Let’s start with the standard Sunday-school explanation. According to a chapter in a recent church manual, cheap seaters (and those who have left the building) are motivated by “fault-finding,” have lost “the spirit,” and are filled with “darkness and confusion.” The chapter is based on quotes from Brigham Young. It’s not a nuanced analysis.
According to a fairly recent conference talk on the subject, we are lost sheep kept from returning to the fold by feelings of unworthiness and shame, personal problems, family problems, laziness, and inflexible work schedules.
These explanations are cheap, easy, and self-serving—and inaccurate.
Luckily, this ground has already been plowed. More accurate explanations are only a mouse-click away. For a bird’s-eye data about who leaves, how many leave, where they go when they leave, etc., see The Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. For some early academic studies on Mormon disaffiliation, see papers by Howard Bahr (his vita is still available on the BYU website) and Stan L. Albrecht (now President of Utah State University). Go here for a thoughtful YouTube video on the subject. Click here for an interesting video response to that video. Here is a lengthy document that addresses the process of disaffiliation from a number of different perspectives (with the objective of helping individuals work through the process). Here is a first-person account by the grandson of a prophet that was published in The Arizona Republic. This is a link to a discussion forum started by the same individual. Hundreds of first-person accounts are posted here. Here is a Wikipedia article that explicitly addresses why people leave. This is a link to a moderated forum with hundreds of thousands of posts, many related to the process of disaffiliation. Here is another forum, again with hundreds of thousands of posts. Here’s another forum—this one more hostile than the previous two. This is a WikiHow page on how to leave gracefully. And the list could go on almost indefinitely.
A quick Google search generates thousands of links to personal blogs, discussion forums, support groups, and other related sites. Do we really want to know why people leave? If we do, all we need to do is pay attention to what these folks are telling us.
I’ll add my thoughts to the mountain of personal accounts, histories, and commentary. Here are three reasons I’m in the cheap seats:
1) I believe spiritual experiences are part of the human experience. I don’t believe my spiritual experiences are any more authentic, profound, pure, or significant than anyone else’s. I don’t know how such a determination might be made or on what basis such a conclusion might be reached.
2) I believe the ability to consciously and purposely direct one’s life is perhaps the most unfathomable and beautiful of life’s mysteries. If we are ever required to give an accounting of our lives, I believe how we exercise this ability will be what matters the most.
3) For those interested in worshipping deity, I believe the best way to do it is to work to alleviate the suffering of fellow human beings.
If I were to head back down to the field, I would have to compromise these beliefs in significant ways.
There is little room in the official doctrines and teachings of the Mormon church for an honest respect for the spiritual lives of those outside Mormonism. To the extent that the experiences and beliefs of others outside our faith overlap with our own, we are willing to acknowledge that they may have an incomplete or inferior version of truth already in our possession. To the extent that the experiences and beliefs of others differ from our own, they are mistaken. There is no room for spiritual plurality.
To live by a code of exact obedience to external dictates is to outsource responsibility for our own spiritual lives. It represents a surrender of what I believe to be life’s greatest gift. The decisions we make in life are less important than the fact that we—as individuals—assume responsibility for making those decisions. It’s about the process, not the outcome. Painting by the numbers, regardless of how carefully, isn’t the same as painting our own picture—and learning to paint on our own, I suspect, will be what will matter the most in the end.
The Mormon church is, in many ways, the equivalent of a gated community. Only a small fraction of our resources are used to address suffering outside our gates. We do enough to assuage the guilt of the average member, but the overwhelming majority of resources are directed internally. I suspect that if the opulence of Mormon temples, for example, are ever weighed in the balance against the human suffering that could have been alleviated if these resources had been allocated differently, we’ll discover our error. I suspect, should we ever stand in the presence of deity, that we will receive little credit for the wealth displayed in the course of worship.
So why did I make the hike up to the cheap seats? It’s because of what I believe—not because of what I don’t believe. It’s not about finding fault, being offended, or having problems with doctrinal issues. It’s because I believe in the plurality of spiritual experience. It’s because I value the ability to consciously and purposely direct my own spiritual life. And finally, it’s because I feel compelled to focus on making the world—this world—a better place by doing what little I can, wherever I can, regardless of religious affiliation.
For me it’s a question of integrity. Do I have the courage to live my life so that it mirrors my beliefs? Even if it’s hard?