Rosemary Avance. Journal of Media and Religion. Volume 12, Issue 1, 2013.
Religious worlds proliferate in online environments, but Internet activity does more than simply reinforce preexisting religious identity. Access to information and communities online can also contribute to a loss of faith and the construction of a new religio-spiritual identity. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or the Mormons, the Internet both supports and threatens the hegemonic status quo. On the one hand, it may serve community-reinforcing functions as a source for official information on the Church (through its official Web sites, lds.org and mormon.org) and a gathering place for the Mormon community (through social networking and the “bloggernacle,” a collective emic term for various blogs relating to Mormon life and practice). However, the Internet is also awash with unorthodox and “anti-Mormon” sentiment (i.e., information not in keeping with the Church’s official teachings): even an innocent Google search for information about LDS inevitably leads to vibrant Internet communities for former and questioning Mormons. Exposure to new information in communities such as these can serve as antecedent or catalyst for religious deconversion. Indeed, many heterodox or former Mormons explain that the Internet has been their sanctuary—quite literally—as they have explored and developed a new religious identity.
The impulses that drive spiritual communion in the offline world also motivate participation in online communities among some heterodox and former Mormons. In particular, de-converting Mormons share stories which structurally mirror the testimonies of active, believing Mormons. In both cases, these narrative accounts legitimate belonging by establishing who is inside and who is outside the boundaries of the respective ritual communities. In other words, faithful, heterodox, and former Mormons (three simplistic and arguably reductive categories which I impose on Mormons’ much more complex identities for sake of discussion) all offer parallel explanations of their religious or spiritual status by referring to events in the past that led them to where they are now. Both believing Mormons and questioning or former Mormons testify to a common theme: “I once was blind, but now I see.” The narratives that create community for both groups are descriptions of this process of coming to see, or coming to the knowledge of two mutually exclusive “truths.”
This article considers narratives of conversion and deconversion in on- and offline worlds as modes of creating and sustaining community. Using ritual analysis, cultural studies, and communication scholarship, I explore the discourse of questioning and former Mormons on popular online message boards and parallel these with the narrative testimonies of faithful Church members. I argue that the ritual impulse that drives Mormon community in offline spaces mirrors the impulse that compels many former and heterodox Mormons to fellowship online. Although these case studies focus on LDS communities, these findings suggest a reconsideration of online engagement—religious and otherwise—as narrative expression stemming from the human impulse toward community.
First, a brief word about terminology: Throughout this article I describe the online narrative practices of “types” of Mormons—namely faithful, heterodox/questioning, and former—arguing that despite their differences each group essentially functions as a belief community with more-or-less standardized and normalized identity narratives. For the purpose of discussion, I perhaps make some rather glaring assumptions about the relationship of individual belief, identity, and community practice. By referencing “heterodox” Mormonism, I emphasize that Mormonism is an orthodox faith that valorizes “correct belief” (and by implication, condemns incorrect belief) and that there are certain beliefs and practices that are expected of a faithful Mormon within the belief community that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In my estimation these include but are not limited to belief that the Book of Mormon is a literal interpretation of a sacred and inspired ancient text, the stories in the Book are literal historical accounts, the LDS is the restored church established by Christ, the Church’s leaders are inspired and prophetic; as well as adherence to cultural norms such as the wearing of special garments, avoidance of particular substances in keeping with the Word of Wisdom, regular tithing of one’s income, regular attendance at the local ward, participation in voluntary callings, in addition to many other beliefs and practices. In this article, those I term faithful more-or-less follow these and other normative beliefs and practices and have a vested social interest in being recognized by others within and without the ritual community as being faithful. My term “heterodox Mormon” implies a deviation from this normative model, which I discuss later. In practice, Mormon identity is not so black and white. Indeed, many “faithful” Mormons may nuance or resist certain normative teachings or practices and still others may believe fully while participating less. I use the category of “faithful” as a way of illustrating the Church’s normative model for identity which some individual Mormons adopt, not as a way of suggesting that Mormon faith is homogeneous or monolithic.
