Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Understanding Mormon Disbelief

A review of "Understanding Mormon Disbelief"

A FAIR Analysis of: "Understanding Mormon Disbelief: Why do some Mormons lose their testimony and what happens to them when they do?", a work by author: Open Stories Foundation [associated with John Dehlin and Mormon Stories]

A review of claims made in "Understanding Mormon Disbelief" by the Open Stories Foundation

The Open Stories Foundation and the Construction of Narrative


The Open Stories Foundation has released a study to the media which they claim can illuminate the reasons for which some Mormons become disaffected. This review begins by briefly considering the identity of the study's sponsoring individuals and communities, and then evaluates the study itself.

This review demonstrates that:

  1. The study participants are self-selected, and therefore the entire study is biased. Its conclusions are, therefore, not statistically valid, and the study itself even admits this. It then procedes, however, to act as if it is.
  2. The study relies wholly on retrospective memory, which has repeatedly been shown to be an unreliable way of collecting this type of information.
  3. The study design predisposes those who participate to "priming," and "cueing," in which those who take a survey are subtly influenced to provide the type of answer sought by the researchers.
  4. The study participants have a shared narrative agenda: sociological study of religious leavetakers has demonstrated that groups of leavetakers often influence each other without intending to. They produce a series of anecdotes which tell the story they wish to present, but the relation of these anecdotes to the full truth is far more complicated.
  5. The study participants rarely discuss failure to receive revelation as a reason for their disaffection. This demonstrates that either the sample is a very skewed one, or issues of bias and priming have influenced their responses to generally exclude it.

Few if any reliable conclusions can be drawn from such a flawed instrument.

Introduction—New Order Mormons and the Internet [1]

The Internet provides an unprecedented means to unite like-minded individuals in virtual communities, no matter how esoteric their interests. Even the Church of Jesus Christ has felt the effects of this social realignment. Members of any social or ideological persuasion can find a congenial group of fellow-travelers, unrestricted by geography or ecclesiastical unit. One group, sometimes termed “New Order Mormons,” is increasingly visible on-line and even in the national media. New Order Mormons (NOM)— a loose designation that parallels what some have called “cultural Mormons,”—maintain familial, social, or cultural ties to the Church while rejecting many of its core tenets. (Many who fit this definition would also not self-identify as NOM.) Some former members go even further, and become ex-Mormons. One student at Yale Divinity School noted that “an entire ex-Mormon movement has emerged in the past several years…. Ex-Mormonism, as it were, has long-existed as a subset of a larger, and largely Evangelical counter-cult movement. This latest ex-Mormon iteration, however, is characterized by its mostly secular focus.” [2]

Religious "leavetakers"

From a sociological perspective, NOM or secular ex-Mormons may play any and all of the roles occupied by members at the religious borders and beyond. They may be “leavetakers,” [3] but need not be. Such individuals have been classified by sociologists of religion into five categories. There is some variation in the terminology between authors, but they provide a useful framework for discussing the degree of alienation experienced by those who were formerly believing and fully-active members. The categories also highlight the difference responses to that alienation:

  1. peripheral members—those who retain some nominal membership. Such members still consider themselves part of the faith and are so regarded by their co-religionists, but they are not full participants in the life of their faith community (e.g., “less-active” members); [4]
  2. marginal members—those with profound disagreements with or alienation from at least part of their religion, though “they are also likely to believe that their movement—its beliefs, practices, or members—still has something to offer”; [5]
  3. defectors—those who leave their faith relatively quietly, often in cooperation with religious authorities;
  4. whistleblowers—those who, motivated by personal conscience, denounce specific wrongs in their former religion; and
  5. apostates—those who associate with an “oppositional coalition” arrayed against their former faith. [6]

These are idealized categories and “should not be interpreted as denying or diminishing the importance of mixed types and movement between types. To the contrary; variations…would be expected to constitute the rule rather than the exception….” [7]

Leavetaking, then, need not be all-or-nothing. One might reject such foundational elements as the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the reality of Joseph Smith’s visions, or even the existence of God, and still remain affiliated in some way with the Church. One leavetaker might ask for her name to be removed from the records, another might abandon the Church’s moral code and find his membership in jeopardy, while a third might simply drift into inactivity. Each leavetaker, like each believer, walks his own path. Generalizing about such matters will almost certainly lead us astray in some ways.

