How to Leave Your Religion


In a previous post, I discussed the parallels between my experiences in romance and religion. In brief, I suggested that love—and specifically marital love—is about choosing an individual more than feeling a certain way. The view of love as an overwhelming romantic attraction is problematic not only because it is unrealistic, but because it is fundamentally egocentric, focusing not on another person, but on one’s own emotional high. This egocentric approach to love seems likely to lead to unhealthy relationships and infidelity. That word—infidelity—suggests a connection between romantic relationships and religion. My earlier post focused on the leap of faith involved in choosing a religion and a romantic partner. In this post, I discuss the implications of a non-egocentric view of love as it relates to ending a relationship or leaving religion.

The egocentric view of love suggests something like this: If I love you, then I will marry you. If I stop feeling that love, then I will divorce you. When love is understood as the prerequisite to and justification for a committed relationship, the moment that emotion disappears, so too does the reason to maintain the relationship.

The non-egocentric view of love is more like this: I choose you, so I love you. If I divorce you (i.e. stop choosing you), then I don’t love you. In this conception, a lack of love doesn’t cause divorce; divorce is evidence of a failure to love by one or both partners. If we view love as a result of our choosing rather than the reverse, the implications for our behavior are significant. Instead of thinking about what another individual can do to make us feel a certain way, we instead think about what we can do to continue choosing that person in the face of other options.

And there are always other options. It is possible to compare one’s spouse to a coworker, a high school sweetheart, or a moviestar, eventually substituting them as the object of choosing. This shift in love/choosing is manifest not only in outright separation, but in our patterns of thought, the focus of our attention, and our emotional availability. A husband might, for example, enjoy his interactions with a female colleague and begin to wish that his wife were more like her. This could lead him to notice more often the instances when his wife did not live up to the example of the (idealized) colleague. Little by little, as the husband chooses the colleague instead of his wife, he would unsurprisingly begin to feel more “in love” with her than with his spouse. If this husband decided to divorce his wife, he would likely suggest that it was due to the failure of his marital relationship to meet his needs. What he might not notice is that in many ways, it was his choosing, not the essence of the relationship, that lay at the root of the changes.

This is not a novel insight about marital relationships (although I think many would benefit from heeding it more closely), but I rarely hear people discuss religion in a similar way. The analogy may not be perfect, but I believe it is useful to think about leaving a religion as something akin to getting a divorce. Marriage is the institution that enshrines our relationship with another person as religion is the institution that enshrines our relationship with God. When we enter a religion, we commit to a certain kind of relationship with Deity and with a community of faith. Often we make solemn vows in a formal ceremony to declare and publicize that commitment. And there is often a formal, judicial process to dissolve that institutional relationship.

So what does this analogy illuminate?

First, I think it emphasizes the seriousness of the decision. If leaving a religion is like getting a divorce, it must not be taken lightly or carried out rashly. There may be literal or figurative children and extended family involved who will be affected by your choice. I believe divorce is justified sometimes, as I believe some people are justified (and even divinely inspired) in leaving their religion. However, I also believe that it is very common for people to end a marital or religious relationship for less-than-selfless reasons. If a man were to consider leaving a religion, I hope he would sincerely try to make staying work, including seeking ecclesiastical support and counseling, before terminating the relationship. It would be highly disrespectful and inappropriate for him to simply walk out after a disagreement (even if it has happened before).

Second, continuing with our imaginary man, it reminds us that he might be at least partially to blame in the problems he has with the church. He might be like the husband mentioned earlier who substitutes a colleague for his wife as the object of his choosing. Perhaps, feeling deeply invested in a social cause, he notices every way that his church fails to act as he thinks it should; and these actions become increasingly aggravating over time until eventually, he feels no more love for the church. As with divorce, it might be that it is not so much the church that is to blame, as it is his focus and choosing. Perhaps, instead of focusing on what seem to be glaring imperfections, he could redirect his attention to what is good, true, and beautiful. This choosing represents and is likely to result in an increase in love.

Third, it cautions that this man might not be as high-minded as he imagines himself to be. Many spouses have left marriages in the name of true love, only to find that they were illuded. This seems to be reflected in general statistics, as second and third marriages tend to be less happy than first marriages, and may be similarly true of religion. In the end, sticking it out might prove more noble and more satisfying.

Lastly, in the non-superficial cases at least, (and I leave our imaginary man now) it reveals the extent of the pain one has felt. I know that divorce entails present and future suffering, and I believe the same is and will hold true with sincere religion. Even if you believe that the change will be for the best, something dear is lost in leaving. So if, after all, you believe that it is best to leave, go with my condolences. Although I may not agree with your choice, I recognize and am sorry for your pain.

9 thoughts on “How to Leave Your Religion

  1. David, as always, your writing is extremely thought-provoking for me. I love your analogy and the tenets you identified. But, it also leaves me wondering: How do we, as egocentric beings, recognize these falsehoods in ourselves, and correct them before we rashly (and often unknowingly) pursue a path based solely on our egocentrism? And how do we keep egocentrism from progressing along the continuum to narcissism? And if we accomplish all that, how can we raise our children to do the same?

    As a parent, I desire to instill in my six children an ability to eschew egocentrism, but it is increasingly difficult in a culture that encourages egocentrism (and has naturally produced more narcissism). This shift rears its ugly head often, and I see it especially in relation to social causes. As a religious person, my opinion is that I must become theocentric, specifically seeking God’s input first. But that’s not an easy task! My egocentrism keeps me from recognizing my own issues in many cases. What are your your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear more!

    1. Valena, sorry about my slow reply, and thanks again for taking time to both read and comment. I love the idea of living a theocentric life–it reminds me of the lawyer in _Cry, the Beloved Country_ who defends Absalom “pro deo.” I’m also interested in what you mean when you say that you see the shift (from egocentrism to narcissim, I think) especially in relation to social causes. I too would love to hear more!

  2. I think you leave out a big reason, deceit. If after decades of marriage you uncover mountains of extremely important truthful things carefully hidden and sidestepped and denied by your spouse, it is still just as painful, but becomes a fairly simple and clear cut decision. Without trust and honesty, there is nothing worthwhile remaining in said relationships, no matter how much you want them to work.

    1. Hello, and thanks for commenting! I’m glad this post is still making the rounds. I agree that there are justifiable reasons for ending a relationship (with a person or with a church). However, I’m not sure “deceit” is always clear cut: deception requires deliberate duplicity, and others’ motives are rarely transparent. I think institutional motives are especially obscure—at what point can we be sure that a church has willfully deceived others? Similarly, who decides what constitutes “important” information? I can imagine a situation in which a disparity in expectations within a partnership led one partner to feel deceived about important things while the other partner felt totally honest. Most situations are probably a lot more gray and fuzzy, but you get the idea. Interesting stuff to think about. Thanks again!

      1. Tearing pages out of journals so information is hidden (Joseph F Smith with Joseph Smith’s first vision account), excommunicating church historians for telling too much in their research (Fawn Brodie, September 6, Thomas Murphy, Michael Quinn, etc.) telling seminary and institute teachers not to teach several things Elder Boyd K. Packer “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect”, and saying things are lies that are later released in essays as being 100% true (polyandry, Adam God theory, Kinderhook Plates) seems pretty clear cut in terms of motives to me.

  3. Also, the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor from which not a single item has yet to be disproved as truthful.

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