When I was growing up in the Church, long before my crisis of faith and eventually admitting I was an Exmormon, I discovered the famous Liahona-Iron Rod belief labels. I loved the idea; I could instantly see in my mind where the various adults and friends I had lined up between these two positions. I was a Liahona Mormon, no question, and I could easily see most of my Seminary teacher and other leaders as Iron Rodders. When I got older (probably in college) I realized the limitations of this particular schema; it's actually too limiting to place an individual into one of two groups. Everyone overlaps each position in various aspects of their life. But I continued to use the term because of its usefulness in providing a shorthand in discussions. "Liahona" may not fully describe a person, but it describes enough to give a rough picture. The same can be said for "Iron Rod".
Since then I've found another separation used, with the same limitations, in regards to how Mormons approach the difficulties of their religion against modern science and scholarship: the Chapel (or traditional) Mormons and the Internet (or non-traditional) Mormons. Unfortunately, these terms are often applied by those who don't feel they belong in either group and have some serious negative connotations. Unlike "Liahona" and "Iron Rod", the Chapel- Traditional distinction is usually applied in a divisive fashion meant to provide a negative view of another person. For this reason I try hard to refrain from using it, but it also continues to provide a cool short-hand in describing aspects of Mormon belief and approach.
In recent years, for various reasons, I have decided that I no longer believe the truth claims of the LDS Church. I was mentally a NOM for a while, but the mental difficulties of trying to support half of the truth claims of the Church without supporting the other half was a tiring exercise that ultimately was not sustainable for me. So I finally bit the bullet and accepted myself as an Exmormon. Around this time I found my browsing habits pulling naturally away from the traditional "Bloggernacle" towards the famous sites of the "Outer Blogness" (I love those names). Reading about others who had left the Church, some only mentally and others fully, filled me with a sense of camaraderie that I had been missing since I decided I no longer really "belonged" with my fellow Latter-day Saints. Most of these blogs approached the Church with a sense of caution and respect. Acid and flames were certainly given towards the very real failings and weaknesses of the Church. There exist many doctrines and practices within the LDS Church that are emotionally and mentally harmful to individuals, especially those who are effectively second-class citizens of "Zion": women, children, homosexuals, intellectuals, feminists, etc. But, on the other hand, most of these individuals were also able to give a textual "high-five" to what they saw as successes for the Church. Even in the midst of the difficulty of leaving---losing friends, family, respect---there was still an attempt to be objective about the subject.
I thought that this objective approach was the norm. I figured that most people who came to their beliefs through rationality and critical thinking would continue to apply that critical thinking towards their now lack of belief. I thought that people who had realized that most of their faith as a LDS was based on emotion would realize the dangers of continuing to depend on emotion. Just as many who left the Church held serious and honest beliefs before they left, so too was it often assumed that those who remained probably held similar honest beliefs that had simply not been closely examined. (And even now, I find the idea that all people within the Church don't rationally examine their beliefs to be far too simplistic; many do and still do not leave. I refuse to categorize them as simpletons or just plain evil. It can't always be that simple. Maybe for some, but I agree with Kathryn Schulz: that's probably just a mental coping mechanism to explain why others don't believe the way I do when they have similar data. It's important to reserve judgment toward myself that I still might be wrong about everything. I feel that certainty of any kind is dangerous, even a certainty that the truth claims of the LDS Church are false. I reserve the unlikely possibility that, given further evidence, I might have to one day change my opinion one way or another.)
One of the major helps in coming to terms with leaving the Church was the YouTube series "I am an Exmormon." More than simply a response to the LDS Church's media campaign ("I am a Mormon") these videos were heartfelt expressions of people who finally were able to find peace, happiness, and mental stability by leaving the Church. Those interviewed rarely showed hatred toward their former faith, but rather expressed that in acknowledging the failings of the LDS Church they had found the ability to fully discover who they were. The Church had provided a lot for them and they had grown as much as they could within it, but in leaving they were unhindered from developing even further. They are a beautiful series because they present a view of Exmormons that contradicts entirely that cultural view fostered within the Church of those who leave: instead of angry, they are hopeful; instead of bitter, they are calmer; instead of obsessed, they are loving. Those videos speak a wonderful truth: you can leave the Church and not leave who you are behind. You can retain the good within yourself because that good is not a product of the Church. It may have been fostered by the Church, but in truth the good within you is your own to take with you wherever you wish to go in life.
That's what I had hoped for in the Exmormon community. And, truth be told, I saw it in a number of individuals. Are you hurting because you've been abandoned, rejected, or misunderstood by your family and friends? Many will open their arms towards you in love; many of them have gone through the same thing. Are you still in the closet, dealing with frustration and anger? Again, so many people are out there who understand you and can help you through it. For a long time I thought that the infamous rejective phrase was unfair: of course people can't leave it alone! They have friends and family who are still within the Church. You can't simply cut those ties; it's impossible. And for so many TBMs the Church is part of everyday life. It comes up at work, home, and (of course) Church. It's difficult for them to know to avoid the subject around friends and family who no longer believe. So, duh! Of course some people can't leave it alone. But I've found that there are some for whom this way of looking at "not leaving it alone" isn't the entire story.