This article draws on two sources of ethnographic data, gathered at different times for different projects. The first was a series of 17 in-depth interviews conducted with current and former Mormons about their conversion experiences. These narratives were analyzed in relation to official Church discourse about the experience of conversion, noting that Mormons offer individual testimonies as ritual performances that reflect official normative discourse (specifically, the discourse of the General Authorities), which in turn reflects the Joseph Smith experience and allows members to ritually embody the founding myth of their faith. In this way, narrative as a ritual is the essential communicative mode that actually creates the community of faith by delineating those within its boundaries. Religious historian Bruce Lincoln (1996) analyzes identity as a construct resulting from what he terms “triadic codefinition,” a process whereby “a social group, a set of ritual performances, and a set of mythic narratives produce one another” (p. 166). In my view, the triad involved in the definition of Mormon identity is the Mormon community, the performance of testimony, and authoritative discourse as a Geertzian “model for” Mormonism’s mythic narratives.
The second source of ethnographic data from which this current project draws involves participant observation at two online message boards, one for heterodox and one for former Mormons, as well as several interviews with users of these sites. I first became aware of these sites during an interview with a former Mormon, who told me that his deconversion had been precipitated by reading what he termed “anti-Mormon literature” online. After reading it, he said, he found an online community of “like-minded Mormons” who were also struggling with their faith. He helped me gain access to this message board community and told me about others like it. To help diversify my perspective, I did deep ethnographic work among two very distinct sites, which loosely represent a continuum: one, which I will call the Path, is generally sympathetic to the LDS Church, sees it as a force for good in the world, but draws a nuanced distinction between being Mormon and believing in LDS teachings. Pathists are heterodox Mormons; that is, they generally want to remain Mormon but take issue (intellectual, historical, political, moral, or otherwise) with the Church and want to see progressive change within the institution, LDS culture, or both. They claim that Mormonism does not have to be entirely “true” or “false” to be valuable; and the forum itself is positioned as a community for learning and individual intellectual growth. Importantly, while these Mormons self-present as heterodox on the anonymous Internet forum, many of them maintain an orthodox Mormon lifestyle and are not “out” as heterodox in their offline lives.
The other site I observed, which I will call the Escape, comprised members who are antagonistic to the Church and who see Joseph Smith and modern day LDS leaders as either liars or frauds, or as deluded and psychopathic. Escapists are evangelistic in their passion to liberate active Mormons from the Church’s bonds. Participants on these boards generally claim that the Church is a dangerous cult which dupes its brainwashed followers, or a systemically corrupt, power-hungry oligarchy. The Escape, as an online community, is positioned as a therapeutic forum for recovery from an abusive religious system. Still, like the Path, not all Escapists are “out” in their offline lives; their family, friends, and Church leaders may believe they are still faithful Mormons, despite their online activism.
As I explored these communities, I noticed that the discourse in both cases seemed strikingly familiar. Although heterodox and former Mormons necessarily tell different tales than their believing counterparts, all three groups create testimony using narrative scripts. The ways that Pathists and Escapists talk about their relation to the Mormon faith follows a distinctively normalized structure that emphasizes cohesive narrative elements.
On the Narrative Construction of Religious Identity
In my research on Mormonism, my primary focus has been how the teachings and culture of the Church construct Mormon identity, and how members themselves negotiate and re-imagine this identity, themselves constructing in turn what it means to be Mormon. Of course, the idea that identity is constructed is not a new one. John Dewey explains the view succinctly:
Society exists not only by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. (1916, p. 5)
Scholars such as Erving Goffman (1959) and Victor Turner (1969) examine the ways that social interaction shapes (and even determines) individual identity, and Berger and Luckmann (1966) coined the phrase “social construction of reality” to refer to the ways that such interactions create and maintain our world as we know it. Goffman’s (1959) “dramaturgical analysis” treats social interactions as performances which construct identity along agree-upon narrative lines. His notion of “interaction rituals” or “ritual games” (1967) goes further, suggesting that one constructs one’s identity (“face”) as a type of sacred object constituted by the ritual of social exchange. Thus the self can only be constructed through communication.
