. This understanding has immense implications for your work as apologists. As Dan Peterson noted, “You don’t have to accept that other worldview, but, if you’re serious about understanding it, you really have to grasp it.” Mormon apologetics is not hurt but is helped by an attempt to take seriously those who interpret Mormonism differently than the traditional faithful perspective, even if that interpretation seems at odds with apologetic aims of faith promotion. Rather than dismissing heterodox or critical claims as “anti-Mormon” or “apostate,” what if apologists themselves began to track the reasons for disaffection? It is only by seriously considering the concerns of those who may seem to be on the fringes of Mormonism that they can be brought into the fold and embraced as legitimate and valuable members of the community.
1 Peterson, Daniel. (2012, May 27). Retrieved from http://dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com/2012/05/petersons-first-rule-for-study-of-other.html?spref=fb
2 Thomas, William I. & Dorothy Thomas. (1929). The Child in America. 2nd edition. Alfred Knopf. Pg. 572.
3 Wyatt, Allen. (2012, May 2). “Looking Honestly.” FAIR Blog. Retrieved from http://www.fairblog.org/2012/05/02/looking-honestly/
4 Goffman, Erving. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Anchor Books.
5 Lincoln, Bruce. (1996). “Mythic narrative and cultural diversity in American society.” In L.L Patton & W. Doniger (Eds.), Myth and method (pp. 163-176). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
6 Geertz, Clifford. (1966). Interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
7 C.f., Einstein, Mara. (2007). Brands of faith: Marketing religion in a commercial age. New York: Routledge.
8 Giddens, Anthony. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late-modern age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
9 Bell, Catherine. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and dimensions. New York: Oxford.
10 Durham Peters, John. (1999). Speaking into the Air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
11 Except in Israel, where it is forbidden by the Church.