“If You Don’t Like It, Leave,” and Religious Pluralism

One of the things that has stood out to me in wading through the comments on The Great Pants Uproar (not a great use of one’s time, I must say, though that didn’t stop me) is the number of people who have expressed the sentiment, “if you don’t like the church, you should leave.” I want to think about this idea from a theological angle, specifically what it means in the context of religious pluralism.

The issue of religious pluralism—in other words, what it means theologically that there are so many religions—is a knotty question for those who come from churches with strong claims that they are the only ones who have the complete truth, and/or who offer the way to salvation. One set of categorizations that was prominent in Christian theology for a while was that of exclusivism (my church is the only true one, and the only way to God); inclusivism (my church is the standard of truth, but other religions still have good elements); and pluralism (there are multiple legitimate paths to God).

These categorizations have been critiqued for being oversimplistic—I think Mormonism is a good example of a faith that doesn’t neatly fit into just one of them. Another possible way to think about this might be as a spectrum, from the hardcore, “my way is the only true way and every other faith tradition is false” on the one end, to the radically relativist “all roads lead to God” on the other. This is doubtless still oversimplistic, but I think it might be helpful in considering the variety of views within the LDS church: some people are closer to the exclusivist end, and some (probably fewer) to the pluralist. Since there are both exclusivist and pluralist elements to be found in the tradition, I think it’s possible to make a fairly strong case for either one (or even both).

Going back to the idea that if you aren’t happy with the church, you should just leave, I propose that this makes the most sense coming from a more pluralist perspective. In this paradigm, if you are unhappy with one faith tradition, you should seek for another that resonates more strongly with you. After all, there is truth to be found in a variety of places, and there is no one way that’s right for everyone. I have encountered plenty of pluralists (mostly outside the church) who are baffled as to why a person would stay in a tradition which she found oppressive or deeply flawed, when there are so many other options.

However, when I hear this sentiment from my fellow Latter-day Saints, my observation is that it usually comes from those who also hold strongly exclusivist views. And I find this combination much more troubling. The pluralists might be obnoxiously condescending. But the exclusivists, the ones who believe that the LDS church has the only way back to God, are basically telling people that they are not welcome in the kingdom of God, that they should turn away from the ultimate source of truth. As my sister Eve said to me when we first started commenting in the bloggernacle, and she was almost immediately accosted by someone who told her that because of her feminist views she should just leave, “If it’s God’s one true church, why would you ever tell anyone to leave?” I have to say that I find the proposal that you seek out another faith tradition (or even start your own) to be much more palatable when it comes from those with pluralist sentiments, who think you might do better on another path, than from those who believe there is only one true path, and are doing their best to use the Iron Rod to knock you off of it.

I see both pluralist and exclusivist elements in the LDS church. But regardless, the suggestion that someone should just leave strikes me as deeply un-Mormon. It might be challenging, sometimes incredibly challenging, to attempt to get along with our sisters and brothers who see things in radically different ways than we do. But surely we can better than telling people to just go away.


  1. “those who believe there is only one true path, and are doing their best to use the Iron Rod to knock you off of it”

    That is a classic line. 🙂

    I’m still chuckling.

  2. The “invitation” to leave if you don’t fit cultural norms is a most extreme solution, it’s not meant to be helpful. It’s like telling someone who’s complaining of a broken ankle that they should cut off their leg.

  3. My basic perspective derives from my father, who took the position this is HIS church and he’s not going anywhere. But I must admit that if someone seriously told me to leave, I would be tempted to (at least begin the process to) take him up on it. Because we are a very missionary and retention oriented church, no matter how much we struggle in those areas, and at least beginning the process of leaving would give me tremendous leverage with my local leaders to examine the issue in question and to seek reasonable accomodations. Of course, that would only work if I were willing to follow through if necessary and actually leave, and while this is all theoretical I could see a set of circumstances where I would do that.