Religious identity is likewise constructed through ritualized interpersonal exchange. In Mormonism, conversion happens and religion is thereafter lived through a social, discursive process involving the telling of one’s faith narrative, or bearing a testimony. Likewise, I will argue, heterodox and former Mormons construct their new negotiated identities through the sharing of their own heterodox testimonies or deconversion narratives; which, rather than a testimony, is often simply framed as “telling my story.” Although these stories are shared casually, their formal features are salient. Catherine Bell (1997) distinguishes between “formal” and “informal” modes of speaking by noting that formality “appears to be, at least in part, the use of a more limited and rigidly organized set of expressions and gestures, a ‘restricted code’ of communication or behavior in contrast to a more open or ‘elaborated code’” (p. 139). In this way, then, both heterodox testimonies and deconversion stories can be viewed and analyzed as formal ritual narratives.
Functionally, the act of performing the narration of testimony actually serves to construct the conversion described. Such acts of ritual communication are what Roy Rappaport (1999) dubs “factive performatives,” that is, ritual utterances which affect the change that they state. In this category fall statements like “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “We find the defendant guilty,” and other verbal utterances which do what they purport to describe (see Rappaport, 1999, pp. 114-126). Similarly, Turner’s (1969) conception of the role of ritual is, in part, a performance of a group’s formative myths, linking them bodily with the stories that give form and meaning to the group. The role of the audience matters, too; as Hoover (2006) points out, these self-constructions are fitted to a context and a particular audience.
The human impulse to participate in such rituals stems from what John Durham Peters (1999) describes as the heart of Western conceptions of communication: the yearning for the meeting of minds, or the touching of souls. While Peters demonstrates that this desire is ill-founded, since humans are by nature impenetrable, he also shows that this yearning drives many human activities. If this impulse truly is at the heart of what it means to be human, and if this impulse finds one of its most prominent expressions in religious community, what are the implications for those who do not identify strongly with orthodox religion, or who refute it altogether? I am interested in thinking through the ways that individuals who find themselves outside the boundaries of traditional religion still embody these impulses; particularly, the ways that offering a deconversion story or heterodox testimony enacts a negotiated identity through community participation in shared experience.
Among members of the Escape, narratives of deconversion are highly formulaic and canonic, and the parallels with conversion stories of faithful Mormons are uncanny. Individuals in both cases describe a moment when they learn an incendiary piece of information that threatens to upend their current worldview. For converts, this may be framed as a seed being planted about the Gospel. Escapists, on the other hand, often describe a moment of intense dissonance—their word—resulting from some secular evidence, or the first time they were exposed to “anti-Mormon literature” (a common LDS phrase encapsulating anything that challenges the Church or its purported history), as a “seed of doubt.” They are often blindsided by this information; as one Escapist explains, “When I started this personal journey at 30 I was unprepared for what I would learn about myself and my church.”
Both converts and Escapists tell next of seeking out more information confirming or denying the initial information. Both groups often describe this as a time of uncharacteristic fervor and focus as they single-mindedly seek the truth and the liberation they are sure it will bring. Converts ask to have the missionary lessons, or read through the Book of Mormon and pray about its truthfulness; they often tell of hours spent reading and the inability to tear themselves away. Escapists describe an almost frenzied effort to seek out illicit information from sources the Church deems illegitimate and anti-Mormon: the Internet, books, or other former Mormons. The information they seek out might be on archeology, linguistics, biology, or history, but it is typically presented as a rational, intellectual attempt to pit scientific evidence against the irrational claims of religion. One Escapist says of her experience, “So far this has been a whirlwind of obsessive researching, writing, and reading the bible with new eyes. I am exhausted, and my mind hurts.”
After both converts and Escapists engage in some kind of socially interactive, intellectual exercise to further their knowledge, phenomenological experience ensues. Both converts and Escapists speak affectively and impressionistically—converts see the light, Escapists report that a light came on; converts were filled with a burning in their bosom, Escapists were filled with anger. Both ultimately experience peace and surety that their newfound knowledge is exclusively true or right, and both rely on affective elements to fill in where intellect leaves off. One Escapist describes his “shock and amazement” that the Church’s claims did not match up with historical evidence. Another explains, in a perfect parallel with a conversion experience, that once he was “free” of the Church and its requirements, as he says, “I have never been happier in my life.” Another describes, after a tumultuous exit from the Church, finally feeling “serene” as she has finally “wash[ed] away the old” and found “new ways to see the world and life.”