Mormon Stories

Mormonism has recently produced a few particularly vocal and visible leavetakers from traditional or literal-faith Mormonism. One such is John Dehlin, whose statements and publications with Mormon Stories are particularly apt for examination because his public status has changed repeatedly. In 2007, one researcher characterized Dehlin as “perhaps the best example” of a believer who now engages in a “strong undercurrent of lively discussion, debate, and conversation involving a wide-range of Latter-day Saints…. Dehlin was a once devout Latter-day Saint who encountered all of the historical and doctrinal problems mentioned above but has chosen to remain a Latter-day Saint, and vigorously laud its culture.” [8]

While Dehlin began as a believer with questions, he later then became a more overt doubter that still planned to remain active in the Church, and finally announced his status as an unbeliever. His shifts have been self-chronicled over the last few years on-line. He affirmatively seeks to gather others like him and build rapport among them, all built on the foundation of resources he provides. Understanding what Dehlin says and does is necessary if one wishes to appreciate the present-day NOM/leavetaker approach that the Internet has facilitated. The accounts proffered by such leavetakers typically focus on historical, doctrinal, or cultural issues that leavetakers believe are relatively objective and open to neutral assessment. Yet, while the narratives—the “Mormon stories”—told by many secular leavetakers invoke such concerns, they also reveal that other factors must be considered. [9]

Dehlin’s on-line endeavors endorse skepticism about LDS truth claims, oppose the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on some matters of sexual morality, and seek to form a network of “uncorrelated Mormons.” These are current or former members whom he wants to help form their own communities, adopt a “commonsense” ethics and morality (which differs from that advocated by the Church), and support each other in a transition to a different concept and practice of “Mormonism.” [10] This agenda thus blends of elements from the sociological model’s marginal member, whistleblower, and apostate.

Dehlin has been involved in a number of on-line publications, most notably podcasts. [11] He is also active in several other Internet venues and has created a non-profit foundation [12] to advance his goals—both on-line and off-line. In addition to Internet activities, Mormon Stories holds “Mormon Stories Conferences” in various U.S. cities, and has announced a German organization with the motto “Mormon culture in stories. Personal. Direct. Uncorrelated.” [13]

Formerly employed in information technology, Dehlin worked for Sunstone first as a board member developing the magazine’s on-line presence [14] and later as executive director for a brief period. [15] He has founded several websites, including, which is “dedicated to helping people who are struggling in some way to remain involved in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after a major shift in (or challenge to) their faith.” [16] He has subsequently discontinued his public involvement with that website. [17] Dehlin is likely unknown to most members; he is probably best known on-line for his podcast series Mormon Stories. He has twice discontinued the podcast but then resumed it, together with appeals for ongoing financial support. Dehlin was to be paid a salary of $40,000 dollars by his non-profit organization in 2012. [18] He is pursuing a graduate degree in clinical/counseling psychology at Utah State University. [19]

Dehlin says that he and Mormon Stories are objective, that their material and presentation are balanced, and that they do not try to push people into either leaving or staying in the Church. He also says that if he tells people to leave the Church, his own membership will be in jeopardy. His status as a member of the Church assists his efforts to spread his message among members who might be less trusting of a non-Mormon or anti-Mormon source saying the same things. He adapts his message to the audience he addresses—Latter-day Saints often get a modified presentation of his stance and actions when compared to those opposed to the Church.

Mormon Stories’ ‘Study’ of Leavetakers

Nothing new under the sun?

Mormon Stories and its affiliates merit study partly because of its secular parallels to anti-cult ministries and exit counselors and for what it illustrates about religious leavetaking. The sociological study of leavetakers has identified common themes and patterns in what is termed the “exit narrative” or “apostasy narrative.” Such accounts typically “refer…to events [connected with a religious group] that flagrantly violate some fundamental cultural value and which evoke moral outrage to the extent that social control actions against the group perpetrating the event are warranted.” [20] Nineteenth century isolation and an inclination to believe the worst made many Mormon apostasy narratives seem plausible: debauched polygamy, tales of human sacrifice, deviant economic systems, and theocratic despotism. In the twenty-first century Mormon Stories focuses instead on such cultural values as a claimed lack of tolerance, openness, or intellectual integrity. In a more secularist vein than most sectarian exit counseling, Mormon Stories denounces an authoritarian leadership structure, unpopular views on sexual behavior, and political involvement with unpopular causes, such as opposing gay marriage. The social control must come, not from the outside, but from within the Church. Uncorrelated Mormons are said to be entitled to claim Mormon identity, Mormon Stories will guide them on how to oppose political talk at Church of which the group disapproves, and so forth. [21]

The sociology of leavetaking and leavetaking narratives

Lawrence Foster noted that “rather than moving on to make a new and more happy life for themselves, career apostates tend to define themselves more in terms of what they are against rather than what they are for. Yet their personal ambivalence also may reflect an ambivalence at the heart of the movement with which they maintain such an intense love-hate relationship.” [22] In the same vein, Dehlin has told us that he remains completely defined by his Mormon-ness, even when he says he does not believe the Church’s truth claims.

