On Losing Our Religion

[ 8 ] Comments

by Paul

source: npr.org

NPR ran a series recently called Losing Our Religion.  Jen posted a discussion question on it here.  The thrust of the series was to examine the growing number of people in the United States with no religious affiliation.

According to the Pew Research Center, reports NPR, one-fifth of American adults chose none for religious affiliation, and that number has been on the rise. Nones include atheists, agnostics, and those who are on a spiritual path but unaffiliated. One-third of people age 18-29 identify as non-affiliated, one-quarter of those age 30-39.

NPR talked with young people about why they are where they are, including some who come from religious traditions in their family. NPR also addressed people who have never believed and a case of a couple with one affiliated and one non-affiliated.

It’s not a big surprise why people are not affiliated: either they never have been, or something has happened to cause them to lose their faith. Perhaps it was a tragic event such as the loss of a family member, or observation of hypocrisy among believers. Some simply couldn’t believe the stories they heard as children, and others continue to affiliate culturally, but not spiritually. Some did not believe the rigid code of conduct (like no premarital sex or no homosexual sex) was right. Some miss the comfort that religion brought them, and some seem still conflicted about the decision not to affiliate.

As I read the series, I reflected on my own children.  Several have chosen to leave the Church, and each has a different story, just as the young people interviewed in the NPR series. I found some striking parallels.

I believe that one of my children never believed. His religious experience was neutral at best and perhaps negative. He felt a great deal of pressure from me to participate, and many moments that had the potential to be spiritual were likely marred by my response to him at the time.  I don’t write that to take the blame or to lament my poor parenting, but simply to describe what I think was his experience. One reason children fall out of bed is that they aren’t in bed far enough, and I think that’s where this son was regarding the Church, and my approach at the time did not help him.

Another son understood very well the path that would be expected of an active Latter-day Saint boy. He knew that if he were active, he would be expected to serve a mission. He did not want to serve a mission, and I think fundamentally it was because he had such divergent views on social issues compared with what he believed the Church taught. He could not connect the dots between being an active Latter-day Saint with his social views; he choose to follow his social conscience. (That he may have misunderstood what the Church, in fact, taught is beside the point; his perception was what it was.)

Another son was very active until he turned 16. He participated fully, but he was a quiet young man with few close friends. He faced a tragedy in his life at that age in the loss of a friend – a tragedy that he would not or could not discuss with his parents or anyone else that I’m aware of. He tried to make sense on it himself with his gospel understanding and in the end could not. He found solace in other places, some of which ended up being quite destructive. But he could no longer feel comfortable at church with us, for sure.

Each of these men is very respectful of our association with the Church. They see the Church as a good organization, and they recognize it for the good work it does, particularly with the poor. One of our sons observed that his mother and I were church enough for him; he could get his church through us. (We were flattered but assured him we were not enough.) Another of our sons has pursued other spiritual paths, including attending other Christian denominations and participating in some Eastern religious practices.

I confess that as my sons each walked away, I wondered if I would lose my own religion.  In a Church where no success can compensate for failure in the home and where empty seats at the table would diminish happiness in the eternities, I felt as if I had failed. (And my wife felt it much more that I did.) But over time, I have come to terms with the choices my boys have made. I am not wild about their choices, but I am wild about them. I’ve written before about how I’d rather have them willingly at my dining table that force them to be on my sacrament meeting pew.

As I read the interviews from the NPR series and as I reflect on my own sons’ experiences, I see that many of these young people continue to search, and I have hope, ultimately, that their search will lead them to a loving Father in Heaven.

Tambako The Jaguar via Compfight

Speaking for myself, and myself only, I believe that our Father in Heaven loves all His children. He has an eternal view that, unlike ours, is not constrained with earthly urgency.  As a former stake president of mine used to say, “Eternity is a long time.” I believe eventually those who search will be among those whose knees will bend and whose tongues will confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord.

I have come to know people who participate in 12-step programs, both the Church’s and others. I have realized the spiritual nature of that work of recovery, independent of any religious observance. The Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous and other non-LDS programs is defined by the participant’s own understanding. It occurred to me, sitting in an AA meeting in Arizona years ago, that surely our loving Father in Heaven recognizes those upward looking eyes who may not know what it is they see or where exactly to look, but who are searching – as we all are – for the blessings of the atonement. And I believe with His long view, he may see a path that I cannot, a path that eventually will lead them home to Him.

