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.

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,…

Memory, Inevitable Futility, and Temple Work

Banksy said that “everybody dies twice, One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” For much of humanity that second moment happens in a Latter-day Saint temple.  –My brother Carl.  I have a morbid interest in old graveyards. The weather-chipped stone is often all that is left of the passions, struggles, upheavals, deep fights, and deep loves of lost worlds of these people’s lived experience. In many cases the only direct evidence the universe has that the person ever existed is a fading name on a tombstone and maybe a few bytes in a genealogy program.  Obviously this can get quite depressing when thinking of our own mortality. Maybe the words I’m now typing will technically be stored somewhere on the Internet Archive for a few hundred years, but I’m not under any illusions that with the torrent of new data and information moving in that they’ll be taken off the dusty digital shelf, as it were, and leafed through (if everybody who ever read a piece is dead, was it ever written?).  George Elliot wrote “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs,” but the fact is that many who lived a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs probably…

We Humans Had a Good Run, Part II

Last night I was given access to Bing Search’s GPT-4 A couple months ago, when Chat-GPT3 first came out I posted about how it might change the Church landscape, and presented a sacrament meeting talk that GPT-3 had written. Several months before that I speculated about how natural language processing would lead to researchers in essence having their own on-hand research assistant. With Chat-GPT4 it looks like we’re kind-of-sort-of there, if your research assistant is a sloppy undergraduate. I asked it to “Create a table of primary sources during Joseph Smith-era Nauvoo that were authored by women. Show 1) the author, 2) what the primary source is, 3) example text from the primary source, and 4) something interesting about the source.” This is what it gave me (it’s hard to get the footnotes to play nice with the T&S website, so those are omitted and you’ll have to trust what I have to say about them): Here is a table of some primary sources during Joseph Smith-era Nauvoo that were authored by women: Author Source Example Text Interesting Fact Emma Smith Minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society12 “We are going to do something extraordinary. . . . We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”2 She was the first president of the Relief Society and Joseph Smith’s wife. Eliza R. Snow Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political12 “The voice of innocence is hush’d / The sobs of sorrow dim; / And martyrd virtue…

Is BYU Mostly Republican or Democrat?

There was a BYU faculty member in my ward growing up that mentioned that he had to downplay his being a Democrat at work because, well, BYU.  I had no reason to doubt it at the time, but a few years later when I enrolled at BYU I came to the realization that by far the majority of faculty that had any discernible political preference were actually Democrats. I started rolling my eyes whenever I came across the narrative that Democrats there were an independent thinking, besieged minority on campus because, snicker snicker, BYU.  Now, I’m completely fine with a faculty member being a Democrat (or a Republican for that matter). BYU Democrats, for the purposes of this post, may be in the right. However, what they are not is unique or particularly edgy. Like a lot of us they are lemmings in their own way, and they don’t get renegade iconoclast points.  The FEC website allows people to search political donations to federal PACs by place of employment.   There are a lot of different PACs, and it would take way too much time for me to categorize even a sampling of them, so here I’m going to look at BYU employee contributions to ActBlue, an organization that facilitates small grassroots donations to Democrat causes and candidates. I will also look at WinRed, its analogue on the right for donations to Republican causes.  Over the past two years BYU employees…

Do People Believe in Hell?

God it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who send tiny babies to eternal flames… It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far indeed from mere common sense, in that you think that your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians. -Julian of Eclanum in response to Augustine.  If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men…. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine, neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the…

A Pitch for Living in High Needs Wards; or Why Large, Stable Wards are Boring

The socioeconomic dynamics around schools are funny things. The largely liberal social scientists I spent time around earlier in life could wax on about the evils of gentrification or white flight, but when it came to their own children they would move, slit throats, or do whatever it took to be in the catchment area for a prestigious school. And I don’t blame them. (However, for all the energy, time, and money you pay to win the “good school” game you could probably give them a killer home education—especially given all the amazing online resources available nowadays—but I digress).  However, I sometimes see a similar process in regards to ward boundaries, with families going to great lengths to be in the more stable wards with high resources and large youth quorums for their children. I suspect that the insane real estate prices in Utah and Southern Idaho (relative to incomes) are in part because of the demand for these sorts of communities. (I’ve also been heartened to see the opposite happen, with a few hardy souls specifically asking where they could be of most help).  However, I think big, stable wards and their purported positive influence on kids are overrated. I have experienced both extremes. One of the wards I grew up in now has over 120 youth, with multiple deacon’s quorums.  I have also been in two wards I’d label “high needs,” one in inner-city Philadelphia and my current…

