The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism

Michael Nielsen, Ryan Cragun

Are all Mormons devout and orthodox believers? Or are some of them freethinkers? And if there are freethinking members inside this religion with a reputation for conformity, are they marginalized? If so, why would they stay?

Religious belief and affiliation serve many different needs. They offer adherents a sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of belonging and alliance. By providing a set of rules that guide behavior, religions offer the individual comfort and a way to deal with stress. To the outsider, such rules can be bewildering. The payoff for adhering to them is outweighed by the negatives that accompany the rules’ behavioral restrictions and demands upon belief.

Whatever the benefits or detriments of religious belief, awareness of the social-psychological factors that affect religious belief and behavior can enlighten our understanding of religious individuals and institutions. Religions are social institutions, after all, subject to the same social and psychological influences that figure prominently in other facets of life. In this article, we will describe some of the social-psychological factors that figure prominently in Mormonism, focusing particularly on Mormons who maintain some level of involvement with the Church but consider themselves on its periphery in terms of their beliefs or behaviors. We base these on conversations with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) members and former members, on monitoring online bulletin boards and discussion groups, and on relevant social-scientific literature.

Social Pressures to Conform

Religions have a certain internal logic that forms an important basis for the belief system. Within that belief system, individual beliefs or practices “fit together” in such a way that they make sense. When viewed from outside that system, however, those beliefs and practices can appear strange or even nonsensical. Often the nominal LDS churchgoer must straddle those two perspectives, seeing both “insider” and “outsider” views. This can be very unsettling, generating what psychologists term cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable mental state that results from conflicting attitudes and behaviors. As the individual sorts out which beliefs make sense, which do not, and what to do about those discrepancies, institutional forces as well as friends and family members may try to exert influence upon the individual with the goal of modifying his or her beliefs and behaviors in order to bring them in line with the institution’s standards.

From a social-psychological perspective, there are two basic forms of influence: informational and normative. Informational influence uses information to try to obtain attitudinal change or behavioral conformity. Normative influence attempts to induce change by applying the power of the group, such as peer pressure. Both types of influence can be used in situations involving religion. For instance, a combination of informational and normative influence is evident in typical Mormon reliance on proof texts and authority figures, such as leaders in the LDS hierarchy, in religious-educational contexts. Information from a scriptural source or a church authority is taken to convey truth (informational influence); meanwhile, the agreement expressed by, say, Sunday-school class members acts as normative influence.

It is worth noting that institutions benefit from maintaining cohesion. Effective groups display an organizational structure and a degree of homogeneity that facilitate group goals and reinforce group beliefs and value systems. Thus, it is to the institution’s advantage to exert pressure in order to maintain conformity and compliance with behavioral and attitudinal norms. Researchers have noted this for decades, finding that highly demanding religions typically show greater strength than less-demanding religions. People’s commitment to religious institutions generally increases as the institution expects greater levels of sacrifice.

In the case of Mormonism, many of the institution’s common practices can be understood as ways to increase group cohesion and behavioral compliance. Perhaps the most formal of these involves placing behavioral expectations on rites of passage such as weddings. LDS belief is that marriages performed in the temple are binding in the eternities, and these marriages, known as “sealings,” represent the highest ideal in marriage. Significant pressure bears on couples to have temple marriages. Informational influence comes in the form of statements by church leaders, scriptural passages, and other messages that emphasize LDS belief in eternal marriage. Normative influence comes in the expectation that devout churchgoers will marry in the temple and the assumption that if they do not, it is because one or both of the individuals has committed a moral transgression, disbelieves in the Church’s truth claims, or falls short of institutional expectations for some other significant reason.

In this context, relatives and friends who are expected to attend the wedding may find themselves in a double bind. Entrance to the temple is limited to the most devout of churchgoers who have obtained a “temple recommend.” This is a writ affirming that an individual is “worthy”—fully in conformance with Church requirements regarding belief and behavior—bestowed only after an interview with the congregation leader in which compliance with the Church’s demands is demonstrated. Interview questions probe whether one accepts the role of the current Church president as a prophet who speaks for God and whether one professes honesty and sexual chastity, abstains from coffee and alcohol, and so on. The LDS member who is not a complete believer must decide whether to try to manipulate the interview process, perhaps interpreting questions in an unorthodox and possibly misleading way in order to get the recommend and thus be able attend the wedding, or to remain outside the temple and miss the wedding. This is a regular topic of conversation on Internet forums for what are sometimes called “uncorrelated” or “New Order Mormons.” (The term uncorrelated refers to the Church’s decades-old “correlation” effort to simplify and make Church materials more consistent; uncorrelated individuals fail to accept all Church teachings. As commonly used, the phrase “uncorrelated Mormon” has a meaning similar to “cafeteria Catholic.” New Order Mormon references a more liberal Mormon movement inspired by the New Order Amish, signifying a less strict interpretation of the sect’s teachings.) These are pressing issues among Mormons, especially among family members who are not LDS and are therefore excluded from temple wedding services. A recent Salt Lake Tribune article on the subject generated over 1,700 online responses in just one week, many of them from people who had been personally affected.