Stuart Wright notes that “the apostate carves out a moral or professional career as an ex, capitalizing on opportunities of status enhancement afforded the individual through organizational affiliation with the oppositional groups.” [23] Dehlin remains a member of record, so he is not an "ex" in the technical sense—though we recall that leavetakers of all types usually demonstrate “mixed types and movement between types….variations…would be expected to constitute the rule rather than the exception….” [24] Thus, while he is in some ways a peripheral or marginal member, he has other traits which mirror those of a sociological apostate. Like the apostates discussed by Wright, for example, Dehlin’s visibility and status have been enhanced —he gains the “social benefits” that his efforts bring. He has appeared in the national and international media, and will reap financial reward from members of the oppositional groups he has founded. [25]

Importance of the creation of a public account of leavetaking

A key part of the “post-involvement identity is negotiated within the interactional context of a countermovement coalition and subsequently packaged for public consumption as the ‘wronged’ person.” It is not incidental that there is an almost religious dimension to this process:

The apostate seeks to polarize the former and present identities, accentuating a personal transformation akin to conversion. Indeed, the intensity and zeal in which the apostate embraces the new moral vision, seeks atonement through public confession and testimony, and makes salvific claims of redemption, at least suggests that the ex-member’s new affiliation may be analyzed as a type of quasi-religious conversion in its own right….It is typically characterized as a darkness-to-light personal transformation. [26]

Dehlin presents many examples of this type of behavior. He announces that in regards to Mormon homosexuals, “We’re gonna change the world, ya’ll! For the better.” [27] His decision to announce his lack of belief is driven by a moral imperative. [28] Just because Dehlin conforms to the sociological pattern does not mean he is wrong, or dissembling, or insincere. But, his claims and approach are predictable, and in such situations the virtues of objectivity, intellectual rigor, tolerance of differing views, and balance are difficult to achieve, both because of the involvement of non-rational factors and a universal human tendency to reinterpret the past in light of present needs, beliefs, and priorities. We have seen precisely that difficulty at great length above. Dehlin’s new identity puts a premium upon these virtues, because they are an intrinsic part of the narrative he has adopted for himself and his endeavors. It is therefore important that he insist he possesses them, though the social science evidence suggests that few in Dehlin’s situation would be likely to do so.

The dilemma which leavetakers of all types face is a cruel one, and the solution is thus often radical:

How does one explain such total immersion in a religious group if the individual has come to the conclusion that it was a mistake and that he or she does not wish to continue participation any longer?... In exchange terms, the social group [outside the religion] demands reparation equal to the offense. Consequently, the disgruntled ex-member pursues the apostate role with the same vigor and intensity that characterized his or her former commitment…. [29]

Dehlin envisions an entire Mormon Stories “parachurch” [30] of study groups, conferences, Especially for Youth, dating services, alternative spiritualties, Sunday School, and supporters who have “callings” to help with podcasts. [31] He insists that this is “NOT a church/religion,” though it appears to fill much of that function psychologically and sociologically. [32] “[D]econversion and conversion may be distinguished but not completely separated in analysis,” reminds Barbour, “for they represent differing perspectives on the same human experience of transformed loyalties or altered trust.” [33] “The disengagement [from the religion] process,” says Wright, “is not complete until the individual is socially relocated and supported by a new plausibility structure that separates and insulates the ex-member from the previous role identity and belief system.” [34] With his former self completely enmeshed in Mormonism, and his present self still defined by such matters, Dehlin can be seen as now fashioning a new role for himself.

The creators and audience for leavetaking narratives

Above all, “apostate narratives are marked by a singular concern with pre-empting any questions that may be raised regarding the facticity of the claims made.” [35] To question Dehlin’s formulation is to be charged with hurting others or increasing their suffering. [36]

Apostate narratives require an audience, for the sponsoring audience actually co-authors the narrative, not as literal co-authors, but as an audience in the truest sense of the word. Here their sponsorship is not of a polished narrative ready to secure for itself a listening public, but of a developing narrative, one that they, as hearers, help secure in the first place. At its most basic level, this involves providing a contextual framework toward which the would-be apostate can orient his stories, as well as inducing him to do just that. [37]

Mormon Stories and Dehlin’s other venues provide both an audience and a forum for the mutual creation of such narratives for all. They also provide the raw material necessary for the new recruit’s own narrative. Such accounts start to sound very similar, yet “all of [this]…can proceed without open collusion between the would-be apostate and the audience that sponsors the developing tale. It all occurs without there being an explicit understanding that narrator and audience are conspiring to (re)construct the narrator’s past.” [38]

Mormon Stories has, in fact, provided a fairly transparent example of this process in action. What one author bemoaned as “occur[ing] almost entirely behind the scenes, a fact that clearly make it difficult for social scientists to analyze any of it,” we can watch Dehlin’s organization do before our eyes. [39]

Mormon Stories’s Survey—the “scientific” construction of a modern exit narrative?

