For all the uncertainty and angst experienced by many who contemplate leaving the LDS Church, one thing is certain: They know that they don't know it is the "only true church" any more.
Active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embrace their faith not only as deeply held theology and ritual but as a set of definitive answers to life's greatest questions: "Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?" In Utah particularly, that shared knowledge undergirds a specific lifestyle, culture, social network and even unique terminology that some refer to as "Mormon-speak."
So when some Latter-day Saints find themselves wanting out for whatever reason they can feel they are not only losing their personal identity but their understanding of "pre-mortal life, mortal probation and the future existence in heaven," according to Bill Dobbs, one of several Utahns who helps those transitioning out of the LDS Church.
A former convert who resigned his membership in the church a few years ago, Dobbs understands that Latter-day Saints "are expected to know the gospel is true. They don't talk about believing. They talk about knowing. ... When you've spent years believing or knowing something you can no longer sustain by the evidence, that's pretty traumatic," he said.
Add to that worries about how a spouse, children, family, friends, employers and colleagues will react, he said, and you have a group of people who need a safe place to talk, to look for answers and to share their feelings.
"Not believing doesn't have any prestige in Mormonism. It's usually attributed to some moral failing of the person who doesn't believe. And that stops all dialogue. That's why people need a place to talk together about their anger, frustration and grief and get advice from fellow members about how to get along with families, what to do when son or daughter goes on a mission or gets married," Dobbs said.
While support for self-identified "ex-Mormons" has long existed within some other faith traditions, like the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society of which Dobbs is a part, a relatively new network of nondenominational support groups has sprung up in the Beehive State, and chapters are growing across the country and even abroad.
"PostMormon.org" is not merely a Web site but an organization of former Latter-day Saints that was formed about five years ago in Logan by Jeff Ricks to help people making the transition from an active LDS belief and lifestyle to "post-Mormon" life, while trying to maintain relationships with family and friends who fear for their salvation.
The group recently put up its first advertising billboard in Cache Valley, featuring the PostMormon.org Web link and a "smiley" face. Limited funding meant it only stayed up for 30 days, but publicity as a result of the sign resulted in a surge of hits on the group's Web site from an average of 300,000 to 400,000 per month to 2.5 million hits in April.
Additional 30-day billboards will go up May 25 on a highway between Idaho Falls and Rexburg, and July 9 somewhere in Provo, he said. PostMormon.org recently registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, and fund-raising on the Web site pays for the billboards. Membership on the site's message boards has grown from about 850 to nearly 1,200 since the first billboard went up.
Ricks stressed that the organization is not "anti-Mormon. We want to reach out to people who have left the church without upsetting people who are still in the church." Consequently, the group doesn't try to "recruit" Latter-day Saints or persuade them to leave their faith. It does seek to support those who are leaving of their own accord, he said.
Dobbs said his organization takes a similar tack. "We're here to support people in their faith journey," whether they ultimately decide to leave the LDS Church or return to it, he said.
A returned LDS missionary, Ricks said he felt alone and isolated when he decided he no longer believed what the church teaches. But he soon found others who were either leaving or had left the church and were looking for support "a place to talk" about all the changes that take place in lifestyle and relationships as a result.
While the LDS Church updates its membership figures regularly, it doesn't release figures on how many people formally resign their membership with written notice to the church through a local bishop or stake president. It is safe to say that a significant percentage of people listed as church members are not active in their faith.
Ricks said his organization exists both for those who have resigned, and those who are thinking about leaving. He regularly gets comments on the Web site from people who say "I didn't know there were other people like me out there."
"Every time that happens, I love it because I felt the same way," he said. "I started this because I wanted to find out if there were any others out there." He began the organization with an informal meeting at a restaurant after putting an ad in the local newspaper. Two people showed up, but at the next meeting a few more trickled in. His Cache Valley chapter now draws from eight to 20 people per meeting.
"Over five years, I'm guessing we've had 100 to 150 different people come and meet with us," he said.
While the Cache Valley chapter meets only twice a month for discussion at a restaurant, other Utah chapters are more socially oriented, he said. The St. George group has dozens of active members and regularly hosts speakers, and the Utah County group holds regular social events. A few other chapters have formed in the United States and Europe, with one in Australia.
Scott Stevenson, a PostMormon.org board member, said he hopes that word about the organization's outreach will help calm some of the fear generated in family and friends when someone they love leaves the church. "I was a returned missionary, married in the temple and was serving as the Elder's Quorum president in my ward when I left," he said.
It was a rocky road, even though his wife decided to leave with him. The decision was softened somewhat by the fact that they were living in Canada when they left the church, and they moved back to Logan shortly afterward.
"I was lucky (my wife) left at the same time. For couples where one spouse leaves and one stays, the divorce rate is really high," Stevenson said. As the son of a local stake president, he knows his decision is difficult for his extended family, but they have not ostracized him or his family in any way, he said.
"We just don't talk about church stuff. They've never hesitated to have us over for dinner."
Others are not so fortunate, Ricks said, adding he was told a member of his extended family would not be attending the family reunion if he were present. A descendant of Thomas Ricks for whom Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) was named generations of deep faith in his family make his work with PostMormon.org a difficult pill to swallow for those who believe he has endangered his status among the family in heaven.
"We're not into angry protests. But that's what people who leave the church are perceived as," angry, vocal and often hateful, he said.
"There's this stigma from within the church about what those who leave the church are like," Stevenson said. "There are thousands of people who leave and never have anything more to do with it. You don't hear about them."
Many simply keep a low profile and avoid discussion about leaving, both at home and at work. "I didn't want to be the office anti-Christ," Dobbs said. " I don't believe the 'one true church' model. I believe though there are differences between many religions, there can be a common core in many things."
That's part of what draws people to the Web site and to transition groups like the one Dobbs runs at South Valley. "Most of people in my group are still formally LDS though not believing," he said. "It's no longer spiritually satisfactory. They feel a conflict of values they had," but still love parts of what they believed.
Both men said they see themselves as bridge builders.
"One of our main goals is ... to reach out to people like us without upsetting others in the community," Ricks said. He believes that's why he's faced almost no opposition in Cache Valley since posting the billboard. "We want to help re-educate Mormons about family members who leave that they are not necessarily bad, horrible people," he said."If we could have any positive effect on that, I would die a happy man."