AI Church Art, Part II

A few months ago I presented an initial foray into AI Gospel art. Since then the technology has developed even more; still, I don’t think we’re quite to the point where manual-only artists will be completely out of work, but we are certainly getting there.  As far as I can tell, Midjourney appears to be the best publicly available text-to-image program. However, unlike some of the others it’s a little complex to get started, and they only allow a certain number of generations before they start charging money. Still, I thought I’d give it a try with Church-related themes.  Writing the correct Midjourney prompt is an art in itself, and it’s clear that people with formal artistic training are at an advantage here. The way Midjourney is setup during the freeware stage makes you see other people’s prompts and creations while yours are generating, and some of the prompts are quite detailed and sophisticated, so it is likely that a more experiences Midjourney artist could get better results than I did here, but I think some of the failings I’ll point out hold true regardless of your skill level.  To get less serious for a moment, one of the prominent themes in Midjourney creations are fantasy creatures. In Mormon folklore we don’t have a lot of monsters, but I thought I’d give it a shot with the Bear Lake Monster and early accounts of Cain visiting early Church members.  An…

Gangrenous Limbs and the Body of Christ: A Defense of Excommunication 

The meme is from a friend in response to a Dutch rabbi’s harsh response to documentarians trying to shoot footage in his synagogue for a piece on Jewish excommunicant Baruch Spinoza. I’m not posting it to make a point or as some kind of an argument; I just thought it was funny. Recently, whenever there is an excommunication that makes the news a common response has been to invoke 1 Corinthians 12, a powerful discourse on the importance of diversity and unity in the Church that uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ as the Church. I get the sense that the historical use of this particular metaphor has its roots in Protestant more than Latter-day Saint exegetical thought, but I might be wrong, and besides it’s fine to borrow emphases from other traditions as long as they stay within the bounds of orthodoxy, which this one does.  Still, I think the use of this metaphor as an attack against excommunication per se is a misappropriation. Some rhetoric I’ve seen will even go so far as to call excommunication “violence,” but when one slows down and thinks through the issue, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that, regardless of one’s position on a particular action, excommunication should be a thing.     When people argue for or against a certain religious practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are a number of approaches they use;…

R-Rated Sound of Musics, or R-Rated Films for Latter-day Saints

There was a deacon in my childhood ward that badly wanted to be a soldier when he grew up; he went all out with the camouflage, shooting, and playing “steal the flag” in the woods with glowsticks (a piece of rural Mormon culture that I hope does not die with the decline of Latter-day Saint BSA troops).  However, he changed his mind abruptly after watching the Omaha beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, which I suspect modified his idea of what battle looked like from some PG-13 situation–everyone is killed with one shot, the enemies lack basic marksmanship, and at the protagonist receives an inconspicuously bloodless wound–to the more realistic R (limbs getting removed with .50 caliber machine guns).  The fact is that “we are what we eat” also applies to media. While as Latter-day Saints we are rightly concerned about a diet of dark, heavy material, by not sometimes including R-rated material in our media diets we run the risk of: 1) Not having access to potentially moving or insightful content because of an R label. 2) Consuming disproportionately infantile content because we are limiting our media diet to a universe where people get shot and never die and never get stressed out enough to use the F-bomb. R-rated movies often deal with realistic, gritty scenarios, and sometimes they are more profound and impactful because of the realism. Life in an existence where tyrants often reign with blood…

Superforecasting the Church for 2023

Note: After this post went live and the organizer reached out to me, some of these specific predictions were added to an actual prediction market at Manifold Markets.  In the past public predictions usually took the form of some pundit making a prognistication about an event that was going to happen years in the future, and by the time the prediction was falsifiable everybody had either moved on or the prediction was so vague as to be non-falisifable. However, recently the “superforecasting” movement has turned armchair theorizing into a systematic science, with predictors being graded on their accuracy after making predictions that are clearly definable and falsifiable. One manifestation of this movement are prediction markets, where people literally bet money on clearly defined events happening or not happening, and with actual money on the line, people do really deep dive research.  So I thought it would be fun to do my own superforecasting competition for the Church in 2023. The rule is that the question has to be defined clearly enough to be demonstrably true or untrue within the time horizon. Here I’ll give percentages. I don’t claim to be a superforecaster, I’m not spending a ton of time on quantifying trends and the like, and no money is on the line, but I’ll check back on my accuracy around this time next year.  The Church’s membership, on-the-books growth rate will be below 1% as reported in the April 2023 Conference. …