For discussion:

  • Are there ways we can help young Latter-day Saints make the transition into adulthood without losing their religion?
  • How do we juxtapose our focus as a missionary Church against a trend of so many adults who do not seek religious affiliation?
  • If you accept the long-view approach I discuss in the latter part of the post, how does that position influence your behavior as a member missionary?

Image credits: npr.org

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

8 Responses to On Losing Our Religion

  1. Bonnie says:

    Wow, Paul. We must be channeling one another today. I’ve been mulling a piece regarding an experience with my Dad, who has passed on, and the very long timeline of creation, justification, and atonement. I think we will be very surprised at the judgment at the depth of God’s mercy (that’s certainly not my own thought, but I can’t remember whose it is.)

    It’s so tempting when we’re young and nervous about perfection to hear another’s experience and immediately begin diagnosing causes. “It’s because of this or that failure,” we comfort ourselves, because then we can file it away and it won’t ever happen to us because we have prepared for this or that. There comes a time when you realize that (1) you didn’t prepare for and prevent every sadness, (2) it isn’t in the plan to prepare for and prevent every sadness, and (3) that’s why we have a Savior.

    As a parent I find myself coming full circle, feeling vulnerable and childlike and sometimes a bit weepy as I consider all the things I haven’t done for my children, pleading for the Lord to make up the difference. It’s such a stark comparison to the hard, conscious work of doing everything that was my younger parenting years. I realize that I wasn’t even close to enough, and yet, they’re good people and I didn’t completely ruin them. I think we need our younger bravado or we’d sink while we’re so busy teaching them, but I’m grateful to look back and realize all that God did to protect them.

    The parable of the prodigal son is often read so harshly, as if the path of the prodigal before his return is the just desserts of the wicked imposed by a harsh eternal judge, but I’ve been thinking that it’s just the prodigal’s lonely, sad path away from the love of his father. I am more and more overwhelmed with the love of the patient father, who sees his son “afar off” and runs to meet him.

    It has occurred to me lately that one of the hidden lessons of the parable is that most of them do return.

    • Lamplighter says:

      Thank you for for that last thought, “most of them do return.” Like Paul I think one of mine never believed, can you return if you “never believed?” I sure hope so. My other sort-of-lost one I know did. I have more hope of his return. The other three seem solid, so far. I am praying for miracles this year.

  2. Susanne Nielsen says:

    You have managed to capture my thoughts in many ways, Paul, with this post. I, too, have children that have strayed from the gospel path . . . and felt responsible for it for many, many years. Perhaps you’re right in thinking that mothers may take this a little harder than fathers. Regardless, it has been the source of great pain for me.

    Not so much in recent years, though . . . I guess I’ve come to accept it and not dwell on my shortcomings so much. I love my less than perfect children so much and am happy to have them at my table no matter what they do or don’t believe. Am I sad they don’t embrace the gospel? Absolutely!

    Thank goodness they are mostly respectful. The hardest part of much of it is seeing the cynicism of my eldest daughter’s spouse and knowing that my precious granddaughters aren’t being taught precious truths they need to know – and they aren’t attending church, either (unless I’m there visiting and take them with me).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that all I can do is love them and pray for them. I live my life in a manner consistent with my values and share my testimony and feelings with them whenever I can.

    Just as Bonnie menioned, I find a great deal of comfort in the hope of the story of the Prodigal Son . . . I hope the day will come when they’ll feel the gentle tug of the Spirit calling them back to their Father. They were taught right in their youth, not taught perfectly, but the best I knew how.

    I wish I had any ideas about how to keep young people from losing the desire to be affiliated with religion. Personally, I think some of our youth think they have all the answers to life’s challenges on their own. They don’t think they ‘need’ their Heavenly Father or Savior – or if they do at some point (in the very distant future, of course) – their faith wil magically ‘be there’ waiting for them to pick up again, like a cloak on a cold winter’s day.

    I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t just another one of the casualties of the entitlement generation. *sigh*

  3. Bonnie says:

    I wonder sometimes about teaching our children to have a relationship with the Savior and our Heavenly Parents. My Mom and I were talking yesterday, and she said that she thought she was a good mother because she took her children to Church where they could learn the gospel there. She was so grateful, because despite the lack of gospel teaching in our home (gospel principles, especially service, were lived all the time) all four of her daughters are converted to the gospel. As I look at my own children, I’m consumed with anxiety sometimes about what I know but haven’t taught them. They all seem to have good relationships with the Lord rather than good relationships with the Church (though that’s there too.)

