Crossing Borders: For LDS Families, Millennials Leaving Religion Causes Faith Divide

Mar 20, 2018

In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a study of 35,000 Americans called the Religious Landscape Study. They found that about a third of all millennials raised in Mormonism no longer identify with the faith.

Zac Neubert was raised in Kaysville, Utah, with his three brothers.

“I was 17 when I left in my head, but I didn’t tell anyone until I was 19,” Neubert said.

He’s 24 now. He has a master’s degree in software engineering, which he mostly uses writing apps. Time has made it easier, but his relationship with his parents is still different because he left the church. Five years ago, when he was getting ready to tell them, he had no idea how they would take it.

“When I was gearing up to tell my parents I had left the church, I’d seen a lot of stories online of people getting kicked out of their homes, even onto the street, after doing exactly that,” he said. “I had a friend who was in the naval academy, so I thought about it, and I thought that my best fallback would be maybe to join the naval academy. So before I went and talked to my parents, I started filling out the papers to join that.”

He told them one night over Christmas break, as his family was getting ready for bed. It was hard, but they weren’t angry. They could see he was hurting. They told him they loved him and they’d figure it out.

“In my case, it’s ended up pretty well,” he said. “Despite the friction between me and my parents, we still have a pretty good relationship. For a lot of people, that’s not the case. For a lot of people, those differences are just impossible to overcome.”

Neubert is the only member of his family to leave the church. When his younger brother decided to go on a mission to convert others to the faith, supporting him was hard at first.

“It was pretty tricky to do that, because I don’t believe any of things that he’s going out and to go and tell people,” he said. “But after thinking about it for a while, I decided that it was my decision to not go a mission, and I went out and did what I wanted to do. And he should do the same thing. He should do what he believes in.”

Other aspects of the faith divide are smaller, more everyday things.

“I’ll go see a movie on a Sunday, or have a cup of coffee, have a beer with friends after work, that kind of thing,” he said.

These things may sound insignificant, but they remind his family that he isn’t keeping the Sabbath Day holy, or keeping the Word of Wisdom. In Mormonism, there are three kingdoms of heaven, also called degrees of glory: the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom and the Telestial Kingdom.

For Neubert, this means that his family believes that even if he goes to heaven, he won’t be in the Celestial Kingdom with them.

Kirt Rees is the associate director of the Logan LDS Institute, where he teaches Mormon theology.

“There’s a lot about the afterlife that just isn’t clear doctrine, and of course there’s anecdotal story, and speculations, and a lot of people assume what the afterlife is going to be,” he said.

One of the biggest questions without a clear doctrinal answer is whether people in different kingdoms of heaven will be able to see each other.

“We know that there are prerequisites of baptism and ordinances that are required,” Rees said. “But what the associations are going to be is certainly more vague. I tend to believe that the family is meant to be eternal, and that associations will exist beyond the grave.”

The lack of clear doctrine about what happens to those who leave the church in the afterlife is part of what makes it so difficult for the family members who stay. But regardless, Rees said, the doctrine about family is clear.

“Fundamentally, to us, the family is central to the creator’s plan and in our teachings, and that is one of those formalized doctrines that we all believe in,” Rees said. “That is true regardless of the faith divide that might exist in a family.”

He recognizes that reconciling these questions and beliefs when a child leaves the church is complicated. He encourages family members on both sides of the faith divide to respect each other’s choices and keep working to stay close. 

“Probably our most precious gift, aside from life itself, is the right to choose for ourselves,” Rees said. “And if a Mormon really believes that, they’ve got to recognize that there are going to be people that don’t see things the same way, that aren’t going to make the same decisions or choose the same path. And that being true, we just have to recognize and accept that not all of us are looking toward the same vision.”

Marianne and David Sidwell raised four children in the LDS faith. As adults, three of them left the church.

“I still wonder, ‘What can I do, can we do anything, what kind of example can we set?’” David said. “Those things still, almost constantly, are kind of going through my mind throughout the day or the week.”

His kids are good, kind people who always thought for themselves. He and Marianne never imagined rejecting them because they left the church.

“We did teach them with the mind that they should question and think,” he said. “Whatever they’re going to do, they shouldn’t do it blindly.”

“They were thoughtful about it,” Marianne said. “For the most part, they were good about discussing it, asking questions, trying to understand, trying to be respectful. We feel like we owe them the same thing. We should be respectful of their decisions.”

However, Marianne said, other people don’t always see it the same way.

“'Your child left the church, isn’t that a devastating thing?'”

Her answer is a resounding no.

“They’re not dead. They’re still contributing adults and good people,” she said. “They are good people. We are not devastated. We are proud of our kids.”

Between 1980 and 2014, the LDS Church’s retention rate fell from nearly 90 percent to 64 percent. As more millennial Mormons leave the religion, more LDS families find themselves facing and overcoming faith divides.

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here.