Author: Stephen C

Stephen Cranney is a Washington DC-based data scientist and Non-Resident Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. He has produced seven children and almost 30 peer-reviewed articles. His research interests center on fertility intentions, sexuality, and the social psychology of religion.

In Defense of Tracting

  Missionary methodology is one of those things in the Church that people have strangely strong opinions on. For my part, on a meta-level I recognize that  Context matters What works in one location (and time) might not work in another.   Missionary strategy is complex Because of #1, figuring out optimal missionary strategy is hard, and I have no desire to expend mental energy trying to figure it out now that I’m a civilian. If there was some blatant error in how it was being done I’d have no compunction saying something, but as far as I can tell the people whose mantle it is are doing the best they can, and I have no reason to think that I would do it any better.  There is no magic pill Greenie mythology holds that if a missionary is righteous enough or if they follow the five steps of successful blah blah then they too could become a Dan Jones 2.0, but the fact is that Dan Jones-level success has as much to do with the mission field’s society as much as the missionary. Missionaries are for missionary work While it’s become popular to suggest that all missionaries should be humanitarian missionaries, my prior here is that missionary work is primarily for converting people to the Church. While there’s a hypothesis going around that humanitarian work focused missionaries would actually yield more converts, I’d have to see some hard nosed evidence that…

About That Washington Post Article

The recent Washington Post article talking about the decline of the Church has been making the rounds. I don’t have a ton of time to go into everything, but I just wanted to make a few points.  I wrote an earlier post using the same CES data where I wrote that “if what we see here is even somewhat reflective of reality…this reiterates the point I’ve made previously that we’re running on the fumes of yesterday’s baby booms, and that when that demographic momentum runs out the Church in the United States could enter a period of decline by any measure.” However, that post used data that followed the same group of people over a relatively small span of time. The comprehensive version of the data used by the WaPo writer had a lot more years and a much larger sample size. The larger sample size is very necessary for smaller religious groups. Often these kinds of analyses (including my own) use the General Social Survey, which has a much smaller sample size. I tried using the same cumulative 2006-2022 CES data that the writer used out of curiosity months ago, but the files weren’t loading with the standard packages and after a few minutes I decided I didn’t have the time to figure it out. (Just in way of a lame excuse why I was scooped on that graph showing the decline in percent LDS).  After the article came…

How Many Black People and Asians Were in Pioneer Utah?

In partnership with the Church, IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) has recently made the entire 1850-1890 set of census data available in tabular (spreadsheet) form for analysis. While individual records have been available for some time, as has a 1% sample of the quantitative data, this new development allows us to download all of the census responses for the 19th century at once. As you can imagine, this is a fairly large file (I have a lot of juice in my laptop and I stopped trying to crunch all of the 19th-century US data after waiting for 20 minutes), but if you subset Utah it is much more manageable. The wonderful IPUMS folks have harmonized the different questions asked across time so that you can make comparisons across decennial censuses. Running a simple frequency cross-tab with race shows how many people of each race were identified in the respective census in Utah. Year White Black Native American Chinese Japanese Other Asian 1850 11304 20 31 0 0 0 1860 40371 45 121 0 0 0 1870 85597 196 138 406 0 0 1880 142021 208 49 537 0 0 1900 273800 452 2409 570 493 0 1910 368821 1641 2982 359 2074 10 1920 442102 1523 2561 359 2927 32 1930 500325 1074 2845 342 3286 252 1940 544328 1251 3613 214 2137 66 A few points: Unless you think there were only 31 Native Americans in 1850 It’s clear that the Native…

Leaving the Church to Sin

A common accusation against people who leave the Church is that they’re just doing it because they want to sin, and in response the leavers often construct some highly noble narrative exclusively revolving around intellectual honesty and/or personal integrity around social issues.  I kind of roll my eyes in the latter case. Not that I don’t think that it’s sometimes or even often true, but rather because it denies the obvious role that the former can have. Given the natural springs pushing many people away from the religious lifestyle, I would be highly surprised if it wasn’t a major factor in general, even if not in every individual case.  However, I don’t begrudge this being a factor when people leave. If there is a belief, religious or otherwise, that does not have a significant effect on somebody’s life, they are probably more likely to hold a certain “don’t know, don’t care” agnosticism towards it, or at least not push very hard on the possibility that it isn’t true. Conversely, if the logical implications of such a belief is denial of some fairly strong biological impulses (and no, it’s not just sexual minorities that deal with this), and restructuring of somebody’s life, it logically makes sense to look very hard at every possible angle as a sort of due diligence for foundational religious beliefs, and the justificatory bar for that system of belief is quite a bit higher. This is why…