On Really Smart People and the Gospel

Growing up in 1990s Orem the figure of Hugh Nibley held a sort of symbolic significance that was greater than the sum of his scholarly parts. The not-so-subtle subtext of the myriad anecdotes about his prodigious memory and learning is “see, if this really smart person believes it, then there must be some really good answers to whatever issues people have.” Often, Nibley was a sort of placeholder for people who didn’t have the time (or resources, especially in pre-Internet days for people who couldn’t drive to a good university library and use their card catalog) to investigate for themselves.  Nowadays, I feel like we see the converse of this online. A common meme (in its proper sense) in some corners of the Internet is that people who know the True Story about Church history (or biblical studies, or what have you) have to ultimately lapse into some sort of symbolic belief in the Church if they don’t leave it altogether, because nobody who really knows their history could actually believe this stuff. (As a sidebar, I sense that some use Adam Millerism as a last-ditch attempt to preserve some of their Mormonism when they’ve lost faith in the concrete particulars. That’s not to say anything about Miller personally, I have no idea what he actually believes, just a comment on how some have used him.) This narrative has a fairly strong hold on some, and is one reason, I…

When is Somebody’s Belief a Valid Question?

Jack Dempsey Having Some Fun with Harry Houdini The term “Jack Mormon” was popularized by world champion boxer Jack Dempsey who, while born in the Church and remaining friendly towards it, wasn’t a practicing Latter-day Saint (sidebar, while a certain segment of Mormondom gets super excited every time one of us makes it into the A-list, relatively few people know that the Michael Jordan of the 1920s was a Latter-day Saint).  Whether Jack Dempsey actually believed in golden plates, I don’t know, and besides being an interesting piece of trivia, I don’t particularly care. He was a boxer first, and his Church membership was very much a minor appendage to everything else in his life.  However, people who are involved in Church-y things is a more complicated question. Occasionally some controversy will arise when a claim is made about what some visible figure in the Mormon space–not just somebody in the public space who happens to be Mormon–actually believes. Some people say it’s nobody’s business, while some people say that we all have our own biases and we should be transparent about them.  While thinking through this question recently I came across a heuristic one of my friends posted that seemed to make sense: if you yourself invoke your Latter-day Saint status (or, I would add, you appeal to in-group frameworks), then the consumers of your opinions have the right to know what that means.   How many times do we…

We Humans Had a Good Run

This is a talk written by artificial intelligence; specifically, OpenAI’s new, much more developed GPT-3 that just dropped based on the prompt “Write an LDS talk about overcoming adversity” (it’s shorter, but that’s just because I set the word limit relatively low).  Good morning brothers and sisters. I am so glad to be here with you today. I’m sure we have all faced adversity in our lives. Whether it be a difficult trial, a personal challenge, or an unexpected obstacle, we all have our own stories of hardship and struggle. But today I want to talk about how we can rise above these difficulties and find peace and joy even in the midst of our struggles. The Bible tells us in James 1:2-4, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” These verses remind us that even when we face trials and tribulations, we can choose to embrace them as part of our journey and trust that they are leading us to a better place. In the Book of Mormon, we find an example of how to overcome adversity. In the story of Alma and the sons of Mosiah, we read how these young men were able to turn away from their sins and find strength in the Lord despite…

If I Didn’t Believe, Part IV: Meaning, Purpose, and Life in the Void

Dying Universe Morality In the absence of a faith I don’t think I’d have very strong opinions about abstract or moral concepts. This isn’t one of those “if you don’t believe why don’t you kill your grandma?” arguments that make good-hearted atheists roll their eyes. I have no desire to kill grandmas regardless of my beliefs, but if I was somehow convinced that it was all just atoms bouncing against each other I’d have a hard time articulating to a psychopath why he shouldn’t (and it’s not just me, read a graduate school-level meta-ethics text to see how hard it is).  This doesn’t necessarily mean that I hold to “Divine Command Theory,” which is the idea that something is good because God says so. (As an aside, Alma 42’s “God would cease to be God” is a strong anti-divine-command theory scripture. It’s clear that there are some moral principles embedded in the universe that God Himself has to adhere to). But rather, that there is some moral, metaphysical scaffolding to the universe, which is a framework that is hard to get to if, again, everything can be reduced to atoms.  If it’s all chemistry then in theory the fundamental difference between Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Theresa could be a potassium molecule in the brain that didn’t quite make a complete electromagnetic connection. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but the additional complexity doesn’t change the point. If it’s not…

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

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

On Pro-Choice Deadbeat Dads

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

Proportion Latter-day Saint by County Maps

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

2020 US Religion Census Just Dropped

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