To be a Mormon among Mormons is to realize the American fantasy of good neighbors. They’re the kind of neighbors from whom you borrow a cup of sugar and whom you trust to pick up your children from school when you’re stuck in a meeting. They invite you over on summer evenings for lemonade at the table in the backyard next to the hydrangeas. You eat their Jell-O salad at picnics. (Lime Jell-O is so popular among Mormons that the corridor of Mormon communities from Utah to Idaho is often called “the Jell-O Belt.”) And, of course, you see them every Sunday at church.
Joseph, 27, lives just west of Salt Lake City in a Mormon ward that spans a couple of streets. His church is just down the road, and the bishop, who presides over the ward, lives around the corner. Most of his neighbors are active within the Church, and when Joseph first moved in, he was, too. After he and his wife began trying to start a family, they became particularly close to their neighbors across the street who were older and had children of their own. The couple included them in all of their entertaining. The neighbors didn’t have an ice maker, so, often, one of them would swing by to pillage Joseph’s ice and chat. Their friendship was a paradigm of neighbordom, which inspires envy in this writer, whose interactions with her neighbors are limited to whacking the wall with a Swiffer when their music is too loud.
A family can also be very petty, especially when one of its own begins to drift away
In an article written for the Church’s official newsroom, titled “Why Mormons Make Good Neighbors,” Elder Larry Y. Wilson extols his fellow “church-attending Latter-day Saints” for their neighborliness. He begins with a quote drawn from a letter Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Winston Churchill: “I have a very high opinion of the Mormons—for they are excellent citizens.” (Wilson does not include the rest of Roosevelt’s quote, which ends in a barrel-bellied jab about polyamory.) He goes on to cite a survey showing that Mormons feel warmer toward their own members than any other religious group. “Practicing Latter-day Saints tend to be healthier, happier, better educated, and more committed to family values,” Wilson writes. “The Latter-day Saint community functions like an extended family.”
Depending on your experiences with extended family, Wilson’s comparison is either a soothing affirmation or a grim warning. A family can be very warm — particularly when that family is tied together by proximity, faith, a sweeping shared value system, a history of persecution, and the belief that “the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” A family can also be very petty, especially when one of its own begins to drift away.
Last summer, Joseph chose to stop attending church services. He made his decision in the wake of a protest by Sam Young, a businessman and former bishop from Texas. Young had been fasting for weeks to raise awareness about a policy that allowed bishops to conduct one-on-one interviews with minors, often about sexual matters. His cause struck a chord with Joseph, who was sexually abused when he was younger. Joseph attended several events Young held, and after one of them, he never went back to church again.
Joseph and his wife also announced their decision to their neighbors. “We still hang out with them,” he says, “but it just seems like, recently, they’re more distant. We don’t get invited over very often.” They still talk sometimes, but the friendship has chilled a bit, if you will: Joseph’s friend doesn’t swing by for ice anymore. “He doesn’t come over at all or check in on us to see how we’re doing. It’s just kind of sad. Not only are we leaving the Church, but we’re leaving our friends. We’re leaving our life. We’re leaving everything.”
Joseph hasn’t attended church services in nearly a year. He canceled the automatic payments that withdrew a 10 percent tithe from his income each month. When he’s out mowing his front lawn, his neighbors don’t greet him. Some don’t even look at him, and when they do, they stare pointedly at the tattoos he’s gotten in the past year.
But Joseph has joined a new community, one built of former Mormons who have found each other on the internet and who are committed to helping each other navigate the logistical and existential difficulties of leaving the Church.
In recent years, the Church has been embattled by the efficiency of the internet. It’s never been easier to stumble across information that contradicts the pillars of faith. That’s true for many religions but especially Mormonism, which has a very recent history. Where the unsavory specifics of an older faith’s origins may have been eroded by time, reduced to a handful of too-old-to-question texts and some shriveled relics, the early years of Mormonism are well-documented and easily examined online. The internet has also given Mormons new platforms, from forums to podcasts, where they can share their findings. The result has been a mass undoctrination.
But even when Mormons who choose to leave the Church can do so with the click of a button, it’s not that simple.
During a Q&A at Utah State University in 2011, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, who was then the official Church historian, fielded a polite hardball question from a woman in the audience. She asked when the Church’s manuals would begin reflecting what she’d learned about the Church through her own research. “It’s interesting, in several of the scriptures that give us the information about what the Church historian should do, it’s ‘speak to the rising generation,’” Jensen said. “So our hope is to equip them, in a knowledgeable way — to give reason for the hope that is in them, and to do it in age-specific ways.”
