Author: Stephen C

If I Didn’t Believe, Part III: Living a Non-Latter-day Saint Life

  Word of Wisdom I accidentally drank beer once, and found it gross. I’ve been told that it’s kind of an acquired taste, so given the harms it does I probably just wouldn’t acquire it even if I didn’t have any religious scruples about doing so.  However, I like new experiences, so I’d probably try everything short of really hard drugs (heroin, crystal meth, etc.) at least once. Given the data on mental health issues and marijuana or psychedelics, I haven’t been convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs for routine use, so I’d probably more or less follow the Word of Wisdom.  Tattoos I don’t understand tattoos. I have a hard time seeing why tattoos have become so fashionable, and the idea is kind of queesy to me with or without the Church. Occasionally I’ll see people who get tattoos of the names of their children on them; if I’m going to carve something into my flesh for all eternity it would have to be something almost existential along those lines (flesh of my flesh?). Similarly, I kind of get it if I was Maori and it had some traditional, genealogical significance. Sexuality To paraphrase and modify Carl Sagan, “extraordinary demands on people require extraordinary justifications.” Occasionally secularists want to reconstruct some kind of boundaries and norms for sexuality beyond just consent, but given how powerful those forces are for most people, I just don’t see it happening without…

On Pro-Choice Deadbeat Dads

Note: This post was inspired by some recent media attention that has been given to  a Latter-day Saint author for a book in which she talks about how the abortion debate should recenter on “ejaculating responsibly.” I haven’t read the book and therefore don’t have a right to critique its particulars, but here I’m addressing a general argument that one often hears that may or may not apply to her book.  In their ethnographies Promises I Can Keep and Doing the Best I Can, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas interviewed young, unwed mothers (and later, the fathers of their children) in low-income settings, in part to see why they chose to get pregnant or, if they didn’t, what the processes were that led up to them carrying and having a child out of wedlock. It’s an incredibly moving work about the power and pathos of motherhood that is highly recommended. During the interviews with what can largely be described as deadbeat fathers, when the issue of abortion came up many of the fathers exhibited very pro-choice views. However, the authors pointed out a not-so-silver lining to this belief: by believing in the woman’s right to choose they believe it logically exempted them from the fiscal or emotional consequences of that choice, since it was, in the end, 100% her decision, and that the real decision, that he was not involved in at all, came after conception. The thing is, their…

Proportion Latter-day Saint by County Maps

I generated some chloropleths of proportion Latter-day Saint by county from the latest 2020 Religion Census data. Since outside the Mormon corridor the proportions are relatively low, and inside they are relatively high, I did three versions: one with the cutoff at 100%, one with a cutoff at  10%, and one with a cutoff at 3%, in order to show more of the variation outside the Mormon corridor.      

2020 US Religion Census Just Dropped

The decennial US Religion Census just dropped, so we now have fine-grained current data on percent LDS and number of congregations by county. My understanding is that the methodology for the Church’s reporting of their number changed in between waves, which affects our ability to compare the numbers between this and 2010 (I might be wrong, please correct if so), but both sets report congregations, so that might be a useful benchmark to compare relative growth or decline rates by county. I might create a chloropleth of percent LDS if I can find the time, but for now I’ll leave you with this image that shows the up-to-date boundaries of the “Mormon belt,” (gray is LDS) and a few drive-by interesting observations. It looks like there’s an LDS county or two in Alaska (although I suspect that if I were to dive into the data we would find that there’s hardly anybody there, so getting a plurality isn’t that hard). I wasn’t aware there was an LDS county in New Mexico. The Community of Christ has 616 congregations in the US. The Bickertonites have 64 congregations in the US (I couldn’t find any other restoration branches in the data). When we compare the number of congregations by county in 2010 to those in 2020; 354 (11%) show a decrease, 2,303 (73%) show the same (however, a lot of these are 0 to 0), and 495 counties show an increase (16%).…

