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 eight children and 30 peer-reviewed articles. His research interests center on fertility intentions, sexuality, and the social psychology of religion.

Do People “Follow the Prophet” When it Goes Against Their Ideology? A Quantitative Analysis of Vaccines in Utah

I’ve had a sense for a while now that people tend to exaggerate the influence of the Church on Latter-day Saint and Utah politics. Its influence is important to be sure, but some have this image that half of Utah is ready to jump when 50 North Temple Street says jump, and I’ve always thought it’s more complicated than that. Case in point, was there a discernible bump in vaccinations in Utah after the Church officially endorsed getting the COVID vaccine? I looked at the total number of vaccinations administered by state across time in Utah and nearby, non-LDS states (Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, and Montana) from the CDC data. I looked at two dates in particular: when President Nelson received the vaccine and posted about it on Facebook (January 9, 2021), and when the First Presidency officially endorsed receiving the COVID vaccination (August 12, 2021). The first date was so close to the beginning of the data (and at a time when vaccinations were not very available anyway) that I’m not putting a lot of weight on that one. Also, I’m on the record as being very anti Utah=LDS, but in this case we simply don’t have vaccination status/affiliation time-trend data that I’m aware of, so the other half of Utah may be watering down an LDS effect. In the graph below (apologies for its size. For some reason the JPEG isn’t playing nice with WordPress so I had to…

Top Gospel-Related Songs and Some Top Renditions

Orchestra of Angels I’m not a musical person. I was started on the classical guitar quite early and became decently proficient at it by the time I was in Jr. High, but I just didn’t have the fire to practice for hours like many in the music world have. I enjoy a good tune, but I can’t tell the difference between, say, Mozart and something a graduate student would write (I actually wonder if musicologists couldn’t without pre-existing knowledge of Mozart’s musical corpus and it’s emperors with no clothes all the way down, but I digress).  However, there is some music whose greatness is self-evident, and you don’t need musical training to recognize and appreciate how spiritually moving it is. Below is my own list, along with examples of moving renditions Come Thou Font The classic rendition of this we always listened to growing up, which is still my favorite, is the version in the BYU Choir’s Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns way back when. This was in the hymn book, but was taken out, and I hope the new one will have it in again.  Ode to Joy Piano Guys did a fun version of this, but it’s also worth listening to the full orchestral version. Hallelujah Chorus The Church put together the largest virtual Hallelujah Chorus of all time. Traditionally one stands for the Hallelujah Chorus. I heard it was because a king stood out of respect when it…

Latter-day Saint Book Review: Saqiyuq, Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women

Saqiyuq is an oral history of three generations of Inuit women who lived on Baffin Island near Greenland. Of particular interest to me was the grandmother matriarch’s history, since, born in 1931, she provided a first-hand account of the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle where people starved or not depending on the ebb and flow of the caribou herds, all the way to snowmobiles and state schools. A few observations/excerpts apropos to this blog: 1) Apphia, the grandmother matriarch, provided an account of the competition between the Anglican and Catholic missionaries for Inuit converts, with nearly all the non-Inuit in their lives being missionaries.  One side effect of Latter-day Saint missionary work tending to go through the front door legally, and of always having so many more accessible people than we have missionaries for, is that for the most we haven’t been part of the race to find, contact, and convert indigenous peoples with no previous knowledge of Christianity. There’s a whole culture that grew up around missionary bushwacking with a machete in one hand and a bible in the other that we just haven’t been a part of. For the most part we haven’t been the first ones to introduce Christianity to a people, and there wasn’t much of a chance of a missionary companionship being assigned to Sentinel Island  or to The Man in the Hole. 2) How to be respectful of indigenous traditions while proselytizing is a…

Meditation and the Gospel

The Listener, by James Christensen Meditation is one of those practices with religious roots that has managed to become popular even in very secular, non-believing spaces, but I haven’t really caught the meditation bug. I’ve done a few guided meditations and have enjoyed them, but in terms of stress release I’d rather just get a massage or play soccer. On a recent podcast I listened to the guest mention that he had tried the floating tank fad and “just got bored.” It was one of those moments when you hear somebody confirm something you haven’t been able to admit to yourself or articulate and you realize that you’re not alone.   However, I realize I probably haven’t given real, substantive meditation a chance. In my comparative religion class at BYU, the great Roger Keller put the class through a guided meditation session, and his account of his own meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery where he spent days clearing his mind was intriguing. According to him and other accounts I’ve heard, because we’ve swum in a monkey-mind world for so long we don’t even understand what a calm, focused, composed mind feels like (and this was before Twitter), and it takes a lot of intentional meditation time to really do a thorough, Marie Kondo cognitive housecleaning.   Could I become more sensitive to the whisperings of the spirit if I cleared out the detritus in my mind? I’m open to it, and look…

