I was talking to a friend from South Sudan a few days ago about the Church. She was baptized in 2014 but stopped attending in 2017. She said something interesting to me: “I see why you left the Church and I see the problems you present. They are real and valid. You have outgrown it and you are wise to have moved on. You have healed since you’ve left. But Danna, the Church is also good. It helps people like me in a way most religions don’t. If I need help, they come; they want to come. They want to be good. It raises very good people. Look at you. Look at your daughter. You were raised right. Many people are not raised as well as the two of you have been.” She said, “You are a privileged white woman. You don’t need the Church like the black people do. We need it for education. We need it to help us when we have nowhere else to turn.”
I have another African friend from Nigeria. He also sees all the problems in the Church—and even suffers from church trauma—but he says that without the Church he would probably be dead. He says the Church provides a place for community in his country. It keeps kids out of gangs and helps them have a place of safety and belonging. It provides them with standards to follow as they try to navigate life in a country that is not very safe.
My second daughter is also always telling me that Mormons are just good people. She sees contrast between her peers that are LDS and those who are not. She says she wants to be like them because they have hearts that truly care and love.
Now, if you are a believing member of the Church, you will say that of course the Church raises “better” people. You will say that one cannot outgrow the need for the Church (as my friend said that I have) because it is the TRUE Church. You will also say that being a privileged person has little to do with it—we ALL need the Church for salvation. You will say it is the only way to heaven. Yes, I know the vantage point you probably come into this article with, and I respect that but please, for a moment, can you consider getting past that thinking and maybe consider the Church under a different light? I want us to look at the EFFECTS the religion has on us. How are we internalizing the religion? Is it helping us or is it not? I believe this is how to determine if a religion is good or bad for us. (Does one size really fit all??)
Now, if you have left the Church, I’ve probably turned you off as well because you want to believe the Church is ALL bad. But can you not recall that it’s that black-and-white thinking that likely had something to do with your departure? So please hold tight with me on this too.
Let’s begin by considering two hypothetical situations of two active Church members:
Travis and Karen are both active in the LDS Church. They both perform their church duties, pay their tithing, read their scriptures, and pray daily. However, their motivations for doing so are totally different. Travis’s reasons for church attendance and personal commitments are due to intrinsic motivations—because of deep devotion to God; while Karen’s purposes are extrinsic motivations—because of the need to appear “good” and for social status.
It sounds pretty simple to say that Travis is on a higher plain than Karen and that Travis will fare better than Karen religiously in the long run. We often hear this. (“I don’t go for others; I go to strengthen my relationship with Christ.”)
But maybe it’s not so simple. Here’s why: The effects of religious teachings on Travis and Karen has much to do with their psychological wellbeing. Maybe the big question needs to be: How are they internalizing the teachings? I’m going to ask you to really focus on this idea. It gets kind of deep.
To start, in general, religious people have been shown to have a decreased risk for mental illness than nonreligious people. But the exact opposite can actually be true if the religion is viewed rigidly by the individuals within it. So even if Travis feels a deep devotion to God, he can also feel a great deal of intolerance and self-righteousness for performing his duties better or for a higher purpose than Karen. Conversely, Karen is more likely to be self-accepting and tolerant of the differences of others because she doesn’t take the religion so seriously and literally.
Further, if Travis or Karen feels religious pressure to be or appear perfect, they may also feel ashamed due to the gap between who they actually are versus who they really want to be. This discrepancy may be especially distressing for Travis, who is more likely prone to guilt- or shame-based reactions (e.g., depressive personality structure) and to struggle with self-esteem.
Thus, perhaps the most important question for consideration for Karen and Travis is not the degree to which each is intrinsic or extrinsic but rather how well each functions within Mormonism. How is the religion affecting them? Indeed, if the religion is interpreted by Travis or Karen to be strict and impermeable—with good-or-bad, all-or-none schemas—their risks for mental struggles are actually greatly increased. Simply stated, if one hold rigidly to religious beliefs, they are much more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, guilt, and lower self-esteem than if they did not engage religiously at all (Hartz & Everett, 1989). This teaches a great need for cognitive flexibility. We need to step out of black-and-white, all-or-none, one-and-only, good-or-bad thinking. Such thinking creates mental illness, smugness, and prejudices. It separates and divides people!
