As a fairly vocal dissenter of Mormon orthodoxy, I am often troubled by just how skewed some of my friends’ and acquaintances’ perceptions are with regard to my motivations. If you’ve chosen to leave the faith, why can’t you just leave it alone? To a point, this is a fair question. If I’ve determined Mormonism doesn’t line up with my beliefs, why not press forward and focus on new endeavors? Why do people like me, a relative few of Mormonism’s defectors, sometimes become consumed with analyzing their religious heritage? Why do we feel the need to vocalize our position, thus becoming a disruptive influence amongst believing friends and family? Is it merely persecution evidencing the bitter discontentment of my sins? It is perceived by some that instead of moving onward and upward, apostates are grasping at straws to fill the aching chasm left in their lives by abandoning the restored gospel.
Growing up in the church, I experienced the same mild rhetorical antagonism as most in the states. I saw people picket LDS conference events and disseminate aggressively antagonistic tracts. There is a great deal of confusion about these people in LDS culture. I myself participated in the expression of disdainful sentiments towards these heretics who for whatever illegitimate reason, couldn’t pass muster in the church and are thence promptly taken in by Satan as he marshals his troops to fight God’s work. In the polemical Mormon worldview, people are not fully agents in and of themselves, they are also principles to be manipulated by powers unseen, and ultimately subjected to a grand polarizing paradigm. Such was the framework suggested by Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Daniel Tyler, an early convert baptized in 1833, recalled of the early church’s struggle with apostate influences in the aftermath of the Kirtland fallout:
“Soon after the Prophet’s arrival in Commerce [Nauvoo] from Missouri prison, Brother Isaac Behunin and myself made him a visit at his residence. His persecutions were the topic of conversation. He repeated many false, inconsistent and contradictory statements made by apostates, frightened members of the Church and outsiders. He also told how most of the officials who would fain have taken his life, when he was arrested, turned in his favor on forming his acquaintance. He laid the burden of the blame on false brethren. …
“When the Prophet had ended telling how he had been treated, Brother Behunin remarked: ‘If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.’
“The great Seer immediately replied: ‘Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’” (“Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, Aug. 15, 1892, pp. 491,492)
This paradigm strikes me as a very simplistic one. On the one hand, it is a powerful framework in which to view oneself. The dividing lines between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white are very distinct. Both allies and enemies are easily discerned, although they may be caricatures of their real-world counterparts. But it does tend to offer a clear-cut sense of purpose and validation to whatever meaning one chooses to read into life. Unfortunately, this perspective also seems to guarantee all manner of misrepresentation and misunderstanding toward the opposition. It is a propagandistic position.
If one is not wary, a Mormon’s potent sense of purpose can immunize them from constructive self-criticism and strip them of the very compassion they pretend to practice. Don’t get me wrong, latter-day saints are typically very compassionate people, both to their faithful membership and to members of other faiths. But they struggle with the in-between. Once again, the black and white gospel rhetoric creates a polarity that doesn’t really provide space for the dissociated and the disaffiliates. Most Mormons struggle with how to categorize this sometimes vocal minority; persons like myself who love certain aspects of the gospel but choose to make their feelings and concerns known. Thus, these “apostates” are regularly routed into the opposing camp regardless of their honest intentions. Many do not understand that by thus marginalizing thoughtful, struggling members because of honest skepticism, they are creating artificial apostates. These are then typically characterized as faithless, immoral, or otherwise irregular disciples, unfit for the kingdom.
I have exerted my own small efforts to enable the mutual understanding of both parties. But much of my exertions feel wasted when we seldom come to a mutual understanding. I suppose we see the world so differently, we cannot help but speak past each other in many instances. How can we bridge this chasm? Because much of the misunderstanding seems rooted in confusion at the motives of heretics, I hope what follows will provide some mutual understanding for my faithful friends. To adopt the spirit of the season, I will suggest an empathetic reading of the almost universally understood allegory of Santa Claus. Consider for a moment what it feels like for someone to lose their faith.
Most of us have been on the receiving end of this one, so it should be easy to relate to. Every winter, parents tell their children a wonderfully magical tale about a portly, bearded man who spends the year crafting toys for believers. In a single night in December, we are told, he graciously delivers presents and toys and candy to all the good boys and girls throughout the world. Parents take their children to sit on the lap of an actor at the mall, have their kids write letters to him, and set out milk, cookies, and a carrot the night before. Many parents go to great lengths to sustain the illusion, staying up all night wrapping presents in his name. When the children wake to find presents stacked knee high, each fulfilling their every hope and desire, they are bedazzled! Witnessing for themselves the many gifts, the carrot and cookies eaten, they can't help but believe. In the eyes of these innocent children there is something magical in everything about it! They have every confirmation they need.