As we have seen, Mormon Stories has gone to considerable lengths to craft the narrative using traditional techniques. However, I think we may now have the chance to observe a new style of exit narrative for Mormonism. Despite the relatively new approach, we will see that the dynamics and pressures to which it is responding are not new. The apostasy narrative of the nineteenth century used a novel-like formula and affidavits swearing to the tale’s veracity; the twentieth century might be said to have used the form of written secular scholarship; Mormon Stories’ novelty relies on the use of statistics and social science techniques.

We can watch Mormon Stories mobilize their community for further narrative creation if we briefly examine the results of an on-line survey, “Understanding Mormon Disbelief.” Such surveys and their mass of statistical tables and colorful graphs lend an objective, scientific air to the narrative, but they do not guarantee factuality any more than did the sworn statements that accompanied both pro- and anti-Mormon polemic in Joseph Smith’s era.

The study admits that there are problems with sampling

The survey’s report begins with a caveat:

As the survey sample was not random, the Open Stories Foundation makes no claim of representativeness or statistical significance in the sample. This survey is representative of the respondents only, although we feel that many points of this analysis are indicative of the experiences of many people in the church who pass through a crisis of faith and emerge as disbelievers. [40]

If a survey is not conducted according to scientific norms, it is not clear what value it has to others. [41] The Open Stories Foundation claims it contains meaningful information: “we feel that many points…are indicative.” The results are publicized because “we feel” they are representative, but such personal belief is not really admissible as evidence. Other unpopular religious groups have already seen the same tactics used against them:

these ex-members feed into the controversy in a number of other ways: At the level of basic research, these individuals are respondents to pseudo-scientific surveys designed to substantiate such claims as that “cult” brainwashing techniques induce mental illness in their members…. [42]

Mormon Stories’ study also reports that “[i]n addition to standard reporting of data, various statistical techniques and methodologies (multiple linear regression, factor analysis, etc.) were utilized to gain additional insights from the data.” [43] But, if the data are not gathered in a statistically significant way, it does not really matter what kind of sophisticated techniques are applied to them. Poor data cannot be made into robust data by varying the technique used to analyze them.

Problem #1: Not statistically rigorous

The first serious problem is that the survey’s participants are self-selected, as noted above. Mormon Stories did not take a random sample of members who leave the Church or even those who have decided the Church is not what it claims to be. Instead, they prepared a survey and then recruited participants through Dehlin’s podcast and others’ on-line sites, encouraging the audience to participate and to spread the word. [44] The academic literature on surveys points out that since respondents self-select when approached in this way, results are exaggerated. [45] Mormon Stories’ report ignores this issue.

Mormon Stories’ audience is almost certainly composed of many people who are troubled about the Church’s history, its stance on sexual behavior, or the other issues that interest Dehlin. The social groups to which they belong will likewise tend to be made up of those who share their biases and concerns—we tend to socialize on-line and off-line with those who agree with us about matters we deem important. Predictably, the survey finds that those who listen to Dehlin’s podcast and read his material about the problems with history and sexual behavior in the Church are troubled by the Church’s history and stance on sexual behavior.

Problem #2: Difficulties with memory and retrospective accounts

Mormon Stories’ efforts to use the survey to construct a narrative of why some Mormons disbelieve highlights a second difficulty: “Autobiographical memory is a constructive process:….People's current goals and knowledge influence recollections.” [46] This applies to everyone. One author makes the same observation in his analysis of secular and sectarian ex-Mormon narratives: “after-the-fact narratives are inherently unreliable in establishing the authenticity of actual occurrence.” [47]

Mormon Stories’ questionnaire asks people to describe why they made a decision in the past. What were the factors that led them to conclude the Church was not what it claimed to be? A change in religious worldview can be a major life event, so memories might well be vivid. However, the psychological literature is clear that conclusions about our past mental state based upon retrospective reporting are also highly unreliable. “We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences—unknowingly and unconsciously—in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of a specific incident, or even of an extended period in our lives, that says more about how we feel now than what happened then. Thus, without knowing it, we can modify our own history.” [48]

“Unfortunately,” noted the National Academies Press in 1988, “asking people about the past is not particularly helpful: people remake their views of the past to rationalize the present and so retrospective data are often of uncertain validity." [49] As a recent popularization put it, “Today, there’s broad consensus among psychologists that memory isn’t reproductive—it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced— but reconstructive. What we recall is often a blurry mixture of accurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs, needs, emotions, and hunches. These hunches are in turn based on our knowledge of ourselves, the events we try to recall, and what we’ve experienced in similar situations.” [50] A variety of biases affect such efforts to establish past views, beliefs, and influences, especially about a subject as emotionally-freighted as religion. [51]

