Those who leave the LDS faith (or other high-demand organizations) are often characterized as angry. Are they angry? If so, why are they angry?
Anger as a stage?
There’s an abundance of anectdotal evidence (e.g., this survey and this collection) to suggest that many former Mormons experience anger as part of their faith transition. This document explores why some former Mormons are angry, at least for a time.1
Moral Foundations Theory analysis
[needs better documentation and more specific examples]
Transitioning and former Mormon anger can be understood in terms of innate moral impulses/emotions. Moral Foundations Theory gives us a framework to explore why some former members might act the way they do:
- Caring: former members know that having all the data available is important to making an informed decision about how a person should live their religious life (argued here). They don’t want others to have to suffer the way they did. Those who experienced the most harm often speak out the most.
- Fairness: former members are viewed in the worst possible light in LDS theology and sometimes culturally. They know they are decent individuals, so the treatment and attitude they encounter with some family members and friends seems unfair to them. Demonstrating the problems with the truth-claims is one of the few ways they can achieve equanimity (i.e., once a believing member understands the problems with the truth-claims they can admit that the person who left was justified). Those in mixed-faith marriages are reminded of these attitudes towards dis-believing or former members the most, so they tend to speak out about the truth-claims the most and for the longest time.
- Loyalty: Many former members were fiercely loyal to the organization and sacrificed massive portions of their lives living out LDS narratives (for instance, ending relationships with non-members or women foregoing careers). Then, when they found out that LDS leaders knew about information and maybe should have shared it more broadly (see Transparency in the modern LDS Church) they can feel betrayed. Their loyalty instincts now compel them to point out the behavior of LDS leadership that was not consistent with the high values the group claimed to possess.
- Authority/subversion: Most former members were happy to acquiesce to the authority of the Brethren. Once they found evidence that the Brethren were unworthy of following (again, because leaders are viewed as having failed to live up to the high ideals of the group), they seek to subvert the authority structure.
- Sanctity/Degradation: LDS leaders sometimes act in a manner that degrades certain ideals that former members hold sacred. For instance, former members frequently emphasize the dignity of each person, so when leadership acts in ways that de-value LGBT people, former members feel like something sacred has been violated. Similar feelings of degradation are experienced when former members hear about sexual shaming of youth. On the flip side, former members are often no longer compelled by the sanctity of the temple or the deference typically offered to LDS leadership. That means they may insensitively or ignorantly defile the sacred mores of members when dealing with the temple or in how they discuss LDS leadership. In the extreme case they may even seek to violate a member’s sense of the sacred in a retaliatory way.
Anger as a part of grieving loss
A faith-transition shares many similarities with the diagnosis of a terminal illness (in ourselves or in a loved one), so the Kübler-Ross grief model (aka Five Stages of Grief), even with all its limitations,2 seems somewhat applicable for understanding former member anger.
Those experiencing faith transitions experience a huge loss of meaning in their life. Loss of belief in LDS truth-claims undermines a person’s entire worldview and introduces many sources of potential fear. Consider how the Crossroads Hospice discusses anger in the context of losing a loved one:
… Anger is the cause of the most troubling behavior – either our own or others’. Sometimes angry responses are a mystery to us: Where did that come from? What did I do to deserve that response? It helps to know that the root of most angry behavior is hurt or fear. If we get to the cause of the anger and admit it (being hurt or afraid), we have a chance to understand ourselves, to deal directly with the root cause, and apologize if we want to.
When trying to understand our own angry reaction to something or someone, we might ask ourselves, “What is there about this that has hurt me or made me afraid?” Many times the answer will be that there has been some implied threat to one of our basic needs: Food, shelter, love, identity, social affiliation, or security.
When someone we love has died [or in this case when we have transitioned out of a highly cohesive religion and worldview], how many of our basic human needs are threatened? Think about it. Is there any wonder that grieving people are almost always angry at some point in time. Added to the grief caused by the death of a loved one [or faith transition], many times there are other changes that follow closely behind the death [or faith transition]: Moving to a different place, change in the way our friends and family relate to us, change in financial status, change in social status (no longer part of a couple – now a single; the feeling of being an orphan).
Anger during grief can often be displaced and/or expressed in puzzling ways to others around us. We maybe angry with the loved one who died and left us behind, we might be angry with God for taking our loved one from us, we could be angry with the disease that brought about the death. It may be easier to express anger to someone nearby than to try to figure out just whom or what we are really angry with; so the ones who get the blast of our anger are usually our nearest and dearest – those we would not want to hurt at all. …
Moral Foundations Theory and the Kübler-Ross model of emotional states the terminally ill experience after diagnosis are both helpful models to consider in understanding the anger experienced by some fraction of former Mormons.
Former members that don’t demonstrate an angry or defensive attitude or have passed beyond that phase are probably not drawing the attention of our pattern matching abilities. It seems very possible that many or most former Mormons are not especially angry for most of the time after their transition. This can be true even if there is some substance to the stereotype that former Mormons are “angry”. ↩