Long Live Ukraine, Long Live Russia

All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword Given that this is a Latter-day Saint blog, I feel an obligation to make some sort of commentary on how recent events are connected to Church-related issues, but I really have no idea. Recent events might be a step forward or back for the Church and religious freedom in general, but it’s much bigger than all of that right now. Two things can be true at once: I am glad that Russia’s coup attempt/civil war could stop the fighting in Ukraine. If the Russians are fighting each other they can’t kill Ukrainians. There is a good chance the Ukrainian war will be over soon. I am worried about what this means for the Russian people. My parents were mission presidents in Moscow. Their leaders and geopolitical misconceptions notwithstanding, the members and Russians in general are good people. I would like to think that removing Putin would lead to more liberalization but it might not; it could be a step forward or backward. Government instability is scary, even if the Russians are a tough, hardened people, and it could be for the best in the end. Now is a time to keep both Ukrainians and Russians in our prayers.

When Will We Be “Done” With Temple Work?

There must be this chain in the holy Priesthood; it must be welded together from the latest generation that lives on the earth back to Father Adam, to bring back all that can be saved and placed where they can receive salvation and a glory in some kingdom. This Priesthood has to do it; this Priesthood is for this purpose. -Brigham Young According to casual Latter-day Saint folk theology the millennium will be a time of massive temple work. Less casually, a lot of relatively authoritative general authority midrash has suggested that the hypothetical end point for temple work is the complete sealing and temple work for all humans who have ever lived. So of course I’ve been curious about how much temple work that is. The specific numbers aren’t as important here as much as the general sense of scale and scope.  According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, some estimates suggest that about 100 billion humans have ever lived. Of course, for our purposes how big this number is depends on when we crossed the developmental threshold as a species to become “as the Gods, knowing good and evil” and became subject to the demands of accountability and its attendant ordinances.  Still, for our purposes let’s assume the nice round 100 billion number. The temple department has reported that as of 1988 about 100 million endowments have been performed, which probably means that about 1-3 out of…

From These Stones God is Able to Raise Up Pioneer Stock Members

There are two rhetorical practices used by ex-members and reform-minded cultural Mormons that I’ve noticed being used more recently.  Latter-day Saint culture places a high premium on deference to authority. If you want to shut down a discussion with the orthodox who “pay the tithing and do the believing;” who are the primary fuel line for the Church, just communicate that the brethren are fundamentally wrongheaded. Some people do this, of course, but I get the sense they’re generally speaking among themselves. (You can tell when a movement to change the Church is more concerned with martyrdom than actually trying to change things based on their approach in this regard).  The more sophisticated and strategic will try to play within the ideological space that is more palatable to the rank and file for the Church. They will, for example, quote Church leaders as authorities when it’s highly doubtful that they personally hold the same deference to the very authority that they are hinging their argument on, or they will try to heavily prooftext the Proclamation as if it is anything besides a heavily heteronormative document that espouses traditional gender roles. As a matter of strategy I get it, but the disingenuousness of it all makes me roll my eyes, and while some of this is more transparent than others (I once saw an openly pro-pornography apologist invoking General Conference talks to make his point). I think most people can see…