It comes as no surprise to note that children often become a little more obedient and a little more submissive come the holidays. The smart parents will leverage the occasion to teach love and compassion and selfless giving to their little ones. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for children to anticipate anything other than what they will receive from Santa on Christmas. But eventually there comes a time when they're a little older, a little more mature, and a lot more rational thinking. They've experienced more of the laws that govern our world. Perhaps they start discussing the logic of Santa Claus being able to visit every home in a night with their friends, perhaps they find a few gifts with Santa's name on them hidden in Mom's closet, or maybe they begin to comprehend the sheer multitudes of children living in third-world countries who have no concept of Christmas or presents or anything of the sort.
The shattering of that illusion can be devastating to them. Some children will feel hurt for being lied to, others will kick themselves for not examining the evidence more closely, and many more will rush to inform the ignorance of faithful friends. Most of them experience a loss of some sort. The magic of Christmas day seems to vanish, even if they can learn to enjoy the spirit of giving in its stead. Now to begin drawing parallels with a Mormon faith crisis, extend this childhood experience with the Santa Claus fable from a single, superficial holiday tradition once a year to every day of a person's life. Suppose we continue to elaborate on the Christmas fiction so that there is no aspect of life that belief does not affect. It informs everything you see and do in the world, even defining your very identity and purpose. Extend the fable’s duration well into adulthood. Imagine that the parental figures continue to employ elaborate, illusory evidences and emphatically faith-promoting discourse to sustain the credibility of the myth. Imagine that you yourself want it to be true so badly that you yourself begin to contribute to the Christmas culture, and you perpetuate it to your children. And then imagine one day you see through it all. You realize how ridiculous it would be if an obese man really could fit through your chimney and fill your life with awesome goodness.
As an adult believer in this sort of thing, the structural collapse would be crushing, even world-shattering in many respects. Can you imagine reaching middle age and still believing Santa is real? To discover you have been treated as a child for far too long? Consider the intense personal trauma this sort of paradigm collapse would create for even the most strong-minded individuals. Do the parents necessarily deserve the blame? Of course much responsibility does fall on them. Perhaps most “parents” in this scenario are believers themselves, only perpetuating their holiday faith heritage to a new generation with the best of intentions. Their ardent argumentation for the truthfulness of this mythology is certainly validation for their own beliefs, as well as for their children. And even those parents who do not truly believe are contented to perpetuate the myth, believing in arrogance that it is still the best method to encourage obedience and teach proper moral lessons to their subjects. Do these parents profit from the obedience of their children? Definitely. If children become committed dependents, as they typically do during the holiday season, is there nothing parents could not require of mature adults who are likewise convicted of “the truth” all year round? Afterall, parents could hang onerous consequences over the heads of their children so long as they submit to the belief.
Such are the realizations of many who lose their faith. So much the more with Mormonism, too. Can you imagine the disgust, the revulsion these grown adults might feel at learning they were living, breathing, walking manifestations of the lies they were taught in their youth? How furious would they be to realize they were defrauded, no matter how earnest the intentions of their mentors? How embarrassing! Multiply a child's devastation at learning the truth behind Christmas a thousand times, and you begin to understand the pain of leaving Mormonism, from the heretic's point of view. Such is the initial bitterness of our plight. I think if the faithful can muster any empathy for the heartbroken child who discovers the reality behind Christmas, they can begin to sympathize with the broken hearts of many who leave Mormonism.
So what happens to these wandering children? It seems to me that things mostly get better after the initial disappointments. Some will rush off and immediately fill the vacancy with other, similar mythologies. It may be religion or politics or secularism. But others will face the facts unabashedly. We discover new freedoms and learn empowerment from this newfound agency. But we are also forced to own up to the crushing reality of impending death, of having to realize our own purpose in life, etc. All of these pleasures and pains offer a true "coming of age" experience in my opinion – one I do not believe is possible within the confines of Mormonism or any institutional religion. So while the stories of Santa Claus were a beautiful ecstasy to us as children, we must not curse the children who begin to see past it. These begin to discover morality within themselves, independent of any supernatural machinations. You see, these are headed for adulthood as they pursue maturity. They abandon cognitive dissonance and become more fully self-integrated. These begin to realize that they can no longer depend on a mythical man to deliver presents to friends, family, and children. They themselves will learn to give, and thus become the fabled Santa Claus. No longer are these children, constantly submitting to some unseen, pretended higher authority. They grow up and discover that authority within themselves. They become true agents, fit to act and not be acted upon.
For this reason, I believe it is good to speak up and encourage honest dealings when it comes to Mormonism’s faith claims. Those who are ready for the dialogue will be bettered by it. But those who are not ready should be cautious. Do not mistake the adult discussions taking place on controversial subjects within Mormonism as bitterness caused by mystical forces or some other justification within your own paradigm. Consider for a moment that the world is bigger than how you view it. Many of my “fallen” peers invested their whole souls in Mormonism before discovering the disconcerting reality. Should any of us be surprised that they want to speak frankly with their friends and family as a result? To be clear, I suggest this Santa Claus allegory not to belittle believers, but to help them understand the feelings of those who have left the fold.