Author: Stephen C

The Church’s New Statement on Abortion

As mentioned previously, I’m very pro-life. As far as we could tell, we were the only “Latter-day Saints” for life sign at this year’s March for Life, and living in the DC area I’ve had the opportunity to do pro-bono work for pro-life organizations. However, I also have no desire to consume the remainder of my weekend with some grand Latter-day Saint Pro-life versus Pro-choice fight (fellow blogger Nathaniel Givens has already done much of that), so instead this post is about something much narrower: the Church’s new statement on abortion. (For a more general take on the Church’s stance the abortion question, along with primary sources, etc., see Mormonr’s great synopsis of the subject). I say new because it is in fact different. The new statement replaced the line The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion which is a clearer statement of neutrality, with the somewhat ambiguous: The Church’s position on this matter remains unchanged. As states work to enact laws related to abortion, Church members may appropriately choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty. Of course, this is ambiguous because, while not going all-in on pro-life activism, it is clearly tilted towards the pro-life side of the scale, and it leaves unsaid whether Church members may appropriately choose to participate in contravening efforts. It kind of sounds like a compromise document. Latter-day Saint Vaticanology is…

The First AI Church Art Show

I have grade school offspring that can draw better than me, and because of the accident of God ordained gifts (or lack thereof), I’ve been a little envious of those who are in a position to create meaningful, powerful art.  Several posts ago I discussed how art creation is on the precipice of being radically changed by AI. As mentioned in that post, AI has the potential to create art from descriptions, opening the door to us rubes to participate. It still has a ways to go, but we have an early version that can actually give some good results.  The use of AI raises all sorts of philosophy of art questions about attribution. By having the idea, getting a sense of the process, and selecting descriptions that I think will yield good results, am I the artist? Even if the process itself had an automated, lifeless, component? A seminal moment in art history was when accomplished artist Duchamp submitted a urinal with the signature “R Mutt” to an art show, after that point everything was fair game for being considered “art,” and the use of AI could fall in the same camp. But in terms of attribution, who is the artist? Nobody hunted down the urinal maker that created the piece to give him or her credit, but perhaps the code writers or image generators online that supplied the raw material have more of a claim to being the “artist.”…

Faith Demoting Rumors and Mormon Sexual Urban Legends

This last semester I taught a class on sexuality and statistics (the Chair’s idea, not mine, but it turned out) at Catholic University of America, which is the closest thing to a Catholic BYU since it is directly owned and managed by the US Catholic Church.   Trying to be a good university citizen, I carved out some space on the last day to address sexuality from a big picture, Catholic theological angle and had come prepared to discuss Humanae Vitae, basically their version of a First Presidency Statement that solidified the Catholic Church’s theology on sexuality and reproduction, including birth control.  However, we hadn’t gone too far into the discussion when one of my students, probably emboldened by it being the last day, took the opportunity to ask about the Mormon sexual practice of “soaking.” For those of you who missed that day in seminary, “soaking” evidently consists of a couple and a helper trying to circumvent chastity regulations by engaging in intercourse, with the helper under the bed pushing it upwards, thus facilitating the act of intercourse without any movement on the part of the participants.  After the one student mentioned it several other students’ chimed in saying that they too had heard about this on Tik Tok; furthermore, some had ex-Mormon friends who swore that they themselves had engaged in soaking when they were members (the “friend” or “friend of a friend” pattern should sound similar to other…

Fetishizing Doubt

While some in the Church fear or are anxious around religious doubt, I feel that in some circles the pendulum has swung too far the other way, so I thought I’d directly address what I personally consider to be some takes that I think are problematic.  Periods of doubt are required to develop a stronger faith.  Yes, doubt can strengthen faith once you come out the other side, but this isn’t strictly required. For me personally the aspects of the gospel that viscerally feel right remain the least doubt-ridden parts of my testimony. Of course, some beliefs may be affected by premises that are later shown to be incorrect, and a period of doubt might help “inoculate” one’s self, but again this isn’t required. There are some people with informed testimonies who just haven’t ever had a problem with doubt, and their testimonies shouldn’t be implicitly viewed as less developed than people who have passed through seasons of doubt, although people with a history of doubt could have a unique ability to minister to those that do doubt.  Nobody can actually know the Church is true I do think we throw the “know” verbiage around too much. My undergraduate epistemology course taught me you can spill a lot of ink on the actually not so simple concept of knowing, but to wit the validity of knowing and the surety of knowing aren’t the same thing or even necessarily connected. I…

Are Latter-day Saints Disproportionately Gay?

