The Cost of Being Mormon

Two Missionaries of .

Two Missionaries of . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Utah has been known for several years as the Prozac capital of the U.S. Utah also has the highest concentration of Mormons in the U.S (70%). Is there a connection? In a recent Salt Lake Tribune article entitled Got the blues? You’re not alone in Utah (April 27, 2005) it was reported that:

  • “Among the nation’s 20 most depressed cities – as recently scored by Men’s Health magazine – Salt Lake City came in 12th, with a D grade. Researchers at the magazine assigned grades based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on antidepressant sales, suicide rates and the number of days residents reported feeling down.”
  • “There’s a lot of pressure for males here to succeed due to large families and perceived expectations for members of the dominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  • “Antidepressant use in Utah is higher than any other state, with 16 percent of the population taking them, according to Express Scripts, a company that compiles a yearly drug trend report.”
  • “Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death for all Utahans. Nationally, it is the eleventh-leading cause of death. From 2000 to 2002, the suicide rate in Utah was 14 per 100,000 people, compared with 10.7 per 100,000 countrywide, according to the Utah Department of Health.”

Why is this? I believe anyone seriously considering life as a Mormon needs to ask themselves this question. My children are in this position. I’m writing primarily for them. I want them to understand that there’s a serious price to be paid for being Mormon. There’s depression. And, there are other costs as well.

Faults Hidden. Mormons tend to hide their faults. The emphasis is on looking good versus on being genuine and authentic. Very rarely do you hear heart felt expressions of what weaknesses people are struggling with in a Mormon meeting. Compare this to other spiritual programs or self help groups where people openly and honestly share their problems. This is the type of sharing that the New Testament talks about when it says to “confess your faults one to another.” (James 5:16) In the Mormon church, though, the emphasis is instead almost entirely on “let your light so shine.” (Matthew 5:16) This too is good advice, but not when taken to the extreme.

This emphasis on looking good over being authentic has several negative effects:

  • First, it causes a person to feel shame, since they are hiding things about themselves that they feel bad about.
  • Second, the person does not get the compassionate warmth and support they could otherwise get, since the person’s struggles are hidden.
  • Third, there are fewer opportunities to improve since the problem remains hidden.
  • And fourth, it leads to superficiality. A person cannot be genuine and authentic when they when they have to hide their imperfections. Instead, they have to put on a facade.

I reflect on the high number of LDS women I know who have undergone cosmetic surgery.

This tendency is systemic. The church as an organization functions on this same principle by hiding anything “not faith promoting”. Church president Gordon Hinckley is famous for this, as a result of the Hoffman debacle where it became clear how the church buys and locks away any historical documents that are embarrassing to the church. As well, leading church apostle Boyd Packer has taught that “some things that are true are not very useful” and so should be hidden.

Lost Identity. Many Mormons have a hard time being their own unique selves. It’s tough when there are so many unrealistic expectations. A Mormon is expected to be: happy, nice, meek, humble, respectful of authority and never question those over him, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. This leaves little room for being oneself.

The best example of this is what happens to a young person that goes on a Mormon mission. This event happens at just the moment in a young person’s life when they should for the very first time be experimenting with adult autonomy. This is a time when a young person should be growing into themselves: exploring competing ideas, ways to think, talk, and act.

Instead, when a Mormon male turns nineteen he goes on what is called a Mormon “mission” where he is confined to an extremely restricted mental, spiritual, and physical world. In this world he is told nearly everything about who he is: what he can say, think, and do. He is under complete control of the church hierarchy. He isn’t allowed to contact family or friends, except through letters and one or two phone calls a year. He is prohibited from ever being alone, told what to read, how to worship and pray, what music he can listen to, what movies he can watch, how to dress, how to touch, how to wear his hair, how to shave, when to go to bed, when to get up, what he can and cannot buy, the sports he can play, what transportation he can use, and on and on. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost everything about his life is controlled from the top down.

This lasts for two years. And then he returns back to the “regular” Mormon world of being all those things a good Mormon is expected to be.

Lost in all of this is a person’s true identity. Gone is the opportunity to be oneself, to be genuine and authentic. Instead a person turns into an automaton, unable to express his or her true self. It’s ironic that in a religion that places so much emphasis on the right to choose, that most Mormon’s live lives not having had the chance to choose who they really are.

