Columns DIY Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Understanding ex-Mormons

As more Americans leave organized religion, a number of studies have attempted to understand why: Who are these people, and why are so many saying good-bye to the religions of their childhoods? Up to this point, though, relatively little scholarly attention has been paid to ex-Mormons.

One new book that attempts to shed light on the ex-Mormon world is Disenchanted Lives: Apostasy and Ex-Mormonism among the Latter-day Saints, by Marshall Brooks. This project started out as his dissertation in cultural anthropology, where he embedded himself in Provo, Utah to connect with ex-Mormons and try to understand their lives. — JKR


E. Marshall Brooks, author of “Disenchanted Lives” and instructor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

RNS: You mention in the book that you have no personal religious connection to Mormonism. How did you become interested in studying it?

Brooks: When I was in college, my family moved to Utah, just outside of Park City. They moved out there for the lifestyle—the mountains and skiing. I remember going out and visiting them, and becoming acquainted with the church. I first learned about the church that way, as an outsider, but then became friends with different neighbors. What interested me was hearing a disconnect between the typical narratives that you hear constructed about the church from the PR people and from everyday members, and the more disenchanted or doubting members and ex-Mormons. That disconnect is what really interested me.

RNS: You moved to Utah yourself around 2012 to do field research. What did that entail?

Brooks: As a cultural anthropologist, we do ethnography where we immerse ourselves in the everyday lives of the people we’re studying. I moved about 8 blocks south of BYU in Provo, so I lived in a typical suburban neighborhood, and attended church with a local ward. I got to know our neighbors and the community. But I also was going to ex-Mormon support groups and social gatherings, like if there was a Sunday afternoon meeting or a Friday night party. Or I would be scheduling interviews or just going to people’s houses through these various groups, and getting to know them and their families. I wanted to know: What does a faith crisis mean on the most intimate level? What does it look like for people’s everyday experiences?

RNS: One of the most interesting chapters of the book deals with sexuality. You say that religion scholars have long understood religion in embodied, physical terms, but have portrayed the loss of religion as a disembodied, hyper-rational process. But ignoring the body makes it harder for scholars to understand ex-Mormons, for whom sexuality has to be completely redefined.

Brooks: Part of what it has meant for them to be Mormon is gender identity, and how they are supposed to use their sexuality to build up an eternal family. There’s something very experiential about that. Every part of their lives has been about controlling their sexuality and avoiding temptation for this one purpose of having an eternal family. If they experience their faith as embodied and experiential vis-à-vis sexuality, then sexuality is also the locus through which faith needs to be undone. What I found fascinating is how sexuality becomes the locus of the undoing of that entrenched feeling of faith.

RNS: In the book you tell many stories about the people you interviewed. It was particularly sad to read about those whose decision to leave the LDS Church had ruptured their relationships with family members, who don’t quite know what to do with this person who used to be “all in” and now has left the fold.

Brooks: Ex-Mormons are not easy for church members to dismiss. When somebody who is a non-Mormon says something critical of the church, Mormons can just say “they’re just out to get us,” or “they’re just ill-informed.” But when someone has been in the church for 45 years and held various positions, and may be a member of your own family, it’s harder to dismiss that person. Ex-Mormons are more dangerous because they speak from inside the group, and they have authority based on their own experience.

One of the main themes of the book, running through several chapters, is this idea of the uncanny. When something is uncanny, there’s something strangely familiar [about it], yet offputting and causing unease. We recognize those things because they contain a piece of home but also cause anxiety. There’s something familiar but also perverse about them. That’s something you definitely see in the church’s response to ex-members. Family members might keep them around, but at arm’s length. My heart goes out to those people.

RNS: Do you keep in touch with your interview subjects?

Brooks: Yeah. Every once in a while, but not intensively. I don’t know if they’ve read the book yet, though.

RNS: Do you plan to do any future work on ex-Mormons?

Brooks: I would like to. I mostly do health care research now, with the school where I’m teaching. [Ed. note: He is an instructor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.] I am interested in a lot of the issues around mental health and understanding how people who are going through faith crises can be better engaged with by health care professionals or mental health professionals, or for the wider public to realize what it means emotionally or mentally to go through a faith crisis. In Utah, everything from substance abuse disorders and suicide are particularly prevalent. Anecdotally, in a lot of cases, the issue of belief and belonging in Mormonism is coursed through those other social ills. How that reverberates in people’s mental health is an area that needs more research.

Related posts:


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


Click here to post a comment

  • I will have to find and buy the book. This one very much interests me. I went from the kid from the “weird family” trying really hard to fit in as a “good” Mormon to the older adult who now realizes that Mormonism was the source of much, if not most, of my family dysfunction, and the reason that personal happiness and satisfaction were never fully mine, in spite of being an optimist and naturally spiritual by nature.

  • We should be empathetic with ex-Mormons, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-Adventists, ex-Amish, ex-Jewish, ex-Muslim, ex-Catholic, ex-Baptist, ex-Fundamentalist, ex-Whatever. It’s an absolute bummer to be raised in such dogma that families and friends question one’s decision to get out from under it—–often with very anti-social and/or belligerent reactions. The fact of the matter is that You Do Not Need A Religious Group To Tell You What To Think. Your life is YOUR life. It does not belong to someone else’s tradition or world view, no matter how many relatives there may be in your family background who have such traditions or world views. There is absolutely nothing about being born into a doctrine which increases the veracity of that doctrine. When you stop believing it, don’t hang around and play act anymore. This is the essence of religious freedom.

  • Indeed. I congratulate anyone who shakes off the conditioning and lies they were raised with to embrace a happier, more rational life.

  • Yep, that’s my t-shirt, too, minus family dysfuntion (my parents). I mean, they were good people, and operated in the framework of mormonism, but no passive-aggression, narcissism, etc.

    But the elusive nature of happiness always soured by personal “unworthiness” issues as a teenage and even adult, man that stuff reckt me.

  • My parents were both good people, but Mormonism made my mom’s emotional problems worse and her children paid for it. My dad kept our family together and got criticized in church and blamed for my mom’s issues because it “couldn’t be” the church’s fault.

  • This looks like a fascinating book, extremely useful in understanding the Mormon church, and I’ve placed it at the top of my list (I spend a fair amount of time in Utah). A few of the author’s comments suggest to me he has some very deep, useful insights into the church.

    I think anyone with any kind of in-depth knowledge of the church understands that although it does do some nice and good and useful things, and that individual low=level Mormons are fine folks (and as others have pointed out, innocent victims), the church also is responsible for lots of really evil stuff.

  • Anyone who can finally see through a lie is happier and more rational. Don’t worry, maybe you’ll get to experience it one day too.