Someone in the Open Stories Foundation has had instruction on social science research techniques. This is evinced by the insertion of a disclaimer stating that Mormon Stories’ survey is not statistically rigorous. Despite this, Mormon Stories still wishes to use the survey to construct narrative, and encourages the audience to draw conclusions based upon the responses. But, as the experts warn, “hindsight bias…is ubiquitous: people seem almost driven to reconstruct the past to fit what they know in the present. In light of [a] known outcome, people can more easily retrieve incidents and examples that confirm it.” [52]

It is thus not clear what can be concluded from such a survey, save that Mormon Stories’ audience now agrees with Dehlin.

Problem #3: Priming and cueing

The third serious problem with the survey is the phenomenon of “priming,” in which “semantic memory—the intricate network of concepts, associations, and facts that constitutes our general knowledge of the world” can be influenced by material to which we are exposed prior to answering questions. [53] Such “priming,” notes Schacter, “occurs independent of conscious memory.” [54] Simply put, the survey does not present a blank slate to those who now disbelieve. Instead, it offers a list of issues, and asks the participants to rank them. This produces multiple potential sources of error and bias:

  • By printing a long list of potential responses, the survey might lead some to decide that something which now bothers them also caused their disaffection. But, if they had been asked to remember without any cueing from the survey, this issue might not have come up.
  • The survey’s format makes it clear that a large focus is upon historical matters and issues such as feminism and gay rights. This can serve as a subtle and possibly unconscious clue about what the researcher hopes to discover. There is a natural tendency for research subjects to wish to please researchers with whom they have a pre-existing relationship. (In a similar way, patients who are being treated by a physician with whom they have a long-standing relationship will tend to report more success than those treated by a researcher they do not know, because they wish to validate their physician’s hard work and please her.)
  • Because those taking the survey know that its results will be made public and used to further Mormon Stories’ goals, they may emphasize issues which concern them because they wish to draw attention to these concerns, even if those issues actually played a minimal role in their exit. Likewise, they may downplay reasons for leaving that do not match the narrative which the Mormon Studies community is crafting.
  • The survey’s focus on problems with the Church is akin to asking a sample of divorced husbands to describe why their marriage failed via a list composed mostly of faults in their wives. Such an approach would tell us a great deal about the husbands’ current state of mind, but reveal relatively little about why the marriage failed or how the husbands contributed to its failure. [55]

In a survey of ex-Mormon exit narratives, one author noted precisely these sorts of problems:

The discussion of doctrinal issues and specific LDS truth claims [in exit narratives] is present in nearly all of the narratives but is generally proffered as an after-thought recitation without evidence of a deep grasp of the historical or theological questions at hand. This recitation generally follows the discussion of cultural estrangement and in many cases functions in the narrative to justify or validate the estrangement described previously. In only rare cases are doctrinal concerns and problems described as the genesis of the exit process. Rather, doctrinal and historical issues function to solidify or widen the gap between the author and Mormonism. [56]

Thus even after the fact, the ex-Mormon accounts do not evince a deep familiarity with the historical or doctrinal issues that trouble them, and upon which Mormon Stories’ survey focuses. Rather, doctrinal or historical concerns grow in importance later. This dynamic reversed the author’s expectations: “most of these narratives deal directly with issues of cultural pressure and disengagement and that the narrative authors generally address specific doctrinal concerns only in an after-the-fact manner.” [57]

This author’s empirical observations can be explained partly through the phenomenon of priming, in which the ex- or troubled-Mormon community helps to socialize the new leavetaker. That the survey is conducted after-the-fact likely magnifies these effects.

Problem #4: A shared narrative agenda

{{Epigraph|“Memory selects and distorts in the service of present interests. The present interest may be narrowly defined—memory may be called up and shaped in an instrumental fashion to support some current strategic end.”
— Michael Shudson [58]

The survey participants’ sympathy with Mormon Stories’ goals adds an additional wrinkle. Much of its audience knows what Mormon Stories is trying to accomplish with their survey. Dehlin is understandably anxious to disprove the notion that people leave the Church to cover or rationalize their present or intended sins, or some other less respectable reason. He draws attention to the historical and social issues that he believes are problematic and which he tells his audience will cause most of them to become “uncorrelated” Mormons if they have integrity. [59] This may explain why the report highlights the fact that “the issues that scored the lowest in terms of self-rated impact were [1] desire to sin [2] being offended.” [60] Such reports may be accurate, but it is difficult to assess them in this context. It could also be that sin and taking offense are least likely to be reported because wanting to sin or being offended are seen, in both LDS culture and western society more broadly, as poor excuses for leaving. All the problems of biased recall and selective memory will of necessity come into play when this question is asked. Autobiographers recounting a loss of religious conviction “usually reject their religion for reasons of conscience, that is, because of a commitment to intellectual honesty or because they see certain beliefs as having a destructive effect on their society.” [61]

This is simply how such people—from every faith tradition, and other deeply held belief systems such as Marxism or feminism—tend to frame such matters to themselves and for public consumption.