If I Didn’t Believe, Part II: God, Jesus, and Other Religions

  God: I feel like the belief in God is one of those almost congenital predispositions; you either believe or you don’t. Empirically, based on fine tuning and the complexity of the origin of life, I would lean towards there being an organizational force, even in the absence of a belief in the Church.  Additionally, my sense that 1) moral truth, goodness, and other abstract concepts are real, and 2) you can’t get to an “ought” from an “is,” leans me towards the idea that metaphysics is built into the universe, that there is “writing in the sky,” as the philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, something beyond the raw math and matter. And yes, I know that each of those two premises is highly arguable among philosophers. However, the counter arguments seem like a desperate attempt to wrest meaning from the void, because we can’t live on math and matter alone, but neither can some people explicitly recognize the validity of anything outside the laboratory or logic formula. Even people who claim to only believe in math and matter almost always have some “magic morality” embedded in their outlook whether they recognize it or not. Jesus: I feel that the Gospels have a power that is unique among other religious texts. However, a lot of the power comes from the subtle but powerful and explicit divine aspect of the Savior portrayed in the gospels. Frankly, the social teachings in the…

If I Didn’t Believe, Part I: The Joseph Smith Trilemma, the Book of Mormon Translation, and the Witnesses

Like a lot of people who have gone through faith crises, I’ve spent some time thinking through the alternative to belief in the Church’s truth claims. If we assume that the Church isn’t what it says it is, what is the best explanation for the Church and its related claims that make sense of the data? At the outset I should note that I am indeed a believer, and that this picture was developed from faith crises of the past and isn’t reflective of anything I’m currently going through.  Joseph Smith Trilemma C.S. Lewis famously stated that the only logical options for Christ was that he was divine, evil, or insane, thus logically negating the option of the not divine, albeit good, wise teacher that is a favorite among a certain class of intellectual Christian. I’m not going to argue for or against Lewis’ trilemma here, but rather use it as a framework to approach Joseph Smith.  On the one hand, the Book of Mormon seems to logically close off the possibility of deluded-but-sincere. To create a complex backstory across multiple years, arrange for witnesses, dictate the manuscript, and arrange for its publication would require a lot of concerted intentionality. If the Church was based solely on a kind of beatific vision a la the first vision, I would definitely see this as a more plausible scenario, but the Book of Mormon seems to mitigate against the sincerity thesis.  On the…

Latter-day Saint Book Report on “Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult.”

One of the accusations you occasionally get from the far corners of the internet is that the early Church was a “sex cult” because of Nauvoo-era polygamy. That accusation, of course, begs the question of what a sex cult is. While I categorically don’t like to use the word “cult,” (for, among other reasons, implying that small religions have issues that big religions don’t have), if you were to identify a group as an archetypal “sex cult,” it would be the Children of God Movement in the second half of the 20th century. This book was written by a grandchild of the founder about her experiences in the group up until she left as a young adult; it acts as both a memoir and a history in itself about the movement.  To summarize, the Children of God synthesized traditional Christian teachings with what could be described as sex worship and communal living. Among other practices, people were encouraged to imagine the “love of Christ” as a sex act, female proselytizers used casual sex to attract “investigators,” religious materials were sexually explicit in nature, and in its later stages there were accusations of adult-child sexual contact. (Also, fun fact, the actor Joaquin Phoenix was raised in the group). So, to relate this to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Joseph Smith polygamy is probably the top faith crisis issue in the…

The Greatest Apostasy Since Kirtland? Following a Cohort of Members Across Time

For some years there have been rumors of a large-scale apostasy happening in the Church. These rumors are hard to test without insider information because most surveys have such small samples of Church members it’s really a case of peering through the glass darkly.  I’ve been on record suggesting that in the long run the Church is treading water in terms of out-flows and in-flows (conversions versus people leaving). However, I also recognized that just comparing the number of ex-members to the members of converts at a point in time can obscure some more recent trends.  I recently ran across the fact that the Cooperative Election Study has a sample of 136 members that they followed from 2010 to 2014. While this is a small sample size, it’s one of the very few cases where we can follow a cohort of members measured by a third party to see how many are leaving or joining. (For our small-N, high level purposes here I’m ignoring weights).    If you follow this group across 2012 and 2014, we find that: Between 2010 and 2014, 21 stopped identifying as members by 2014 (15%). Of the 11 people who left in 2012, two returned to the Church by 2014 (so an 82% ex-Mormon, two-year retention rate).     Between 2010 and 2012, four people joined the Church, but only two continued to identify as such in 2014 (so a 50% two-year, convert retention rate).  In total, 10 converts…