Because lay church members also compose the LDS clergy, the nature of pressures to conform can vary from congregation to congregation. For instance, in a temple recommend interview, sharing honest doubts with a local church authority about the prophetic calling of the Church president can generate very different reactions depending on how such doubts are expressed, the local authority’s personality, and his interpretation of such issues. As a result, some people will be granted a temple recommend after expressing questions about the Church, but others will not. This uncertainty adds to the stress experienced by those on the margins of the Church.

The desirability of participating in weddings and other rites means that the institution possesses significant leverage or “social control.” Conforming strictly to institutional expectations offers the ability to be part of the ceremony and reinforces to the individual who believes that he or she is in harmony with God. The uncorrelated church member must decide whether to comply with the institution’s expectations and participate in the rituals or not to comply and be a mere observer of the rituals (or be entirely excluded, as in the case of rites performed in the temple). Behavioral compliance implies attitudinal agreement; this of course can heighten cognitive dissonance among those who do not fully agree. Yet compliance often results nonetheless, motivated by individuals’ desires to maintain familial harmony or to avoid negative social sanctions. So the decision to mischaracterize one’s true beliefs can be quite rational, depending on the weight placed on family harmony and ongoing positive social interaction with family and friends.

While he was still an LDS member in 2001, coauthor Ryan T. Cragun was himself guilty of exerting pressure on a fellow Mormon to conform to its cultural standards. Both Cragun and a friend, “Murray” (his name has been changed), were serving as co-best men for a friend’s wedding. At a luncheon the day before the wedding, Cragun asked Murray if they should drive to the temple together, as the ceremony was taking place in a temple several hours from where they lived. Murray responded, “I’m not going.” To which Cragun unthinkingly responded, “What? Are you not worthy?” The silence and look of overwhelming guilt on Murray’s face told Cragun all he needed to know; Murray had committed a serious sin and was not eligible to enter the temple. He was unable to attend his best friend’s temple wedding. Murray was able to serve as co-best man at the reception following the wedding, but Cragan’s statement had its intended effect: Murray spent the next few years undergoing a process of repentance, eventually culminating in his return to the temple to be sealed to his own wife and child.

Attitudes and Identity

In addition to these factors, the role of social attitudes merits attention. For many uncorrelated Mormons, LDS efforts combatting same-sex marriage have caused a disconnect between their everyday experience with homosexual coworkers, friends, or family members and their Sunday religious experience. Likewise, the Church defines gender roles quite conservatively, but some uncorrelated Mormons’ everyday lives are not in sync with those standards. Issues such as these generate cognitive dissonance and dissatisfaction with the Church. Of course, one way to resolve this dissonance is to distance oneself from the Church. Indeed, a January 11, 2010, Gallup poll on political beliefs among Mormons showed that lapsed LDS members are much less conservative than active LDS churchgoers.

When compared with the broader U.S. culture, LDS people emphasize their group membership more strongly, with an important component of self-identity being the person’s place within the church or family. Behavioral and attitudinal conformity is an important reason that former Utah governor Jon Huntsman caused a stir earlier this year when he was asked by Time magazine reporter Melinda Henneberger whether or not he remained a LDS member. Huntsman responded in a very un-Mormon-like way, saying that he is “a very spiritual person.” The exchange led Henneberger to reflect, “I know less than I did before I asked him.” It also had the effect of leaving many Mormons wondering about the nature of Huntsman’s beliefs. Huntsman’s response was unusual in an LDS context because it did not conform with institutional normative pressure to affirm one’s Mormon identity clearly at every opportunity.

The Role of Elevation

Another aspect of Mormon life that affects uncorrelated members of the Church is its reliance on positive experience as an affirmation of truth claims. Within the Church setting, a positive emotional state is understood to reflect the Holy Spirit confirming the truthfulness of what one has said or experienced. The traditional name for this experience is “burning in the bosom.” There is some parallel here with what psychologists term elevation, an uplifting feeling that research shows to have such beneficial effects as increasing the likelihood that a person will engage in altruistic behavior.

In an LDS context, uplifting feelings are considered to be the influence of the Holy Spirit and are used to confirm truth. Devout churchgoers use these feelings to buttress their claims concerning the Church. Uncorrelated Church members may find it exceptionally difficult to argue with such “evidence.” Doing so can call into question a range of other experiences that also were affirmed by elevation.