Anecdotally, it has seemed to me for a while that Latter-day Saint families in particular tend to have a lot of gay family members. I don’t know of any hard data that has done any kind of comparison-of-means by religion (the sample size would have to be huge, since we’re dealing with a minority within a minority), and I generally assume this perception of mine has to do with the fact that I’m a Latter-day Saint that has done research on sexuality issues, and hammers and nails and all that. However, lately I’ve wondered if we could theoretically expect more homosexuality in Latter-day Saint families because of our larger family sizes.  Why would family size matter? One of the more idiosyncratic findings in human sexuality in the past several decades is that the number of older brothers one has is strongly correlated with male homosexuality (as far as I know there are no established biological correlates of female homosexuality). There are a variety of speculative embryological explanations that have been proffered, but it’s still unclear why this pattern exists. According to some estimates, about 15-30% of gay men owe their homosexuality to this effect.  Anecdotally, the gay men in my life almost all tend to have a lot of older brothers. More rigorously, large studies suggest that every additional brother increases the chance of male homosexuality by about a third. In the data used to derive the “fraternal birth order effect,” any…

What Are The Odds of Being A Church Leader?

An issue that came up in my last post on church leadership as a marker of righteousness is that people are occasionally told that they are going to be the future bishops and stake presidents of the Church. There are a variety of problems with this: 1) it clearly implies a hierarchy when in theory hierarchy isn’t supposed to matter, 2) it can cause spiritual anxiety if that person does not, in fact, get called to be a leader, and 3) it’s kind of pyramid scheme-ish, since most people are not called as leaders. Point 3 made me think: about what what percentage of priesthood holders will at some point be called as bishops? Now, I’m about to layer speculation on top of speculation, but I suspect these numbers are in the correct ballpark. However, if something is off let me know in the comments.  According to the Church, at a minimum a ward requires at least 20 temple recommend-worthy Melchizedek priesthood holders, and a stake requires at least 180 of the same.  Now, this is a minimum. Many of us have been both in wards that flirt with this line as well as wards with, for example, multiple quorums of deacons that are bursting from the seams. Since I have no hard data to go by, let’s assume that the average ward globally is 25% bigger than the minimum, which would give us an average ward size of 25…

Church Leadership Callings as a Marker of Your Standing Before God

  In one of my recent posts I talked about the connection between wealth and Church leadership; one of the issues that naturally rose to the surface in the comments was the connection between Church leadership and one’s standing before God.  On this issue there’s a somewhat uncomfortable tension between different truisms in Church teachings and culture. On one hand, we generally recognize that righteousness isn’t irrelevant to church position. All things being equal, the higher up one goes the more righteous the individual is, to put it bluntly. I’d expect more from an apostle getting cut off in traffic than I would my local bishop. (I suspect having your reaction during a moment of weakness on your worst day becoming part of a multi-generational lore about what Elder so and so did is a stressor; it certainly would be for me). On the other hand, in theory we recognize that God needs all types, and that the calling of nursery leader isn’t any higher than the bishop. This is especially true when we layer gender issues on top of all this, since we limit leadership positions with priesthood keys to about half the Church, the only way this is not discriminatory is if we honor the female roles as much as the male leadership roles. (I’m fine with the current setup, think we should honor both equally, and do see it as discriminatory when we don’t, but this is…

Religious Studies and the Church, Part III: Graduate Training as a Ponzi Scheme

The subject of education that does not pay financially is a sensitive one for me. Thankfully, my graduate training equipped me with enough marketable skills that I’m fine, but I’m close enough to people in other fields (sometimes adjacent to mine) that I’ve seen it not work out, and it can get very ugly.  Somebody puts in years of their life, and sometimes takes out student loans, to only at the end find out that 1) the chance of you getting that R1 tenure track position for some fields is literally similar to your chance of making it in the NFL, and 2) hardly anybody outside of that field actually cares about all the skills picked up in graduate training (which aren’t as vaguely transferable as is often supposed by both faculty and students), so you need to somehow find a way to support your family on entry-level wages, sometimes while trying to pay off student debt.  Admittedly, my perception of graduate training payoffs is anecdotal, but for undergraduates there is enough data to show that some majors really don’t pay for themselves, or at the very most give you a slightly marginal “generic college” salary benefit that is far from enough to live off of. (Tragically, some of these same fields intentionally try to recruit BIPOC students, seemingly unaware or not caring that they are perpetuating intergenerational inequality by doing so, but I digress).  As can be seen in Census data,…

Why Do Church Leaders Tend to Be Wealthy?