An AI-generated Mormon Short Story: The Silent Prayer

In my last post I discussed the potential role of using AIs to generate ideas for Mormon fiction, concluding that the results were mixed but there were some gems in there. In this post I will take it one step further and use AI to generate an actual short story from one of the prompts that was generated in the last post. Because the size of the output is limited at this point this will be an example of “microfiction” which is rather short, but given its brevity the results aren’t bad. (There are experimental large language models that in theory should be able to produce a novel. I’m on the waiting list for one, and in the next year or so these will become more publicly available and we’ll see.) The first version of the story sounded like a 1990s Ensign article, so I had it rewrite it to “make it more subtle and less didactic. Convey the messages through actions without necessarily saying it out loud.” Besides these and a few other instructions, and choosing the prompt, this story is entirely the creation of AI.  “Write a short story based on the following prompt: The Silent Prayer: A deaf girl prays silently for a friend and is answered when a new family with a deaf daughter moves into her Mormon ward.” Title: “The Silent Prayer” In the bustling hub of Salt Lake City, nestled amidst tall skyscrapers and vibrant parks,…

What Would a Mormon Tarantino Be Like? AI and Mormon Fiction and Cinema

Library in the Eternities Note: I fully support President Nelson’s shift towards using the formal, Christ-centered name of the Church when discussing members of the Church and the institution. However, for specific references to artistic, culture-specific things I think “Mormon” is appropriate and is keeping in the spirit of the new direction. I hope nobody faults me for not using the name of the Savior when talking about horror cinema or seedy urban legends.    Sorry for another AI post, but I feel like aliens landed in the Rose Garden and only half the country is talking about it, so readers will have to bear with my preoccupation for a bit longer. One of the use cases of AI I’ve seen bantered about is as an idea generator, and I wanted to see how well it did in regards to Mormon fiction and cinema. Of course, ideas are cheap, and any author or moviemaker worth their salt has hundreds of ideas in their head, it’s getting the ideas to sing that is the hard part. Still, I wanted to see if GPT-4 just spat out cliched plot lines or was really capable of creativity. It looks like it’s mostly the former. Specifically, it looks like a pastiche of common tropes mashed together with Mormon themes. Still, the bar for novelty these days is quite low, and there are some gems that are intriguing, so in theory this could be useful for idea…

Dear Non-Mormons, “Soaking” is Not a Thing

A homage to a past Mormon sexual urban legend I wrote earlier about the mythological practice of “soaking” in a post about faith demoting, sexual urban legends about Mormonism. Basically, “soaking” is a supposed practice where people have premarital sexual intercourse without thrusting, thus supposedly circumventing Latter-day Saint chastity regulations.  While on the Joe Rogan podcast (one of the most if not the most popular podcast in the world) recently, comedian Ari Shafir made reference to the Mormon practice of soaking. Intrigued that this myth hadn’t died down yet, I did a quick search and saw that there was a whole Wikipedia article on the subject (started by an anonymous account), and that this practice has been referred to in several television programs.  So just to be clear and on the record, this is not a thing in Mormon culture. The closest thing to an actual verified account of this that I’m aware of is Albert Carrington way back in 1885, who tried to use a similar chastity loophole at his disciplinary court (he was excommunicated anyway, obviously).   I previously took a nuanced, magnanimous approach to this issue,  but now I’m just going to be direct: anybody, Mormon or not, who thinks that not thrusting during coitus is some loophole in Mormon chastity rules is stupid, and anybody that thinks that this is an actual thing in Mormon culture is being similarly stupid.  That is all. 

Latter-day Saint Book Review: Merchants in the Temple; Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican

The story of the Vatican Bank and Vatican finances in general is a bit of a wild ride, the kind of thing can get you lost down Wikipedia rabbit holes for hours. I suspect the fact that the Vatican is its own state, combined with the fact that it’s managed by a coterie of clergy that don’t have much in the way of financial training, makes the Vatican Bank a place ripe for waste, mismanagement, and sometimes outright corruption. Sometimes people (including me) gripe about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s leadership is disproportionately drawn from the managerial class, as if that’s the only skillset the Kingdom needs in its leadership. The managerial class come with their own problems (I doubt any cardinal would seriously float the idea of gutting St. Peter’s and destroying its art to make the celebration of Mass more efficient). However, it does have its own benefits, and the Vatican’s finances is perhaps a peek at what might happen if we put lifetime CES employees (or Maxwell Institute employees, if you prefer) in charge of running a multi-billion dollar operation.  In this book Nuzzi (the journalist who published the material from Pope Benedict’s butler’s papers) shows in detail how bad the situation is. It’s not even that they are running chronic deficits; it’s that they don’t even know how large the deficits are because the accounting is so bad. Various accounts (including personal…