Cutting Edge Latter-day Saint Research, August 2023

A monthly piece summarizing all recent, peer-reviewed scholarly articles and books published on Latter-day Saints.  Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press, 2023. The venerable Richard Bushman’s latest; a cultural history on the golden plates as artifacts. He’s been working on this for years. “Bushman examines how the plates have been imagined by both believers and critics—and by treasure-seekers, novelists, artists, scholars, and others—from Smith’s first encounter with them to the present. Why have they been remembered, and how have they been used? And why do they remain objects of fascination to this day?” Fenton, Elizabeth. “The Book of Mormon and Book History.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 32 (2023): 74-96. It’s paywalled, so it’s hard to know what it’s about.  Oman, Nathan B. “Property and the Latter-day Saint Tradition.” William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. Forthcoming (2023). Theological and historical exploration of Mormon perceptions of property and their ambiguities.   Oman, Nathan B. “‘A Welding Link of Some Kind’: A Minimalist Theology of Same-Sex Marriage Sealings.” Nathan B. Oman, Law and the Restoration: Law and Latter-day Saint History, Thought, and Scripture (Salt Lake City, Utah: Kofford Books, Forthcoming) (2023). Theological exploration of the possibility of same-sex sealings. “This essay canvases the history of Latter-day Saint sealing rules and practices and argues that when viewed in their entirety, it is difficult to map these practices on to a particular model of…

Pascal’s Wager and the Restored Gospel

Hell to Heaven We Latter-day Saints hold to a rather benign form of hell. I think this a feature, with traditional hell being the ultimate bug. However, one implication of our benign afterlife of second chances is that arguably this-worldly religious decisions have less “import.” If your decision to not be baptized leads to you burning in traditional hell for all eternity, that’s different then if you spend some time in spiritual prison while you are instructed and spiritually sensitized in preparation for receiving eternal ordinances.  While the Latter-day Saint framework makes more sense to me in terms of mercy and reason, it does attenuate Pascal’s Wager for us. (Pascal’s Wager is the idea that everybody should be a religious believer because the cost of being wrong [hell] is eternally greater than the cost of being wrong in a universe without God). Pascal’s Wager smells funny and smacks of spiritual blackmail, but logically it seems pretty airtight.  As a child I remember brooding on the issue before I ran across it formally (in saying this I’m not claiming I’m some Pascal–I’d wager many if not most thought experiments or theoretical concepts have been thought up by many random children before some 19th century white guy was the first one to put it in a book in a particular part of the world and have the concept forever attached to his name. Besides, Pascal is Pascal for much more than this…

Will Nobody Think of the Children! Hypocrisy and the November Policy

Pearls Being Clutched I vaguely recall when I was younger learning about the special restrictions put in place in regards to Church membership for people from a polygamous background. I could think of a few narrow cases where I didn’t think the restrictions were necessary, but they would have been such a small portion of everything that goes on that I didn’t give it more than a passing thought.  Fast forward to November 2015. The Church very explicitly connected the November Policy of Consistency to the long-standing policy regarding polygamous children. Again, I had had some reservations about the latter, but if that was going to be the policy I didn’t see why the rationales wouldn’t have also applied to children of same-sex couples given the unique intersectional issues at play.  Now, some could argue that there are fundamental differences-in-kind vis-a-vis our 2023 doctrine between polygamous and same-sex couples, and there might be, but I just don’t care. They’re simply irrelevant to the argument that was being invoked by the policy’s detractors, which hinged on the idea that the children were being punished for the sins of their parents.  This argument always smelled a little of bad faith since a lot of the people making it clearly did not believe that the parents were, in fact, in a state of sin, but the bad faith became even more clear when the polygamy policy that the rule was based on seemed…

Latter-day Saint Book Review: Seizing Power, The Strategic Logic of Military Coups

  Seizing Power by political scientist Naunihal Singh is the preeminent scholarly work on coups d’etat. In it, Singh pairs in-depth investigations of coup attempts in Africa and Russia with a quantitative analysis of correlates of successful coups worldwide. He finds that coups can largely be characterized as coordination games, where military commanders often join the side that they think will win. If they choose correctly their power increases, if they choose wrongly they will probably be executed or imprisoned, so perception becomes everything and both sides of a coup have an incentive to exaggerate their level of support within the state apparatus. This is all fascinating but, to paraphrase Elder Uchtdorf, “what does this have to do with the Church?”  Below are several episodes in Church history where the themes discussed in Singh’s work were at play. As a disclaimer, I am NOT comparing Spencer W. Kimball or (most of) the others in this list to military coup leaders, and I do not want to overdraw the comparison between the Church and an unstable government. Rather, the point here is the principles involved even if the contexts are vastly different.  Attempted Take Over of the Kirtland Temple  With that disclaimer, this episode is the one that could probably be accurately described as an attempted coup. During the Kirtland Safety Society debacle, The Martin Harris/Waren Parish splinter group literally tried to occupy the Kirtland temple with weapons. Singh discusses how…

Latter-day Saint Book Review: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