Nepotism in High Church Offices

Nepotism is the most natural of vices and needs to constantly be proactively guarded against, or else it will almost certainly creep into any large institution. In the early Church there just weren’t a lot of options to choose from because it was so small, but as the Church becomes larger and more diverse it becomes increasingly unlikely that the best suited person for a high status calling happens to be the close relative of somebody else in a high status calling. (As an aside, one silver lining to having apostles with children who are very publicly not in the Church is that it helps ameliorate the otherization of people who aren’t in blue blood families). In today’s Church, I suspect that family connections, when they do happen, are less a matter of somebody trying to build a dynasty and more a matter of people appointing people that they know, but in these cases stronger efforts to expand the circle of seriously considered candidates might be helpful.  Michael Quinn goes through the history of Church within-family promotions in the early Church in fine-grained detail (and some of the negative consequences), so we won’t rehash that here, but there is some residue of this today.  President Monson’s daughter was in the Young Women’s General Presidency. President Nelson’s son-in-law is a General Authority 70 (I have heard this second hand and haven’t confirmed, feel free to correct).  Elder Holland’s son was appointed…

Latter-day Saints and Extraterrestrials

I was asked to present a bit on the Latter-day Saint perspective on extraterrestrials for an “exotheology” reading group I’m a part of that’s mostly composed of British academics. The following are my thoughts I put together for the lecture.   I was asked to present because the Latter-day Saint (AKA Mormon) tradition has had a long history of believing in multiple planets and non-earth life.  I’m talking to an educated audience I assume most people know the basics but just in case I’ll go over them briefly. Mormonism, or more properly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, is a restorationist movement that believes that the authority for the primitive Christian Church was lost sometime after the Apostles died out in what it terms “the Great Apostasy” and was restored through divine and angelic messengers through Joseph Smith, a day laborer in Northern New York in the early 19th century. From the earliest congregation, which was basically Joseph Smith’s and a few other families in New York, it kept growing while getting driven West with the expanding frontier, and now it is headquartered in Utah with about 17 million members.  There’s obviously a lot more but that’s sort of the elevator synopsis.  To first set the stage a bit at a meta level: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to Catholicism in that there is a scriptural canon, but there’s also an authoritative priesthood…

You’re Probably Not as Edgy as You Think

  “Subculture deviance” is a theoretical perspective in the sociology of deviance that, in response to the question of why people deviate from societal norms, posits that people simply adhere to the norms of a subculture that is at variance with the broader culture. In other words, people who think they’re being radical, edgy freethinkers are often actually just following another crowd that has its own set of norms and values.  As somebody who grew up in the 1990s Utah sacred canopy I’ve seen this play out many times in the Latter-day Saint context. Person is a super strict Latter-day Saint, goes to graduate school or otherwise immerses themselves in some other environment whose norms and values are at tension with those in the Mormon belt, they convert and are still vehement warriors for the truth, but in a different direction.  For the purpose of this post I’m not questioning their conversion: they may be right, but what they aren’t is edgy, unique, or independent thinking, and in certain subcultures within Mormondom the iconoclast label comes part and parcel with its identity. However, true iconoclasm, where you think everybody but you is going crazy, is incredibly uncomfortable; it’s not an experience people usually revel in. Years ago I read the letters of Thomas More as he was traveling down the pathway that eventually led to his execution, and I was struck at how non-martyrish it felt. If there was a way…

General Conference as a “Peaceable Thing of the Kingdom”

The Listener, by James Christensen I’ve been as guilty as anyone of, subconsciously and in the back of my mind, looking forward to General Conference more for the big announcements or controversy than the spiritual nourishment. Reading about the controversy and ensuing outrage (and counter-outrage) in particular are kind of an emotional crack cocaine for people like me. There’s a very momentary feeling of exhilaration, but it gives you a gross feeling inside that you don’t need a lot of discernment to know is not of God. If you are listening to General Conference in the spirit in which it was intended, and do plan to make social media commentary part of your experience, some people have put together Twitter lists of less polemical commentators. And if listening to General Conference isn’t your thing, I wish you a spiritually capacious weekend hiking, listening to music, meditating, or whatever else you do to commune with deity.    