The woman then asked Jensen whether he was aware that many Mormons were leaving the Church because of what they’d learned about Church history on Google.
“We are aware,” Jensen said, sounding defeated. “We do have another initiative that we’ve called ‘Answers to Gospel Questions.’ We’re trying to figure out exactly what channel to deliver it in, and exactly what format to put it in, but we want to have a place where people can go. We have hired someone that’s in charge of search engine optimization.” Salvation was suddenly a matter of clicks: it was up to Google’s algorithms whether a Mormon seeking answers found them on LDS.org or on an ex-Mormon blog. The Church began a 21st century crusade for its members’ attention.
LDS.org is now ChurchofJesusChrist.org, recently changed to encourage the use of the Church’s proper name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The update appears to have temporarily hindered the Church’s search engine optimization. Until June, the Church’s SEO was so good that LDS.org generally outranked Wikipedia in any Google search that included the term “Mormon.”)
“Everything I read just made me more and more sure it was wrong.”
Mormons struggling with questions about their faith can either seek help from their bishop or, says Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff, they can find scriptures, articles from Church leaders, and video libraries on ChurchofJesusChrist.org. Woodruff also points me to the Gospel Topics Essays, a series on divisive points in the Church’s history (“Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah”) and its present (“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”). The Church began releasing the Gospel Topics Essays in 2013. They are the “Answers to Gospel Questions” that Jensen teased in 2011.
But the Gospel Topics Essays don’t always validate beliefs. One former Mormon tells me she began to have questions about Church history when she was helping her daughter study scripture ahead of her baptism. When she read that the Book of Mormon said Christopher Columbus would discover America, her mind snagged on a loose thread: she knew there’d been people in America before Columbus. “I started reading the Church essays that they’ve recently released — on blacks and the priesthood, homosexuals, stuff like that — and everything I read just made me more and more sure it was wrong.”
Evan Lloyd, a 41-year-old lawyer in Arizona who left the Church last year, speculates that most Mormons don’t even know the Gospel Topics Essays exist. “They are really hard to find, even on their website. You really almost have to go through Google to get to the part of the website where they are,” he says. “But when you go to your bishop’s office and you’re like, ‘I read about Joseph Smith having 30 wives, and one of them was 14, and he was marrying married women’ — that freaked me out — then the bishop can go, ‘But we’ve had it on the website. We never hid it from anybody. It’s just not something we talk about.’”
An article in a cached 2015 back issue of the Church’s magazine, Ensign, called “When Doubts and Questions Arise” draws a distinction between questions and doubts. “Largely because of the internet,” writer Adam Kotter begins, “it is not uncommon for members of the Church to encounter ideas that challenge their beliefs. Some members find the questions raised to be disconcerting and wonder whether it is acceptable to have a question about their faith.” But where questions are asked in the hope of affirming one’s beliefs, Kotter writes, a doubter withholds his obedience until his doubts have been satisfactorily addressed.
Joseph started out as a questioner. He read the Essays in depth and studied the resources on FairMormon, a nonprofit providing “Faithful Answers to Criticisms of the LDS Church.” But he says that questioning the Church without suspending his faith made him feel like he was doing “mental gymnastics.” Like many doubting Mormons, he made his way to Reddit. In particular, he began to haunt the “exmormon” subreddit, a haven for Mormons scrutinizing the Church’s teachings. The subreddit has over 123,000 members and is perhaps the purest expression of the internet as a “resource.” Members come to post questions (logistical and philosophical), to share beer recommendations for first-timers (most active Mormons don’t drink alcohol, tea, and coffee), and to vent (“I suppose to her, families are forever, unless someone comes out as trans.”)
Many come just to read. A few originally joined as “downvoters,” faithful Mormons who lurk in the subreddit solely to vote down posts. Moderator vh65 tells me that some of those downvoters are now regular posters themselves. “After a month, they’re like, ‘Wait a minute—that can’t be right,’ and they start researching. Now some of them are very well-known, popular posters who completely swing the other way.”
“When the LGBT policy leak came out, I was enraged by it.”
vh65 began researching Church history after someone in the subreddit linked to a New York Times interview in which she read that Joseph Smith had married a 14-year-old. vh65 says that the internet’s real impact on her faith was not in allowing her to stumble across information that disturbed her, but in the way she was able to deeply research that information and verify its accuracy using sources she trusted. She began a reverse catechism, starting with primary documents from Church history: the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Smith’s 14-year-old wife Helen Mar Kimball’s recollections, and issues of The Evening and the Morning Star, a Mormon newspaper published in the 1830s.
