There’s no evidence that Richard Dutcher has left the Church.

He is, of course, as he has said, “no longer a practicing member of the church.” The key word there is ‘practicing,’ I think; it’s an odd distinction to make if he’s had his name removed from church records. He has made it abundantly clear he no longer considers himself an insider, and may never be one again, but it’s my impression that he has not severed all ties.

Now, you might interpret this as wishful thinking, but I’m interested in getting at another point: about the complexities of nonparticipation in the Church. Few around the blogs have done much speculating as to Dutcher’s motives, for which I’m grateful. An exception can be made, though, if we count Keith Merrill, who in his opening paragraph summons up a common, common theme for explaining inactivity; in his own term, “apostasy.” Now, Merrill wrote in anger and has since apologized, for which he should be commended. But it’s still true that most Mormons invoke two interpretations for explaining those who choose to leave activity in the Church: sin, and taking offense. Though there may be some truth to this pair, they remain woefully inadequate when we try to understand a complex phenomenon; for one thing, both imply that inactivity is the result of some personal failing.

The issue reminded me of a study worth re-examining: Stan Albrecht, et al’s, “Religious Leave-Taking,” in David Bromley, ed, Falling from the faith: causes and consequences of religious apostasy, 1988.

Albrecht and his peers surveyed over eighteen hundred inactive Mormons, asking them to select from a list all those reasons which contributed to their inactivity; what follows is a slight consolidation of their findings.

54% cited “I found other interests and activities which led me to spend less and less time on church-related activities.”
52% cited “I felt my lifestyle was no longer compatible with participation in the church.”
40% cited “I just didn’t feel like I belonged.”
38% cited “When I grew up and started making my own decisions I stopped going to church.”
37% cited “I moved to a different community and never got involved.”
36% cited marriage to an inactive or nonmember spouse.
28% cited a work schedule.
23% cited “specific problems with the doctrines and teachings of the Church.”
20% cited problems with other church members
17% cited “The church no longer helped me in finding the meaning of life.”

Albrecht, et al, broke down inactives along two axes – believer versus nonbeliever; engaged versus disengaged. The former is self-explanatory; the latter is divided among those who say the church is important to them and those who say it is not.

According to Albrecht, 55 percent of Mormons will become disengaged nonbelievers, 19 percent disengaged believers, and 4 percent engaged nonbelievers, for some period of at least a year. This means 78% of Mormons will undergo a year of inactivity in their lives. Of those 78%, however, more than half return, to total a 66% activity rate among Mormons at age 65.

Now, an interesting thing here is that 59 percent of Mormons upon entering inactivity are or become nonbelievers; that is, at least 59 percent of Mormons don’t have a testimony at or after some point within the ages of 16 to 25, that period when entering inactivity is the most common. We should, perhaps, place some of the options above in that context. I can’t place Dutcher on this scale; really, only he himself can, but I do believe he falls along the engaged axis. Clearly, his statement, “Please know that I will always be not only a great friend to the Mormon community, but also one of its strongest defenders,” indicates some degree of attachment to the Church.

None of this explains why Dutcher has taken the steps he has. Models are of scant use in explaining the actions of individuals. What it can do is contextualize not only Dutcher, but other inactives, and make clear that religious choice is among the more complex of human activities.