Conflict Avoidance. Mormon’s avoid conflict. They teach “the spirit of contention…is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29) and so should be avoided. This is a nice idea, but not very realistic. Utopian societies were also a nice idea, but have been tried and shown to be a naive approach to building a community in the real world. In the same way, avoiding conflict is a naive approach to living life in the real world.

Conflict avoidance creates several serious problems. The first is that it tends to ignore the source of the conflict. The problem is never addressed and so is never solved. Second, conflict avoidance creates adverse emotional reactions in the person avoiding the conflict: depression and anxiety. Depression results when the person resigns themselves to the source of the problem, realizing that it’s never going to go away. Anxiety results from the body’s natural response to situations that create conflict. The body produces adrenalin that is meant to resolve the conflict. When a person doesn’t, they begin to feel anxious. Left in this state for too long or repeatedly, the anxiousness often turns in to full blown anxiety attacks.

Attitude of Inadequacy. Mormonism fosters an attitude of inadequacy, a feeling of not measuring up. A Sunday School lesson had as it’s title this phrase from the Book of Mormon: “They did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness.” (Alma 57:21) Two words stand out: every and exactness. Of course the implication is that if these people could obey every word with exactness, then so should you. This is not a realistic expectation. It just sets a person up to feel inadequate. After years and years of this, a person can wind up with serious emotional and mental problems. It’s the kind of thinking that causes a person to begin to do a lot of negative self-talk and self-loathing for not being able to measure up.

And it’s not just the degree of expectations that causes a sense of inadequacy, but it’s the type of expectations as well. One of these is the expectation that every young man become a great leader. Not everyone is cut out to be a great leader, though. Some are far better at simply being followers. And, that’s OK. But if you’re a Mormon young man, you don’t get that message. Instead you’re expected to grow into the mold of the “perfect leader” as defined by the Mormon church, no matter how much that mold may not fit.

Another unrealistic expectation is the attitude the Mormon church has towards masturbation. Mormon’s are taught that masturbation is evil. This creates a huge unrealistic  and unhealthy expectation.

These are just some of the unrealistic expectations that Mormon’s live with. There are many others. Many of them would be OK by themselves, but again create unrealistic expectations when combined together: have children early, have as many as you can possibly handle, hold a church service “calling” (some of which can consume many hours a week), do your monthly “Home Teaching” visits to other families, share the Mormon message with your neighbors, pray multiple times a day, read scriptures every day, etc., etc. And, provide well for your family because the more money you earn the more God must be blessing you and therefore the more “righteous” you look to everyone else. The net effect is to leave a person feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.

Obedience. Mormon’s tend to blindly obey their leaders.  They would disagree, but they are taught that when the church leaders speak it is the same as if God has spoken. Mormon scripture reads “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and…whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38; emphasis added.) This is a dangerous idea because it causes a person to not apply rational thought to major life decisions. Instead they do whatever they’ve been told, since they assume it was God who was speaking.

There are many examples of nonsensical things done as a result of this. I’ll mention just a couple to better illustrate what I’m talking about.

The first is the command that couples have as many children as they possibly can. This was what the church told its members up until the early 1980’s. There was no rational thought involved. A couple was simply supposed to produce as many babies as they could possibly produce. But child rearing is an incredibly demanding task and many couples are just not cut out to have as many children as they can possibly have. It’s not healthy for them, and it’s not healthy for their children.

Grandiosity. Mormons tend to be grandiose and smug. It’s not always evident because they are also told that they must be humble, and many honestly do try. But it’s hard not to feel grandiose when you believe that you are one of God’s chosen people. Youth get this message especially strong. They are told that they are better than people born at any other time in the history of the earth. These are the “last days” and only the “very elect” were saved to be born now. My Mom was told this as a youth.  I was told this and my children are being told this. It can be comforting (just as a child’s belief in Santa Clause can be comforting.) But that comfort comes at the cost of feeling superior to others. The superiority is only imagined, though, and as a person grows older the realities of life wear on them. They begin to realize who they really are. The mismatch between who they realize the really are and the comforting fantasy they had can be depressing. Ideally this depression would cause a person to seriously question what they had been told. But what is more common is for the person to try to compensate for the depression with more grandiosity. This of course doesn’t solve the problem. Instead it creates a tragic cycle of grandiosity and depression repeated over and over.