Most importantly, vh65 explains, conducting her research on the internet didn’t require vh65 to engage with anyone. While unvarnished accounts of Church history have always been available — Fawn M. Brodie’s 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, for instance — it used to be much harder to access them discreetly.
“When you wanted to research, you had to go to Sanders’ bookstore,” says vh65, referring to Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, “and that was kind of like a woman going to a liquor store in a small town in Utah — everybody’s going to know, right?”
None of that social queasiness exists on Reddit. Sometimes users even include their real names in screenshots from QuitMormon.com, showing that they’ve submitted their resignations. QuitMormon is a pro bono service run by an unassuming T-shirt-and-jeans Utah immigration attorney named Mark Naugle. The 34-year-old has streamlined the process of resigning from the Church. When users are ready to have their names removed from Church records, they simply submit a request to Naugle that includes their name, date of birth, address, membership number, and whether they’re a minor. Naugle takes it from there, sending a form letter to the Church that requests the removal of the client’s information from all records. Crucially, the letter also forbids further contact between the Church and his client. Mormons never have to reach out to their bishops to explain their decision to leave, and they won’t receive well-meaning visits from their former peers.
Naugle first began helping friends and family with their name removal requests in 2010 after graduating from law school in Utah in 2009. He lived out of state for a while before moving back to Utah in 2015. He’d begun to frequent r/exmormon, and in the spring of 2015, he began offering his services to strangers. That November, there was a surge of requests after Mormons learned, through a leak to the media, that children of LGBTQ couples could not get baptized. In April, Church president Dallin H. Oaks announced that LDS leadership had rolled back the policy, but r/exmormon was alive with criticisms for what some viewed as a too-little-too-late gesture: “‘We want to reduce the hate and contention so common today,’ says Oaks, as if he wasn’t the one most prolifically supporting it,” one Redditor wrote. “Fuck bigoted old men!” said another.
“When the LGBT policy leak came out, I was enraged by it,” Naugle says of the initial leak. “A lot of people were. I went onto Reddit and just said, ‘Hey, I’ve offered this before. I’m willing to do it now. Here’s my email address.’” Until November 2015, he’d received no more than 200 requests for his services. After that day, he received 2,000 emails in 48 hours. (r/exmormon also saw an enormous spike in membership then.) People offered to help him build the website and automate the process, and QuitMormon.com was born.
Naugle has seen more leaps in requests since then. His inbox is like a seismometer for Mormon discontent. When, for instance, a then-Mormon named Jeremy Runnells published a letter he’d written to Church Educational System (CES) outlining his doubts about the Church’s teachings, it tore through communities. Almost every former Mormon I spoke to cited Runnells’ letter as a catalyst for their departure. Then, there was Sunday, September 16th, 2018, the day Sam Young, whose protest had motivated Joseph’s break with the Church, read his excommunication letter aloud in Salt Lake City.
The next morning, Naugle arrived at work. “I pulled up the queue, and realized something had happened over the weekend,” Naugle recalls. Over the next two weeks, he received about 2,500 more resignation requests.
Like any popular online community — and any offline community, really — r/exmormon has a spectrum of tone. vh65 says that r/exmormon used to look a lot more like r/mormon, which has fewer members and fewer memes. Some users on r/exmormon are more radical than others in their resentment for the Church.
“Any visitor to this subreddit looking to confirm the ‘angry bitter resentful ex-Mormon’ stereotype could do so pretty quickly,” one Redditor wrote in a post for r/exmormon newcomers. “It’s also worth mentioning that the ‘angry bitter resentful ex-Mormons’ are probably overrepresented here, as many who leave the Church completely move on and don’t even give it a second thought anymore.”
For instance, where more aggressive r/exmormon contributors use the word “cult” to describe the Church, many avoid it. It’s a bitter word for people who have recently emerged from a community renowned for its Stepford politeness. “I hate using the word cult, but it’s so hard not to call it that,” one former Mormon says. “I don’t want to be nasty.”
Naugle has no reservations about the term.
“Every time she gets in an Uber, she’ll ask someone what their religion is.”
“Any organization that tells you what to eat, what to do with your body, what to do on specific days of the week, and then ostracizes you when you actively disavow them, I think is a cult,” he says. “Any organization that requires a lawyer’s help to leave it so that they stop harassing you and stop hunting you down worldwide I also think is a cult. Having experienced it myself, having been in the organization and knowing the psychological damage it can cause, they’re a cult.”