An Ode to Large Families

Preface: Why It’s Okay to Talk About Family Size Family size is one of those hyper-sensitive issues that people gingerly tip toe around in the Church, and with good reason. First, it abuts with the kind of cultural touchstone gender role issues that the Church has kind of soft preferences around but has generally avoided hard positioning on.  Second, it is directly tied to other highly personal areas such as mental and physical health, infertility, relationship quality, sex lives, and wealth. At an individual level, questioning why somebody has as few children as they do is a recipe for all sorts of interpersonal awkwardness and drama.  However, while it would be completely inappropriate to critique any individual’s family size, commentary about the average number of children in a society or community is fair game. Each of the above variables vary from individual to individual, but it’s arguable to what extent they have changed across time for society. At the end of the day you can’t attribute the decline in family size in the Church to a rash of infertility, and while people are often quick to blame the economic situation, research on child incentives show that they at most have a marginal effect of childbearing, and fertility has declined among high-income families as well. No, it is clear that the preferences for family size themselves have changed. Church members simply don’t want to have ten kids anymore, even if they…

The Decline in Latter-day Saint Fertility Over the Past Decade

While members of the Church are known for our large families, anecdotally it has seemed that Latter-day Saint childbearing has been cratering and that we’ve been losing a lot of our fertility advantage. The problem is, getting robust, current childbearing metrics requires a fairly large sample size because it requires capturing enough women who have had a child in the past year to get reliable numbers, and surveys that ask about religion aren’t even close to being large enough. So here I use Census Bureau data. Specifically, I’m assuming that if Latter-day Saint fertility (quick aside, for non-medical demography “fertility” means childbearing, not the ability to bear children) has been catering we’d see it in the numbers of Utah County and Madison County, Idaho (the county where BYU-Idaho is). Here I look at changes in the Total Fertility Rate. Without going into too much of the math, the TFR is the number of children across her lifetime a woman would have if she was exposed to all of the age-specific childbearing rates of that given year. In other words, if she lived her entire life in a setting like the year 2021, that’s how many children she would have. Here I use the ACS 5-year estimates for 2021, 2016, and 2011 for TFR. (My calculated US TFR is just a hair above the published estimates. I’m not sure, but I suspect that this is because I’m including the 45-50 age…

Is the Church Too Popular?

Fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand. Ye are…a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, As a marginal religious minority we tend to crave a sort of mainstream acceptability that is always just beyond our grasp (or at some points in our history much, much farther than our grasp). However, a case can be made that this sort of outsider status is a feature, not a bug.  In the sociology of religion there’s a “strict churches are strong” hypothesis that suggests that, paradoxically, churches that are more strict are actually more vibrant, as demanding more from members winnows out less committed freeriding members. I sometimes wonder if there’s a “less popular Churches are stronger” effect for much the same reason.   When an institution carries a lot of cachet is attracts ambition, people who want to piggy back off the institution for their own personal glory, usually subsuming the missions and goals of the institution under their own personal desire for honors. The most obvious case in our own history is John C. Bennett…

Is the Church Overbuilding Temples?

Growing up in the 90s, Church growth was conceptually tied to temple building, with announcements of additional temples assumed to be a proxy for the growth in temple attending members.  While we aren’t privy to the more precise numbers that would be required to know the true state of Church growth like the number of temple attenders broken down by age and year, from both inside and outside numbers we do have access to it’s clear that Church growth is not matching the growth in temples. I threw a graph together that looks at the number of temples and stakes relative to the base year of 1978. Temple growth up until the late 90s more or less tracked stake growth, then we see a huge jump near the end of the 90s. Better historians than I would have a better idea about this, but I assume the late-90s bump is from the shift to smaller temples, and the slope after the introduction of smaller temples was commensurately higher compared to stake growth.   Everything after 2022 for temples is speculative assuming three years for all temples under construction to be dedicated and assuming 6 years for all temples announced to be dedicated. Obviously it will be smoother, and I’m a little fuzzy on how long it actually takes to  build temples, but regardless of the particulars if you look at the sheer number of temples in the announced queue, there will…

