Good morning, everyone. My name is Jon Adams, and I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to discuss with you two passions of mine: Mormonism and the internet. While I am a student of both subjects, I must confess that I am an expert in neither. There are people at this conference who are better acquainted than I with the various ex-Mormon communities that exist online, and I’m honored to share the stage with many of them.
In preparing for this panel, I struggled to think of what novel sociological insights I could contribute. I wanted this talk to have all the academic trappings of a typical Sunstone talk. But again, I’m no expert, and ultimately I only feel comfortable talking about that which I know best: my story. And I think that’s especially appropriate given that our topic concerns ex-Mormons and their personal narratives.
I’ll begin by sharing why I left the LDS Church, and then briefly explain how I became involved with the ex-Mormon “blogosphere”.
For much of my formative teenage years, I considered myself a devout Mormon. Having been born and raised in a faithful Mormon family, I read my scriptures, said my prayers daily, went to church, and anxiously awaited serving an LDS mission. I was a bonafide paragon of piety.
Today, I identify as an agnostic atheist and secular humanist. But the transition from belief to disbelief did not happen overnight; it was the gradual culmination of several factors. The seeds of my doubt were sown as early as sophomore year of high school, when I joined the debate team.
Debate taught me to analyze ideas with a critical eye. And when that eye was trained inward on my faith, I discovered some disconcerting facts about both church history and doctrine. Initially, I attempted to use my debate skills in the service of Mormon apologetics. I wanted to defend my faith against anti-Mormon lies. So I took to the internet, which was then emerging as the front-line in the debate about Mormonism.
My testimony, sincere though it was, did not prepare me for what I would discover. I stumbled upon a site that featured a list of racist quotes from LDS Church leaders. Confident that the quotes were fabrications or taken out of context, I decided to go straight to the original sources. I noticed that a number of the more embarrassing quotes came from a book my family happened to own. That book was Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine.
For those familiar with the book, you’ll no doubt understand why my reading it proved problematic. As I thumbed through Mormon Doctrine, I came across a section entitled “Negroes.” In it, McConkie asserted that blacks were a cursed race who were spiritually inferior due to their actions in the premortal existence. He also argued that racial segregation in marriage and other institutions was divinely ordained.
The significance of what I read was not that it disproved Mormonism. McConkie, after all, wasn’t writing in any official capacity for the church. Rather, its significance was in showing me that not everything critical of Mormonism was false.
To be sure, the internet is replete with nonsense about Mormonism. And looking back at some old things I’ve written, I was sometimes unwittingly a purveyor of that nonsense myself. But I was quicker to forgive the critics for their falsehoods than I was to forgive Mormonism for its falsehoods because I held the latter to a higher standard. The critics didn’t have to be right 100% of the time, but the church did.
The further I researched the LDS Church, the more disillusioned I became. I learned that the Book of Mormon had little to no archeological evidence, that the Book of Abraham was not a literal translation of ancient Egyptian papyri, that as a young man Joseph Smith was intimately involved in magic and treasure-digging, and that he secretly married dozens of women, a third of whom already had husbands.
I know this is the cliched litany of reasons people recite when sharing their deconversion story, but at the time these facts were revelatory and faith-shattering to me. The church—at least how I understood it—appeared to be a lie.
When people lose something they love, they tend to respond either with sadness or anger. I loved Mormonism, and when I lost my testimony, I was admittedly a bit angry. My emotions were tame relative to others, but I don’t blame those who experience a more visceral anger; they often have legitimate grievances. I mean, who wouldn’t be upset to learn that the church for which you’ve sacrificed so much—in time, money, and freedom—wasn’t true?
The bulk of my anger, however, wasn’t directed at the church. Perhaps more than anything, I was disappointed with myself for having believed in it. So I didn’t just lose faith in the church, I lost faith in myself. And that for me was equally painful.
The “angry apostate” stereotype does reflect an actual phenomenon, but the vast majority of those who disaffect do so quietly and unceremoniously. Just look at the widespread inactivity of members across Latin America. They don’t broadcast their disbelief online or at symposia like Sunstone. You see, many of us belong to a vocal minority of apostates.
Mormons tolerate private doubts, but not public criticism. A lot of Mormons can sympathize with having questions, but they don’t understand why some are almost evangelical in their disbelief. “They can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone,” goes the popular aphorism.