For these former Mormons who supplement or supplant their offline reality with digital community, the parallel between conversion and deconversion goes even further. Just as the LDS offer fellowship with likeminded individuals who recite the same phenomenological conversion script, former Mormons in digital environments likewise fellowship and share their “testimonies” on a regular basis. Similarly, in Mormonism, proselytizing through sharing testimony is incumbent upon all members (except in Israel, where the Church forbids it). Likewise, the Escape’s message boards are apologetic, a forum to proselytize a worldview. Ironically, the Web site explicitly states in its rules of conduct that the message boards are not to be used for the purpose of converting people to another faith—an explicit reference to organized faiths that belies the actual purpose and function of the site, which is conversion of a different sort: deconversion, or as the site puts it, “transitioning to a normal life.”
The Escape site encourages its users to post their “exit stories” and to offer “support” to one another. One woman tells of having been raised in the Church and baptized by her father as a child. As an adult she grew distant from her faith and eventually met and married a non-Mormon, and that led to ostracism from her own church. Eventually, she turned to the Internet:
A couple of weeks ago [when] I typed in Mormons on Yahoo answers came up with lots of interesting things, but something that caught my eye was a comment about the journal of discourses. This [led] me to start researching. I came across [the Escape Web site] and read the page that says “Thinking of Joining Mormonism?” and scrolled down to the bottom of the page where it talks about unusual teachings of the LDS church. This was the moment for me. I knew somehow deep down that the man who wrote this was not just some anti-mormon trying to pull my leg. I have started researching on my own, and I have only begun to scratch the surface. But I’ve found enough to know that the church is not what it seems to be.
Unlike the Escape, the Path emphasizes that individuals must come to their own conclusions about faith, rationality, and secularity—members here are heterodox in their approach to their strictly bounded, orthodox institutionalized faith. The Path is less vitriolic and less apologetic than the Escape, although anger, sadness, and loss are still main themes as individuals come to terms with a religion they now see as less than perfect, and perhaps less than inspired. As one user notes,
I just barely came across this site as I have been seeking out different perspectives and answers to questions … What surprises me most are the many honest and genuine seekers of truth that participate here as opposed to some of the other sites that are more anti and one-sided on discussing controversial issues of the Church.
Still, despite the array of experiences represented, the testimonies offered through the Path are still formulaic in some important ways. Like members of the Escape, Pathists previously occupied a position of faithfulness and normativity in relation to their faith, accepting the history and doctrine of the Church on the Church’s terms. They often begin by offering their Mormon bona fides: whether they have pioneer ancestry, were BIC (“born in the covenant,” meaning their parents were sealed in the temple), served a mission, married in the temple, hold a recommend, etc. They next describe some event or piece of incendiary information which interrupts their idyllic faith, with more or less catastrophic results. Often, Pathists tell of social or cultural failings of the Church sparking questions or doubts. While an Escapist might tell of potentially empirical issues—such as accusations that Joseph Smith forged the Book of Mormon—Pathists often describe interpersonal or cultural issues like frustration over being singled out for not wearing a white shirt to pass sacrament, or being bothered by the Church’s history of racial discrimination. Often times the issues are political or doctrinal rather than historical or scientific, like the Escapists.
Still, it is not the issue itself that differentiates the Pathists from the Escapists but rather their response to it. Escapists are either “out” of Mormonism or on their way out. But after confronting their issues, Pathists participate in the Church “on their own terms,” which might mean attending but harboring disbelief, not attending but identifying culturally with the Church, rejecting the Church altogether but allowing that others might come to different conclusions, attending but refusing callings, avoiding participation in temple ceremonies, working to effect cultural or institutional change through internal activism, and so forth. Importantly, Pathists occupy a liminal state between assent and rejection, illustrated by the following example:
My story … convert to the Church, active for the past 30+ years[.] Married in the Temple, held several leadership positions, and currently in the Bishopric. I never questioned the Church Doctrine and studied all the correlated material faithfully and was convinced I knew it all … until I found out that J.S. had married other men’s wives. I completely said it was false and then someone challenged me to read “Rough Stone Rolling.” I was shocked. Why didn’t I know these things? That started my quest to find out everything that I was missing. My search kept me within LDS authors such as Quinn, Compton, B.H. Roberts, Airington and the likes. I read View of the Hebrews and found similarities. I studied Masonic rituals and the history of Temple worship within LDS culture. Needless to say I am an empty shell after being deceived of the truth. My wife and family are TBMs, and it makes it kind of hard to put on a good face knowing what I know. But I’m glad this board is here. Makes it easier to [hear] your stories and to know [I’m] not alone. There are many of us finding the hidden truths. I still believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior, but I’m struggling with that as well.