Scams in Zion, Part III: Utah is Indeed the Ponzi Scheme Capital of the US

It’s been a long time coming, but this is part III of a series on “Scams in Zion,” with part I (showing that Latter-day Saint-heavy counties have less fraud) here, and part II discussing our multilevel marketing problem here.    Here I’m directly addressing a particular kind of affinity fraud we’re known for: Ponzi schemes. I ran across a site where a financial lawyer fairly exhaustively tracks all known Ponzi schemes in the US over one million dollars and provides a helpful database. I went ahead and downloaded his file, pulled the number of people in each state from the Census Bureau, and created a “number of people per Ponzi Schemes” metric. (Nitty gritty, wonkish disclaimer: It’s slightly apples and oranges because I’m pulling the number of people from the most recent ACS 5-year estimates, whereas the Ponzi scheme database goes back to 2008, but for all practical purposes it doesn’t matter because the amount of variation within states across time is nothing compared to the variation between states).  According to this metric Utah is by far the highest state per capita for Ponzi schemes at one per 70,247, with the next highest being Nevada at one per 117,663.  I generated a map to show the variation across the country. Some of the very low Ponzi scheme states drown out a lot of the others, so to make it show more variation I quickly and simply set the very low…

“Oh God, Where Art Thou? (!)” On Anger at God

I had a season in my life when I was angry at God and it was more than a passing blip that was quickly buried under fear of getting struck by lightning. Anger at God is in some ways the summun malum of sin. Having moments of weakness that lead to poor decisions is one thing, but an act of conscious rebellion is rightfully put into a whole other category.  It was a dark season when it felt like we had a target on our back: financially we were sinking deeper into the red while it seemed like virtually everything that could go wrong with a house and car was going wrong, and then finally we had a severe medical emergency (retinal detachment) when we were waiting for health insurance to come in and were faced with risking permanent disability by waiting or destroying ourselves financially by having an uninsured surgery. There were other facets I won’t go into about being hurt by bad-faith actors, but suffice it to say there was definitely a “no good deed goes unpunished” aspect to this as well. I wasn’t actively, openly rebellious, but rather resigned and sort of passive-aggressively so.   In D&C 121 God conditions Joseph Smith’s benefits from his troubles on “endur[ing] it well.” For the most part I did not “endure it well.” However, a few points from this time in my life.      “Praying the hate away” is hard…

The Race of the Gods

Traditionally artistic depictions convey deity in the ethnicity of the artist and his/her surrounding culture. Consequently, I’m not going to begrudge early Latter-day Saint art’s depiction of a European Heavenly Father any more than I would a Japanese depiction of Amaterasu looking Japanese. However, as a faith becomes more cosmopolitan it becomes all the more important for all its members to be able to see themselves in depictions of deity.  As far as God’s actual “race,” race is a social construct in the here and now, so it’s a bit of misnomer to try to define God in terms of race and ethnicity. Still, as Latter-day Saints we have very much reified God’s biology. Half of the nucleotides in Jesus literally  came from God the Father because he has nucleotides and body parts himself, so as believers in a corporal God it raises the question of what ethnicity Heavenly Father would look like. However, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s description of the risen Savior sounds fairly a-racial, where his glory overrides any characteristics such as the type of hair or skin tone.   His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun. However, we still artistically depict God in our image, and I think that’s okay. In my last post I created an image of Heavenly Parents together, and one of the…

AI Generated Imagery of Repentance, Heavenly Parents, and Moses’ Vision

I haven’t had as much time to produce AI religious art as I would have liked, so this might be it until we get the next version to play around with, but a few insights: AI is actually okay at depicting religious sentiment in art without specific prompts. For example, below is a MJ image (not mine, from a FB page I follow) with little else in the prompt except “repentance” and “forgiveness.” If you can ignore the extra fingers it’s a reasonably moving depiction.  AI is sometimes okay at depicting imagery with little else but the actual scripture verses themselves. Below is the result of my simply inputting Moses 1:8 (“And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.”). The people invoked in the verse aren’t there, but it’s still somewhat faithful to the image described. “Descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” I’ve done this one before in the earlier Midjourney, but this version is much more photorealistic. 3. Not super important, but a fun story: the adult filters are a little temperamental. An image of Adam and Eve I generated gave them full frontal nudity. (Without going into detail, the AI-generated…