It is not difficult to sympathize, then, with Dehlin’s desire to eradicate the idea that his or others’ doubts springs from sin. [62] The survey is an opportunity for the disaffected and disenchanted to speak collectively to the media and perhaps the Church. It can be used to confront family members who will not accept the reasons they have given for leaving. Mormon Stories and the Open Stories Foundation play the role of “sponsoring organization” in the recitation and formalization of apostasy narratives, even among those who are elsewhere on the leavetaker spectrum:

The sponsoring audience actually promotes and shepherds the apostate narrative once it has been fashioned. The support and certification of the sponsoring audience builds the credibility of the account and the certitude and confidence of the apostate-narrator…Separating the narrative spatially, temporally, and informationally from the receiving audience renders the narrative mysterious and unverifiable even while its veracity and accuracy are being proclaimed. [63]

Mormon Stories adds a modern, scientific sheen to this phenomenon by certifying the collected anecdotes of disaffection with social science and statistics. The anonymous accounts cannot be verified, and individual accounts cannot be dissociated from the group. The audience gets only the data and perspective provided by Mormon Stories, and these perspectives are then homogenized into a numerical value. In this case, the scientific veneer serves to heighten their apparent “veracity and accuracy” while in fact subtly separating the audience from them even further. The Mormon Stories community creates its own confirmation bias. This is why medical doctors pound a maxim into their students: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”

[Note that Dehlin made essentially the same claims in another production, reviewed here, three years prior to conducting the survey.]

Problem #5: A revealing omission

There is, however, one element of the survey that is useful in a provisional way, but it serves mainly to confirm that the data set is not terribly robust. Of the “issues contributing to disbelief,” having “no spiritual witness” is ranked of “low importance,” averaging only 1.21 out of 4. [64] Even Ethan Smith’s [Book of Mormon/Authorship theories/View of the Hebrews|View of the Hebrews]], the “Mark Hofmann scandal,” and problems with local leaders all scored higher. [65] That is, these issues bothered Mormon Stories’ audience, on average, more than not receiving a spiritual witness did.

Put another way, this means that only 21% of those surveyed reported that not having a spiritual witness was “a major factor” in their decision. [66] How can this be? If there is one matter that is consistently emphasized in the Church, it is the absolute necessity of personal revelation and the importance of knowing for oneself. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that the rest of the sample received revelation confirming that the Church was true and yet chose to leave anyway because of issues surrounding sexuality or history. It is possible that the majority of the survey respondents are lying when they say that not having revelation was not of much importance to their decision, but that seems implausible.

The more convincing explanation is that not having revelation simply does not hold a prominent place in the narrative that Mormon Stories has advanced. Dehlin wants to emphasize how objective, fair, and balanced he and his followers are. He insists, for example, that a rational consideration of the Book of Mormon compels us to conclude that it cannot be historical. [67] DNA or historical issues are presented as serious problems. [68] Appealing to revelation is, in this world-view, non-rational. As a result, I suggest that Dehlin’s audience was simply not primed to regard revelation as something upon which their survey responses ought to focus. And so, the survey reports that it was of little importance in causing them to leave, though its presence or absence can in reality hardly have been insignificant to anyone with any exposure to LDS culture and training.

This dynamic is precisely what the sociological literature would lead us to expect. “Emphasis on the irresistibility of subversive techniques is vital to apostates and their allies as a means of locating responsibility for participation on the organization rather than on the former member.” [69] Dehlin (like others in his audience) achieves this same effect (consciously or otherwise) by emphasizing his life-long membership in the Church and his family background—he did not, in this reading, have a real choice, but as soon as he began to look and think for himself, he had to change his views. His culture and upbringing are what subverted his intellect. “This [type of] account avoids attribution of calculated choices that would call for invoking the label of traitor.” [70] To have received revelation and then to reject it, or to have never seriously sought it, is to betray the heart of the LDS religious project—and so, Mormon Stories and its survey participants mostly disregard personal revelation as a factor when they fashion their retrospective exit narratives.


There are multiple sources of bias in the survey. It adheres to few of the necessary protocols for valid research. It serves mainly as a tool to spread a point of view--it is propaganda, not science.

All that can be concluded from it is that the survey represents what some currently alienated Mormons who sympathize with John Dehlin want others to think about their current state. This is valuable information, but it is not chiefly the information which it purports to provide.