It's one thing to discuss facts; facts are discrete points. They can be debated, certainly, but on the whole they are usually not the object of discussion or debate themselves. Joseph Smith married multiple women, some of them already married to other men. The Book of Mormon contains chiastic structures. DNA evidence for the ancestry of the indigenous peoples of the Americas indicates they originated in Siberia and Central Asia through successive migrations beginning possibly as early as 25,000 years ago. There is a location in Saudi Arabia called NHM that has been in existence since at least 600 CE. The length of the scroll of Hôr was most probably only 150 cm long. These are simply facts; they exist apart from any theories. They do not have to say anything in and of themselves. There may be some disturbing implications that extend from them, but they are not, in and of themselves, arguments.
And yet I occasionally see people maligned and belittled who attempt to bring up facts that could be used in arguments that support Mormonism's truth claims, and I also see facts that could be used in arguments against truth claims used as arguments that somehow are supposed to mean something. That would be fine, but there is often a sense of decency and respect that appears absent to me. I could easily be wrong, but it often appears that some Exmormons feel justified in not being civil because we often receive anything but civility from many TBMs. However, the rules of a debate are not decided within the conversation itself. That's Fox News crap: let the loudest win and keep the rules changing faster than your opponent can keep up. That's not about discussion and understanding: it's about winning.
And I have to admit that I just don't get it, if that's really the case (and it may not be; that's just how it looks to me). I don't understand it. I know it can be different. I know many Exmormons who deal differently. However, even knowing that doesn't mean that the people I don't understand are wrong. It just means that I don't understand them. So, after a lot of thought, and in an attempt to be fair and promote understanding, I propose a new classification, this time of ourselves---the Exmormons. And the best way I can think of to do so is to use two films that are both awesome and exciting. So I propose the distinction between the Matrix Exmos and the Inception Exmos. Obviously any allegory or comparison will break down if you extend it too far, so let me explain it as far as I think it can go.
Tools of Choice: Under the Banner of Heaven, An Insider's Guide to Mormon Origins, The Book of Mammon, or anything that, while it strives to be accurate, is also hard-hitting and direct about the issues.
In the Matrix, humanity is enslaved in a particularly devious form of mind control by the machines who are exploiting them for their own purposes. However, while humanity as a whole doesn't even realize that they are being exploited and kept from the truth of their world, a small group of people who have been "unplugged" exist in a war against the machines in the hope of one day bringing down the Matrix and freeing humanity to live a life that is truly free from control. There's also a bunch of silly stuff like mechwarrior exoskeletons and an overabundance of trenchcoats, but on the whole that's the idea: a war between men and machines over the freedom of human minds. So, for the Matrix Exmormon the parallels are clear: the LDS Church exists because of the faithful support of its members; and the faith of the members is a faith both in a false worldview as well as in a dangerous set of principles. Mormonism denies full equality to women and has a history, not yet fully eradicated nor repudiated, of racism. The LDS Church consistently refuses to apologize for the crimes caused by its own inflamed rhetoric of the past (such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre) and refuses to acknowledge fault in the actions of its members today in actions that are cruel and bigoted towards many of the minorities of our society such as homosexuals and immigrants.
It spends billions on private ventures such as the City Creek Center and most of the top officials received "stipends" that mirror the salaries pulled in by heads of major corporations; meanwhile the amount spent on humanitarian aid worldwide over their entire history is a pathetic fraction of the amount the Church has spent in the past decade alone. Yet the Church continues to present itself as a champion to the poor and afflicted throughout the world. Their vast financial holding give them tremendous economic power in the Western US and the united actions of their members gives them tremendous political and cultural power, as seen in the involvement of LDS members in California's Proposition 8 decision; it is unlikely that LDS members would have mobilized with anything near the strength of cash and activism seen if church authorities in Salt Lake City had not actively encouraged it. The LDS Church, as an organization, donated very little to Prop 8 efforts, but instead asked for, and got without much question, the support of the members.