    What do you think? How do we stimulate good relationships with the Lord? That would seem to be even more important than their attendance in Church or affiliation with LDS religion. It would seem to potentially overcome any intellectual or social concerns that would arise for them. I know it’s a shot in the dark, because we’ve all thought long and hard about this and nobody has any answers yet, but there must be something we can do. Ideas?

  4. Paul says:

    Bonnie, I like your reading of the prodigal son. That’s a parable that has chewed at me for decades, since long before I had children of my own, and I continue to discover new things about it.

    Recently I’ve become quite sensitive about my non-participating children. I do not want to portray them as less than me or less than my participating children. It is true they walk a different path from mine, but they must, in any case, each walk their own path, wherever it leads. It has taken a great deal of faith for me to find a center in that thought, and it has only come as my faith in two things has strengthened: first in the reality of the atonement, and second in the fact that my primary concern must be bringing the blessings of the atonement into MY life because of my need.

    Lamplighter, I suspect that Heavenly Father hopes all of his children will return; in the premortal life we were all believers. I’m comforted knowing that in the eternities, we will feel joy, and I don’t believe that is limited to those who are in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom.

    Bonnie, your questions about how to encourage a relationship with the Lord (or even the church!) are great ones. In our family, some of our children have taken more naturally to that search than others. In the highly ineffecient world of rearing children, I’ve learned that those individuals each require a tailored approach, and as a parent, as maddening as it is for me, I need to start over with each one.

    This much I do believe in that regard: the more comfortable I am in my spiritual skin, the more likely I am to share that positively with my kids. Sharing out of love is way better than trying to control behavior. Conversation is better than lecture. Natural consequences are often better than imposed ones. (Gee, how many more pithy fortune cookie messages can I list?)

  5. jendoop says:

    Your post and the comments are helpful, I’m leaning into the next stage of motherhood, mothering adults. A time that scares me because of the likelihood for my children to wander from the path that I’ve tried so diligently to place their feet on.

    I had a YW leader who said (I hope half in jest) that she’d rather have her children die than leave the church. It’s a short sighted view, which leaves out the atonement and the ability to change, but I understand her sentiment a little more now that I’m a mother of an adult.

    When my daughter received her patriarchal blessing I looked forward to what insights it might give me into her divinity and what more I might be able to do to help her. While I did get some of that I also became worried for her future because of the warnings she received. Thankfully that is not a feeling she received and I haven’t shared mine with her. I now look at her with this long view you talk of Paul, there is no other way for me to know how to parent her to prepare for the trials she faces. The long view is relying on the atonement, teaching it, telling her how I use it, asking her thoughts, because the necessity of it enters every life. I’m less concerned if my children know all the words for their talk in the primary program and more worried if they know how to repent (not just recite the steps). I like the ideas you share in your last comment, about how to help children gain relationships with God. You make good fortune cookies 🙂

    At one time in my life I was grateful for the atonement because of how it redeemed me. Now my overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the atonement is for those I love, not because I don’t need it anymore (I definitely do), but because being saved means little to me without them. Which is why this topic is so heart wrenching.

  6. Brad says:


    As one of the lost, I was very touched by your post. I’ve watched extended family members go through the experience of having their children reject the faith of their fathers. And it’s hard for me to even imagine the pain of faithful LDS parents who have done their best to raise their children the right way to watch a child choose a different path. It was painful to read that you and Rachelle experienced that as failure. You aren’t failures — that’s the flip side of free agency. Each child has to choose, and as parents we watch them make choices, even when we know that what they are choosing may harm them.

    Fortune cookies aside, I think you said it best here: “This much I do believe in that regard: the more comfortable I am in my spiritual skin, the more likely I am to share that positively with my kids. Sharing out of love is way better than trying to control behavior.”

    I’ve seen the results of LDS parents who don’t get to that place — family wounds that never heal and children who never get over the fact that their parents view them as failures. I think your approach works much better.


  7. Paul says:

    Brad you have made my day. Thanks for reading and commenting and especially for your kind words. You are right of course that each of us gets to choose. I’ve written elsewhere that I would rather have my kids want to join me at my dining table than be forced to be with me on my bench in sacrament meeting. You helped to teach me that lesson, my friend.

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