An uncomfortable apparent pattern in the US church is that Church leaders tend to be wealthier than average. I say apparent, since I don’t have any numbers, but this pattern is stark and widespread enough anecdotally that I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s true for the purposes of this post.  Assuming this is the case, why is it? I can think of several reasons people bring up, some of which are more ingrained in church culture than others.  1. Prosperity Gospel Hypothesis  According to this model, since God blesses righteous people temporally, then wealth is seen as a sign of God’s favor, and rich people are not only the financial and social elite, but also happen to be the spiritual elite. It’s usually not stated this crassly, but a version of this idea does seem to float around US Latter-day Saint culture (perhaps especially in those socioeconomic strata for which it is convenient), that ballers at work are ballers in everything in life, including God’s favor.  I personally find this hypothesis to be unpalatable (to put it gently), not only because it conflicts with the spirit and letter of the teachings of the Savior about wealth and social status, but also because the logical corollary is that the desperate family who can’t afford the braces their kid desperately needs somehow brought it upon themselves because of their lack of righteousness.  A softer version of this is that certain…

Religious Studies and the Church, Part II: Rabbis in the Marketplace, Celebrity-Scholars, and Firesides

In the Latter-day Saint community the renowned gospel scholar has traditionally enjoyed a lot of social esteem. Much of what I’d say here I’ve already said previously, but to summarize: our attention is being fractured into a million pieces, making it hard for any one figure to get more than a fraction of the attention space. The days of a Hugh Nibley or other figure that could command monolithic respect and acknowledgment are gone. I’m posting on the bloggernacle, which I know makes me a fogey, as the kids these days are posting on Twitter and Tik Tok (or so I hear). The “conversation,” even in such a narrow space as, say Latter-day Saint sexual minorities, is so variegated that it’s difficult to say where it actually is taking place at any given time, and public intellectual types are forced to expend more and more energy producing a constant stream of content or promotional material to capture a  drastically shrinking part of the pie of our attention. Of course, at some point you realize that your efforts are almost worthless in the grand scheme of things, require a lot of energy, and that that time would be better spent throwing a ball with your kids. (Yes I know, pot meet kettle, but for what it’s worth I’m planning on “retiring” from my own slow motion, wannabe public intellectualizing in a year or so).  Latter-day Saint religious studies/CES types (again, here…

Religious Studies and the Church, Part I: Intellectual Authority as a Shortcut to Ecclesiastical Authority

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somewhat unique in that we don’t have a paid or professionally trained clergy. Nonetheless, there are Latter-day Saints who still pursue high education degrees in fields normally pursued by clergy trainees such as divinity, biblical studies, ancient languages, or religious studies (hereafter, for the purposes of this post, all of these are “religious studies,” although I know this is formally its own field). This is a multi-part series on different facets of this phenomenon.  Because they receive academic training in religion-themed areas, there is an opportunity for those with graduate training in religious studies to have a chip on their shoulder over the fact that they are not on President Nelson’s speed dial. The idea here is that since they have intellectual authority over a particular area of scripture or religious studies, that they should be heavily consulted in the steering of the Old Ship Zion. The devil is in the details, but generally this is wrongheaded in a number of different ways.  1. When you look at Church policy or rhetoric, very little of it deals with or hinges on the kind of technical knowledge that people pick up in religious studies graduate school. Inasmuch as it occasionally does, it is right and proper that General Authorities should consult experts. For example, if somebody is giving a talk on a passage of scripture that relies on a particular phrase, it…

The Future and the Church, Part VI: The Future of Religion Worldwide

“The Future of Religion” is one of those big picture questions that has been addressed by a wide variety of intellectuals such as Freud, Rorty, and basically every European intellectual in the 19th century. (The fact that the end of religion has been right around the corner for more than a century now doesn’t help one’s confidence in predictions of its demise).  While grand narrative, direction-of-history discussions are fun, they should not take the place of more rigorous data-driven estimates when such are available. (Incidentally, this happened with the Democratic Party in the US when they strongly relied on a demographically naive “direction of history” narrative to assume they would effortless dominate US politics in the future without, you know, actually talking to a political demographer, but I digress.) In the past two decades some demographers have started to project religious groups like they would project the population of a country. Projections rely on three forces: births, deaths, and migration, projections of religions just switch out migrations for conversion to or away from “religious switching.”  Unfortunately, Latter-day Saints are too small to really do a demographic projection for without the Church’s in-house data, but there have been various insightful projections for major world religions by Pew as well as other researchers. While there are a lot of assumptions that are baked into these projections, they’re the most rigorous that we have.  To summarize: while many people leave religion, the fact…