In the Matrix, the freedom fighters from Zion are engaged in constant battle with the machines. Every soul unplugged from the prison of the Matrix is a benefit, but the end goal is not to free everyone individually but instead to take down the seemingly monolithic organization of the machines and destroy the Matrix itself. For Matrix Exmormons, the end goal is not just to help individuals out of the Church, but to demolish the seemingly vast power that the Church currently controls by destroying the system of false beliefs they use to keep the members in line. And, just as in a war, the stakes are high. Facts and the arguments that employ them are not tools but weapons. Is someone starting to doubt the Church? Explain to them about Kinderhook, about Mountain Meadows, or the full extent of the Temple ban for blacks. Did the person listen? Yes? Then congrats, another human saved from slavery. No? Well, that just goes to show the level of control the Morg holds over its people. What about the hidden history, the financial dealings, the intellectual purges? The Church claims to be the only true church, but it's not. The leaders probably know this; they actively hide and distort. They employ their apologists to defend the claims with tenuous findings and reasoning and then use their influence to keep members from noticing. That's why it's okay if I'm a little sloppy in how I present my arguments, if I get my facts a little bit wrong: they do it too! This is war, man. Just as in the film, there is no middle ground. Those who attempt to work with the machines are nothing better than traitors. The end goal is what matters! This about freedom and slavery; there is no middle ground. The Church is unethical and corrupt, through and through. The reason that members of the Church are told not to trust Exmormons is because the leaders know the weaknesses we can present. They know the danger we pose to them. It's all about the power, the control, or the tithing. When the Church tells the young men to get married early, the ultimate goal is tithing. The religion and the beliefs are the tools to keep the members in line. I don't care if I offend people in the Church by what I say; it just proves that they're not ready to acknowledge the truth yet. I don't have to take a moral high ground against an organization that is evil and/or unethical.
I'm probably getting into the realm of parody, so I should probably stop here. Suffice it to say, while I'm trying to represent the views I see expressed online, I'm probably not doing a very good job because I am not a Matrix Exmormon. I'm an Inception Exmormon.
Tools of Choice: Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1491, Who Wrote the Bible?, or anything else that doesn't explicitly discuss the Church but instead lays a foundation for personal introspection about the Church's claims and further discussion.
The film Inception does not adapt itself as well to the struggle of how an Exmormon deals with the LDS Church and its members. In Inception a small group of specialists who usually steal secrets from other people through their dreams are instead employed to try and plant an idea within another person. However, this "inception" of an idea has never successfully been accomplished before since individuals can usually recognize when the thought is not their own and reject it. Through the film, the team prepares for the inception by preparing intricately assembled dream-world through which they will take the target in an attempt to plant the idea subtly enough that the target will view the idea as their own. Of course, it doesn't go quite that smoothly, there are a lot of action shots, bizarre examples of dreamworld physics, and the threat of being lost in limbo. None of that really applies here, but the basic idea of the inception of an idea does.
To an Inception Exmormon, there is no vast organized conspiracy keeping those who believe in the Church in line. The Church is a product of itself. Perhaps there are some leaders and authorities who realize that the Church is not true, but on the whole the decisions and actions made by the Church are made by members who believe the truth claims. The nefariousness is not conscious, but is rather and accident of the Church's corporate structure and the corporate structure is itself an accident of attempts to organize the Church over the past century of growth. The LDS Church has problems. Its beliefs caused pain, damage, and limitations to its members and other people. Whatever the origins of the Church, whether or not Joseph Smith saw himself as a prophet or knew himself as a regular human, these questions are irrelevant to the Church today. It is true that most of the truth claims themselves currently depend on the authenticity of Joseph Smith as a prophet, but the behavior and actions of the Church today are expressed through people who have all been born in the 20th and 21st Centuries. While there are plenty of people who would be willing to pull the trigger if asked, there is nobody left alive today who was at Mountain Meadows and nobody today can bear the direct blame for the actions perpetrated there. The problem is that a Mountain Meadows, while unlikely, is certainly possible if it were requested by a high authority within the Church. And that is a problem that can be dealt with without the destruction of the LDS Church as an organization. There are other branches of the Latter Day Saint movement who have overcome many of the problematic issues caused by the Salt Lake church and it is not impossible that a future Salt Lake Church might look more like the Community of Christ looks today. For an Inception Exmormon, it's all about the well-placed idea. Fix the church through many well-placed ideas. Support those active members who have overcome the mental problems that plague most other members. Emphasize grace, emphasize environmentalism, emphasis egalitarianism, renounce war and proclaim peace. Close the malls and open the homeless shelters. While not likely, change is possible.