For one, it’d be easier to leave the church alone were it to leave us alone. Mormonism in Utah is virtually omnipresent—its influence extends to every facet of society here, from the home to the government. Even little things like the occasional impulse to bless the food before a meal can remind you of your former faith. Other manifestations of the church’s influence are less benign, however.
Another reason why some ex-Mormons speak out is to preempt and rebut misconceptions about why they left. It’s often assumed by the faithful that people leave the church because they were offended by something petty, wanted to lead a life of sin, or are in the employ of Satan. I didn’t want those things said of me because they weren’t true, so I made a conscious effort to convince my friends and family that I had logical reasons for leaving. My goal wasn’t to disabuse them of their faith so much as it was to earn their respect and understanding.
But I think a more positive account can be made for why ex-Mormons like myself are so vocal. I view criticism not as a sign of hate, but respect. Secular philosopher Austin Dacey said, “The way you respect a person is not by agreeing with everything he or she says, but by holding that person to the same intellectual/moral standards to which you hold yourself. Anything less is not respect, it’s indifference. So sometimes in order to respect religion’s peoples, we must critique people’s religions.” That’s why I object to the casual labeling of anyone who criticizes the church as “anti-Mormon”.
Being evangelical about one’s beliefs is actually a value I inherited from Mormonism. Countless Mormons spend two years of their lives proselytizing. And why? It’s not because they hate other religions, but because they sincerely want to share with people “the good news.” The truth is a gift; it would be selfish to keep it to oneself. Likewise, I don’t try to dissuade people from Mormonism in order to win debates or provoke a “spirit of contention”. As a matter of principle, I simply believe that people deserve the truth.
Church leaders frequently warn members that doubt leads to unhappiness. On balance, that hasn’t been my experience. I’m happy, and I’m living a more authentic life than I was as a gay Mormon. But let there be no mistake: Leaving the LDS Church can be a terribly painful ordeal—one that jeopardizes relationships and uproots your existential anchors. Yet there is something liberating about the truth, about seeing the world as it really is.
I can’t promise that everyone will find my philosophy as life-affirming as I do, but people ought to be exposed to different perspectives so that they can make informed choices.
This is why in 2008 I co-founded a secular student club at Utah State University named SHAFT, which stood for “Secular Humanists, Atheists and Free Thinkers”. It was first club of its kind in Utah. Unsurprisingly, the majority of club members were ex-Mormons, and on a predominantly LDS campus, SHAFT served an important social function. The same is true for a lot of online ex-Mormon communities.
But I had different aspirations for SHAFT. I didn’t need a support group of like-minded individuals. As a debater in high school and now as a debate coach, I’ve always enjoyed the company of those with whom is disagree. My hope for SHAFT was that it would inspire intelligent and civil discussions about religion, science, and philosophy.
To that end, I helped launch the SHAFT blog. Since 2009, I have written over 300 posts and the blog has won many awards including “Best New Blog” by Main Street Plaza. I think that as an online forum where Mormonism and other issues are debated, it has largely succeeded.
If you visit the SHAFT blog today at usureason.com, you’ll notice a dearth of recent activity. My previously prolific self could produce nearly a post a day. Contrast that with this year: In all of 2012, I’ve managed to write just one solitary post!
This fact is bittersweet. On the one hand, it belies the claim that ex-Mormons can’t leave the church alone. That I can go months without giving serious attention to Mormonism signals to me something rather healthy: I no longer live in the church’s shadow. But on the other hand, I miss Mormonism. I miss being in company like yours discussing topics like this. In short, I’m not quite ready to be “post-Mormon”. To totally divorce myself from Mormonism would be like amputating an arm—I could probably live without it, but I don’t want to.
My friend Andrew of the blog Irresistible Disgrace put it this way: “I am avoiding a possible future where I am completely severed from or am “beyond” Mormonism, because I feel like if I ever reach that point, then I become someone with no history …”
I’m flattered that despite my hiatus from the ex-Mormon blogosphere I was still invited to participate on this panel today. I hope that this experience not only rekindles my interest in Mormonism, but also helps me reclaim a part of myself I feared I was losing.
I’m grateful to all of you for giving up your Saturday morning to be here with us, and I look forward to your questions!