Genesis Chapter 1: Midjourney Edition

Some religious artistic motifs and scenes have been done to death while many have barely been touched. Since text-to-image came online I’ve been cogitating about its possibilities for creating religious artistic imagery at scale for every…single..event in the standard works. However, as I have mentioned before, what we have so far, while great in many ways, is not so great at understanding complex scenarios with multiple people. So far it’s primarily good at contexts that can be described simply. As sort of a pilot study I created a Midjourney Art Edition of Genesis Chapter 1. Here I draw inspiration from both my own vision of The Creation from a modern-day scientific perspective as well the perspective of ancient Hebrew cosmology (e.g. the dome covering the earth with an ocean on top of it), as well as some higher-order symbolism (e.g. Adam and Eve as an interracial couple to better represent the creation of all humankind). I use the King James text for its more poetic prose.  Genesis I In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day,…

Is There Less Crime Around the Manhattan Temple?

The New York Police Department has very fine-grained data on crime frequency, with latitude and longitude coordinates for reported crimes. Of course, I’m sure a cop isn’t walking around with a GPS device to get it exact, and if you look at the data it tends to be laid out on a grid, suggesting that the latitude and longitude coordinates are basically placeholders for street intersections and buildings. I was curious whether the Manhattan temple (and religious buildings in general) had an any kind of a crime bubble around it–basically whether the presence of a visibly religious structure might make it less likely for people to commit crime around it, so I made a heat-map of the NYPD’s crime data since 2010. The Manhattan temple is kitty corner (across Broadway) to the blue Lincoln Square blob. As you can see, it looks like it’s in a “green” area, although the area behind the temple is in a lower crime, blue area, but some of that might be because the front area is on a busy street (rule # 1 about data visualizations: don’t make map that is just a population density map in disguise), although the temple itself does appear to be between two higher-crime, yellow areas. When we upload the point data with a marker for each reported crime (although one point can be a placeholder for dozens or even hundreds of crimes that were given the same lat/long),…

What Joseph Smith Looked Like According to AI

I recently took the plunge and dropped the $30 for the monthly subscription to MidJourney v5, the text-to-image generator that is currently leading the pack (by far). I uploaded a picture of Joseph Smith’s death mask, merged it with additional prompts about age and details about Joseph Smith’s eye and hair color, and asked it to make a photorealistic image. As you can see, the skin in the midjourney image still has some flecks from the death mask, but overall it’s not bad (except bottom-left Joseph looks scary). As a point of comparison, here is the death mask and the purported photo that was unearthed last year.   *******Addendum Some commenters suggested trying this same approach with people who have death masks and photos in order to test correspondence. As you can see, results vary, but it does look like it’s in the ballpark (except for Dillinger). John Dillinger James Joyce Abraham Lincoln  

Adventures in Visiting Other Religions’ Services with Rowdy Boys: Memories and Tips

“Gothic church & Islamic mosque architectures combined.” From Midjourney v5. I’m a strong believer in the educational value of visiting religious services other than one’s own. However, you need to do it right so that you’re respectful and it doesn’t come off as a “let’s observe the natives in their natural habitat” kind of voyeurism, and that can be tricky. When we lived in Philadelphia we visited the historic Unitarian Church in downtown Philly as a family and realized too late that other churches usually have some kind of Sunday school for the kids while the parents watch the sermon, making the main hall as quiet as a single’s ward. Suffice it to say a rowdy group of Utahns hushing their kids throughout the sermon on global warming was probably a bit of a two-way educational experience. Everybody was nice and understanding at the coffee and cookies afterward even when I had to drag our second-born out as he shouted that he “hated this church.” So with that experience we learned that you should probably do some basic background research before you just show up at a service.   One more sidebar on this: at the Unitarian Church there were several “visibly queer” individuals, and I felt grateful that religious options exist for people in same-sex relationships (saying this as somebody who is not only 100% orthodox on the hot-button sex and gender issues in the Church but has also gone…