Regrets of the Dying The Top Five Regrets of the Dying was a bestselling book by a palliative care nurse who spent a lot of time with patients as they were passing away. I’m not going to recommend it as a book; the writing isn’t the best and it gets kind of repetitious, but the idea sparked an interest in me on taking an end-of-life perspective, which seems like one of the more accurate lenses through which to view things big picture. Here I’ll go through each regret with commentary on how it interrelates with the gospel and gospel living. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This one is common in leaving Mormonism narratives, and it definitely has something to it. I’m an orthodox member, but for adults who simply don’t believe but are ensconced in heavily Latter-day Saint circles I totally get it. I do feel like the pressures are much less now with the great opening up of the world with the Internet. Patent non-believers typically don’t go on missions anymore, for example, when that wasn’t unheard of, say, 20 years ago. For believers, a purely distilled deathbed faith, stripped of any concern whatsoever of what Bishop, President, or Elder so and so thinks of us seems like the ideal to strive for in our day to day walk with God. However, the single-minded focus…

Early Utah Was Relatively Egalitarian

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, 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. In a previous post I discussed race in early Utah. In this post I’ll discuss what the Census Bureau data has to say about inequality (or equality, as we’ll see) in early Utah. As far as I can tell, the IPUMS data doesn’t have much in way of economic variables that extend all the way from the 19th into the 20th centuries. The exceptions are occupation scores, these are numeric socioeconomic scores that are assigned to particular occupations based on 1950s data. Here we use the Duncan Socioeconomic Index in particular. There is some controversy about these measures that I’m not terribly well read up on, but I see them enough that I assume they have some validity. I’m sure cross-century comparisons also complicate some things, so here I’m including various additional states as a…

The Active Afterlife of the Restored Gospel

Vietnamese depiction of the Pure Land, the Mahayana Buddhist paradisiacal afterlife Egyptian depiction of the Field of Reeds, the ancient Egyptian paradisiacal afterlife While I’m open to the idea of “sacred envy,” where we see things in other faith traditions and communities that we wish we had, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing places where we feel our own faith gets it right where most don’t; it is the faith we have chosen after all. Some of the big ones here for me are: Heavenly Mother, collapsing the ontological distance between divinity and humanity, and an active afterlife.   I have a casual interest in artistic, cultural, and religious depictions of the afterlife and paradise (and, as a related note, in the fact that Near Death Experiences often tap into the person’s religion-dependent version of the afterlife, but another post for another day). They can be genuinely inspiring; for example, Gladiator’s depiction of the Elysian fields or The Northman’s depiction of Valhalla and yes, Touched by an Angel. A defining characteristic running through the paradisiacal depictions of classical faiths is largely one of rest, and I get it. In societies where the vast majority of the population is scrapping by along the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, having ground that brings forth fruit spontaneously without weeds makes sense as the most ideal existence imaginable, and a long time of blissful rest especially makes sense when I think of people I know who…

Weaponizing Church Titles Against the Church, and Passive Aggressive Clichés

Recently I’ve done a series of posts explicitly identifying different rhetorical strategies used in social media spaces around Church topics (One on apologizing for others, and one on disingenuously citing prophets and invoking one’s church heritage). I didn’t mean for it to be an ongoing series, but I’ve just been noticing these more and more, so if you’ll indulge me for two more (for now)… First, On social media spaces it has been common for people (often outwardly very Mormon-y) to communicate commonsensical truisms as if they are somehow deep or controversial as opposed to just reminding us of the basics. While the message themselves are indeed important, implying that the message is somehow edgy is kind of passive aggressively jerk-ish towards the community towards which it is directed.   “Jesus would have loved LGBTQ members, and our wards should too” then to top it off they sometimes do that super annoying little hands prayer emoji.  Midjourney’s depiction of “an insincere looking Mormon who smiles too much” Of course this statement is true, but that’s exactly the point. Even the most obnoxiously conservative high priest agrees with it, so implying that it’s going to rock our world is actually rather insulting in a mean-spirited way, and just raises the question of what they are actually trying to say (Again, this isn’t directed towards people emphasizing the basics for their own sake.)  Sometimes one senses that they are trying to do a…

Big Family Hacks

The Responsible Woman, by James C. Christensen I’m on the record as being very pro-big families. As we become more and more of a minority you have to be clever about how to pull it off logistically since society is increasingly built around the 1.6 kid family. Given Latter-day Saints’ (albeit increasingly fading) penchant for large families I thought it was appropriate to post the little hacks and tricks we’ve come up with on the way for others. Anything we haven’t thought of is welcome in the comments.  Keep all clothes in the same area by the laundry room. This one is more doable for us since our kids are all the same sex, but keeping all dressers by the laundry room saves the time cost of carting clothes back and forth, which becomes significant at scale.  White noise for naps It’s frustrating being awaken from a much-needed slumber because your parental authority is absolutely required to referee an argument. With enough kids (in a small enough house) these sorts of interruptions become consistent enough that without white noise an uninterrupted nap is just not in the cards.  Lock the door and put on a white noise app high enough to drown out ambient noise. When this is used an adult or responsible older child needs to be in charge in case of emergencies. Additionally, white noise can be very useful for putting down a younger child while the older ones…

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…