Naugle went through the process of resigning from the Church in 1999 when he was 14. He grew up in Orem, Utah. Orem is a town south of Salt Lake City, bordered by the same chapped mountains, but it’s much more conservative.
Initially, I thought of Naugle as the Pied Piper of doubters, merrily guiding Mormons into digital sin. But Naugle doesn’t feel that it’s his responsibility to convince — or even gently encourage — Mormons to leave the Church. He says he leaves that mantle to other former Mormons, like Jeremy Runnells, the author of the CES Letter, and John Dehlin, who mans the popular podcast Mormon Stories. Naugle says he largely refrains from posting on r/exmormon, except to give updates on changes to the QuitMormon process.
I’d also expected someone who spends 40 hours a week helping other people leave the Church to describe his experiences with more vitriol, but Naugle talks about his time as a Mormon with the calm detachment of someone describing being under anesthesia.
The Boy Scouts are a sore spot. In Utah, the Boy Scouts used to be intertwined with the Church to the extent that Naugle’s troop met in church buildings, and meetings were led by men from his church. He recalls one incident when he and several co-Scouts were playing Go Fish on a camping trip. One of the particularly devout troop leaders, in an apparent geyser of reverence, blustered into their tent. He told the boys that by playing with face cards, they were summoning Satan and told them to go pray for an hour. (President Joseph F. Smith said that the immoderate repetition of card games leads to “an infatuation for chance schemes” and ends in “the complete destruction of religious feeling.”) When his family left the Church, Naugle says, he knew he couldn’t go back to the Boy Scouts.
Naugle’s extended family is divided on the subject of his work. His parents, having left the Church themselves, are supportive. “Mom takes every chance to brag,” he says. She is skilled at finding subtle segues into conversations about faith so that she can bring up her son: “Every time she gets in an Uber, she’ll ask someone what their religion is.” Some members of his extended family disapprove — “they think I’m Satan incarnate” — but they never mention it, and they tell their children not to mention it.
When Naugle’s family was finally removed from the records, it seemed like everyone in his community was suddenly aware of their decision. “Our neighbors all knew. Our teachers, our family, our extended family, our friends,” Naugle recalls dispassionately. The family felt shunned. “It was a pretty terrible process, to the point that as soon as my parents got the chance to leave Utah, they were gone. I basically did the same, and my younger brother as well. He would rather never return. It was a really bad experience, so that’s kind of why I do this: to let people leave without having to go through that.”
“But at the time, I was just done, and needed it to be done.”
Naugle estimates that he has processed over 40,000 requests so far. There are sites that provide instructions for Mormons to submit their own letters — many former Mormons in r/exmormon have had success doing so — and Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff says the simplest way for a person to remove their name from Church records is to write to their bishop with their request to leave. But just as vh65 didn’t want to risk anyone from her community seeing her leaving Ken Sanders Rare Books in the ‘80s, many Mormons fear the social repercussions of approaching their bishops with their requests. Naugle’s involvement adds a layer of legal authority between users and the Church, preventing the battery of outreach attempts that upset Naugle as a teenager.
Sometimes the Church does contact loved ones of people who have put in resignation requests. Evan Lloyd left the Church last year, and he says that after he’d submitted his resignation request through QuitMormon, the Church began contacting his wife instead.
“They were kind of circling around her, making sure that she was good and she was still gonna be an active member of the Church,” Lloyd says. He had told his wife he wanted to leave the Church, but he hadn’t told her that he planned to remove his records. “She was caught by surprise when the Church started calling her. I probably should have communicated that a little bit better.”
Lloyd’s remorse suddenly gives way to conviction: “But at the time, I was just done, and needed it to be done.”
Not everyone in the ex-Mormon community has requested name removal. When we first speak, Joseph still hasn’t. He says he refrained at first because his wife wasn’t ready, then because he heard that removing your name from Church records can make it difficult to get your transcripts from Church-affiliated schools like Brigham Young University. (Joseph spent a semester at Brigham Young University-Idaho. A few years later, he got his associate degree at LDS Business College.) Having now earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Utah, which is secular, Joseph is less concerned about accessing his transcripts, but there’s still something keeping him from submitting his request. “I think there’s really nothing holding me back other than just a little bit of... I guess you could call them butterflies.”
vh65 still hasn’t removed her name, though she did request “no contact” from her bishop. (“I had moved, and I hadn’t had anything to do with Mormonism for almost a decade, and somehow people from my work showed up at my door.”) She worries that by removing her name from Church records, she would upset her mother. When I ask her if she ever feels disingenuous, moderating r/exmormon without being, officially, an ex-Mormon, she pauses for a second before answering. “Originally I just wanted to resign,” she says. “I want to be separated completely, but how can I do this without hurting my mom, who I really care deeply about? And then I realized that I spend all my time on this subreddit, and I’m fascinated with Mormon history. It’s my culture, it’s my tribe, and even if I resign, it’d still be part of who I am.”