  1. This article has been adapted, with permission, from a larger analysis published elsewhere. Due to the nature of a wiki project, several authors and editors may have been involved in the product here.
  2. Seth R. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers: A Study of the ex-Mormon Narrative,” working paper draft, Yale Divinity School, 15 October 2007, 2,}}An abbreviated report was also presented at Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, 9 August 2008, In this review, we cite the longer working draft paper
  3. When this analysis uses the term “apostasy” or “apostate” in this paper, it intends the neutral, sociological sense. We will, however, prefer the more neutral-sounding term “leavetaker” where possible. It is used in a generic sense to refer to any member who is withdrawing, to whatever degree, from full religious participation. Stylistic or citation reasons may, however, occasionally necessitate the use of the other terms.
  4. Eileen Barker, “Standing at the Cross-Roads: The Politics of Marginality in ‘Subversive Organizations’,” in The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements, edited by David G. Bromley (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998), 76–83; David G. Bromley, “Sociological Perspectives on Apostasy: An Overview,” in the same volume, 7); Payne, “Purposeful Strangers,” 3–7).
  5. Barker, “Standing at the Cross-Roads,” 80.
  6. Bromley’s classification only includes the last three categories; Bromley, “Sociological Perspectives,” 5 and David G. Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles: Defectors, Whistleblowers, and Apostates,” in The Politics of Religious Apostasy, 25–38.
  7. Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,” 21.
  8. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers,” 32.
  9. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers,” 27, 31.
  10. For further details, see full review at Gregory L. Smith, “Dubious Mormon Stories: A Twenty-First Century Construction of Exit Narratives,” 23 February 2013.
  11. A podcast is much like a radio program. It is usually an audio-only file (though video podcasts also exist), which the user can download and listen to at leisure.
  12. “About,” Open Stories Foundation, accessed 28 February 2012, The relevant IRS data can be viewed at
  13. Original reads: "Mormonische Kultur in Geschichten. Persönlich. Direkt. Unkorreliert," (23 June 2012).
  14. Dan Wotherspoon, “Blogging and Podcasting Sunstone Style!,” 15 September 2005, Archived version available at
  15. Carrie A. Moore, “A New Direction for Sunstone?,” Deseret Morning News, 7 August 2007,
  16. “The Mission of,” 13 July 2009,
  17. Brian Johnson and, “How to Stay in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after a Major Challenge to Your Faith,” Open Stories Foundation, 2010, accessed 13 March 2012,
  18. John Dehlin, “298: We Really Need Your Support,” 28 October 2011,; “355: What Mormon Stories is Trying to Do, and How to Keep it Alive,” 25 June 2012,; “Finances,” Open Stories Foundation, accessed 28 February 2012,; “About,” Open Stories Foundation, accessed 28 February 2012,
  19. Kevin Opsashi, “Religious obsession studied; USU team develops treatment,” 2 January 2011,}}html.
  20. James T. Richardson, “Apostates, Whistleblowers, Law, and Social Control,” in Bromley, The Politics of Religious Apostasy, 173.
  21. See full paper for documentation and examples.
  22. Foster, “Career Apostates,” 54}} Compare with citation of Foster’s later work in Armand L. Mauss, “Apostasy and the Management of Spoiled Identity,” 51.
  23. Wright, 97.
  24. Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,” 21.
  25. See Smith, “Dubious Mormon Stories,” especially notes 15, 18, 136, 234, 243, and 254.
  26. Wright, “Exploring Factors That Shape the Apostate Role,” 97.
  27. John Dehlin, posts on Dehlin’s Facebook wall, 9 December 2011 (9:38 PM), See also
  28. See, for example, Mormonstories [John Dehlin], comment on thread “Conversation on FB with a friend, because oh [sic] John Dehlin,” 12 April 2011 (9:48 AM), {{{1}}}.
  29. Wright, “Exploring Factors That Shape the Apostate Role,” 103.
  30. John Dehlin, post on Mormon Stories Facebook wall, 8 October 2012 (1:55 PM),
  31. John Dehlin, “The Path of the Uncorrelated Mormon,” PowerPoint presentation from Mormon Stories conference, New York City, 26 March 2011, slide 44}} See also John Dehlin, “254: Exploring the Future for Uncorrelated Mormons with John Dehlin,” 29 April 2011, See also; Jared Anderson, “Mormon Stories Sunday School,” (27 June 2012),; John Dehlin, post on Dehlin’s Facebook wall, 4 July 2012 (6:59 AM),
  32. Dehlin, “Uncorrelated Mormon,” slide 45.
  33. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion, 74.
  34. Wright, “Exploring Factors That Shape the Apostate Role,” 107.
  35. Daniel Carson Johnson, “Apostates Who Never Were: The Social Construction of Absque Facto Apostate Narratives,” in Bromley, The Politics of Religious Apostasy, 124.
  36. When Dehlin heard that this review was in preparation, he wrote to a Seventy and copied Dan Peterson: “Please, please stop the personal public attacks of people who are struggling with legitimate issues” [John Dehlin, e-mail to Elder [Seventy] and Dan Peterson, 26 March 2012 (12:03 PM)]. For more details, see Gregory L. Smith, “Return of the Unread Review: A Mormon Story,” 23 February 2013, notes 43, 52–53, and 55 therein.