As with the Escape, ironic posting guidelines for the Path specify that the Boards should not be used for bearing testimony or for polemics against the Church. Despite their testimonies not keeping with the normative ones accepted by the LDS, their personal accounts still function as testimony. As a brief aside, it would be useful to track these users longitudinally to see if they ultimately come out with vitriolic, separatists deconversion narratives similar to the Escapists, or if they continue to negotiate their relationship to the Church. Such an inquiry would shed some light on the process of deconversion and even on stages of grief associated with leaving ritual communities.
As a Rappaportian factive performative, testimony serves the ritual function of creating and maintaining religious identity. In offering testimony, testimony is created; by stating that one knows the Church to be true, one comes into that knowledge and into a binding obligation to the Church itself—an obligation Rappaport describes as assent to a liturgical order. So what do we make of deconversion stories?
With the Internet as their sanctuary, questioning and former Mormons engage in a ritual of sharing that binds them in a spiritual community, despite their disavowal of faith. They imagine a worldview predicated on logic and rationality rather than emotion and faith, yet discursively mirror the experience they denounce. Importantly, the ritualism of these communities problematizes a traditional reading of ritual theory, particularly Rappaport, who emphasizes the centrality of embodiment in successful ritual. While believing Mormons obviously put their bodies on the line for their ritual community, doubting and former Mormons often self-consciously do not. Not only is the Internet a disembodied mode of communication, but these practitioners often also have vested interest in remaining anonymous. Perhaps their dissatisfaction or doubts have not been publicly registered and so they are both participating in offline communities of belief and online communities of dissent simultaneously. Others opt for anonymity to shield still-believing family members from scrutiny, embarrassment, or disappointment. The anonymity afforded by online communities makes it possible for unconventional Mormons to share what they otherwise would not. As one member of the Path put it, he recognizes “the sensitive nature” of “being public with my spiritual journey.” Mormons who do not toe the line in belief or practice face disappointing family and friends and even run the risk of ostracism or excommunication from their community of faith—a threat to their identity that they may not be prepared to confront. That their communities online still function ritualistically illustrates the complexity of the relationship between technology and ritual and opens up new areas for scholarly inquiry. What is lost in ritual that is disembodied and anonymized? What is gained? Could belief be manifest in the ways that Mormon disbelief was in this study, and satisfy the same communal and individual impulses without embodiment and identifiability?
At this moment where religion and modern technology collide, we might expect to see the erosion of religious impulses—as has been the prediction of scholars of secularism since the Enlightenment. More recently, sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991), Charles Taylor (2007), and others argue that the modern condition frees individuals from traditional roles and canonic scripts for how to do identity. However, the narratives of current and former Mormons belie this myth of modernity, instead underscoring the central role of such scripts in both communities of belief and disbelief—among those Taylor might call religious and secular. Though Giddens and Taylor suggest that modernity frees us from imposed limits on who we choose to be, individuals use narratives that are bounded by normative constraints to create their identities.
That deconversion recounted and shared online amounts to a sacred tradition is certainly a contentious claim. It is not meant to challenge the legitimacy of religious identity or even of religious institutions. Instead, it is meant to suggest that in our supposedly modern age, individuals still yearn for what religion claims to offer. Desire for intellectual and affective fulfillment, purpose and consistency in life and in death, and fellowship with others who have shared phenomenological experience are still very much vibrant parts of the lives of those within and without the bounds of organized religion. Countless individuals of all faiths—and no faith—engage daily in community, with the Internet as their sanctuary.