Indeed, people who hold religious beliefs unyieldingly often also possess these traits/beliefs as well:
1. Conventionalism, self-righteousness, feelings of superiority, and unquestioning obedience to authority;
2. Intolerance for non-fundamentalist views (racial/ethnics, gay/lesbian, women, religious out-groups);
3. A sense that moral violators (those who break the law of chastity, for example) should be left to help themselves if in need;
4. A need to seek confirmation for their intolerant views, discounting discrepant information in the process, thus being less open to information that contradicts their established schemas;
5. Suspicion of professionals and large social systems;
6. Use of scripture and leaders as sole informants of all absolute truths, which regulates all beliefs;
7. Continuous defensive posture, decreasing cognitive flexibility of thought and experience, thus elevating anxiety;
8. A resistance to confront existential realities;
9. A demonstration of strong in-group bias;
10. A strong need for certainty (black-and-white thinking) and an avoidance of religious doubt;
11. Resistance to change (Aten, O’Grady, & Worthington, 2012).
These beliefs and behaviors can be particularly harmful to Church members who interpret Mormonism rigidly and feel that they must be “right” or appear to be “perfect.” Missionaries, for example, who feel pressured to conform and “make the cut,” have higher levels of depression, stress levels, and neurotic thinking and behavior than those who accept their humanity and do not demand perfection of themselves and others (Navara & James, 2005).
To overcome “better than,” rigid tendencies, we need to ask ourselves: “Is one way truly better than another?” We need to realize that thinking “yes, my way is best” traps us. It causes us to feel we know God’s will for others better than someone who chooses to walk a different way.
In an effort to help, if you are someone who struggles with thinking you are not as good as someone who seems more perfect, like Travis, for example, you might benefit in the following ways:
1. Connect with idealized or historical figures. Connecting with a respected or older friend or associate who will “be real” and get on the same level with you can help you not feel the need for such perfection by talking about their own humanity. Looking into historical figures can also help you see their flaws, while considering how that person might have handled a difficult situation. Realness is needed!! Life is complex. Let’s face that reality and realize we don’t have all the answers.
2. Question the need for social approval. It can be helpful to ask: “Why is it so important to receive validation from others in (or out of) the LDS Church?” “Is it really a big deal to miss scripture study one day? (Or fill in the blank.) What’s the worst that can happen? Do you really think God will punish you for setbacks/struggles?” Delving into cognitive flexibility, God’s mercy, and considering the need for managing social impressions can go a long way.
3. Work on empathy. Empathy has been linked to a number of positive psychological factors, such as greater interpersonal functioning, frequency in pro-social behaviors or altruistic acts, and likelihood of forgiving others. When we consider God’s empathy, it can also help us be gentle and loving with ourselves and others as well. Always remember there are good (and bad) people on all sides of the equation. Don’t mass lump people. Look at individuals and treat all with dignity.
1. Religion can be a great means of warding off mental illness—increasing one’s hope and optimism—but if religion is not applied, taught, and internalized correctly, it can have the opposite effect. If a religion is harming you, it is best to leave! We need to be careful of the messages we are receiving and sending concerning conformity and perfection. The truth is, life is messy. That’s true now and it’s true historically. We need to be better at teaching that and confessing when we mess up, when we didn’t have perfect vision, when we were wrong–this goes for mistakes the Church has made and the humans in it (that’s you and that’s me). It’s okay to not be perfect. We can repent. We can acknowledge errors. We need to model that.
2. If current or former Church members are not careful, they can inflict great harm that can have long-term detrimental effects on other current or former members. Indeed, rigidity (in teaching or in application) can be detrimental for psychological health. Rigid cognitive thinking has been shown to increase depression, suicidality, anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, and “fears of divine punishment” (Hartz & Everett, 1989). Many of these relationships have been found both for individuals who come from strict religious backgrounds and for individuals who leave the Church as well.
3. Realize that God is NOT Mormon. So always remember that if you have to choose between your soul and your religion, always choose your soul—and God will go with you. I am a testament of that. God is merciful. He loves all walks, all people. He will not abandon you if you leave the Mormon Church. He will not punish you if you stay. Good people are found on both sides. So have courage and do what is best for you. Walk away if the Church is hurting you; stay if it is helping. God honors both calls so how about we do the same?