Of ProgMos and Pornography, and Latter-day Saints on Only Fans

In progressive discourse, the person (generally either gay or female) who challenges conservative religious sexual strictures is seen as a courageous trailblazer. However, as liberal Mormonism generally tracks the norms and values of progressivism generally, it too inherits the ambivalence of mainstream progressivism towards pornography. This is all anecdotal on my end, but it does seem that many progressive Latter-day Saints (hereafter “ProgMos” for easier reference), particularly the female ones, who bristle at a single woman being told by the Church to keep a lid on their sexual desires, or the gay returned missionary being told to be celibate, are simultaneously okay with the Church enforcing its lines when it comes to male gaze-y pornography among men. There is still a certain charm to the stalwart priest who’s never looked at pornography among the feminist left, as if they want to eat the cake of the sexual revolution and have it too.  The point of this post is not to defend pornography (or the Church’s position for that matter, I’ve done plenty of that elsewhere). Rather I’m questioning the ability to pick and choose the aspects of the sexual revolution that conflict with Church teachings in any overarching, systematic, and non-contradictory way that doesn’t come off as an ad hoc attempt to justify one’s visceral “ick” reaction to somebody else’s sexual preferences or choices, because the fact of the matter is that for some people who score high on sociosexuality,…

The Future and the Church, Part V: When Will There Be More African Wards than North American Wards?

I took the recent congregation numbers by continent reported by the Church and extrapolated the growth by continent to look at the likely composition of the Church in the future. Now, this is not a sophisticated projection (to put it gently). All I’m doing is estimating the starting point in 2010, deriving the percentage change to 2021, then applying this percentage change across multiple 11-year increments.  With enough elbow grease I could get more precise (I have to estimate the numbers from eyeballing the figures), but for basic take-aways it would probably look close enough to what I have here. A growth rate extrapolated this far is undoubtedly an oversimplification. I suspect that proselytizing a country follows a similar epidemiological dynamic as a pandemic (not that religion is a virus). At some point proselytizers have been in an area long enough that most people who are susceptible to conversion have done so, and the high, initial growth “burns out.” Also, if Africa becomes more developed economically that may affect its baseline religiosity, which would affect conversions. It’s anybody’s guess, but these extrapolations are a fun, simple look at what the Church will look like globally if current rates are extrapolated forward. If we do this, then Africa will surpass North America in terms of congregations around the year 2050. This is pretty far in the future, so it’s highly speculative, but the globalization of the Church, and the shifting of its…

Under the Banner of Heaven: Review of First Two Episodes

I suspect a fear among some conservative Latter-day Saints is that a blockbuster, widely viewed movie will come around that presses on uncomfortable pressure points in a sophisticated way, and the 1-3 things that people know about the Church offhand will include whatever seeped into the public consciousness because of said blockbuster film. Similarly, a hope of the antagonist community is that said blockbuster film will gain a lot of traction and everybody will at last know the Truth about the Church, painting it into a corner.  Either way, the first two episodes of the new Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t it.  Besides Andrew Garfield’s performance, these were pretty standard B-grade Netflix style episodes of which there are thousands already in a crowded market. While there was a lot of historical license taken with some of the scenes (although part of me did enjoy seeing a more aggressive Joseph Smith), that’s expected given the lack of documentation in some cases.The writing was pretty mediocre. (I enjoyed Lance Black’s Milk and the episodes of Big Love that I watched, but not so much his biopic on J. Edgar Hoover, and this is definitely more in the latter camp). I very much doubt this will become a major cultural reference point for Mormonism in the non-Mormon corridor, or that it will penetrate into the public conciousness as far as its namesake book or Big Love.  Production quality aside, in terms…

The Future and the Church, Part IV: China

Like US exporters eyeing a potential 1.4 billion person market, the Church entering China is one of those white whales for hopeful, growth-minded Latter-day Saints (except with the everlasting gospel of the living God instead of widgets, but you get what I mean).  Every so often (sometimes rather sophisticated) rumors will spread about how China is in the process of opening up and the MTC is revving up to train missionaries in Mandarin full speed. There have been enough of these rumors that hopefully people have learned to take them with a grain of salt. However, on a deeper level the fundamentals just aren’t there, and probably won’t be for a while. First a caveat: I’m certainly no sinologist. While the track records of area specialists are notoriously bad for predicting major, disruptive political events, I have no reason to think I’m any better, so here we go… First, the on-the-ground political reality is that, even if they play by all the legal rules (like the Church is scrupulous about doing), the PRC simply does not allow religions the kind of freedom necessary for a religious opening up. If even the Vatican still doesn’t enjoy full freedom in appointing its own bishops, I’m not super optimistic about mission calls to Beijing any time soon, no matter how skilled the Church’s government affairs people are.  Ultimately, in a very centralized, authoritarian government like the PRC, there’s only one person that matters.…