General Conference and Our Shrinking Attention Spans

As the father of a lot of small, messy children, I easily listen to two hours of podcasts a day while cleaning (how my parents’ generation cleaned before podcasts I have no idea). The other day a movie producer on a podcast made a comment about how, in the days before streaming, television producers would look at what other shows were running during their same spot to know who they were competing against, whereas now movie and television producers are faced with the fact that whatever they make is competing against everything that was ever made.   For the most part, I think this development is good. I think it has democratized our attention spans; no longer are we beholden to the views of a few middle aged guys on the large news networks, and the intense competition has forced the entertainment industry to sharpen their craft (I won’t launch into the whole argument about whether things were better back in the day, suffice it to say that for me personally a surprising number of the classic films of yesteryear seem like B-grade Netflix releases now; their appeal is more from nostalgia than objectively high production quality).  While it is common to bemoan what Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have done to our attention spans (the irony of writing this on the now aged medium of a blog is not lost on me), the narrowing of our attention spans has forced content…

Scams in Zion, Part II: MLMs and Utah Socio-Religious Elites

It’s sort of an open secret that Utah has a pyramid scheme multilevel marketing problem. MLMs prey on financially vulnerable people and get them to weaken their personal connections–the most important thing in life and during a time when such precious connections are in increasingly short supply–for very little money, and some MLMs layer dubious, snake-oil type medical claims on top of their immoral distribution approach. It’s nauseating on so many levels.  While I have no reason to doubt the conventional wisdom of Utah having a lot of MLMs, I decided to back-of-the-envelope quantify it. We don’t have access to the internal “independent distributor” numbers, but we can look at how many of the large MLMs are based out of Utah. I looked at the 75 MLMs listed in Wikipedia (I know, I know, but for stuff like this Wikipedia is usually pretty good, and I figured that being listed in Wikipedia was a basic threshold for size and importance). Of the 75 listed, 12 of them are from Utah or are clearly LDS connected (e.g. LuLaRoe), or 16%. Given that Utah and Latter-day Saints are both about 1% of the US population each (with a lot of overlap, obviously), we are very overrepresented.   So yes, we have a problem. Also, I’m aware, as I’ve said many times, that Utah does not equal the Church, but it’s harder to argue against some underlying connection with Utah-Church culture when a lot…

Scams in Zion, Part I: Do Latter-day Saints Tend to Be Gullible Fraud Victims?

I just finished reading the Bernard Madoff biography Wizard of Lies that, in part, details how Madoff ingratiated himself with and defrauded a significant chunk of the East Coast Jewish community. Of course that sparked my thinking about parallels in our own religious community, as it has become sort of a truism that Latter-day Saints are particularly susceptible to fraud. Consequently, I decided to dive into the numbers. I couldn’t find anything empirically testing whether high Latter-day Saint areas tend to be more fraudulent, so I did my own analysis. The 2010 American Religious Census has an indicator for number of Latter-day Saints for thousand in a county, and the Uniform Crime Reporting System shows the number of frauds committed in each county in the year 2010.  I merged the two datasets by their fips code, generated a “fraud per thousand” measure using the county population numbers in the UCRS, looked at whether Latter-day Saints per thousand is associated with frauds committed per thousand, and found that more Latter-day Saints= fewer frauds. (As always, my code is on my github).  The graph is below (sorry I didn’t take time to make it pretty; I’ve already spent too much family time on this).  For the wonks, the correlation was -.07, so it’s not much, but it was statistically significant (I’d log the values in the graph, but for our purposes here I’m trying to keep things simple). From a regression approach,…

BYU Professors Calling the Brethren Autocratic Fascists is Not Going to Help Anybody

At a recent post over at BCC, a tenured BYU-X professor communicates some anxiety about CES’ new direction, which is certainly their right, but in doing so the author calls the people who made this decision (i.e. the brethren, if that wasn’t clear from Elder Holland’s talk) autocrats, and prominently displays the fasces at the top of the post. Now, I don’t know if this is a weird attempt at a “they who have ears to hear” thing, but the fasci is a well-established symbol of fascism. Implying that the people who actually have the power to do anything about this are autocratic fascists isn’t going to help their case.    While as a matter of principle I think non-inflammatory rhetoric is generally best, for what it’s worth I’m on the other side of this. However, I’m actually skeptical that the new direction will achieve much, although I might be wrong. It doesn’t matter if all the deans are on board with the church’s “teachings on marriage, family, and gender” (which they aren’t, in at least one case I’m aware of); I suspect that the faculty who fundamentally disagree with the Church on hot button social topics and are in part at BYU to “reform” the Church through its institutions will just lay low and continue to hire the kind of people who also fundamentally disagree with the Church and are trying to reform it. I suspect that the concern over…