When this occurs, the ramifications affect not only the individual but often extend to family and friends. LDS culture and teachings place very high value on family connections. An oft-cited statement on the family by David O. McKay, LDS president from 1951 to 1970, is “No success can compensate for failure in the home.” Although this statement is nearly half a century old, it continues to be quoted favorably in LDS curricula. If anything, this “sacralization of the family” in Mormonism has increased in recent decades. One effect of this is to accentuate normative pressure on uncorrelated Mormons. The religious individual wants loved ones to feel the positive effects of religion that he or she experiences and is disappointed when family members or friends do not share them. Uncorrelated or ex-Mormons likewise experience disappointment that their loved ones do not share their beliefs. All people seek confirmation from others that their beliefs are right, and when these are not reciprocated, hurt feelings and estrangement can follow. We use normative and informational influence to maintain our understanding of the meaning of life, but this is facilitated when others agree with us. When they do not, in extreme cases friendships and marriages can end. This is a recurring theme expressed in interviews and on bulletin boards frequented by uncorrelated and ex-Mormons.

Coauthor Cragun has two male friends who found themselves in this situation. Both were returned Mormon missionaries who married in the temple. Over time, they transitioned from devoted members to uncorrelated members and eventually became nonbelievers. For both of them, their doubts eventually surfaced clearly enough for their still-faithful spouses to notice. Although both of them were willing to pretend that they were still faithful members by continuing to attend services, following the behavioral guidelines of the religion, and even raising their children in the religion, their disbelief was too much of a burden for their believing spouses. Both of their spouses requested divorces, even though both men still professed love for them. However, the believing wives could not tolerate their husbands’ disbelief. Thus, a potential consequence of freely inquiring into Mormonism is the dissolution of otherwise happy marriages.

The extent of this problem is difficult to ascertain. The Church does not currently publish statistics indicating what percentage of its members hold temple recommends or attend services regularly. What little data exists on the activity rates of members is dated. Sociologist Rick Phillips noted that activity rates in the 1980s were higher in Utah (around 70 percent) than outside Utah (around 50 percent), and they were even lower outside the United States, with as few as 30 percent of male members in other countries being able to participate in the rituals detailed above (temple baptisms, blessings, and the like). To what extent the inactive members are uncorrelated Mormons is unclear, but undoubtedly there are many among both the active and inactive members of the religion.

Regardless of the number of people having these experiences, it is clear that the experiences described by uncorrelated and New Order Mormons are often quite painful, both to the individual and to his or her family and friends. In this context, it is important to note that some Mormons are working to broaden the faith to include acceptance of the lapsed and uncorrelated and other nontraditional approaches to the religion. Much of this work is happening in the informal world of blogs. To pick one prominent example, Joanna Brooks, a writer for Religion Dispatches, has written extensively about how the Church might embrace its members on the periphery, defining orthodoxy less narrowly and in such a way that uncorrelated Mormons would find greater acceptance in the Church. If successful, efforts such as these might well ease both interpersonal tensions and individuals’ own cognitive dissonance at holding both “insider” and “outsider” perspectives.

At present, being a free inquirer inside the religion is challenging, but leaving is not a very good option when it means losing your spouse or family. And that is often why uncorrelated Mormons stay—because nothing else can compensate for failure in the home.

Further Reading

For an excellent psychological examination of religion, see Ralph W. Hood et al. The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. New York: Guilford Press, 2009.


  • Sara B. Algoe and Jonathan Haidt. “Witnessing Excellence in Action: The Other-praising Emotions of Elevation, Admiration, and Gratitude.” Journal of Positive Psychology 4(2009).
  • Gallup. “Mormons Most Conservative Major Religious Group in U.S.” January 11, 2011. Available at
  • Melinda Henneberger. “Jon Huntsman: The Potential Republican Presidential Candidate Democrats Most Fear.” Time, May 11, 2011.
  • Rick Phillips. “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism.” Nova Religion 10, No. 1(2006):52–68.
  • Peggy F. Stack. “Mormon Temple Weddings Leave Some Family on the Outside, Hurting Inside.” The Salt Lake Tribune, June 9, 2011.


Michael Nielsen

Michael Nielsen is professor and chair of the Psychology Department at Georgia Southern University. He has published widely on the social-psychological aspects of religion in general and on Mormonism. He is coeditor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Ryan Cragun

Ryan T. Cragun is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. His research interests include Mormonism and the nonreligious.

He is the author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles, including several for Free Inquiry, and half-dozen book chapters. His research is regularly featured in national media.

Are all Mormons devout and orthodox believers? Or are some of them freethinkers? And if there are freethinking members inside this religion with a reputation for conformity, are they marginalized? If so, why would they stay? Religious belief and affiliation serve many different needs. They offer adherents a sense of purpose and meaning, a sense …

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