Officially, Richard Packham hasn't been a Mormon since 1958, but like many former Latter-day Saints, he spends a lot of time thinking and talking about his former church.
Packham is the founder and past president of the Exmormon Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to support those who have left the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The group was formed in the late 1990s by individuals who had begun talking about their departures on Internet discussion boards.
"It's nice to be able to talk openly with people who have gone through similar experiences," said Packham, 74, of Roseburg, Ore., whose decision to quit Mormonism after he stopped believing its teachings cost him his marriage.
The foundation's annual conference began Friday night in Salt Lake City and continues through Sunday with speakers, workshops and an open-mic session where individuals can share their personal stories.
The annual event draws about 350 people, including some from outside the United States.
Individually, the stories of ex-Mormons vary, Packham said. Some members leave on their own and others have been excommunicated. But what most share is a set of complicated emotional ties to family, heritage and community that makes leaving the faith difficult.
"There is a lot of pressure for nonbelievers to keep their mouth shut because it's a family situation," said foundation member Azra Evans, a retired economics professor. "Your mother's going to cry and say, 'Now the family won't be together in the next life,' or 'You can't go to your sister's wedding in the temple.' There's a lot of ostracization and broken families."
Evans, 72, said the annual conference is an attempt to regain some of that lost community. He also attends a monthly meeting of former Mormons near his home in St. George.
"In Mormonism you meet for three hours each Sunday and they've got so many activities going that your life is full," said Evans, who was excommunicated after writing a book in 2003. "This is an attempt to do a little bit of that, but it's not as intense."
Former Los Angeles Times religion reporter Bill Lobdell came to an Exmormon conference in 2001 to write about the group.
"I was really taken by the struggle these people have simply because they stopped believing," said Lobdell, who was scheduled to give the keynote conference address Saturday night. "There were so many tears and gut-wrenching stories, and they had become very isolated."
A self-described "reluctant atheist," Lobdell said his weekend with former Latter-day Saints was ultimately a turning point in his own journey out of Christianity, which he wrote about in his 2008 book, "Losing My Religion."
Lobdell said it makes sense that ex-Mormons gather annually and continue to talk about the church. Mormonism is as much a culture as a religion, so the loss of community -- and sometimes family relationships -- can be devastating. He said there are similar ex-Catholic groups.
"I think when you are raised in any kind of environment where your whole life centers around that, I think that there is a whole lot of trauma in leaving," he told The Associated Press . "I think they feel very much alone and so to get together with like-minded people with similar experiences really helps them hold each other up and boost their resolve to see this through."