  37. Johnson, “Apostates Who Never Were,” 131
  38. Johnson, “Apostates Who Never Were,” 132
  39. Johnson, “Apostates Who Never Were,” 132.
  40. Open Stories Foundation, “Understanding Mormon Disbelief: Why do some Mormons lose their testimony and what happens to them when they do?,” (March 2012): 4,
  41. Such “convenience sampling” is useful for some purposes, such as the early development of hypotheses for future testing by more appropriate sampling techniques. They are the beginning of research, not the finished product that the release of a report implies: “[C]onvenience sampling can be useful to researchers in a number of ways. For example, responses from a convenience sample might be useful in developing hypotheses early in the course of research, identifying various issues surrounding the research subject, defining response categories for multiple-response questions, or collecting other sorts of noninferential data.” Matthias Schonlau, Ronald D. Fricker, Jr., and Marc N. Elliott, Conducting Research Surveys via E-mail and the Web (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2002), 8}} See also
  42. James R. Lewis, “Adidam, Controversy, and Former Members,” paper presented at 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, 11–13 June 2009, Lewis also notes that “Rather than responding directly to mainstream social science, a handful of anti-cultists with academic credentials have instead conducted research on their own terms, creating alternative periodicals, which feature pseudo-scientific studies supporting the ‘cult’ stereotype.” See also “Return of the Unread Review,” notes 29, 31 therein.
  43. “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 4.
  44. “A link to the survey was posted on several sites associated with the “Bloggernacle”, or LDS-themed blogs, as well as through social media.” [“Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 4}}] We recall Dehlin’s past practice of using the same channels to explicitly recruit supportive testimonials (but not critical ones) to present to his stake president—see Smith, “Dubious Mormon Stories,” notes 144–147.
  45. Conducting Research Surveys via E-mail and the Web, 33.
  46. Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson, "Constructing and Appraising Past Selves," in Memory, Brain, and Belief, edited by Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), 232, 233; cited in Gardner, Gift and Power, 74. At the time of publication, both authors were members of the Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
  47. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers,” 2.
  48. Seema L. Clifasfi, Maryanne Garry, and Elizabeth Loftus, “Setting the Record (or Video Camera) Straight on Memory and Other Memory Myths,” in Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain: Separating Fact from Fiction, edited by Sergio Della Sala (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 61; cited in Gardner, Gift and Power, 119n1.
  49. Dean R. Gerstein, Duncan Luce, Neil J. Smelser, and Sonja Sperlich, editors, The Behavioral and Social Sciences: Achievements and Opportunities (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1988), 173.
  50. Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 68.
  51. Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 138–139.
  52. Schacter, Seven Sins of Memory, 147.
  53. Daniel L. Schacter, Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, and The Past (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 169}} Another aspect of memory which operates on a non-conscious level, termed the “perceptual representation system,” (PRS) also handles simpler types of priming, and normally works in close concert with semantic memory (166–172).
  54. Schacter, Searching For Memory, 167.
  55. This precise scenario has been studied, with predictable but illuminating results; see Schacter, Seven Sins of Memory, 141–142. (Click here for an excerpt).
  56. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers,” 27.
  57. Payne, “Purposeful Strangers,” 23–24.
  58. Shudson, 351; cited in Gardner, Gift and Power, 119.
  59. See Smith, “Dubious Mormon Stories,” note 212.; Dehlin, “Uncorrelated Mormon,” slide 44.
  60. “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 8.
  61. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion, 4.
  62. See anonymous survey respondent #243 who tells the Church, “Please don't treat doubt as a sin,” while #1736 says, “The way that church leaders demonize people like me at conference is so upsetting.” [“Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 6.]
  63. Bromley, “Sociological Perspectives,” 9.
  64. “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 12.
  65. “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 26. The report renders the name as “Hofmann” (9, 11), “Hoffman” (12, 26), and “Hofman” (17). The first is correct.
  66. “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” 8.
  67. See Smith, “Dubious Mormon Stories,” notes 94–95, 103.
  68. See Smith, “Dubious Mormon Stories,” notes 48, 91–92.
  69. Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,” 37.
  70. Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,” 37.