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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Losing Faith and Lots More

Some Mormons who quit the church find themselves ostracized by friends, co-workers and families. Annual gathering offers support, shared experiences.

December 01, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harrison said she also had problems within her marriage. She eventually told her Mormon husband that she would no longer share a bed with him unless he stopped wearing his sacred Mormon undergarments, worn day and night by the devout. She wanted a respite from symbolism.

"That church was right there in the bed with us," she complained. He stopped wearing the underwear, and she quit wearing her "Have You Hugged an Apostate Today?" T-shirt.

Though public rhetoric has softened in recent years, Mormons believe that stepping away from the church will have eternal consequences. Ex-Mormons are also excluded from major earthly events such as temple baptisms and weddings, where only members in good standing can set foot.

"My sister couldn't attend some events [at the temple], and it hurts," said Joni Bown, a Salt Lake City Mormon whose sister quit the church. "Yes, I pray for her to come back to something that's so special to us."

Rob Shiveley, 42, thought becoming an ex-Mormon would hurt his career in Utah's computer software industry.

"The conversations on campus and at lunch at my company were all about the Mormon church," said Shiveley, who left the church after landing a new job in Portland, Ore. "The handful of non-Mormons were very much on the outside in the company."

Because business is often conducted informally around church social activity, much the way other cultures conduct it on the golf course, many nonbelieving Mormons haven't come out to their family, friends or co-workers.

Those who keep quiet "don't risk alienation if there isn't an explicit rejection of the religion," said Tim B. Heaton, sociology professor at Brigham Young University.

Many of the apostates still enjoy parts of the Mormon culture, especially the emphasis on family and moral values. "I want to be a Mormon like Woody Allen is a Jew," said one conference participant. "I don't want to be robbed of my Mormonism."

But the all-or-nothing nature of the church leaves many struggling for a new identity.

Because of the strict Mormon lifestyle, many ex-Mormons often experience a kind of delayed adolescence once they leave the church, experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sex.

Christene Carol, 43 and mother of five, said she attempted suicide in 1999 after living "an insanely perfect life" as a Mormon.

She said she has spent the past two years learning to live responsibly without the guidance of the church, though it's been a difficult road at times. She said she overdosed on Ecstasy one night.

"I don't expect the people in the church to understand, and I don't blame anyone," said Carol, a resident of Bountiful, Utah. "I've learned to live an independent life rather than a life of needing or seeking the approval of others."

Maxine Hanks says she and others put up with the "scathing but subtle disapproval" from Mormons in Utah and elsewhere because it's important to "learn how to stay."

"I make a difference here," she says. "I have a social responsibility to stay in the conversation. And we need to create diversity. Without people like us, there is no diversity."

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