On Apologizing for Others

A rhetorical practice I’ve seen more and more lately is apologizing for others. This usually happens in the context of a Church leader saying something the supposed apologizer disagrees with, and often takes the form of “as a Mormon, I apologize for…” I think this approach is wrongheaded, whether you agree with the apologizer or not.  Apologizing implies having been in the wrong. Being “punished for [our] own sins” means we don’t carry the guilt of what others have done. Full stop. There is simply no reason for you to apologize for what somebody else has done. If you feel like your involvement in the Church is itself de-facto wrong, then you can apologize for that in regards to your personal participation, but it still doesn’t make sense for you to apologize for whatever sins you feel a Church leader or the Church as an institution has committed.  People generally understand the principles involved in #1; therefore, the act of apologizing-by-proxy doesn’t actually involve any humility on the part of the apologizer. The term “virtue signaling” gets overused, but I think it’s use in this case is appropriate. Because people intuitively understand #1 and don’t actually think that the apologizer carries any personal guilt for the issue in question, apologizing by proxy smacks more of virtue signaling on the part of the apologizer than any attempt to actually exercise humility in admitting wrongdoing. The person you are apologizing for probably…

The Church in 2080, Part VI: My Long-Term Growth Prognosis

I’m on the record at various places on this blog as warning about future hiccups in Church growth. Medium-term, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to a world where the center of traditional Church strength enters a period of no or negative growth for the foreseeable future. Additionally, as developing countries become developed countries the higher levels of growth in other areas of the world will taper off as well. (However, a few months ago I was on the record as predicting that Church growth would be under 1% this year, and I was wrong). However, for various reasons I’m optimistic about Church growth in the long-run. I’ve alluded to this elsewhere, but if your belief system thrives in places that are thriving and reproducing, and is in a decline in places that are in decline, then the fundamentals are strong even if the Church may ebb and flow temporarily throughout time and space.  When people are promoting a particular worldview or ideology, one seemingly random question I ask in the back of my head is what the birthrate of that ideology’s community is. If it is not at or above replacement, then in addition to not fulfilling the most basic reproductive imperative it’s also a non-starter in terms of whether it’s fundamentally viable. It can survive or even flourish, but its continued existence is a testament to the intrinsic, existential contradiction that its own survival is dependent on…

The Church in 2080, Part V: The End of Apologetics

Cowboy riding a tapir, from DALL-E In some fields scholars try to come up with novel takes on the same thing hundreds of their colleagues have studied. Non-genetic, physical anthropology only substantively moves forward now whenever a fluke well digger stumbles upon humanoid remains. Particle physics is kind of nipping at the edges until the next big collider comes online, after which there are thousands of people scrambling to analyze the exact same data. Macroeconomics has theorized and modeled all available macro-level data to death. Oh, and the poor Biblical scholars are trying to come up with novel takes on a relatively small amount of text that has been thoroughly analyzed for thousands of years by thousands of people. That’s not to say that these aren’t noble pursuits, just that it’s hard to see much novel and truly zeitgeist-shifting coming out of these fields in the next hundred years. This isn’t the scholars’ fault, it’s just the nature of the subject matter.  I think we’re at the same place with the old apologetics debates. The past 40 or so years have been foundation forming as new arguments and counter arguments have been proffered, but at some point, when the original material that all that is based off of is in stasis, you’ll eventually come up with every point that could possibly be made about a particular datum, and then it’s just a matter of whether you buy it or not. …