Intellectual Blinders. Mormonism causes a person to not want to fully explore all there is to know about the world. This is because much of what there is to know runs counter to what a Mormon has been taught is “the truth.” Whenever science runs counter to Mormon dogma, the science is discarded in favor of the dogma. And not only that, but the source of the science is discarded as well. Science becomes something to fear when it causes a person to question the dogma that gives them comfort (Unless of course you’re going in for a boob job.  In those times, science somehow got it right)

Lack of Professional Help. Mormon’s suffering from emotional or mental problems have limited access to professional help. They are first instructed to go to their local leader, the bishop. But a bishop is a layperson with no formal training as a health care professional. This is like asking a grocery store butcher to perform an appendectomy.

If a bishop decides that someone needs additional help, he can refer the person to a professionally trained therapist. However, the therapist needs to be another Mormon and has to be approved by the church.  A church approved therapist does not take a systemic approach to solving emotional problems. They look primarily at what the individual is doing wrong.

Miscellaneous Costs. There are other miscellaneous costs associated with being a Mormon. They are not as significant as the costs already mentioned, but need to be considered by anyone thinking about being a Mormon. They are:

  • Time. Being Mormon takes up a lot of time. Sundays are spent in three hours of meetings, and then after that either in more meetings or at home doing a very restricted set of activities. Then each Mormon has one or more “callings” that can take anywhere from a several hours a week up to twenty or more. Young Mormon males are expected to serve a two year full time mission for the church.
  • Money. Mormons are required to pay ten percent of their income to the church in order to receive saving ordinances.
  • Entertainment. Mormons are not allowed to watch R-rated movies. But there are many great R-rated movies that not only entertain but inspire and teach important lessons.
  • Sex. Mormons cannot do any of the following without consequences such as enormous guilt and/or a lengthy repentance process including confession to the bishop: masturbate, have oral sex, or even sleep naked together as man and wife.
  • Coffee, Tea, and Alcohol. Coffee, tea, and alcohol are prohibited. But each of these when used in moderation has been found to have healthy side effects and they can all enhance a person’s enjoyment of life.

Spiritual Opportunity Cost. There is one final important cost to consider: the spiritual opportunity cost of choosing Mormonism over another spiritual path. The term opportunity cost comes from economics and means whatever was given up for making a particular choice. So for example if I choose to stay home and read a book on an evening when I’ve been invited to a movie with friends, then the opportunity cost for reading the book that evening is going to a movie with friends. In the same way, there is an opportunity cost associated with choosing to be Mormon. Mormonism is just one spiritual path among many. But by choosing it, a person is also choosing to not benefit from other spiritual paths. Mormon’s believe they have the “fullness” of the truth, and that other churches are an “abomination in [God’s] sight.” (Joseph Smith History 1: 19) But, there are other spiritual paths that offer more opportunities for spiritual growth than Mormonism, and without all the negative side effects.

See Also

Opportunity Costs

The Cost of being Mormon (Wheat and Tares)

4 thoughts on “The Cost of Being Mormon”

  1. Interesting article. I think most of your points have a valid basis, although I disagree with some of the details (such as a Mormon’s view of other Churches: you have SERIOUSLY misinterpreted that one). I agree that there are lots of costs associated with being a Mormon, but I knew that when I signed up. I sincerely believe Joseph Smith’s quote that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” No, Mormonism is not for the faint of heart. It is an epic journey. Yes, the high expectations can produce all kinds of effects. It is hard to find one’s identity. I have experienced a lot of shame and anxiety. However, the end result is to get at the real roots of reality: to finally come to understand that there is NOTHING that can take away your dignity and your identity, and that your value is intrinsic no matter what. In the long run, those who don’t give up along the way end up stronger and more unique then they were before. Their self worth is placed on solid foundations rather than on shifting things like monetary or professional success. Really coming to know these things doesn’t come from low expectations and easy paradigms. It comes from facing very high expectations and striving to become better. There is a reason that books like “7 habits of highly effective people” were written by practicing Mormons. That book encapsulates a few of the things that can be learned from this spiritual path. Ultimately, I would only embark on this path if you feel moved by God within your soul to do so. If you do, be ready for an uphill climb with great views along the way.

    • Yes the book of momon in nephi 1 says the church of the devil calls the church a whore and i adked what that meant and the missionaries said they view all churches as just that.

  2. Im not sure where youre getting your info, conversely great topic.
    I needs to spend a while learning much more or understanding more.
    Thanks for great information I was on that the lookout for this information for
    my mission.

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