  4. I suspect “exclusivists” (to use the problematic terminology) consider someone with opinion X or action Y to be already cut off, and by remaining “in” on the books, they’re bringing down the average, as it were, leavening the loaf in a bad way. They should follow through with the logical implication of opinion x/action y and leave, would go the thinking. I suspect this gets into problems of identity, Mormon-in-name-only kinds of things.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Eve’s piercing rhetoric: “If it’s God’s one true church, why would you ever tell anyone to leave?” In fact, it is precisely because at some level every member of the church does believe, or at one time did believe, that the LDS Church is the one true church of God that the scope and scale of our missionary commitment even makes sense. If church doctrine were, on the contrary, ‘exclusively pluralistic’ (pardon the pun), then a church program or policy of proselyting with any degree of structure more complicated than an open invitation to fellowship would be nothing more than simply chauvinism.

    In some ways, wouldn’t that be nice?

    In truth, the church and its members are far better off with a ‘pluralistic inclusivism’ (again, pardon the pun) with regard to fellowship, even if it must be coupled with an exclusivist set of tenants and objectives. I personally see it as an indispensible aspect to the concept of eternal increase to ‘leave no man [or woman] behind’ and the most beautiful consequence of the sealing ordinances, that God has promised you to me if I am true and faithful; that is, you are not irretrievably lost.

    But what happens when we agree that “the proposal that you seek out another faith tradition (or even start your own) [is] much more palatable when it comes from those with pluralist sentiments,” and then refocus upon the aggregate of each individual orthodox belief belonging to our canon and tradition, rather than allowing our focus to be on the church as a whole? It’s one thing to believe in exclusivist manner that the LDS Church is God’s one true church, but quite another to proclaim in exclusivist manner that there is no error in the church whatsoever, or that “when the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done,” or that nothing can occur contrary to the will of God; ergo, whatever happens is in fact God’s will.

    Few there must be, thank God, who really hold such views. Consequently, even the more ardent advocates for the exclusivist truth claims of the church will at some point perceive some degree of cognitive dissonance resulting naturally from the uncomfortable interface between experience and faith. And behold, here we have one of the many purposes of life.

    In essence, my point is that all who believe in God, be they Mormon or not, are to some degree or another, if not inclusive, then pluralistic when it comes to matters of faith because no one of sound mind and moderate maturity truly believes everything told to them by someone else. Even for Mormons with testimonies of the exclusivist truth claims of the church, many abound who feel that Brigham Young got it wrong with the priesthood ban, or with musings about Adam as God. Others may feel that Joseph Smith got it wrong with plural marriage (or was it Wilford Woodruff who got that one wrong?) Still others feel that the Church Correlation Department repeatedly gets it wrong so often on everything from modesty to lesson manuals to the General Handbook of Instructions, that to attempt to undertake a comprehensive catalog of the damage done is so daunting and depressing a task that to save time a blanket condemnation of that entire enterprise is both appropriate and appreciated.

    So if most of us are pluralistic in the minutia of Mormondom, even if exclusivist in the gestalt, then to me, to accept “the proposal that you seek out another faith tradition (or even start your own) [is] much more palatable when it comes from those with pluralist sentiments,” is to tread on thin ice.

    Would that were the only danger.

    Moreover, it seems to me that the pluralistic outlook most members of the church have toward their least favorite teachings or cultural memes within the church often reaches a critical mass all on its own. The consequence is often a voluntary disassociation from the fellowship of those they leave here behind in the church. It is not so much that we tell them, “If you don’t like it, then leave it,” but rather leaving become the path that for them has heart. The church can be the only true church for all and still foster an abusive interpersonal dynamic for some. I would never tell anyone to leave the church … and here’s the key … for MY comfort. But can I imagine wishing someone well who felt that happiness beckoned to them from without? I can.

  6. This is such a great post. I’m really struggling with this particular issue lately because my mom actually screamed this exact line at me this summer, and it was such a shock. Sigh.

  7. People who say “if you don’t like it then leave” clearly don’t something but have chosen to say this instead of leaving.

    So if they don’t take their own advice, why should you?