Most of the former Mormons I spoke to craved immediate cathartic closure, like Evan Lloyd. Sometimes, even with Naugle’s streamlined process, they weren’t able to get it.
They watched ‘Game of Thrones’ — porn shoulders everywhere — without shame
One couple in Missouri, Josh and Jaimie, decided to leave the Church last year after they both read Runnells’ CES letter. By the time Jaimie read it, Josh had been ready to leave the Church for some time. He had reached out to a friend of theirs whom they suspected had already left the Church. (Jaimie had noticed that the man’s wife was wearing tank tops and showing “porn shoulders” on Facebook.) The man had pointed Josh to QuitMormon, so he was ready to put in their requests as soon as Jaimie wanted to leave.
Josh and Jaimie had resigned themselves to helping their children remain in the Church if they wanted to, and they explained their decision to their children in turn. Their eldest daughter, then 11, had already been baptized, and she chose to leave with them. They put in another QuitMormon.com request. Their youngest two children didn’t care much one way or another but were glad to have their Sundays free. When they asked their eight-year-old daughter whether she wanted to remain in the Church, she told her parents that she wanted to experience what her older sister had experienced during her baptism. Josh and Jaimie froze somewhere between puzzlement and support. The eight-year-old went on. “I wanna see what it’s like to be dunked,” she said. He and Jaimie unfroze, relieved.
Jaimie and Josh began to move on from the Church. They no longer went to church or tithed. They watched Game of Thrones — porn shoulders everywhere — without shame. They had never clicked with the majority of their ward, which Jaimie says is “very Molly Mormon.” Some of the friends they had made began to drift away, and they let them.
Josh and Jaimie assumed their unbaptized children’s names had been removed from Church records when their own QuitMormon requests were processed. Then Jaimie got a call from a sympathetic friend who is still active in the Church. The friend told her that their unbaptized eight-year-old daughter was listed as the head of household in Church records, along with a “membership record number” issued to babies when they’re blessed. The Church had removed Josh and Jaimie’s names, as well as their older, baptized daughter’s names, but their other two unbaptized children’s membership record numbers were still listed, as was the family’s contact information.
The Church calls records of unbaptized children whose parents have requested name removal “canceled records.” Church spokesman Woodruff says that while the names of children who are immediately related to a member of the Church will still appear in Church records as part of that member’s family unit, they will not have individual membership records. He also says that canceled records are not accessible to bishops.
Naugle says the Church has only recently begun removing the names of unbaptized children. For a while, he was considering a class action lawsuit. “They’ve told my clients that a child on the record, who is not baptized, is removed when their parents are removed. But we know that’s not the case because people, at the local level, still keep showing up for these kids, bringing them cookies, asking them to come to church.” The good neighbor becomes tiresome.
Josh and Jaimie say they were able to reach out to their bishop, with whom they’re on friendly terms, to ask him to remove their contact information. The bishop said he couldn’t remove their children’s names. They turned to Reddit and saw that another couple had sent the Church a letter threatening legal action if their children’s membership numbers were not removed. They received confirmation that the certified letter they sent to the Church had been received, but they still don’t know whether their children’s names have been removed.
“It’s my kids’ information. They’re minors. This cannot be legal. I feel like they’re counting those kids as members,” Jaimie says. “At conference, they don’t say whether they’re only counting baptized members, or whether they’re counting people with record numbers as well, which would be these little kids.” (Woodruff says that neither name removals records nor canceled records are included in membership counts.)
“I’ve always felt that as long as I’m alive and have a law license and can do this, I will”
Naugle has encountered other specious bureaucratic roadblocks in his work. Last year, the Church claimed that fraudulent requests for resignation were being submitted to QuitMormon, and Naugle was required to add an identity verification step to his process. Now clients submit government-issued identification along with their requests. “I don’t think it was an invalid concern,” Naugle says serenely. “Technically, anyone probably could’ve gone on, if they have enough information about a person, and asked to remove their name, and faked their signature. I doubt that it happened. There was one instance where someone submitted a false request for the Prophet of the Church, which I caught.” The culprit had confessed to Naugle, and Naugle had alerted the Church himself.