The Church in 2080, Part IV: The Future of Porn and Opportunity Costs

With the advent of on-demand, free porn virtually everybody has access to a level of sexual novelty, variety, and frequency that an ancient emperor could have only dreamed of. The invention of the VCR allowed for people to view pornographic material without having to go to a seedy inner-city theater; the invention of fast Internet and streaming allowed for even more on-demand accessibility and choices for anyone with an Internet connection; and the advent of Youtube-type services for pornography centralized the options and made them even more cheap and accessible. I believe that with the combination of AI and VR we are entering another stage, and that by 2080 (if not much sooner) it is likely that we’ll be at a place where anybody can have any photo-realistic scenario they could think of in front of them whenever they want. I suspect that each step towards availability has had serious implications for the men in society (and yes, women view porn too, but virtually every survey shows that this is disproportionately a male issue). During the early pornography debates conservatives feared that pornography would whet the sexual appetite of men and lead to all sorts of debauchery and violence, while pro-pornography liberals believed it would lead to liberation and more sex, but I think both sides turned out to be wrong: instead it appears to have muffled out partnered sexuality. People can now have at least a simulacra of sexuality…

The Church in 2080, Part III: Scandals and Extinction Threats

One of the more interesting non-profits in the US today is the “Long Now” foundation. Funded by the Silicon Valley types that want to find a more interesting use for their money than library naming privileges, it is concerned with a more long-term approach to thinking about human problems and threats to civilization, and by long they mean long. While concerns about nuclear exchanges or climate change operate on a scale of decades or centuries at the most, what are the biggest threats to our species in, say, the next 100,000 years? Many of their concerns deal with low probability, highly catastrophic events. Even if we get the chance of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange down to very small percentages, given enough time it will eventually happen, same thing with an asteroid strike.  What would an analogous, extinction-level event be for the Church as an institution? Every now and then there’s something that happens that triggers some of the more histrionic corners of the Internet into saying that the Church is doomed; however, as long as you have a critical mass of true believers, established religions tend to be quite robust. For example, if you look at the growth rates for Jehovah’s Witnesses around the time of the failed second coming prophecy of 1975, when Witness leadership was strongly promoting the idea that the Second Coming was going to happen in 1975, they plateaued for a bit, but then kept on…

The Church in 2080, Part II: The Kids Are Not All Right, or the Post-Post-Gen Zers

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the mental health crisis facing the liberal kids these days. I don’t know if I have much to add in terms of generalities that hasn’t already been said, so here I’ll discuss its relevance for the Church long-term.  If youth were leaving organized religion in droves and they were thriving, having children, communities, and general happiness that would be one thing, but they’re not.  My responses to the concerns about liberal youth leaving the Church, and how the Church must adjust or die, are several: they’re not as uniformly activist left as supposed, that view is American-centric, there’s no evidence that liberal youth go to either liberal or conservative churches anyway, and in terms of fruits this brave new cohort of youth isn’t exactly inspiring confidence. Each of these points could easily be a post in itself, but here I’ll focus on the last one.  The numbers basically track with the anecdotal observations I and others have been accumulating for some time: for example, in the last class I taught about a third of my students had mental health requests from the disability accommodation office, hardly anyone could get basic assignments in, and I’ve heard similar stories across a wide variety of domains.  Admittedly much of this started around COVID, but things haven’t gotten better post-COVID. The fact is that Gen Z just isn’t super functional. They’re not all bad, and in…

The Church in 2080, Part I: Race, Ethnicity, and Languages

Projecting out on a very long horizon is a bit of a fool’s errand because of unknown unknowns, which is why most formal demographic, political, or economic projections have time horizons measured in the decades at the most. Still, occasionally it’s fun to project out farther (For example, the UN came out with a report that projected country populations out to 2300).  Additionally, most projections are limited to a few indicators, but it’s also fun sometimes to take a step back and think about how changing indicators integrate into a whole picture. So with that, this series is my throwing-caution-to-the-wind conjecture for what the Church will look like in 2080. At this point I will be 93, so this will be the Church that my great-grandchildren will be baptized into. All of these predictions are tentative, but for ease of flow I will dispense with “I suspect,” “I think,” or “probably,” and will just state them as predictions. That will make me sound very sure of myself, but that’s not the intent.  Perhaps the most slam-dunk prognostication is that Church meetings in the US in the year 2080 will be much less “white,” but that’s easy because society in general will be less white. Additionally, as proselytizing is more effective in lower income communities (haven’t seen any studies on this but it’s one of those received wisdoms that I’m pretty sure is true), eventually the turnover from the white, elite,…