  8. You make excellent points, Lynnette.

    I wonder if the all-or-nothing way that Church activity is taught and presented is part of what drives the “why don’t you just leave?” response. That is, if Church leaders, right up to GAs, will say that either it’s all true or it’s all false, or that you can’t pick and choose what to believe, then when people hear that you disagree with some point of how the Church runs (even if it’s only a strong cultural norm) it kind of makes sense for them to wonder why you don’t leave. (I’m thinking of the generic “you” here. It could just as well be me.)

    So I guess I’m saying I don’t know if people who say “why don’t you just leave?” have thought things through and are actually inviting you to be damned. Or perhaps they figure that by doubting some aspect of the Church, you’re already on your way to damnation, so why not just make a clean break of it?

    I don’t know. Clearly there are at least some people who want to show lots of Church members the door and have thought through the implications, and they’re thrilled about it. They want to see all us doubters get damned. But I hope such people are in the minority of the “why don’t you just leave?” crowd.

  9. I am utterly shocked by the level of contempt that people displayed toward the women who wanted to wear pants to church, and I’m not talking about random internet strangers. I was shocked by a few people I actually know, people I thought were generally good examples of living the gospel, who treated feminists with open hostility and dismissiveness.

    In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he shares a case study about divorce. The biggest predictor for divorce was the expression of contempt between spouses. Contempt included dismissive behaviours like eye rolling and heavy sighing. It didn’t have to be name calling or yelling “get out” or “I hate you” or the absolute worst I saw “all activists should be shot in the face point blank.” We are driving people out of the church with our contempt. I can’t imagine people not being held accountable for this at the judgment bar, and I am dead serious.

    Who is in apostasy here?

  10. This week, I came across a relevant quote from the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr:

    “The longer I have worked with people, the more I see that it is cultural and institutional blindness that keeps most of us from deeper seeing, and not usually personal bad will. We mostly think like everybody around us unless we have taken some real inner journeys of love, prayer, and suffering. Without great love and/or great suffering, human consciousness remains largely at the fight-or-flight, either-or, all-or-nothing level. This dualistic mind, that we can now prove is the lowest level of brain function, will never be able to access, much less deal with, the really big things that are invariably ‘mysterious.'”

    I truly believe that transformation from dualistic thinking to empathy and love for others whose experiences are not your own is a deep inward journey that takes a lot of courage to make…

  11. Wonderful post that articulates many things that I’ve felt over the years about the need to keep this church as big-tent as possible. If this is the only way to return to our Heavenly Parents, then our only recourse is to invite as many as possible to be in the tent, at the edges of the tent, and coming toward the tent. Anything else is unconscionable.

  12. I, too, love this line: “those who believe there is only one true path, and are doing their best to use the Iron Rod to knock you off of it.”

    This reminds me of when Augustine says that part of the joy of heaven is looking down on those burning in hell. (I think it’s in City of God?) I think there are a few people who really revel in the idea of other people leaving the church and signing a long-term lease in the Telestial Kingdom. But I think that for more people, they really do just have an all-or-nothing view of the church, so that if you’ve rejected one thing, you’ve basically rejected everything, and you might as well just leave and stop causing trouble, salvation be damned.

  13. Amen, Lynnette. I know this is an older post, but I just saw this excellent comment by rah on an OP similar to this one over at Times and Seasons (the last sentence of #48):

    “I think it is really problematic for any organization if leaving is the only form of legitimate dissent.”

    We need spaces for dissent because we need spaces for dialogue in general. How else can we foster communication? How else can we properly serve each other if we won’t hear each other out?

  14. “my way is the only true way and every other faith tradition is false”
    Yes, like Feminism, if you are a true feminist you would not even step into the doors of the church. And if you do you are not allowed to speak for feminism. Great post.

  15. But again I was thinking of this today, “If you don’t like it leave” and I thought all week about this, even talked to my Husband about us doing something different. I could not shake the feeling that regardless of how horrible my church can be, how the hell is that God’s fault. 😉 Maybe I should stick around and support him a bit.

  16. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes


Comments are closed.