Late last year, the Church asked that all resignation requests from QuitMormon go directly through Kirton McConkie, the law firm that represents the Church. Previously, Naugle had sent requests to the Membership Records department. Now he emails resignation letters directly to Daniel McConkie, a shareholder in the firm. “They received over 6,000 emails in a six-week time period. I don’t think they realized that was what was going to happen,” Naugle says, not without amusement.
Last week he received a letter from Daniel McConkie. “We regret to inform you that our current arrangement with you for processing of requests to remove names from the membership records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not working and will therefore be discontinued,” the letter began. McConkie admonished Naugle for submitting duplicate requests, requests from people whose names have already been removed, requests from deceased or faithful members, and incomplete requests. “The problem is that your automated, largely impersonal system does not truly screen for fraudulent or erroneous submissions,” the letter continued. QuitMormon users will now have to upload notarized, written requests as well.
When we discuss the new requirement on the phone, Naugle sounds copacetic, if a little tired. This latest hurdle will necessitate an open call for notaries nationwide on r/exmormon. Naugle is not a notary, and even if he was, he would not be able to notarize requests for his own clients. Many people have volunteered to help him manage the site in the past: Evan Lloyd says he’s reached out and offered his services, and there are legions of Redditors ready to volunteer. But Naugle rarely deploys helpers.
“No one’s as reliable as yourself,” he says, “and this is very sensitive, confidential stuff, too, so I don’t really feel comfortable just sending an email to a random person that I met on the internet.”
It’s as though QuitMormon is Naugle’s answer to the occupational callings Mormons receive from the Church. I ask Naugle when he plans to move on from QuitMormon. “I guess when I’m dead,” he says. “I’ve always felt that as long as I’m alive and have a law license and can do this, I will.”
The time since Joseph left the Church has been marked by small milestones. He deleted his social media accounts, not wanting to risk getting sucked back into his old circles. He worried about “coming out” as an ex-Mormon on social media. He was particularly concerned that the people he met on his mission, the long trips Mormons take to share the gospel, would reach out to him.
“It’s actually kind of liberating, knowing that I don’t have to be worried about what Sister Smith has to say about my tattoo,” he says. “If I want to show somebody, I can show the anonymous friends on Reddit.”
In April, Joseph tells me that while he still wasn’t ready to remove his name from Church records yet, he was getting closer to submitting his QuitMormon request. “I think it’ll happen when I’m at peace with myself and the decision to leave. I think that’s also when I’ll unsubscribe from r/exmormon.”
A month later, Joseph emails me to tell me that he’s decided to submit his name removal request. He says he’s been spending a lot less time on the r/exmormon subreddit. “I went from looking at it daily, probably every few hours — and spending a long time in the chats — to a casual scroll through every few days,” he says. “I just went on vacation with my family, and it felt good to be there with them, and not speak a word about the Church or obsess over who has what calling.”
Many former Mormons wean themselves off r/exmormon after a time. vh65 tells me that the subreddit’s founder, Measure76, now rarely posts. Jaimie and Josh continue to turn to r/exmormon for support. Jaimie recalls how accommodating their first ward was when she was a new mother and Josh was busy with work. “I don’t know what I would have done without that community, from the first second we got there. Even though they didn’t know us, that community was so wonderful,” she says, a little wistfully. “But it’s nice to at least have a community online that’s kind of akin to it, where you can have each other’s backs, and cheer each other on.”
“I’m on that subreddit a lot because it sucks. It sucks so bad,” Josh says of leaving the Church. He often tells Jaimie he wants to spend less time on the subreddit — they’ve wondered whether the subreddit is its own sort of religion — but then he’ll see a message from someone struggling with the decision to leave.
“Every day there’s a new person on there like, ‘What do I do? How do I handle this?’ I served a mission for three months for the Church, finished, had fun for three months, and got sent home. I’ve done more missionary work against the Church in the nine months we’ve been out.”
In his article in Ensign magazine, Adam Kotter wrote that the internet leads to questions and doubts by exposing Mormons to “ideas that challenge their beliefs.” But if the internet is inherently threatening to the Church, or to any faith, it’s perhaps not because of the way it affirms doubts. Rather, it’s in the community it opens up — a community that can be just as close-knit and supportive as a ward. Where ChurchofJesusChrist.org offers scripture, the internet beyond the Church’s domain shines light into what has historically been a black box: the lives of the people who have left.