Rest in Peace Rodney Stark 

I was recently informed that Rodney Stark passed away. For the uninitiated, Rodney Stark was a force of nature in the sociology of religion. His interests ranged from early Christianity to UFO movements, and agree with him or not, he was a giant in every field he engaged. His theories helped shape the strategies of the Church’s research division for a while, and he always had a soft spot in his heart for Latter-day Saints.  He didn’t win any popularity contests in sociology as an institution, but frankly that’s more to his credit in a field that doesn’t brook a lot of heterodoxy (either ideologically or in terms of subject matter). He blazed his own path and didn’t care one wit what others thought; he was a true iconoclast, and people will read Rodney Stark years after his more mainstream contemporaries are footnotes to footnotes.  As I’ve mentioned before, I believe I’m the last postdoc or student who had the opportunity to work with him. I don’t want to exaggerate our connection; he didn’t come into the office that much, and my memories involve a handful of meetings. As he was independently wealthy both from his textbook sales (as a former journalist he knew how to write, and disdained academic gobbly-gook) and his wife’s business, he could have retired decades ago, but he kept working even as his health started to decline.  A lot of anecdotes are being passed around…

Latter-day Saint Book Report on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”

In 1857 officials raided a home in the Jewish ghetto in Bologna, Italy and forcefully removed a 6-year old child based on the testimony of a servant that he had been baptized as an infant and was, therefore, Christian. At the time Bologna was under the direct rule of the Pope (back in the day the Pope ruled over a chunk of Italy as a sovereign). While Catholic canon law stipulated severe penalties for baptizing a Jewish child without the consent of their parents, once a baptism did take place it was considered valid, and sometimes that child was removed to be raised in a Christian home or religious house. Jewish children being abducted because of surreptitious baptisms had happened before, but this particular case happened after a tipping point in small-l liberal sentiment in Europe, and became exhibit A for the perception that the Church was increasingly out of touch. A diplomatic storm arose as emperors, prime ministers, and the newly liberated European Jewish community all put immense pressure on the Vatican to release the child back to his parents. However, Pope Pius IX wouldn’t budge because of his sincere religious interpretation, and there’s some evidence that the capture of this Jewish boy was one of several straws that broke the camel’s back, eventually leading to the invasion of the Papal States and the destruction of the Pope’s temporal power in Italy.  On a personal level, Edgardo was adopted…

Book Report-Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

This is a well-written journalistic account of a scandal that happened in the biblical studies community in 2012 when a purportedly ancient parchment surfaced that contained the words “Jesus said to them ‘my wife.’” Despite some red flags such as bad Coptic grammar, Professor Karen King, one of the preeminent scholars in the field, became excited about its potential to undermine traditional Christian narratives (not ours of course, since, as Chad Nielsen’s excellent post points out, Latter-day Saint theology tends to be open to Christ being married) and widely promoted it until (and a little bit after) some smart amateurs working out of their basement exposed it as a fraud.  As Latter-day Saints (and religious people in general) we’re often told that we need to watch out for our biases in analyzing historical or scientific evidence. Fair enough, but it’s also naive to think that there aren’t biases among more secular scholars speaking to their desires (although most such scholars recognize this). Throughout Veritas the author makes it clear where Professor King’s biases were, and painstakingly documents how they led to her overlooking blatant red flags in the papyrus. At an acceptance speech for one of her teaching prizes she said “to those who walk in with their faith firm (whatever that faith is), with their convictions sure, their moral standards in good condition, I try to take away some of that surety, some of that conviction, some of that confidence”…

How Bad is Salt Lake City’s Sexual Assault Problem?

Utah doesn’t do so great when it comes to its ranking of reported rape. However, as any sexual assault scholar will tell you, most rapes are not reported (and an even smaller fraction lead to a conviction). Low official rape numbers are sort of a Rorschach test, and can be interpreted as evidence of stigma against reporting as much as evidence of low sexual assaults. Therefore, self-reported victimization (asking people if they’ve been assaulted) is considered a much better way to measure sexual assault. The major survey that has national self-reported victimization data, the National Crime Victimization Survey, generally doesn’t include sub-national level estimates in order to protect confidentiality. However, the Census Bureau has recently released a special public-use file that allows researchers to generate estimates at the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) level.Among the 52 MSAs is the Salt Lake City area, so the first time we have the chance to look at where a Utah location falls in terms of good, self-reported sexual assault data. One qualification: I’m on the record as pointing out that Utah does not necessarily equal the Church. (This is particularly important when considering the old canard about high Utah porn use, since for some reason the non-Latter-day Saint heavy Utah counties are into paid porn).This is doubly true for the Salt Lake City area, which is even less Latter-day Saint than Utah as a whole. The NCVS survey is quite complex; thankfully, the provided codebook included…