The same is true of the individual who might leave the Church. An Inception Exmormon understands that leaving the Church, as it currently exists, is probably the best decision for most Mormons (though not all Mormons; some might be better benefited by remaining); at least until the doctrines and practices change enough to soften the ills that the Church can cause. As with dealing with change in the Church, causing change with another person is accomplished through the well-placed idea. Presenting someone who is struggling with their faith with strong examples of the Church's falsity rarely accomplishes anything (though I need to acknowledge that it might on rare occasion). Just as in the film, people tend to reject an idea that isn't theirs. Helping someone out of the Church requires working with them on their level, whatever that level happens to be. There is no magic bullet; you cannot just present the Book of Abraham and watch the scales fall from their eyes. There are plenty of people who remain within the Church who know all of the dirt. They can handle the dissonance. The only real change can come individually from within by acknowledging the possibility that the Church might not be true. If you present data that is not entirely accurate then those bits of inaccurate data can be enough to cling to to reject the real facts that were presented. Attacking the individual's tribe by mistreating friends or trusted figures like GAs and missionaries will only tighten the bond the individual has towards his or her tribe. Instead the idea of the Church's falsehood must be presented carefully, honestly, and above all without an appeal to emotion. Telling someone how the Utah Boys Ranch is a terrible place (it is) and is actively populated through the efforts of stake and area leaders (it is) and then talking about how evil the LDS Church is for supporting such a horrible place is not going to accomplish anything. You cannot deal in such absolutes; telling someone that the Church is unethical for such-and-such just sets up a debate for why you're wrong.
Admitting that your opinion of the Church is negative because of such-and-such is a way of verbally telling them that they can hold a differing opinion and allows you to state the facts that back up your opinion or argument in a way that the facts themselves can be accepted as being true (because they are) and allows the individual to evaluate them for themselves (and, possibly, "incept" the idea to them of the Church's inability to explain the facts as they stand). It is not a war, and the default position to take with everyone is a cautious position of assuming honest intentions. You can assume that Church leaders are encouraging young men to get married because they are concerned for their eternal welfare, and you can also assume that they're simply concerned about the Church's bottom line of tithing income. Either way the results would appear the same, but one requires the devious actions of people focused on money and the other allows for people to be making honest decisions in line with the belief structure. Tithing money is the Lord's money and having more of it just means that the Church can accomplish the will of God that much better. It's easier to delineate battle lines between good and evil, or between rational and illogical, but humanity is more complicate than that. We are hard-wired through millions of years of organic and social evolution to belief in irrational things. The ultimate opponent for an Inception Exmormon is not the LDS Church but rather the genetic and social constructs that are no longer necessary in our modern culture. The war waged is not between artificial constructs like good and evil or corruption and ethics, but is rather a war within the minds of individual people to help train them in avenues of critical thinking to come to their own conclusions.
I can guess what a few of you might be saying: the Inception Exmormon sounds a lot like a TBM to me. They "lie for the Lord", they only tell what they want to in order to further their goals. Inception Exmormons are willing to allow some falsehoods to continue in an uncertain attempt to help just one person. There are thousands who need help, who are stagnating and stuck; we can't go one at a time. And I don't feel the need to treat the Church with the same respect I'd give, say, the Episcopalians (or perhaps all religions are undeserving of objectivity). At least the Episcopalians are advancing social change; the Mormons do nothing to advance humanity.
Well, this is less of an invitation for everyone to be Inception Exmos and simply more of an observation of where I stand (and have seen others stand) verses where the majority seems to be. It strikes me as the response to seeing a spider in the home: you can kill it on sight with a single mighty kick, or you can put it under a cup and paper and carry it outside. Either way the goal is the same; and so it is with the Matrix Exmos and the Inception Exmos. I'm not sure how effective it is to argue that one approach is "better" than another for everyone. Certainly one approach is better for a particular individual. But the important thing in the long run is to acknowledge that the other side exists and to tolerate them. I cannot see myself, with who I am right now, being a Matrix Exmo. I dislike looking at the debate that way (which is probably why that side of the analogy needs a lot of work from someone who feels that way and can be fair to the viewpoint in ways I cannot be), but I do understand that some people think it's better to just rip the band-aid off all at once. Open the blinds! Roll down the windows! I may not agree with the methods (I don't see it as two side battling against each other, but just humans acting like humans), but I hope I can understand the underlying purpose: to help people. As long as I can keep that in mind I can tolerate Matrix Exmos. I may not like them much, but I cannot claim that they are wrong in their intentions. But trust me, I understand the pain, the guilt, the grief that LDS beliefs can cause.
Obviously this distinguishing needs some help on the Matrix side. I'd appreciate what I got right and what I got wrong (probably most of it); please understand that I meant well about a point of view I find difficult to comprehend. I need your assistance to clean it up properly. And I'd also be curious as to how many who would see themselves as Matrix Exmos (if I got the analogy wrong or overly stereotyped, you know what I meant by the viewpoint, right? Just pretend I said things the correct way and go with that) who saw themselves as Iron-Rodders or Liahonas when they were TBMs. And the same for Inception Exmos, where were you before it all came tumbling down or all finally became clear (to put it in a positive light)? I have my suspicions (Matrix = Iron Rod, Inception = Liahona), but I could be so very, very wrong of course. It could be that there's no equal divide between two points of view but rather than one view is a precursor that some hold before they move to the other view (but which comes first and which comes second and can they keep switching back and forth?). I'm very interested in things like that. Are you?