The Church Should Not Be Your Project

In Latter-day Saint parlance “making somebody your project” is the act of approaching your relationship with them mechanistically; only viewing your relationship with them through your ability to get them from point A to point B spiritually, and generally it’s frowned upon because the friendship is insincere.   On a similar note, I sense that some people problematically approach their relationship with the Church as a “project.” For the purposes of this analogy, these people are primarily interested in the Church as a potential vector for their personal ideological or political views. Given the influence the Church can have on its members (which I think is less than commonly believed on both the right and the left, but another post for another day), capturing the General Conference pulpit or First Presidency Statement is highly appealing to people who want to vector it towards their own ideological or political ends.  These people may be members. However, although they may tout things like their pioneer ancestry or mission experiences to show off their cultural bona fides, as a shibboleth to say I’m one of you and gain admittance into the realm of the orthodox, you often get the sense their affiliation is mostly sociocultural or familial rather than stemming from actual belief in the truth claims.  However, their attempts at reformation are often incredibly paternalistic to the targets. In the same sense that ward council projects often treat people as two dimensional statistics,…

Spiritually Moving “Great Art”

I don’t really get art. I couldn’t tell you whether a painting was done by a renaissance master or the local community college art teacher. While some of this is probably due to sort of an emperor’s new clothes style tastemaking by elites, I’ll concede that some of it may be due to my tastes being lowbrow.  That being said, below are the handful of works of “great art” that move me spiritually, even if Picasso or Degas don’t really do anything for me. These aren’t all the works of art that move me spiritually–like I mentioned earlier this week I especially love the Church’s International Art competition for this reason–but are specifically the “great works” that do so.  Agnus Dei Especially appropriate for Holy Week, Agnus Dei simply shows a bound lamb, but the calm expression on that lamb’s face reminds me of a point an MTC teacher made about her sheep-butchering father. When it comes time to slit the sheep’s throat, the lamb doesn’t fight, it just kind of looks at you with big eyes as you get the knife out and keep it calm right before the knife goes in. I couldn’t tell you why, but the image and the expression combined is a powerful depiction of the sentiment behind the Atonement.  The Creation of Adam A lot of church art from this time is rather dark, focusing on the pains of martyrdom and the battle against…

The Future and the Church, Part III: Artificial Intelligence

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, gains in machine learning technology are a “known unknown.” Unlike some other future changes and development, we are reasonably confident that the machine learning revolution (also known as artificial intelligence, but that is a loaded term) of the past 10 years will continue at least over the medium-term. I’m skeptical that we’ll ever reach “artificial intelligence” in the sense of being able to create a feeling, thinking being from a computer because, as I’ve discussed before, I don’t think our brains are just meat calculators.  Still, the machine learning revolution is exciting enough without Skynet. Recent machine learning models produce content that is uncannily human-like, and it is going to continue to continue improving. The GPT-3 system that produced the cited essay has 175 billion neural network parameters, whereas the GPT-4 system that will probably roll out sometime in the next couple of years will have over 500 times as many. While the computer might not be able to feel, it will certainly be able to perform sophisticated tasks that we now think of as requiring human intuition for.   So what does this mean for the Church? I can think of a few possibilities.  Gospel Information and Research In 2022 we can ask Alexa to tell us a joke, generate a random number between 1 and 10, or “play some country music.” However, with future advances in Natural Language Processing we’ll eventually be able to ask…

Scattered Thoughts on Conference

Asking and seeking are clearly not the same as demanding. The former is Joseph Smith at 14, the latter is Martin Harris with the lost pages, and I think this distinction is evident to most people who watched the talk in good faith.  Earlier I talked about how it seemed that many of the brethren came from inactive households, now there are two more that I didn’t know about until their conference talks: Elder Cook and President Ballard. Again, something to buoy up people who feel otherized because their family situation doesn’t match some ideal template.   I also see some chatter on why the brethren keep hitting the Proc. “Everybody knows what the Church’s position is, can’t they move on?” Yes,  I don’t think anybody is unclear on the Church’s position, but some are still promoting the “hold on and the Church will change” perspective on Proc issues, which I think does more harm than good (I would believe this just as much if I was on the other side of the issue), whereas the more times the Church hits this the harder it is to walk back. In international relations this is called “costly signaling,” and I suspect it’s intentional. The sooner this point gets across the sooner people can stop halting between two opinions and make their life decisions accordingly.   It does look like growth rates are starting to rebound. As I’ve mentioned before, some of this…